Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Albania, EU accession and security issues, by Ioannis Michaletos

Note to readers: From time to time R.I.M.S.E will provide analysis and information on wider security issues not directly related to the main scope of research which is “Radical Islamism in Southeastern Europe”. R.I.M.S.E, strongly adheres in a holistic review of security subjects, so it provides to the readers other spectrums of the security analysis such as organized crime and terrorism, in order to cover a wide range of illicit sectors which may possibly be related to each other and in any case are of much use both to the specialized researcher, and to the general public as well.

The present state of affairs in Albania regarding its impeding EU accession is far from rosy judging amongst other by the hesitation of countries such as UK, Germany, Netherlands and Czech Republic to accept an eventual inclusion of that country in the EU.

Concurrently Albania's neighbor, Greece which assumes the EU Presidency 1st of January 2014 and for the next 6 months, appears to be as one of the most fervent supports for the case of Tirana. Below the surface though, tension brews which is illustrated by a set of developments. These include defense developments and serious security concerns regarding organized crime activities.

Tirana-Ankara line and the mistrust

In December 2013, the head of the Albanian PDIU political party, which has a clear-cut line in its foreign policy proposals against Greece, visited Ankara and was hosted personally by the vice-President of the governing AKP party. The Albanian press noted that this visit marked an intense and long-term cooperation between PDIU and the Turkish AKP. What is more interesting though is that Turkey proposed and PDIU accepted for common stance in the relations between Albania and Greece, which in diplomatic terms can be considered as a "non-friendly" gesture towards the latter.

In addittion the Albanian Armed forces received a 3 million Euros donation of military vehicles from Turkey. Since the early 00's the Albanian Army has accepted a significant number of donations, whilst Albanian special forces regularly receive training by their Turkish counterparts, who in turn have as a basic doctrine the fight against Greek military targets in the event of an armed conflict between the two countries. In fact the definite assessment that has been formed in the Greek defense and security power circles for some time is that the Albanian forces are becoming "satellite-like ones" of the Turkish Army, an assumption that leads Athens to eventually consider Albania as a non-friendly state in all practical terms, apart from naming it directly. The aforementioned cover a very small part of the overall discussion regarding Greek-Albanian defense relations, which do not conclude with the involvement solemnly of Turkey.

Furthermore, in recent nationwide Gallop type surveys in both Greece and Albania which were conducted by the Albanian institute of international relations with the assistance of the Greek ELIAMEP foundation, interesting findings were laid down. 34% of the Greeks questioned consider the Albanian immigrants as a "threat" and 15% are worried about "Albanian nationalism". Also 32% do not want Albania into the EU.

The Albanians questioned, 18.5% of them consider Greece as the "prime external threat", more than the 17% which consider Serbia. Insignificant number mentioned also FYROM, Montenegro and Italy. These data further add to the general assumption that mistrust and a societal feeling of common opposition fills the bilateral relations between the two states.

Better safe than sorry

In Mid-December 2013 and in the midst of all the above culminations, the Greek Armed forces performed a military exercise in the Lake Prespes region close to the borders with Albania. The exercise was code named "Pyrpolytis 11/13" and constituted a 24-hour rapid movement of elite forces aiming in theory to disband and neutralize incoming "irregular forces" from Albania, which would be assisted by “terrorist cells”. Several units from the Greek Alpine Commando force were used, along with 4 Chinook and 2 Apache helicopters and various specially designed vehicles for mountainous war.

The Prespes region is over the past few years a crossroad for drug traffickers from Albania, while the Greek security apparatus strongly believes that elements belonging to veteran members of the UCK are "testing" for years the preparedness of the Greek armed forces, especially after the commence of the economic crisis in the country in 2010. The information leaked so far by credible sources in the Greek media and amongst local stakeholders, talk about "loose cells" of UCK veteran members in Greece in the land axis between the lake Prespes and Tymfistros mountain in central Greece, along with a few dozen members in the outskirts of Athens. In total there are around 150 suspected persons that for the moment deal heavily with drug trafficking and arms contraband.

All the available information point out that ex-UCK members, which presently deal exclusively with the organized crime in the Balkans, have from time to time attempted to "test" the Greek border and domestic security system in a significant scale, nevertheless the attempts were thwarted so far. That has lead in a shift in strategy within the Greek Armed forces which now have developed a separate high-alert commando structure that will be aided by air force and heavily armed Police elements, exclusively dealing with the issue and fusing its operational aims with those of the border Police when in terms with organized criminal activities.

A distorted Balkan “Switzerland”

The small town of Lazarati, relatively close to the borders with Greece and FYROM, is the primal hashish production region in Europe. Lazarati’s 4,000 inhabitants are fully occupied with cannabis production, which reaches from 500 tons to 1,200 tons per year depending on the crop. It is estimated that the Lazarati region "pumps" 200-450 million Euros into the Albanian economy which is around 3% of its nominal GDP! Moreover the total revenue for the Albanian organized crime and their associates in several countries in wholesale and retail sales value of the drug produced, reaches from 2 billion Euros to more than 4 billion Euros per annum.

Division of labor: Women in Lazarati cutting and preparing the new crop

Despite efforts by the Albanian police which has confiscated in its territory more than 100 tons in 2013, and the pressure exercised, especially by the Greek and Italian authorities, the Lazarati production is undisturbed and the whole town is armed to the teeth to protect its riches which produce an average 100,000 Euros per year for every person, making it one of the richest regions in Europe, bar several communities in Switzerland, Monaco and Lichtenstein.

The drug production in Lazarati is mostly exported to Greece, Italy, and to Central Europe (via FYROM and Kosovo and all the way through the Northern Balkan drug route). Apart from fuelling corruption in a social and political context in Albania it is also a major security concern for the whole of the region, due to the financial empowerment it boosts to the local criminal syndicates. Further, the hashish production is being greatly assisted by the massive use of chemical agents for fast plant growth which in turn causes long-term health hazards to the "consumers", which in most part are EU citizens.

The Lazarati drug lords are also directly connected with arms trafficking of light weapons, especially machine guns and hand grenades which are being trafficked both to Greece and Italy, while it remains a mystery how money laundering takes place of such significant amounts of cash in a country with little developed financial sector services. Thus, it can be safely assumed that money laundering takes place outside the borders of Albania with likely territories, Montenegro, Istanbul, FYROM, Ukraine, Moldova, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Lastly great amounts of cash in the tube of tens of millions perhaps even greater would be "stashed" in the Lazarati town, literally hidden in mattresses and warehouses used as "safe deposits".

In overall, Greek-Albanian relations and the ongoing EU accession of Tirana are filtered through the prism of the security concerns of Athens which tend to grow over time. On the other hand, the Albanian society is increasingly urbanized and getting into tune with the rest of the EU, requiring the rule of Law to be implemented within its territory and relinquishing role models of "guerilla behavior" that still dominate large stratums of the society in the peripheries of the country. 

The fight between the two worlds will ultimately decide the fate of the likely entrance of Albania into the EU. Concluding it can be safely estimated that in 2014 no Western Balkan countries (Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, and FYROM) will get the "green light" ahead from Brussels and security concerns play a decisive role, apart from economic considerations and bilateral differences.