From: Carloalberto Rossi
The Cartel of Custom Services Will Be the End of Albania’s Free Market

The story began two years ago, when Customs Directorate organized a meeting of customs agents and mysterious duo of “experts,” a Georgian who consulted customs agencies and an American who was a former consultant of the World Bank. They explained the room full of customs agents how the Georgian customs model functioned, which was based on a single customs agency, which followed the same clearance practices for every importer.

Many of those who were present, representing about 2,000 private employees of the clearance sector, understood that the presentation hid some type of scheme and there suspicious questions and counterarguments forced the experts to declare that it was only an informative seminar and nothing more. Then nothing was heard again, for months on end.

After more than a year, it became known that several of the largest customs agencies had started to give a preparatory course at a private university for more than 100 (one source claims 200) new customs agents that would be employed at a new customs agency, which was expected to be established by some of the main importers in the country.

Some time ago, during the famous meeting with the main tax payers of the country, Prime Minister Edi Rama described customs as a place filled with weird, badly dressed people with a muddy past, working in a corrupt environment despite the efforts of the honorable customs directors. He promised that this situation would soon end thanks to an intervention of his government.

It appears this intervention has now started. A few weeks ago, a draft Decision of the Council of Ministers (VKM) was presented to a select group of customs agency representatives – more precisely, the largest in the country – all of which were closely linked to the main importers. But as Albania is a small country, the draft law quickly started to circulate in business circles, and anyone who understood only a little of the VKM saw that a trap was being set.

Hidden among hundreds of pages of badly translated EU legislation, several articles in the VKM showed the government’s plan to fire 2,000 private customs agents of the current agencies and replace them with an unknown number of new customs agents, supplied with a new license from the Customs Directorate, after a special preparation course. Except the regular professional criteria, the new license also requires the agents to have received the “trust” of the Customs Directorate.

Sources at the customs claim that the VKM has been drafted directly by the Ministry of Finance and contains three further surprises: the excessive increase of financial guarantees that each customs agency needs to provide in order to be allowed to operate; the obligation to work only as a juridical person, that is, as a company and not as a self-employed agent; and the imposition of the responsibility of the customs agency for the payments of the importing client. In other words, if the importer doesn’t pay, the agency has to.

Not more is necessary to understand that the project of a single customs agency, apart from a few tweaks, is back on the table. Only a single large customs agency, supported by big capital and important clients – maybe even owned by the large importers – could survive under these conditions and taste the €30 million cake of annual clearance commissions.

The aims of the government were confirmed recently, when the government approved this VKM during the Council of Ministers meeting of November 10. The VKM was not published on the website of the Prime Ministry as usual, a habit of the Rama government whenever corrupt legislation should be passed without much noise.

But the VKM was published a week later in the Fletorja Zyrtare under the title “Regarding the implementation of law No. 102/2014, the Customs Code of the Republic of Albania.”

Now the VKM has been promulgated and everyone can read it, even though its very technical content hides its “revolutionary” aims.

To summarize:

  • The guarantee that every customs agency established as public company needs to present has increased from 5-10 million lekë to 50 million lekë (~€380,000);
  • The issue of the obligations of the importer remains unclear;
  • All current licenses of customs agents will become invalid as per March 2, 2018, and in order to continue they will need to establish a company, fulfill a series of conditions, follow a preparatory course, and be examined by the Customs Directorate

But customs agents, as well as their collaborators and assistants, need to receive the “trust” of the Customs Directorate in order to be licensed, while it is completely unclear on which objective basis such “trust” given. This will allow for the subjective power of the customs directors to determine the customs agents.

According to the VKM, an office created by the government will decide who is allowed to work in an otherwise completely private sphere of enterprise; customs agents simply represent the private importers in its relations with the customs.

It would be the same is the government had the right to decide who could work as a lawyer, accountant, or butcher.

The interweaving of the conditions that this VKM imposes and the true protagonists of this story – the main Albanian importing companies – bear witness to the creation of an oligopoly of customs agencies, closely linked to the government and under the control of the main importers of the country, to which all other importing companies will have to turn in order to clear their goods.

As these legal changes were lobbied in the first place by Samir Mane and Vilma Nushi, who own large customs agencies and are at the same time major importers of cigarettes, medications, food, clothing, etc., all of their competitors will now find themselves at a disadvantage because they will be forced to disclose their private data and economic activities to their direct competitors in order to clear their goods, while of course their may suddenly be “delays” or “issues” with their imports.

So, after the Rama government has privatized nearly everything, it has now embarked on a true social experiment: the privatization of the free market on account of his own clients.