Scaffolding on the façade
On September 15, 2013, Edi Rama entered office. He was eager to sign the first decrees of government that he had to wait for eight years in the opposition! On top of the first document he signed it said: “Ministerial Code of Ethics.” Black on white it contained forty-one articles, among which Art. 8, “Conflict of Interest,” as follows:
A member of the Council of Ministers has to prevent, as well as take all measures to cut off the state of conflict between public duty and his private interests.
Naturally, this article is a cornerstone of the façade against corruption, which the socialist “rebirth” erected on the ruins of the long and tired government of the democrats.
Although during those eight years a series of laws and decrees were approved and international conventions and documents about conflicts of interest were signed, this act rather served the aching need of the new prime minister for a new and positive image in the eyes of the public.
Constructing the perception that he was different from his predecessor, different from any past prime minister, even different from any future prime minister, was at the center of his political action.
But let’s see what happened next!
In the antechamber of a public official
Each beginning of the year, at the protocol office of the Constitutional Court, they file a document, or, more precisely, an order. It is the first order of the year and has the following title: “Delegation of Competencies.” It has as aim to transfer the competencies of the Office-Holder of the Contracting Authority, i.e., of the President of the Constitutional Court, to the General Secretary. In other words, the person who takes care of the public procurement procedures (tenders) is no longer the office-holder of the institution, but one of his subordinates.
The president knows his work well and there is no doubt this delegation is legal, which gives him the possibility to avoid any so-called “conflict of interest” during the tendering processes. And for this he takes at the beginning of the year so that he can rest assured until the end of it.
The case of the Constitutional Court is illustrative. Except the acquisition of a car of some operational costs, this institution has no financial weight whatsoever in the process of public procurement.
But it is not surprising at all that such a bureaucratic decision to delegate competencies is taken by the majority of high- and middle-level state officials, as well as by the members of the Council of Ministers.
There’s a risk that this looks like business as usual, but rather it’s nothing but an illusion, a legal artifice to avoid legal responsibility. However, it guarantees neither the prevention nor the cutting off of any conflict of interest.
The law on the prevention of conflict of interest foresees several ways in which conflicts of interests can be solved, but I’ll just choose two, which is enough to understand the core: to exclude oneself from the process that causes the conflict of interest or to resign from one’s public post. But, as happens usually, the exploration of possibilities to avoid this duty is preferred over the attempt to respect it.
It is impossible to say whether until now any high official has resigned from a public post in order to solve a conflict of interest. On the contrary, all of them have avoided it by excluding themselves.
Naturally, this avoidance is legal. But also tax havens are legal, a legality that is secured by avoidance. Just like in our example about the delegation of competencies by public officials.
Except that there is one problem. The main aim of this law is “decision making in the interest of the public and of its trust toward institutions.” So this defines the spirit of the law, the way in which it is supposed to be implemented. So why does no one choose to resign from their public post, not only in order to respect the law, but also its spirit? Why do all of them choose to “self-exclude”? And does this self-exclusion guarantee the prevention or cutting off of a possible conflict of interest?
Even though a part of the officials claim that they delegate competencies to their subordinates, arguing that they have the status of civil servants that are not nominated by them. But one thing remains suspicious, because everyone knows that you don’t enter the ministry without the approval of the minister!
Nevertheless, the process of delegating competencies doesn’t avoid the responsibilities of the official in case the tendering process isn’t held according to the legal standards.
Since the dismantlement of the communist “Bllok,” every Albanian government has pretended to implement sweeping reforms. In the end, all of them have left as corrupted! And since a long time, the reports in the media have predicted a situation full of interest!
Some days ago, Parliament nominated the spouse of a the director of an important construction company, Gentjana Sula, as the Chairperson of the Authority for the Information about the Documents of the Former State Security (AIDSSh). The doubt about a possible influence that the nomination of Sula will have in the favorization of the construction company is explained by the role that the law gives to Sula in the certification of the officials of administrative institutions of the state.
The law says that no minister can be nominated without certification from the Chairperson of the AIDSSh. Here we may well ask how Sula is going to ignore the fact that high officials may be future “collaborators” with the company of her husband, when it is known that that company regularly takes part in public tender procedures?
Another reported case of a conflict of interest relates to the Ministry of Culture as contracting authority, which has declared the employer of minister’s husband the winner of the construction and rehabilitation of two national theater stages: the theater “Skena e Re” and the “Theater of the Opera and National Ensemble.” And it is still unknown whether the company, Edil Al-It shpk, that has been declared winner has any experience in the construction of large theater halls!
The architecture firm that has designed the project and works closely with Edil Al-It on its implementation, has also been declared winner of the same project, while it also has never before designed a theater hall of that size or has any experience with acoustics or the mechanics of that size of spaces.
But let’s stick with those architects! We are talking here about Atelier 4, which has often partnered up with the Belgian studio 51N4E, often reported as the favorite studios of Prime Minister Edi Rama. 51N4E has also realized the TID Tower and the masterplan for Skënderbeg Square, as well as other, smaller projects, such as Prime Minister Rama’s private house on Mount Dajti in Surrel.
Owner of Atelier 4, Alban Eftimi, has been one of the collaborators of Rama at the Municipality of Tirana during his first mandate. Later he founded his architecture studio, profiting from a large number of building permits approved by the Municipal Council during Rama’s period as mayor.
When Rama returned to power in 2013, also Atelier 4 returned prominently to the stage. The company is now in charge of municipal masterplans, stadiums, kindergartens and elementary schools, theater halls, city bypasses, and even the strategic development of the Albanian Riviera. And the list goes on. Atelier 4 has overseen dams, water works, harbors, and urban squares. An endless list of works and, of course, public money.
But let’s consider, for a moment, everything that has been publicly reported about the clientelistic relations between the Prime Minister and his friends, as untrue. There remains a question that many have raised.
Is it actually possible that there exists an architecture studio so complex that it is able to design hospitals and stadiums, schools and theater halls at the same time? Of course not! But in Albania anything can happen.
But there is another dilemma: aren’t these maybe the same teams that through the design of façades, the revitalization of squares and the urban development of the country as a whole fulfill the vision of the artist-politician? If that’s the case, our conclusion should be even worse!
Sfera Studio, another architecture studio specialized in urban projects, will oversee the construction works on the new stadium in Tirana. But one of the owners of the studio is Artan Shkreli, precisely the Prime Minister’s Councillor for Territory.
As long as that work is a public-private partnership between a private company, Albanian Football Federation, and the state, is his position as councillor of the Prime Minister not in a conflict of interest with the private interests of Sfera Studios, of which he is co-owner?
In any case, it remains a fact that in the sixteen years since Edi Rama won his first mandate as mayor, nothing has changed! They are the same architecture studios and the same people, yesterday and today. But more than about the relation between the Prime Minister and his friends, we should worry about the amounts of public money that are tendered out through these clientelistic projects.
Holes in the façade
Three years ago Edi Rama promised that everything would change. In a poor country like Albania, with a weak economy and infrastructure, with unemployment and a large public debt, the artist-politician had a lot to do.
But unfortunately, until now, the work of the Prime Minister hasn’t changed much from what he did when he was mayor. Today, just like back then, he is painting façades, open spaces and parks are filled with concrete towers, and historical buildings are destroyed to make way for business centers.
The same clients that were close to him during his time as mayor, or nowadays close to him as prime minister.
It is the same weak man then before Fatos Nano as now before Ilir Meta. And even moore arrogant, because his power is greater.
If I were to paint the façade of the government, it would be difficult to hide its one fundamental aspect: the defense of the private and clientelist interests.
So in his inability to change Albania and to keep his promises, the politician Edi Rama once again became painter and in the absence of any hope he serves as a false luster through his drawings on official documents.
And it wouldn’t be any surprise if that Article 8 of the Ministerial Code of Ethics that he approved as his first decree as prime minister, on his first day of work, has ended up somewhere at an international exhibition!