As a former national security adviser to Albania’s prime minister, Sander Lleshaj was thrust into politics when he was appointed interior minister in November 2018. Here, Lleshaj speaks openly about the country’s security challenges and his plans to combat them
What are the key priorities for your ministry looking ahead to the rest of 2019?
This is an important moment in our history in which we are finalizing the process to open negotiations on accession to the European Union (EU) in June, almost three decades after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. This ministry has an important role to play to lay the groundwork in the fields of justice, freedom security and under Chapter 24 of these future talks. 2019 also sees local elections held in Albania, and this ministry has a key role as we administer the civil register. We cannot afford to have a bad election, and my ambition is that it will be the best ever in this country. The third element is security, and here we have a complex task. The police force is very small – our ratio of police officers per capita is far below neighboring countries – and we have many issues to deal with, including organized crime, trafficking and migration.
Could you highlight the key security threats Albania faces and what progress you are making in dealing with them?
There are two main issues we need to address: organized crime and illegal migration. On the first, it is a fact that when, almost three decades ago, Albanians had the freedom to travel for the first time, there was a sudden and uncontrolled movement towards the West, with a criminal element attached to that. Now we see criminals who have become more sophisticated as they have spent time in other countries, but we are making progress. Organized crime groups are interconnected, and our mission is to disrupt that and open the space for our integration into the EU. We are working very closely with EU partners, have sent liaising officers to a number of EU states, and we also host officers from those countries so that we develop procedures to act together. Organized crime is not Albanian; it is internationally organized. The only way to tackle it is for us to be internationally organized, together with our partners.
We know how sensitive Europe has been to immigration since the crisis in Syria, something which also affected our country as the Balkan migration corridor opened and people flowed toward Central Europe. Now, we are also seeing illegal migrants using Albania as a way to reach the EU, and this is a concern for us. Albanian migration has been reactivated during this general crisis as people joined the flow to explore any chance for a better life. But we have taken very serious measures to control migration, which always involves traffickers and criminal networks taking money from people. We are reducing illegal migration from Albania by 30 percent a year, but we know that we have to achieve complete control and stop it completely. This is a priority for the near future.
In today’s Albania, what does a modern security space look like?
Security has always been compartmentalized within an old-fashioned approach based on hardware and police presence. Now we must modernize our security space. We have a relatively small police force and our terrain is complex, so for more security, either we increase hardware and police numbers or we boost our technological capabilities. We need to attract young people to join the security forces, and to equip them with modern technology so they can do their job. We are opening the door to university graduates to join the police, especially those with computer science, economic and financial backgrounds. We are also moving toward the increased use of sensors for traffic control and border security, which is all part of our ambitious program to combine young recruits and technology to create the police force of the future. Globally, the future police force is going to be more virtual. Criminals don’t need to risk their lives assaulting a bank these days; they can steal through their knowledge of cybercriminal methods.
How important is Albania’s bilateral relationship with Germany in the security field?
Germany is a crucial partner for Albania, and not just because of its role as a leading country in Europe, but also due to our historical bilateral connections. Traditionally, Albanians have a special sympathy for Germany, and we have excellent political relations. There has been a new emphasis on the bilateral relationship in the time of Chancellor Merkel, who has led the Western Balkan initiative, known as Berlin Process, to help the six regional countries have better relations and improved infrastructure, as well as connecting our youth populations. In terms of security, we have intense cooperation with Germany. We have established joint operation structures tasked with tackling organized crime. This shows that the level of trust and cooperation is very high, and we look forward to expanding and deepening our bilateral relationship. This model of joint cooperation with Germany can serve as a model for other countries to also join and work together with us.
How damaging are the misconceptions about Albania as a dangerous, crime-ridden society, as you reach out to the rest of the world to attract greater inward investment and tourism?
If you followed these misconceptions, you would probably never come to Albania. But if you look at the facts, Albania is actually a safe country. Yet the perception is still bad, and this is for a number of reasons, starting with some of those people who left Albania in the early 1990s, when the country was a living hell; they left hell and years of miserable living, and had no idea about freedom. Freedom for Albanians in the 1990s meant no rules. These people created a bad image for Albania, and we are seeing that negative perceptions can live on for a long time. But if you look around Europe now, you will find thousands of Albanians who are successful in all domains, from culture and sport to business and finance. Unfortunately, we have been unable to counter the negative image, and this is partly due to lack of expertise in this area, but also to a lack of connections in Western countries. This country was 100% isolated for so long, so we started from zero. Nobody knows us. The difference between misperceptions and the reality is huge, and addressing that is our challenge. We need to shift attention from the news about Albania to the stories of real Albanians.