A Country Flees Its History of Corruption

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Nightclubs, art galleries, infinity pools, luxury resorts. I'm speaking not of New York, Miami, or Paris but of Tirana, the capital of Albania.

Albania, a country that many people would not be able to find on a map. Tirana has more than 800,000 inhabitants and is growing with the return of the Boat Generation—those who fled to Italy at the beginning of the 1990s. They are coming home to find a more stable country, both politically and socially, with an economy trending upward as the financial climate stagnates elsewhere in the West. Lost to the world for 41 years during the reign of Enver Hoxha, one of the most ferocious communist dictators in history, and smothered in the fallout for decades, the country is finally coming into its own. Once a land of emigrants, it is now a land of plenty.

How can I talk about Albania without extolling or demonizing an economic boom that is so different from the dismal conditions of Greece, Spain, or Italy, my birth country? In Europe manufacturers are moving there en masse. Today people are investing in Albania because it offers business opportunities that Italy doesn't and will not be able to in the future. Putting money into the nation is a wager that people hope to win because, though it's a country that has been corroded by corruption and organized crime and has a justice system with enormous issues, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the fact that these problems also exist elsewhere. The only difference is that in places like Italy, we pretend that everything is fine, that the political machine works.

Doing business in Albania, with its 15 percent corporate income tax, is a risk worth taking for some people. The Albanian prime minister, a young socialist painter named Edi Rama, makes the "total absence of unions" a point of pride for his country, as he is aware that at times, far from protecting the weakest segments of society, unions enshrine privileges. Around 400 Italian businesses are active in Rama's Albania, and according to his government, they employ 120,000 people.

All the while, critics raise questions about workers' rights and scant wages, which are far lower than salaries in Italy and many other European nations. Fraud, bribery, and nepotism are mainstays of politics. And even though the improved economy has brought vast social changes to the country, organized crime remains a serious problem, one enmeshed in the fabric of Albanian society—something outsiders would do well to appreciate. In fact, crime is a major export of this growing global power. It's easy to get distracted by all the high-rises and glitzy fashion boutiques, but understanding Albania means understanding the point where tradition and modernity meet.

The Mafia here has two competing branches: the Albanian mob, based in Tirana, and the Kosovar mob, based in Pristina. Linked to the Italian Mafia, the clans are founded on hard and fast rules of fealty and discipline. There is a traditional code that regulates everyday life in all of its dynamics: the Kanun, a text whose tenets haven't changed in centuries. Regarding feuds, for instance, it dictates that when two families are killing each other and one of the targets decides to never leave his house again, his life will be spared. He must, however, maintain the arrangement and never set foot outside his doorstep.

Despite the modern, democratic advances of the past few decades, this way of thinking has a strong influence on daily life here as well as politics. While it is not officially acknowledged, everyone knows that the principal reason the countries of Kosovo and Albania are not united—in regions where people feel like brothers and would like to be under the same flag—is the conflict between their criminal organizations. The Kosovar and Albanian mobs have always been rivals.

Global in its reach, the Albanian branch has long held power in the United States. Zef Mustafa is one of its most notorious American bosses. He's also a prominent money launderer for the Gambinos, one of the Five Families of New York. The Albanian clan has extended its power around other parts of the world as well—from Sweden to Belgium. Naser Xhelili, known as the "Albanian Connection" to Swedish authorities, runs various operations including drug trafficking, while Kapllan Murat, called the "Getaway King," is a master prison escapee and one of Belgium's most infamous mafiosi.

For years the Albanian mob also managed prostitution throughout Europe, because the different Mafias in Italy and Corsica considered such an activity dishonorable. Through prostitution, the Albanians came into contact with the Italians, and eventually the organizations became partners for the control of the heroin and marijuana trades.

The Kosovar Mafia is equally famed for its international connections, especially its Italian ones. During the 1990s, it united with the Apulian Mafia in Southern Italy, known as the Sacra Corona Unita, and called itself the Sacra Corona Kosovara. Czech intelligence reported that the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla movement that fought against the Serbs for Kosovo's independence, had essentially made Kosovo a Mafia state that was at the disposal of both the Camorra—the Neapolitan mob—and the Sacra Corona Unita.

From 2008 to 2010, Dick Marty, a Swiss politician, led an investigation for the Council of Europe into Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaçi. He found Thaçi to be the brain behind a network for the international trafficking of weapons, drugs, and human organs. While Thaçi is no longer prime minister, he still holds office, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. The reports on his criminality had no effect on his career.

When I consider the new Albania, I think about not only its troubled past and present but those desperate for a new start. I will never forget when, at the end of the 1990s, I made my first Albanian friends. I was an Italian student in Germany, and while riding the bus I began chatting with a group of guys who knew my language—men who were working on a construction site a little outside the city. I had understood they were Albanians because they spoke Italian well (like most Albanians, who for years had looked toward Italy with the same eyes with which Italians had long watched America), but not well enough to camouflage a foreign accent. And yet they didn't want to tell me what city they were from and how they had ended up in Cologne.

In time I came to know them better and to understand that they were ashamed. Ashamed of being judged. Ashamed of a country in ruins, pillaged by despots and crime lords. Ashamed of having to seek asylum in Italy, which, having forgotten its own history of immigration, has felt invaded for decades by refugees from every corner of the globe. And today Italy reserves for those who reach its coasts the same welcome Italians received when they were treated like animals in the United States, Germany, and Switzerland. These men were identical to me, but I was reading books while they had to travel through half of Europe to find work. In those years few people predicted the economic collapse that would strike Western markets, and I felt lucky. Lucky to be Italian.

Now I see the same optimism in Albania, a country on the rise and a candidate to enter the European Union. Though people still leave for the other shore of the Adriatic, now they do so more and more to study. To study and then to return to their homeland, since Italy and most of Europe have very little to offer at the moment. The verses of the poet Pashko Vasa, who wrote during the Albanian national movement when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, seem to hold more currency than ever: "Wake up, Albanians, rise from your sleep, / Together as brothers swear an oath, / And do not look toward churches or mosques, / Albanians' faith is in Albanianness!"

And yet doubt remains, such as the skepticism of the writer Fatos Lubonja, condemned to 17 years of forced labor in a gulag during the dictatorship. Lubonja has suggested that the ideology of the regime has merely changed form, shifting from a national-communist to a national-Europeanist worldview and allowing the Albanians to simply bury their past. This idea emerges clearly from the words of the entrepreneur Agron Shehaj, a popular symbol of the young people who fled with the Boat Generation and have returned to Tirana with foreign degrees. Today Shehaj is 37 years old and has settled in Tirana after living in Bolzano, getting an economics degree in Florence, and spending time in New York. Shehaj had left Albania with his family only to return in 2006: He opened the first call center aimed at the Italian market, and today he directs a company with 3,000 employees. He's keen to see Albania become part of the EU and always tells his friends: "To live like Germans, it's necessary to work like Germans..." This is a common sentiment in Albania—one that smacks of a desire to run from one's identity.

The new Europe originates in Albania, a country of almost 3 million inhabitants that wears on its face the indelible traces of unconceivable suffering, still visible in the form of profound contradictions. It is a modern capitalist state enjoying a bustling, optimistic economic rebirth, but also a massively corrupt post-communist society still peddling its old vices throughout the globe: money laundering, sex trafficking, arms dealing, and the sale of illicit drugs. These are cracks that can't be erased in a handful of years. Cracks that, in order to be filled, require the study and attention of those who, from afar, observe, analyze, and retrace common lines, without judging.

Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler.

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