From: Artenis Peka
Albanian Constitutional History (1912–1939)

Throughout the turbulent years of its existence Albania has faced numerous challenges in its judiciary which has left their mark on the Albanian national endeavors. The judiciary’s role from 1912 till 1939 is somewhat difficult to define. The common consensus among constitutionalists and legal scholars is that Albania during this period lived harmoniously with the developments of the time; it didn’t make remarkable progress but didn’t fall behind either.

If we are objective, we must acknowledge the advancements and setbacks that our justice system preoccupied itself with throughout its history as an independent branch of government. The verdicts made by the courts at that time serve not only as a testimony to a relatively operational justice system in Albania, but above all as a source of legitimacy.

This is perhaps the most important contribution the Albanian judiciary made from the moment of the independence until the start of World War 2. Albania was in desperate need of legitimacy. It needed affirmation in the international arena, it needed tools and means to extend its sovereignty, and be recognized de facto and de jure as a fully fledged state.

The verdicts made by the courts of this period are important not because of the characteristics of the cases, but because the verdicts made by these courts were sovereign acts of the Albanian state. This, translated in the eyes of international law meant that the state governed by the rule of law and that it was able to enforce its jurisdiction and produce its own sovereign acts.

We are perhaps so caught up with the current bad state of affairs of our justice system that we sometimes forget to study and learn from the rich tradition of our (pre-World War 2) judiciary. Looking through the archives of the many statutory provisions and constitutional changes from 1912 till 1939, I found to my amazement legislative endeavors that were highly sophisticated and highly advanced for their era.

A perfect illustration would be the Law concerning Minority Rights from 1923. The law was highly standardized, it had vision, and was far-reaching in terms of legal implications. Because of its legal characteristics, it was used several times by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a source of law to settle disputes that arose between nations.

This is just a small fragment from the vast reservoir of knowledge that can be extracted from a period which hasn’t quite finished telling its story. Yet, with all this rich legal tradition we somehow keep looking to the world for help. The facts suggest that the answers are already lying in our statues and provisions, which unfortunately have gathered much dust during the inavertable progress of history.

The Albanian constitutional journey really doesn’t begin until April 10, 1914. The organic statute issued in Vlora on that date by the International Commission of Control in Albania was fairly basic, but it demonstrated huge potential as it introduced new legal concepts in the country. Although no more than 25 pages it regulated and had provisions not only for the 3 branches of government, but also for citizen rights, the police, public administration, local governance, economy and commerce, and so on. Many of these provisions were new and had a different mindset of applicability from what the Albanians were used to during the Ottoman period.

In order to understand the legal developments during this period one needs to understand the complex and delicate political situation of Albania. After the end of First World War in 1918, Albania was economically devastated, as during the war it had turned into one of the main battle fronts between AustriaHungary and the Entente in the Balkans. Albania’s fate as an independent state was a big question mark during the peace negotiations in 1919. Alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the Albania’s foreign situation, the intellectual elite gathered in Lushnje to determine the future prospect of the very existence of an Albanian state.

The next act in organizing the state was the provisional constitution called the Lushnja Statute, adopted in January 1920 and amended in 1922. This Constitution established a parliamentary system, with a regency council which constituted the working executive. It established the very sound legal basis by which this country was to further develop itself. Unlike the Organic Statute of 1914, which was fairly basic, the Lushnja Statute was much more comprehensive and detailed, explaining the duties and obligations of each institutional branch.

During this time, it is important to note the fact that Albania maintained the Reign of Capitulations, a system used extensively during the Ottoman Empire. Capitulations were a set of privileges given to foreign individuals who worked and lived within the borders of the Ottoman State. They were allowed to have extended rights, and were not subject to the Ottoman law, meaning that if they breached the law within the Ottoman Empire, they were punished not according to the jurisdiction of the Ottoman law but to that of the country in which the defendant came from.

In the eyes of International law this has huge implications, as it jeopardizes fundamental legal principles. The Reign of Capitulations in Albania maintained this Ottoman character. It is important to mention this element during this time period as it showcases a very important fact. Albania largely continued to use the Ottoman legislation. Most of the lawyers and judges who operated in Albania had finished their education in Istanbul and were experts in Ottoman legislation. It wouldn’t be until December 28, 1929, with the publication of the first Albanian Civil Code, that the Ottoman legislation effectively ceased existing within the Albanian jurisdiction.

The Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Albania (1925) differed greatly from both previous Constitutions. It differed from the Statute of Vlora by dropping all reference to protection and fully adopting a republican form of government. It differentiates from the Statute of Lushnja because it completely shifted the allocation of power among the organs of state.

The Constitution adopted by the constituent assembly on March 3, 1925, was the third organic law to appear in the country within twelve years. The Statute of 1925 further extended the rights and obligations of the three branches of government, while taking a more Western approach and outlook in human rights.

The Legislative Branch encompassed a bicameral system, with a Deputies Chamber and a Senate. The Chamber of Deputies represented the general population, while a small Senate was comprised of people who were there by virtue of qualifications, experience, and achievement in various walks of life. An important Constitutional addition was made in the Judiciary. In contrast with the previous Statutes, the final interpretation of laws moved from the hands of the judiciary back to those of Parliament (Art. 109).

The Constitution of Tirana was significant for two reasons: (1) It was in line with the reaction which had already appeared in most European countries against the tendency to entrust almost all effective power to the executive (the government). (2) It illustrated the way in which one-man rule way be restored without hurting the democratic principle. A strong presidential government (initially) advocated by Zog didn’t necessarily contradict this democratic principle. The fact remains that through the medium of the Constitution, the democratic government with a strong central authority was the main Constitutional feature shared by all European states of the early 20th century.

Time showed that President Ahmet Zog had ambitions to become the King of Albanians and the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Albania from 1925 posed a serious constitutional threat to his aim. Article 141 clearly stated that the Form of the Republic could not be changed. Using procedural loopholes, he managed to change the content of article 141. He added, “The decisions regarding statutory changes can be taken by a 2/3 majority.” This added clause allowed him to change the Statute. In 1928, he announced himself King and the new Statute was created. The new constitution didn’t substantively change from the previous one except that it was modified to suit the regime change that had happened in Albania in 1928.

With this an important period of the Albanian constitutional development had ended. During the first 30 years of its existence as an independent entity Albania had achieved considerable progress in upholding the rule of law and justice. However, during this period, due to many factors, the constitutional idea in Albania was still in its early stages of development. The problem was that many of the constitutional norms adopted carried elements of the Western constitutional model while lacking internal cohesion and applicability within the Albanian society. This meant that constitutionalism as a legal norm was still underdeveloped in Albania. Nonetheless one cannot but amaze oneself once one sees the bigger picture of these years, years which prove to be crucial in fermenting among Albanians a common identity, a common law, and a common constitutional heritage.