Albania and its troubled Prime Minister, Edi Rama, are used to being the subject of protests. Speaking recently at a conference in London alongside Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of North Macedonia and Ana Brnabic, Prime Minister of Serbia, Rama joked:
“When you watch Albania today and see the pictures, you think: Oh my God, it’s not the place to invest; it’s not the place to go and swim. But what is happening is just a political set up. Protests can be part of our tourist package because they happen like concerts – at 8pm on Saturdays. So if you want to watch a protest, you can book a place. It’s not the whole country in flames. It’s just in the main boulevard (of Tirana), they do their thing, they throw their Molotovs. But if you stay at a reasonable distance, you can enjoy it.”
Rama made these extraordinary comments at a Western Balkans Forum organised by the Financial Times in June. Outside Le Méridien Hotel in Piccadilly where the event was held, another protest against him took place. The protestors’ leader, Naim Hasani, an Albanian who practises as an English solicitor in London, said: ‘We cannot have Albania operating as a mafia state, according to the German Bild newspaper. We do not have independent media in Albania: they are all controlled by a state mafia.’
The Albanian Prime Minister’s Moltotov cocktails remarks referred to a spate of protests that have taken place across his country, as the BBC reported in May: “Thousands of Albanians have been protesting against Prime Minister Edi Rama, with some throwing petrol bombs at his office. For the last three months, there have been anti-government demonstrations in Albania. Mr Rama faces allegations of electoral fraud and corruption.”
Another Molotov cocktail – this time of the legal variety – was thrown at Rama in April 2019 by The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The ICSID Tribunal unanimously ruled that the Albanian government is guilty of corruptly and unfairly targeting a London-based Italian businessman, Francesco Becchetti, in a political persecution.
Becchetti was the owner of Agon Channel, a pan-European television station employing 500 people, which broadcast criticisms of Rama, his government and other politicians from Tirana. Agon launched in December 2014 and broadcast in Albania 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering a diverse range of news and entertainment programmes. The channel was shut down in October 2015 after Becchetti and his mother, Liliana Condomitti, were wrongly accused of money laundering. Becchetti’s assets were frozen, an arrest warrant was issued and extradition proceedings launched.
In a live television broadcast in June 2015, Rama called Becchetti and his business colleagues a “scandalous phenomena against which we have declared a war, and we will fight up to the end”. He added that the executive government “will shake the foundations of the judicial system”. Meanwhile, Becchetti filed a request to institute arbitration proceedings against the Albanian state at the ICSID.
In November 2015, Becchetti was arrested in London after the Albanian government sought his extradition. But in July 2016, a Westminster Magistrates Court hearing decided against his extradition, calling the Albanian government’s evidence “totally misleading.” An appeal was announced by Albania and then dropped.
The ICSID tribunal found that Rama’s government had issued a politically motivated arrest warrant against Becchetti and the administrator of the AgonSet, Mauro De Renzis, wrongly accusing them of tax evasion, falsification of documents, embezzlement and money laundering and requested their extradition from the United Kingdom. The courts in London also found that extradition requests from Albania were an abuse of process.
Interpol retracted the international arrest warrants against Becchetti and De Renzis, after Albania was unable to justify them. Red Notices issued against the two men were deemed by Interpol not to conform with its rules and The Interpol Commission concluded that the Red Notices were not issued for a proper purpose.
Albanian police had stopped the former employees of Agon at its borders and subjected them to searches when they were leaving the country. These employees, who were characterised by the Albanian government as “very dangerous people,” included journalists, editors, and analysts as well as cameramen, operators, and even hairdressers.
The tribunal further condemned Albania for illegal expropriation of the Agonset television station, which was in violation of the bilateral investment treaty between Italy and Albania. Critically, it ordered the Albanian government to pay Becchetti, De Renzis and another business colleague €110 million in compensation and costs. To put the scale of these awards in context, €110 million is equivalent to nearly 1% of Albania’s entire GDP. If the same percentage were applied to the United States, that would be equivalent to $190 billion.
After the awards were announced, Becchetti commented: “My family and I are delighted that our four-year legal battle and struggle against unlawful arrest and political persecution is now at an end. Our first thoughts go to all the families of the Group’s employees who have had to suffer so unjustly because of the precipitous actions of the corrupt Albanian government. We are pleased that the tribunal took the rare step of confirming that we have been the subject of a state persecution. We are now looking forward to getting on with our lives and business activities.”
So how does all of this square with Rama telling the FT conference: “We need to build a justice system, we need to build credible legislation.” After the conference was over, I managed to track the Albanian leader down in the coffee shop on the second floor of Le Méridien. After introducing myself as a journalist, I asked him what he thought about the arbitration award of €110m. He replied: “I don’t have any thoughts because it is confidential based on the court decision. It’s confidential; no-one can speak about it.”
Despite Rama’s protestation, the details were widely published online by Albanian media which are not subject to government control.
Albania has long held ambitions to join the European Union. But the EU is not so sure, having twice rejected its previous applications. In deciding whether to invite Albania to begin talks about joining, EU ministers recently met in Luxembourg, and again delayed their decision. Although the European Commission stated in May that Albania had made sufficient progress on democratic standards and the rule of law, several countries, including France and Germany, remain unconvinced and did not support the EC proposal.
Judging by the findings of the ICSID arbitration, it may be some time yet before Albania meets the required threshold. A change of government, or at least of leadership, might be a step in the right direction of what is likely to be a long road ahead.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com