Albania: how one of the most corrupt countries in Europe is tackling crime at the highest level

Albania may be struggling with high levels of corruption at all levels of society, but the country is taking a new approach to tackling this crime with the introduction of a special anti-corruption body, known as Spak.

Spak is made up of a special prosecution office, the national bureau of investigation, and special courts dealing with corruption and organised crime. Its structure was established as part of Albania’s judicial reform, and adopted by its parliament in 2016, giving it constitutional powers to fight corruption and organised crime at the highest levels of government and society.

This reform of the constitution and tackling of corruption was a key pre-condition of Albania opening accession talks with the EU.

Head prosecutor Altin Dumani only took office in December 2022, but work had started before he arrived. Spak has already confiscated assets and cash worth more than £100 million in the three years to May 2023. Prior to the establishment of Spak, there were few cases of corruption being prosecuted, because people could avoid charges by paying a bribe.

Spak takes on cases involving corruption of values over ALL50,000 (£385) for cases involving public officials, and ALL800,000 (£6,400) for corruption related to public procurement contracts.

Spak is now establishing a track record in charging influential people for abusing their public office and participating in corruption. In its latest investigation which concluded in August 2023, several ministry of health officials, including the deputy minister, were charged with alleged misuse of around £100m to buy medical equipment.

The most high-profile cases that Spak has pursued to final conviction involve the former attorney general Adriatik Llalla, who received two years in prison for hiding his wealth , and former minister of interior Saimir Tahiri, who received three years and four months in prison for abuses of power. A number of high-profile cases, including former mayors, ministers and a deputy prime minister are all currently awaiting trial.

Albania ranks as one of the most corrupt states in Europe in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, and is also one of the five worst performing states in Europe, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Studies conducted since the late 1990s indicate that corruption is one of the five biggest problems Albanian citizens face after unemployment, healthcare, security and education.

To continue to tackling this long-running issue, Spak will require ongoing support domestically as well as from the international community.

So far there have been ten joint investigations with other European countries in 2022, according to Spak’s latest annual report: six with Italy, but only one with the UK, despite the fact that Albanian-organised criminal networks have a strong presence in the UK drug market, according to the UK National Crime Agency.

Citizens are frequently asked to pay a bribe when using basic public services. According to most Albanian respondents to Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index surveys, politics (92%), the judiciary (81%), healthcare (80%), education (70%), police (58%) and civil services (52%) are the public services respondents believed to be most susceptible to corruption.

Political corruption can take many different forms, including illegal party financing, vote buying, political patronage, lobbying and payment of bribes for favours, such as buying a seat in parliament or becoming a mayoral candidate for a major political party.

After granting Albania candidate status in 2014, the EU identified corruption as one of five key areas for reform. Between 2018 and 2021, a number of EU member states, including France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, vetoed opening accession talks between the EU and Albania due to the country’s inability to fight corruption at the highest levels.

However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Spak’s recent record of charging a number of public officials with corruption and abuse of power, the EU officially launched membership talks with Albania in July 2022.

The US and UK have also taken measures to highlight corruption in Albania. Both countries have sanctioned and banned entry to a number of high-level public officials, including the former prime minister and president, several former ministers, former mayors, MPs, judges and prosecutors for allegedly engaging in corruption and undermining the rule of law and democracy in Albania – as well as a number of business people too.

The majority of Spak investigators are trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The UK hosted the head of Spak Altin Dumani in London in July 2023 to develop new partnerships with the UK Home Office and National Crime Agency. The aim is to pursue joint cases against organised crime networks and break their ties with corrupt politicians and high-level public officials.

Spak alone cannot fight corruption, and if Albania is serious about addressing corruption, then more public institutions, the media and citizens must make greater efforts to acknowledge the serious harm it is doing to the country’s future – including driving young people abroad.

Political parties, in particular, need to play a more active role in addressing corrupt behaviour within its ranks.

If Albania genuinely wants to improve its society and economy, decrease migration, attract more foreign investment and accelerate the process of integrating into the EU, it must develop a strategy that can effectively control corruption.

No country has developed a strategy to completely eradicate corruption. However, those countries winning the battle have been able to keep it under control to the point that it does not undermine the independence and efficiency of public institutions. This must be the aim for both Albanian politicians and society.