Albania, the Muslim World's Most Pro-American State

Crime and Punishment in Albania's Elections
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 2 2009 10:27 AM

Albania, the Muslim World's Most Pro-American State

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"True, there are no brigands in Albania, because all of them have gone to Tirana, where they rob with authority from behind desks."
Popular saying in Albania in the 1930s, quoted in Miranda Vickers' The Albanians: A Modern History

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TIRANA, Albania—I'm sitting in the office of Tirana's mayor-painter, Edi Rama. Rama is Albania's self-styled answer to Barack Obama, a World Mayor Award winner, 6-foot-6 one-time player on the national basketball team (it's said he was the only team member who could dunk), sometime rapper (with a group called West Side Family—Rama later hands me a DVD of their music video), former art professor and leader of the student rebellion against the old Communist regime, and popular—some say populist—leader of the Socialist Party, the runner-up in the still-contested June 28 parliamentary election, Albania's closest since the fall of communism.

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Rama is in a foul mood. It's 5 p.m. on Friday, and a muezzin sounds from the Et'hem Bey mosque next door. There is a heat wave in Tirana, but Rama's churchlike municipal building, with its archways, high ceilings, and stained-glass windows, is dimly lit and cool. Rama is wearing an open-collar white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he is sipping ice water from a wine glass. He has closely cropped, receding hair and several-day-old salt-and-pepper stubble—both roughly the same length. Under his eyes he has dark rings with thin scars that occasionally catch the light against his face. His voice, like his demeanor, is gruff. On his wrist lies a fake beetle affixed to a ropelike bracelet, and on his ring finger (Rama is divorced), he wears a thick silver ring encasing a hefty black oval-shaped stone.

Sitting hunched over his wide wooden desk, head resting heavily on a fist, Rama barely glances up as he speaks. His words come languidly, with pauses of three, four, five seconds in between. Not out of caution or deliberation, it seems, but because his mind is elsewhere. His downcast eyes are focused on a desktop sketch, which he spends the next hour slowly, sullenly coloring. At his left is an open palette of watercolors and 12 stacks of new, hardcover, mostly English-language books. Behind him, placed prominently and upright on a counter, is the American president, looking out from the cover of The Audacity of Hope. Magic Markers, many dozens of them, fill the desk's centerpiece, a large Gaudí-esque bowl with red jewels running down its sides.

Red—the color of the Albanian flag and of the Socialist Party's symbol, a rose—is also the theme of Rama's stylish office: red amber lighting that makes it feel as if the sun is always setting; red-stained wood on bookshelves, doors, blinds, tables, and paneling; red armchairs; red couches; red paintings; a red bowl; a red tie; a red book (Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World); a red-toned, blown-up panorama of old Tirana covering the office's columns and walls.

Rama used to be an expressionist painter. He graduated from and later taught at Tirana's Academy of Arts. In the mid-'90s, he lived in Paris and had his work exhibited in galleries in Albania, Berlin, Brazil, France, and New York. But most would say his greatest achievement as an artist has been the painting of Tirana itself. Rama says that before he became mayor, in 2000, Tirana "was the grayest, dustiest, most hopeless city ever imagined." So not long after his election, he started painting it.

Building by building, scaffolding went up over the city's drab, Communist architecture; when it came down, Tirana was transformed: facades of blue on peach and white on orange; checkers of green and black and white and blue and red; collages of pink and brown with patches of lime; abstract, angular shapes in purple and gold; rows and columns of colored rectangles forming saturation palettes of a single hue.

But today Rama doesn't want to talk about painting. In fact, he doesn't seem to want to talk at all. "I'm not in the best place," Rama says. Only three months before the elections, Zogby polls had predicted he would be the next prime minister. Now, less than three weeks after them, a member of his own party has called on him to accept defeat and resign as Socialist Party head. Albanian election officials will soon announce that Rama's party has lost to the incumbent Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, a former president and Politburo cardiologist with whom Rama shares a long and bitter past.

In 1997, when Berisha was president and more than half the country's citizens lost their savings in a pyramid scheme that brought on riots, looting of arms depots, insurrection, and the surrounding of Socialist Party headquarters by government troops, Rama was severely beaten with lead pipes by two men rumored to have been hired by Berisha. "All I can say about Berisha," Rama tells me, "is that he's not the democrat he pretends to be. He's not the liberal he pretends to be. He's not the free spirit he pretends to be. He's just a skillful manipulator."

Berisha's most recent display of skill came on the Fourth of July, Rama's 45th birthday, when a small party to the left of Rama's agreed to join Berisha's coalition, thereby giving the prime minister just enough parliamentary seats to govern. Rama tells me with an air of resignation that the head of this small, left-wing party, who had delivered some of the campaign's harshest criticism of Berisha, justifies his move with "all the type of bullshit a politician would say in this case: 'I'm doing this for the country, and for the people, and for the good of Albania.' "

Rama rubs a hand across his weary face and looks up from his drawing. "Since 1996," when armed guards were accused of intimidating voters at polling booths, "these are the worst elections in Albanian history," he says—a claim that is at odds with a preliminary finding of international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe: "The voting process was assessed slightly more positively than in previous elections although procedural violations were observed." On the other hand, the same body declared the vote-counting "bad or very bad" in 22 of 66 ballot-counting centers and reported "many allegations of pressure on public-sector workers and students to attend [Democratic Party] campaign events or desist from opposition activities. Several of these were substantiated."

"Teachers, doctors, nurses—they were obliged to leave their work and join the rallies for the party in power," Rama says. Most of the hospital and school directors, he explains, are members of the ruling party. "Whenever they organized rallies on a Saturday or Sunday, they made it a school day. They'd bring all the kids and teachers to school and then take them to the rally. I know it sounds bizarre; but it's what happened." Vasilika Hysi—a law professor, newly elected Socialist Party MP, and former executive director of the Albanian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights—told me a similar story. "Before the election, I wanted to have a campaign meeting with elementary and high-school teachers in Tirana," she said. "They knew me, because I worked for a long time as a professor. I asked them if I could invite some journalists. They said, 'Yes, they can come, but without cameras; we don't want to be identified because we can lose our jobs.' "

And yet the worst incidents of voter intimidation, Rama tells me, have still not been disclosed. "To be very frank," he says, "I would not give this interview if I did not have an interest in telling you something very important, very revealing of the nature of the government we have. During the electoral period, the government released an important number of very dangerous criminals from the prisons. They sent them to their home areas, especially rural areas, to use them as intimidators. The prisoners would go and say, 'You're a socialist, we don't want you to go to vote. If you go to vote, you are my problem. And I don't want your family to go to vote.' These rural areas are very much like Southern Italy," Rama says, "where there is a kind of mafia control."

In Albania, prisoners are permitted annual "holiday leaves" to visit their families while supervised by police officers. A chain-smoking director general of state police and a well-dressed deputy minister of the interior told me that prisoners sometimes paid bribes to get leaves (three years ago, Albania was rated by Transparency International as the world's most-bribe-plagued country) but that high-security prisoners were very rarely given leave. Albanian law, Rama explains, places restrictions on which prisoners can be granted leave: those who have served one-fourth of a sentence of less than three years; half of a sentence of three-to-10 years; and two-thirds of a sentence of more than 10 years. Rama says dozens of prisoner leaves were granted illegally in the three weeks preceding the election; an official Socialist Party complaint, which Rama and Hysi give me a copy of and tell me was sent to the public prosecutor's office, lists only 44 specific cases but asserts that there is evidence for more than 100 more, 80 percent of which concern prisoners convicted for "very serious crimes," such as "homicide, robbery, sexual violence, and trafficking of drugs, arms, and human beings."

"These released prisoners are the heads of large clans," Rama says. "They are in prison for murder, for narcotrafficking. They are promised, 'If we win, we will do our best to ease your sentence.' These cases are a total infraction of law. And they have all been orchestrated by the minister of justice and the general director of prisons, which is a horrifying thing." (Both men, who are members of the Democratic Party, declined repeated requests for comment.) Only these two men, Hysi explained to me, have the power to grant leaves to dangerous prisoners.

Yet the Socialist Party's official complaint, aside from listing names and release dates of 44 prisoners who, the complaint claims, had not served the portion of their sentence required for a leave to be legally granted, makes only one specific allegation of prisoner involvement in the elections: that an illegally released convict campaigned actively for a Democratic Party candidate, the minister of public works and transport (and former minister of interior), in Fier, the region from which most prisoners were granted leave and one of the country's most contested electoral districts. (The minister of justice was also a candidate in Fier.) None of the Socialist Party's claims could be verified, because the party did not make its witnesses available, citing fear of retribution.

It's worth noting that the one Socialist Party claim that could be checked turned out not to be true. "We had cases," Rama told me, "where candidates didn't get even their own single vote. So, for example, a candidate named Gilman Bakalli went to vote with his wife, his mother, and his daughter, and in the end the result in his voting place was zero for his party. He said, 'OK, I can imagine that my wife doesn't like me and voted against me. Maybe even my mother voted against me. But where is my vote? I voted for myself!' " According to data on the Central Election Commission Web site, at Bakalli's voting center, his party received 25 votes.

Still, Rama is an artful storyteller, and the rest of the picture he paints is a striking one. "Can you imagine," he says, "the minister of justice, his crew of bureaucrats, and the criminals together, going around villages in black Land Rovers and Range Rovers and Toyotas. And people just watching the power—the legal power and the illegal power, joining together. You know, when you see all this, and you see on the other hand the difficulty, the immense difficulty, of just explaining that this is not exactly what a NATO country government should be, it makes you depressed twice: first for the fact, and then for the impossibility of drawing enough attention to this fact."

As I thank Rama for his time and ask him for the name of the director general of prisons, he says, "Don't blame me for not having the identity of this piece of shit." Then, with the first smile he shows me, "Next time we can talk about painting."

Nathan Thrall's writing has appeared in GQ, the New Republic, and the New York Times, among other publications. His trip to Albania was made possible by an investment firm with ties to the ruling Democratic Party.

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