From: Nashi Brooker
Comment: US Department of State’s Action Against Berisha is a Sense of Relief

Recently, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced that his department has barred Sali Berisha, his wife, and two children from entering the US. He stated that the ban is because their “corrupt acts undermined democracy in Albania.” The US State Department’s message is clear: it takes corruption and the damage it does seriously and is willing to combat it wherever it thinks it is taking place.

What is the Magnitsky Act?

The scope of the Magnitsky act can vary, but it provides for sanctions to be imposed by governments against citizens of other countries who have committed human rights abuses and, in some cases, also targets those who have taken part in significant corruption. Prior to this legislation, many perpetrators of such offenses – their own country’s laws having been ineffective at holding them to account – have been able to travel freely and enjoy criminal proceeds stashed abroad without fearing international justice. Once such legislation is passed, states are able to take action to limit movement and confiscate assets.

Bill Browder, a banker who had dealings in Russia, in his book “Red Notice”, describes how his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky exposed a major corruption scheme involving Russian officials. Magnitsky reported his findings to the authorities. As a result, he was arrested, jailed, and subjected to abuse while in prison that eventually resulted in his death.

Outraged, Browder campaigned for this legislation, and he says: “The idea behind the Magnitsky sanctions is that in the past, governments couldn’t do anything when there was an atrocity like the Magnitsky murder or the Khashoggi murder.” So, Browder came up with this idea, “let’s freeze their assets and ban their visas. That became known as the Magnitsky Act.”

The US passed the original legislation in 2012 and a number of other countries have followed its lead: the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, Estonia, Jersey, Lithuania, Latvia, and Kosovo. In December 2020 the EU’s council of foreign ministers approved its own legislation. While legislation in many of these places does not go as far as in America – the US expanded its original legislation in 2016 to include corruption as well as human rights abuses – they have made a start. 

Currently, Kosovo remains the only Western Balkan nation to pass a Magnitsky Law.  I believe there are good reasons why such a law should be passed by its next-door neighbor, Albania, too.

The banning of Sali Berisha from the US

Although Albania has not passed such legislation, it doesn’t mean its citizens are immune to its effects. The reaction to Berisha’s US ban in Albania has been largely predictable. While almost all Albanians recognize that corruption is a massive problem, it is far easier to recognize the corruption in one’s political opponents than one’s allies. Many Socialist Party supporters are therefore gleeful; while many Democratic Party supporters are left feeling uneasy.

While not always in power, Berisha has remained in politics for over thirty years – his name associated with anti-communism, support for the free market and democracy. He sees himself as an ally to both the US and the EU. He is far from being the worst figure ever to rise to political power in Albania.

However, it seems impossible to deny that his regime was one with an adverse record on human rights. During his first period in office as President,  there were arbitrary arrests, no free press, and widespread corruption. I have seen first hand evidence of physical abuse in police stations.

This was an era of rough justice. It was in 1995 that one of the most notorious cases occurred, that of the disappearance of Remzi Hoxha. It was revealed years later that he had, with two other people, been kidnapped by three members of the Albanian secret service (SHIK), later dying as a result of the torture inflicted to him. His body remains undiscovered.

During Berisha’s second period in power, as Prime Minister, the country’s problems with corruption continued uninterrupted. The US Embassy’s 2013 Human Rights report states: “The most significant human rights problems were pervasive corruption in all branches of government, particularly within the judicial and health-care systems, and domestic violence and discrimination against women.”

However, Berisha has now been out of power for many years. He can’t be held responsible for the whole system.

The US Embassy’s most recent report, in 2020, reports: “Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.”

It is an open secret amongst Albanians that public funds are regularly misused by politicians and their allies. As in Putin’s Russia, power in Albania comes from accumulating wealth through illicit means. Justice is hampered by a lack of funds and political interference. As the latest report goes on to state: “Several government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations.”

Why should Albania ratify its own Magnitsky legislation?

Albanians regularly exhibit a fatalistic view of their lives and their country. You don’t have to travel far to come across claims like: “This country is finished,” “It will never improve,” “Emigration is our children’s only future,” or “Nothing ever happens to the powerful.” To suggest potential solutions is often to be crushed by a pervasive cynicism. This cynicism will persist as long as the justice system remains paralyzed by state indifference or obstruction.

Albania’s legal system is failing not only to deal with the most obvious contemporary examples of official corruption and abuse of power, but has proved incapable of administering justice even for those victimized in its past.

When communism fell, its victims had high expectations of justice and restitution. The truth is that not a single case of human rights violations has been sent to Albanian courts. And yet there are mountains of evidence that crimes against humanity were committed in police cells, gulags, prisons, and internment camps. Berisha in particular, in neglecting to pursue this, failed the expectations of those that voted for him. In doing so, he helped create Albania’s “untouchables.”

The endemic corruption persists. Kleptocrats either sit in the offices of the state or have direct access to them. There is not a name that remains free of the accusation of corruption – not Berisha, Nano, Rama, Meta, or Ruci. If such accusations are true, then it appears our country is run as much by organized crime families as political entities, then action needs to be taken. And no country can thrive if there is such widespread cynicism about its leaders.

I would therefore suggest that the US’s action is, whether one considers it fair or unfair in this particular case, a good thing and brings a sense of relief. It may even bring some partial resolution. And, not only does it likely cause some disquiet amongst those that have committed crimes in the past, but it also helps ensure that our current batch of politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, police, and officials are made aware that they too may be subject to action in the future.

One pernicious suggestion should be squashed at the source. There is no evidence that the US is personally against Berisha, or the Democratic Party, or Albania. Their focus is on states with a shameful record of human rights and corruption. This is not being done to punish those states’ citizens, rather protect them when their own legal systems or governments prove inadequate.

The grotesque inequalities of wealth in a country as poor as Albania should be examined. No one begrudges money fairly earned, but the plunder of scarce state resources should be punished. Despite modest official salaries, many of our politicians and state officials flaunt possessions and lifestyles more like those of oligarchs and film stars than public servants. If you seem able to spend millions, is it unreasonable for the voting public to ask where your wealth comes from?

And, if we don’t take action to fix our own system, the repercussions affect us all. In its 2020 Investment Climate Report for Albania, the US states: “[F]oreign investors perceive Albania as a difficult place to do business. They cite corruption, particularly in the judiciary, a lack of transparency in public procurement, and poor enforcement of contracts as continuing problems in Albania.”

Given this perception, our country’s economic future remains a bleak one. Unless we are seen as able to put our own house in order, the efforts of other nations to hold our malefactors to account will count for nothing.

It is for this reason, I suggest, that we too should enact Magnitsky legislation – if only to show to the world that we are not some renegade state run by kleptocrats, but a proud and principled country, eager not only to follow international law but to help strengthen its global application.

And if that helps change both the internal and international perception of Albania, perhaps our extraordinarily high migration rate might start to fall and the best and the brightest of our young people might feel there is a future for them here.