Despite recent improvements, the battle against corruption in Albania remains one of its most difficult challenges and biggest hurdles to European Union membership. In 2012 Transparency International ranked Albania as the most corrupt country in Europe. A survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011 found that nearly one third of Albanians between the ages of 18 and 64 had been exposed, directly or through a household member, to a bribery experience with a public official in the previous year. In the same survey, Albanians ranked corruption as the country’s second most important problem after unemployment.
The fall of the Communist system in 1991 and the lack of democratic institutions to replace it resulted in a power vacuum that was quickly filled by a clientelist regime that often had close connections to organised crime like drug trafficking. The collapse of the centralised economy that ensued in the wake of communism allowed the financial system to become dominated by a series of Ponzi schemes that drew in a two thirds of the Albanian population. When the bottom fell out of these schemes, the country was left bankrupt leading to an armed uprising against the government during which much of the country fell into under the control of criminal gangs. After peace was finally restored by a UN protection force, elections were held in which the Socialist party defeated the incumbent Democratic party, who were seen as responsible for the preceding chaos that had engulfed the country. Subsequent Albanian elections have been characterised by vote rigging and violence that have undermined the legitimacy of their results, however local and parliamentary elections in 2013 and 2017, which returned the Socialist party to government, were widely regarded as having been conducted relatively freely and fairly.
Since then considerable advances have been made in legislating against corruption. Tougher laws have been passed against bribery in the public and private sector; convicted criminals have been banned from holding public office; and measures have been introduced to improve the efficiency and transparency of the justice system. These improvements have been recognised by the EU which granted Albania candidate status in 2014. Nevertheless there remain two areas of particular concern where Albania still has much to do before it meets EU standards.
Despite reforms designed to make political financing more transparent, parties rarely disclose their sources of funding. The lack of trust that this engenders among citizens is worsened by the fact that it remains legal in Albania for people or corporations to make anonymous donations to political candidates. Also, donations below 100,000 ALL ($885) need not be made through a designated bank account. With party funding shrouded in such secrecy the opportunities for state capture in the hands of private interests remain abundant. Outright vote buying has also been a perennial feature of Albanian elections – recent improvements notwithstanding – as have allegations of proxy voting, pressure on voters, and pervasive political bias in the media.
The court system in Albania is slow and inefficient with questions often raised over the professionalism and integrity of judges. Consequently, there is a widespread perception that judges are open to bribery in order to expedite a ruling and ensure favorable decisions. Indeed three quarters of Albanians believe the country’s judges to be corrupt; the repeated failure of many judges to declare their assets adds to this this belief. The politicisation of the judiciary has been another major criticism. With the courts filled with political appointees, it is difficult for them to operate independently and impartially especially when it comes to prosecuting the same politicians who appointed them. The close relationship between the judiciary and politics means politicians are rarely investigated and nearly never prosecuted.