TIRANA: An investigation into a former Albanian interior minister and his alleged links to international cannabis trafficking is ill-timed for the Balkan country bidding to join the European Union.
A candidate for membership in the bloc since 2014, Albania intends to convince Brussels to open accession negotiations early next year.
But the scandal involving Saimir Tahiri, 38, interior minister until March and a close ally of socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, has forced the country to defend its history with drug trafficking.
"Albania has a problem with the connection between criminal groups and politicians," US ambassador to Albania Donald Lu said earlier this month.
"This is a problem not of one party," he said.
The ambassador's outspokenness contrasts with the cautious silence of European embassies which have been supporting Rama since he took over in 2013.
In an open letter to European leaders earlier this month, Rama defended his record.
"Albania is no longer Europe's cannabis capital, as some media have enjoyed calling it," he said.
But right-wing opposition leader Lulzim Basha claimed "we have a government of drug traffickers that must fall and give space to an anti-mafia government".
They claim Rama's Socialist party has made Albania the "Colombia of Europe".
- Cumbersome cousins -
Rama hit back that it was his government which dismantled the "Cannabis kingdom", a trafficking ring in the village of Lazarat, which he claims the right ignored when they were in power.
However, six months after an electoral triumph at parliamentary elections, the prime minister appears weakened.
The scandal exploded in mid-October, after the arrest of an Albanian trafficker in Italy.
Local papers then revealed the existence of tapped phone conversations that appear to compromise Tahiri.
"Two criminals, my 10th cousins, arrested for drug trafficking, mentioned my name," Tahiri said on television, defending himself.
"Criminals use to brag to each other, quoting the names of a particular minister in their dirty business."
He said his "only mistake" was to sell a car without checking the credentials of the new owners, who allegedly used it for trafficking.
But Albanian judiciary, itself considered deeply corrupt, asked prosecutors to lift Tahiri's parliamentary immunity in order to arrest him.
The Socialist parliamentary majority rejected the request.
Rama insists he was not protecting his political ally, who was suspended from the Socialists.
"If the accusations against Tahiri are proved, I will applaud justice."
"There is no evidence" against Tahiri, said Interior Minister Fatmir Xhafaj.
"Some segments of the prosecutor's office let themselves be used politically to serve well-defined political interests."
"The majority wants at any price to make the investigation fail, cover up the evidence and intimidate witnesses," accused Basha.
- Production down? -
For years Albania has been the largest exporter of cannabis to the EU, notably Italy, according to Europol reports.
The trade would make up one-third of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) or more, Western diplomatic sources estimate.
In its latest progress report, Brussels said the authorities have "failed in the identification of criminal groups."
Small farmers are regularly prosecuted, but never the drug lords.
Only about 20 police officers, three of whom are facing an arrest warrant issued on Wednesday, were charged for corruption linked to cannabis trafficking.
Tahiri is the first senior official to be investigated.
The government recently presented a plan "against organised crime and in particular, against the links between crime and senior officials or state leaders."
"I am well aware that some people, if you mention Albania, think of crime and drugs," Rama wrote in an open letter to the Financial Times.
"For years labelled the cannabis capital of Europe, Albania has had enough and we have fought back."
This year, 88 plantations were identified and destroyed compared with 2,086 in 2016, said Rama which he said showed a collapse in production.
Albanian cannabis is a "European problem," said the prime minister who is appealing for help from the international community.