Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Beleri case as bellwether for democracy in Albania

provided by author Genc Pollo

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  1. The standard definition of a political prisoner is: “One imprisoned for their political activity. The political offense is not always the official reason for the prisoner’s detention.

If this still holds, then Albania might have gotten one. Fredi Beleri, who ran on an opposition ticket in the local government elections in May this year, fits very well in this description. A quick Google search would show his name in recent barbs traded between Greek and Albanian officials. Still some media reports presenting the Beleri case as a bilateral Albanian-Greek issue are misleading: The Beleri case is a serious matter of basic human rights (habeas corpus), of rule of law and of democracy for Albania.

This is true regardless of whether Greece or the European Union take interest due to Beleri’s status as a dual Albanian-Greek citizen.

Beleri was the challenger mayoral candidate for Himara, a coastal municipality in southern Albania on the so-called Albanian Riviera. Beleri clearly led any opinion poll and that is probably why Prime Minister Edi Rama kept attacking him viciously and personally. Rama’s abuse regarding Beleri was not comparable to any of his other generally rude attacks on any challenger to the ruling party’s incumbent mayors. Still Beleri kept leading and eventually won the very tight race. He learned of his victory in a prison cell.

Beleri was arrested on charges of vote-buying. In the last decade vote-buying has become a common problem in Albanian elections and a standing concern in the respective international monitoring reports of the OSCE. The truth is that vote-buying is a ruling party specialty because of accumulated public money and proceeds from other illegal fundraising activities. The opposition has been marginalized and even deprived of the regular legal means, including access to campaign finance and presence in vote counts, through administrative tricks. However, no ruling party candidate has been investigated let alone arrested or indicted on such charges.

His arrest followed a sting operation of sorts. The police hired a former criminal who promised to nail Beleri for vote buying, though they didn’t use such a technique for other candidates despite abundant evidence. The written indictment shows no interaction between Beleri and the “infiltrated person.” The whole police/prosecutorial/judicial process is marred by violations of Albania’s Criminal Procedure Law.

Nevertheless, Beleri remains in pretrial detention despite the official presumption of innocence; interestingly his associate who had a meeting with the police “infiltrator” has been released.

Under the law Beleri needs to take the mayoral oath within three months from his election. He cannot do this while in prison and his trial can last longer than one year. Rama seems to be aiming for the annulment and the repetition of the Himara election.

There must be a reason why Rama was personally invested in such risky behaviour which trespassed certain legal and democratic norms that he hadn’t until recently trespassed, i.e., arresting opposition candidates during the campaign. The obvious explanation is the greedy approach to the tourism development of the Albanian Riviera region, with Himara administering the most coveted part of the Ionian Sea coast.

A group of oligarchs around Rama have been set to grab the land (beaches and nearby hills) that belongs mostly to local traditional residents in order to develop upscale touristic resorts. They are able to use the state agencies to force owners to sell at fire-sale prices. There have already been cases of illegal land acquisition through cadaster officials falsifying property documents.

Rama’s Foreign Minister has been caught in a scandal as she used state resources to favor her family’s hotel investments in Himara. The parliamentary majority is blocking the opposition inquiry and is ignoring Constitutional Court rulings on the case.

Beleri had repeatedly vowed to use mayoral powers to hinder or stop such predatory and corrupt practices. Given the municipal competences in urban planning he would have some legal and administrative instruments for keeping that promise. The Socialist Party incumbent has always been compliant with the wishes of the Rama government and assorted oligarchs.

As Beleri is a dual national, there have been systematic Greek protests starting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis since the day of his arrest. That has made possible for Rama to launch nationalism-laced tirades against a so-called “Greek intrusion.” However, prior to the local campaign, Mitsotakis visited Greek minority municipalities in southern Albania accompanied only by Rama and his Socialist party officials. This was a boost for the ruling party; nevertheless, Rama found ways “to pay back” by arresting Beleri.

The European Parliament on July 11, in the consensually adopted Albania resolution stated: “Its concern at the arrest of the new mayor of Himara, Freddy Beleri, on the eve of the municipal elections in May, which both violated the presumption of innocence and prevented the mayor-elect from taking office, as he remains imprisoned to this day; underlines that this matter is linked to overall respect for fundamental rights, the pending issue of the properties … in the municipal area and the accusations of encroachments by the State.”

The European Commission has been silent, so far, on the issue, except for saying they are monitoring the court case. Vice President Margaritis Schinas has made pointed statements, but they seem to fall in line with the press releases by other Greek officials. However, the Commission has voiced concern about similar cases in distant countries that are not EU candidates.

In their formalistic approach they shouldn’t talk about a court case in a candidate’s country until a final ruling. This of course presupposes a normally functioning judiciary. This fits in the Commission’s narrative of “continuous progress” of Albania as a candidate’s country despite this narrative’s detachment from reality.

The Beleri case will be an important bellwether. But not only for Albania’s relationship with Greece or her advances towards eventual EU membership. But most importantly it will test the tolerance to the extent of arbitrariness by an authoritarian ruler who has concentrated and personalised government power.

Indeed, should Rama be able to have Beleri removed as mayor, nothing will prevent him from repeating the same tactics with the opposition leader in the upcoming general elections should the latter lead the opinion polls.

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