Albania’s justice reform is one of the largest steps the country is taking to modernize and make transparent its governance institutions and processes, in an effort to fulfil conditions for accession to the European Union (EU). With Germany among several EU states taking a keen interest in, and lending expertise to, Albania’s reform efforts, justice minister Etilda Gjonaj talks about the progress made to date and how perceptions collide with reality in Albania
What have been the most important achievements and milestones since you took office in 2017?
I was appointed as Minister of Justice following the approval of the justice reform, which has been underway for three years. In the year-and-a-half since my appointment, we have achieved good results. The justice reform that Albania has undertaken is unique in comparison with all other justice reforms that have been carried out, even in Western countries. We are now working to design the new institutions that have to be part of this new justice reform.
What are the key pillars of the justice reform?
The first is the independence of the justice system. This not only means that judges and prosecutors have to take decisions independently, but that politicians cannot influence judges.
Since the main problem of our justice system has been corruption, in the new system there are two main mechanisms to fight corruption: in the system itself, and among high-ranking officials including ministers. The first mechanism is considered a transitory measure, and it is the vetting process that we are currently implementing in the justice system. The vetting process includes all judges and prosecutors. They have to pass the vetting process for asset declaration, for their integrity, and for their professionalism. Until now, there have been around 100 judges and prosecutors that have been through this vetting process, and around 50 percent of them have passed. The other half have been dismissed.
Under the new legislation, the first subjects that have to pass through the vetting process are the constitutional judges, the high court judges, the general prosecutor, the appeal and district courts and prosecution officers. A huge number of them have been dismissed under the vetting process. This is a unique process. We are ensuring that we guarantee due process for the subjects that have been dismissed by the system, because it’s a very delicate issue. So, based on the legal provisions, it is foreseen that two independent commissions will control the vetting process. These commissions are monitored by an independent body.
The vetting process is complex. It’s unparalleled amongst any reform done in any country, and for this reason these results have been evaluated and appreciated by the European Commission and by other countries. We have designed the justice reform alongside our international partners, with the Germans, the Austrians and the Dutch, together with national organizations.
The second mechanism for fighting corruption and organized crime involves the Special Court against Corruption (SPAK). The SPAK will establish a national bureau of investigation, similar to the FBI. It will deal only with the cases of corruption among high-ranking officials, and with organized crime. Everything has to be implemented step-by-step because it’s a totally new system.
Secondly, there are two new councils that have been introduced, which are the governing bodies of the justice system. One is the high prosecution council, which is only for prosecution officers, and the second is a high judicial council that is for the organization of courts, judges, and so on. Everything related with the organization of the courts, of different cases and the administration, will be done by these two councils that were established in December 2018. We have not had these kinds of councils before. We had only the high council of justice in the past, and its members where judges inside the system, with the minister of justice as a member and the president of Albania as the chair. These new councils will no longer carry this political influence, and the minister of justice and the president will no longer be members. The new councils will have 11 members in total; six are from the system – judges or prosecutors – and five are professors of law faculties and representatives of civil society.
Another change that is being done concerns the independence of prosecutors. In the past, the prosecution office has been a centralized body, but since we now have a council, even the independence of the prosecutors is more based on the case and not dependent on the head or the director of the office. The general prosecutor will not be elected just by parliament but will be selected first by the high prosecuting counsel. This means that there will no longer be political influence on the justice system.
What does this justice reform mean for Albania?
The independence of the justice system allows Albania to have a sustainable economy, society and political system, and that is very important. Everything comes from the justice system. If you guarantee independence, effectiveness and lack of corruption in the justice system, then it means that areas of the economy such as property can be effectively regulated through the justice system. This reform can enable us to fight corruption in politics because we can now vet politicians through the main institutions. And this is very important. It has taken three decades, but it is happening in the right moment. We are reforming not only as part of our dream to be part of the EU, but also for the benefit of our citizens.
How would you evaluate Germany’s partnership and support to Albania in its journey into the EU?
Germany has always been Albania’s best supporter in this regard. We have had the opportunity to talk with some members of the Bundestag on this subject. What we have demonstrated is not only the political will, but the commitment to achieve results, not only on what is requested by the EU or European Commission but also on the conditions we want to provide for our Albanian citizens.
The Germans have not only supported us on designing the justice reform, but they have even provided support to us during its implementation. At the same time, we have had concrete support from German experts to design the strategy and our policies on anticorruption, as well as to improve the public perception of anticorruption measures.
What would you say to investors looking at Albania about guaranteeing their investments?
I have had the opportunity to talk with some chambers of commerce, including the German chamber of commerce that is in Albania, and everything that they mentioned was linked with the justice system. Investors need a sustainable legal framework in order to invest in Albania. Property issues are another key area, and we are in the process of implementing a new reform on property titles in order to offer guarantees to foreign investors, which is something that has been an obstacle to investment in the past.
Investors have mentioned corruption several times in the past. We have now strengthened our mechanisms for fighting corruption, and not only in the justice system. We have established an institutional task force that carries out administrative investigations in different agencies and offers services to businesses. When we speak with German investors nowadays, they are pleasantly surprised by the results we are achieving.
How would you contrast the perceived risks of Albania with the reality?
When we have to compare the perception of the public with the measures and the results that we have achieved or undertaken, they are two totally different things. Data from the 2018 Transparency International Corruptions Perception Index shows that we have taken more anti-corruption measures in comparison with the other countries and we are in the middle of very important reforms.
There remains a perception in European countries that Albania has a lot of organized crime. But all countries face organized crime. Organized crime is not a localised issue. We are facing a lot more transnational crime that happens across countries. It does not mean that organized crime has a base in Albania. It is very difficult to take measures when the organized crime groups are outside of Albania, because then it is an issue of the other country. Nonetheless, we collaborate in joint investigation units from one country to another. The state police of Albania, along with the state police of different countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, are working together in order to address the issue of organized crime. In October last year, Albania signed an agreement to have a eurozone prosecutor that will conduct joint investigations with all other European countries. We are a member of different international mechanisms, including Europol.
What would you like our readers to understand about Albania?
Albania in recent years has achieved a lot. We know that we still have a lot that we need to improve, but what Albania has shown is that it is a credible candidate for EU membership. We know that we are not yet ready to be a member of the EU, but I think it is totally right that Albania can open accession negotiations because we have undertaken reforms that have been very strongly commended by the European Commission.
When we open negotiations, we hope that it will be a quick decision because Albanian citizens, in comparison with citizens of the other Western Balkan countries, rank highest in terms of wanting to be part of the EU. The dream of Albanians has always been to be part of the EU.