The final mystery
From The Economist print edition
Finding the perpetrators of a lethal explosion could polish Albania’s image
A MUDDY crater marks the spot near Tirana airport where a stockpile of artillery shells blew up last March. The blast killed 26 people, including several children, and injured more than 250 others. Dozens of houses in the next-door village were ruined beyond repair.
Sali Berisha, Albania’s prime minister, responded by removing from office Fatmir Mediu, the defence minister. Damaged homes are being rebuilt with government handouts. But people are still angry. “This”, says Fiqiri Ismaili, the mayor, “was the worst disaster since communism ended.”
Finding out who caused the explosion, and bringing the culprits to justice, is a test of Albania’s credibility as a future member of NATO. It would also help Mr Berisha achieve his goal of making Albania a formal candidate to join the European Union. That is because the EU’s sharpest criticisms of Albania are directed at the country’s judicial system. All too often, prosecutors and judges are bribed or bullied by politicians.
Most of the bomb’s victims were employees of Albademil, a local contractor working for an American firm selling ammunition to the new Afghan army. When the dump exploded, some workers were repackaging 40-year-old Chinese-made shells to disguise their origin (American military contractors are banned from dealing in Chinese equipment). Others were removing gunpowder and detonators from supposedly dud shells so that the metal casings could be sold for scrap.
Picking up the pieces after the blast
Ina Rama, the chief prosecutor, who heads the investigation, says that four Albanians may soon face charges. She says that there were “no safety precautions at all” at the site. America’s Justice Department has launched its own investigation and is providing valuable help, she says. Even so, many Albanians fear that there will be a cover-up. In mid-September Kosta Trebicka, a businessman turned whistle-blower in the case, was killed when his jeep crashed on a remote mountain road. Opposition politicians claimed that the death of Mr Trebicka, who was a witness for the prosecution, was not accidental.
Mr Berisha hopes that joining NATO will help him change Albania’s reputation for corruption and lawlessness. He has already notched up successes. The economy has been growing by some 6% a year, agriculture is reviving and foreign investment is starting to flow in. A Canadian company is refurbishing neglected oilfields; a Turkish group is setting up a new mobile-phone network. A new highway to Kosovo is due to be finished next summer, boosting regional trade and encouraging tourists. Albania has also scored better in two influential reports: the World Bank’s “Doing Business” and Transparency International’s index on corruption. If justice is done over the munitions explosion, next year’s marks should be even better.