AIM: start

THU, 10 JAN 2002 10:03:52 GMT

Albania's passport scandal and anticorruption fight

An alleged scandal with the passport tendering is delaying their supply to Albanians and has also taken the government to court. But meanwhile it might also take to a government reshuffle.


The recent fight between the ruling Socialist leader Fatos Nano and Premier Ilir Meta, continuing for almost three months now, is bringing some good things for the common Albanians and to Albania. The first will very likely be free, at last, to have passports they are asking as a normal citizen of the entire world. While the tiny Balkan country, the poorest in Europe, with its shining tourism spots and all the necessary natural wealth in a spot, with a long post-communist transition (phrases generally used for Albania) is starting a new road, at least against corruption, a plague leaving Albania in dangerous lists of the world and damaging its image. It has already started its fight against corruption and this time for real, as it seems.

Following long lasting tit-for-tat between Nano and Meta the state minister against corruption Ndre Legisi came out and made known the firing of two middle-level official involved in an affair of passports' tender. Both of them, Arben Prifti, head of the public procurement agency, and Artan Gjylbegu, head of the government control department, could be considered as the Albanian saying says "Turkish heads" (someone to blame when finding yourself in a bad situation). They were also offered by the top government headquarters as a sign that the fight is really real.

The same trend was followed by the health ministers who either fired or fined senior officials of the institution.

But that is not easy. This time Meta found it not that difficult to appease the opposition Democratic Party of the former president Sali Berisha when adopting the whole anti-corruption platform with 11 issues. Two more issues were added and now experts are working to clarify how it is going to be applied, a very tough, why not say impossible thing to do in this country. But that is good and might be the launch of a joint effort between the country's political parties to take it towards its integration with the European Union and the West.

Opposition, this time, came from the government itself. The interior minister Ilir Gjoni doubts that this is "something orchestrated for other purposes." He declined to continue the firing of officials just for the sake of it, alleging that government officials should not be used to cover other affairs. In a counterattack he told the journalists that he had told Meta "he would let him know, within the legal context, any police information involving politicians, statesmen or public persons." That might be translated that other officials, closer or not that near Meta might also be involved in nasty affairs. These exchange of force to different groupings between the political groupings, but this time within the ruling political force, will for sure bring something better to the general governing.

Speaking more concretely they are bringing passports to the hands of the population, lacking them for a year and just listening to money affairs, exchange of accusations, a lot of good material for the media to cover its news, but nothing good to the immigrants looking for a passport for themselves or their children, and going back in their living countries worried that could turn into the reason why they could be deported back to their country.

What is this passport issue, or better call it scandal?

After long queues >from immigrated Albanians during end of summer time in search of new passports there are still people walking around police offices asking for a new passport, another pain for the people of Europe's tiny and poor country where getting a visa becomes a history.

"We heard in the news they will start in January to provide new passports and we don't trust such a thing. I want to have a new passport and renew my visa to Greece because this one has expired," says Milto, a desperate middle-aged Albanian.

Since June police does not issue passports waiting for a new production. But this crisis had started since earlier this year. Police head Colonel Bilbil Mema had ordered that only persons with health problems would be given new passports. Five months after this order there are no more passports even for them. "We do not think their supply will start soon," he said.

Besides the havoc among the population that has been an issue that has promoted corruption and a scandal. In mid-November a chief policeman in southern town of Berat was arrested for 'selling' passports with $500. Scores of policemen around the country have been fired because of this corruption case, police sources added.

What makes the issue more tragic for Albanians is that for some more months they should not hope to have passports but they will only listen to the development of this big enigma, rumours, accusation to the government and a general unclearness surrounding the issue of the winning company of the tender procedure.

The German company "Brundes DuckereI", winner of the tender since last August, has yet to present its readiness it will provide passports in time for Albanians. It said it would present a copy to the authorities in November, but nothing has been reported so far, thus making its promise to offer them to the Albanian in January seem unreal.

The tender procedure was a history in itself. The former five-year contract with the Canadian company was over in December 2000. Consequently procurement for the new tender should have started before that. It was only in March when the government, threatened by a passport crisis, ordered its Entity of Procurement to make the quotation recommending four companies specialized in passport production - EuroGet from the United States, De la Rue from Britain, "Bundes Druckerei" from Germany and "E F T S F" from France.

Its procurement process turned into a marathon. It started in April but it was postponed for a week because the German company was missing, according to some sources >from the tendering commission. A week later it was postponed for an undefined date. Four weeks later the head of the tendering commission was changed and replaced with the deputy interior minister Bujar Himi.

A quarrel started at the same ministry. Police officials opposed the public order ministry officials. The latter said police and not the interior ministry that on such issues are considered two separate institutions should have conducted the tender. "Passports are documents of identification and a valuable document, two criteria that show why it had to be held by the police," Mema said. Four days later the commission made public the winner - the German company "Bundes Druckerei" though it was said it had brought the highest bid.

Not only the Albanian public opinion but the American embassy in Tirana also reacted nervously to such an anomaly sending a protest note by the end of August asking the government's anti-corruption minister Ndre Legisi to officially investigate on such an issue "aiming at repeating the tender." (It seems Legisi carefully listened to that. And just for curiosity the local media reported that after Legisi's announcement of the sacking of two senior officials the U.S. deputy ambassador was seen climbing stairs to his office. It could have been a normal procedure, meting, but Albanians like to further process their ideas.)

"The U.S. Embassy is very concerned with the tender's transparency and fairness. We believe that EuroGet, a U.S. company, was unfairly excluded from this tender despite having the lowest bid and relevant experience. We fear that the manner in which the tender was handled will discourage other U.S. firms from entering the Albanian market," said the embassy note.

Counterattacking the reasons why the American company was excluded the note added that the company's attorney had "refuted these contentions and points out serious shortcomings in the tender." It went on accusing ministry official of bias as "the tender requirements were drafted with the explicit intention to assist one company to prevail," and of offering undisclosed information to some bidders that the others did not have access. It opposed the tender's "unrealistic time frame that created confusion and problems throughout the process." "Two of the world's most respected companies in the field of passport production, EuroGet and De La Rue, were ultimately disqualified from the tender," it complained.

Concluding the note disputed that the winning bid was increased form the first to the second round. "The winning bid is more than USD 1.8 million higher than the lowest bid." The embassy requested that the government organize a new tender. "A new, impartial and transparent tender will help restore the international community's faith in the GOA's (government of Albania) tender procedures."

The interior ministry, on its part, turned down any accusation for the tender inviting everyone to verify its transparency and also promising that passport would be produced by January.

Meanwhile the U.S. company EuroGet has sued the government since august. "We were surprised because my client was disqualified as it was not specialized in producing passports at a time when it was announced by the ministry itself to take part in the tender. The four companies were recommended by the government as specialized in producing passports," says Kalo.

The court also proceeded slowly in the case but the lawyer is determined that the case will be won and the tender will be repeated. "According to my sources, the Albanian government has asked the Canadian company to bring 200,000 more passports to overcome the crisis. That may be exploited in favour of repeating the tender," the lawyer concluded.

There are even voices saying there could be a repeat of the tender, hard to believe at a time when the German company is normally proceeding with the project.

A representative of the German company came out in the television stations saying that everything was going based on the procedures and new passports would be offered in January. Some experts of the ministry, however, say that that is hardly to happen because there is not much time to prepare them.

It seems very likely. Minister Gjoni said that, according to his information, Albanians could start having new passports by the end of January. The German company has brought part of its equipment and still bringing others completing the whole necessary infrastructure by mid-January. They have also trained Albanian staff dealing with the issue.

If started Albanians will soon forget the whole issue, delay, or just remember passports as something linked with the start of the anti-corruption fight in the country, or with the fight between Nano and Meta and the following accusation to lower officials, or with the first step in the cooperation between the two main political parties.

Whatever it is for common Albanians it means they will not form long queues again for passports in the next eight years, the time period planned with this very disputed passport project.