For the first time in Albania’s 30-year post-communist history, a former president and prime minister has been arrested and held accountable for corruption. This is the once powerful Sali Berisha, today head of the opposition Democratic Party, who has been under house arrest since December 30.

Berisha is accused that during his first term as prime minister, in the period 2005-2009, he had intervened by exerting his influence to favor his son-in-law in a case involving the privatization of sports facilities in Tirana. He rejects the accusations and speaks of a “politically motivated prosecution” inspired by his political opponent and current prime minister, the socialist Edi Rama.

“Hope” or undermining Democracy?

Sali Berisha has been through a lot in his thirty-three years of political career. “Hope of Democracy” he was called after the collapse of the communist regime in the early 90s. At that time Berisha, a doctor by profession specializing in cardiology, a former communist but a charismatic speaker, became the first freely elected prime minister in the history of Albania.

But in 2021, the American authorities publicly condemned Berisha’s “involvement” in “significant corruption cases”, banning him and his family from entering the country. In a message on the X platform (formerly Twitter), US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken even denounced, in May 2021, that what Berisha committed “undermines Democracy in Albania”.

Today, at the age of 79, Sali Berisha has been placed under house arrest. His lawyers say he has been banned from contacting anyone “except his family, who live with him”.

Autocratic rule

After being elected prime minister, Sali Berisha did not take long to lend an authoritarian character to his government. He concentrated all the powers in his hands, ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and unwanted journalists, removed internal party enemies, manipulated the Judiciary in order to expel political opponents.

Once the so-called “pyramid scandal” broke out in 1997, Berisha was accused that as the country’s president he not only tolerated, but also favored pyramid business schemes, in which many Albanians lost their savings. A popular uprising ensued and Berisha was forced to leave. He was succeeded by socialist governments, which were also accused of corruption. Capitalizing on the outrage, Berisha returned to power in 2005, this time as prime minister, to once again pursue his familiar tactic of lobbying the Judiciary.

Is support for Berisha waning?

“The role of Berisha remains controversial, some even argue that his government is responsible for the death of innocents in a series of bloody incidents,” Alexander Tsipa, an independent political analyst in Tirana, told DW. “An example was the death of 28 people in an explosion at a munitions dismantling workshop in the town of Gerdets, where Berisha’s son was allegedly involved. In addition, in 2011, again during Berisha’s prime ministership, four people were killed during anti-government demonstrations in Tirana. For these incidents, no independent investigation has been conducted to date, in order to look for any responsibilities…”

After the latest developments, the arrested former president and prime minister called his followers to “civil disobedience”, turning his personal outstanding issues with the judiciary into a national issue. So far he hasn’t seen the response he might have expected. The MPs of the Democratic Party may occasionally cause chaos in Parliament, but on the streets support for Berisha seems to be waning.

The difficult road to the EU

For three decades Albania has been going through a turbulent process of political and economic transformation. Although it has joined NATO, rampant corruption, even at the highest levels of the state hierarchy, is hampering its reform path and undercutting its EU membership ambitions. the country will manage to find its way to democracy and respect for the rule of law, so as to justify the expectations for the continuation of the European course, with the ultimate goal of joining the EU,” Besar Likmeta, director of Balkan Investigative Reporting, tells DW Network. “But it is sad that political processes are being led in other directions, with the country sliding towards oligarchy and organized interests eroding state structures.”

Be that as it may, judicial reform in Albania and the establishment of two new institutions, the Special Anti-Corruption Agency and the National Bureau of Investigation, warrant some optimism that the end of impunity, even for the most high-ranking, is near.

A key element of the judicial reform is the vetting process, which is supported by the EU and the US. This is a review of the assets of all judicial officers. Hundreds of judges and prosecutors have already been removed, because they failed to provide sufficient proof of their “whereabouts”.

Now the arrest of Berisha, says Tsipa, “shakes the myth of impunity in Albania. The fact that the once powerful politician is called to account creates a precedent for those who consider themselves above the law.” Many hope that the Berisha case also marks a new beginning in Albanian politics, with new faces, unrelated to the political sins of the past.