Albania - it's a jungle out there

The Times, Tuesday January 07, 2003

Perparim Kalo, managing partner of Kalo & Associates, is an elegantly dressed man whose work as lawyer to date belies his air of calm. No wonder: Kalo practises in Tirana, Albania, a country for whose legal system the word 'Kafkaesque' may as well have been invented.

Kalo qualified in 1989, when Albania was still under the rule of Ramiz Alia, a handpicked successor to Enver Hoxha. This was a communist country whose Ministry of Justice had been abolished in 1967, where all private property had been nationalised, and where a defendant in a trial had no access to legal representation.

Kalo and other lawyers of his generation were sent to one of two state Faculties of Law, where they would learn, in effect, to be state prosecutors. But even Alia recognised that some reforms were necessary, and when the Ministry of Justice was recreated in 1989 Kalo immediately sought work there. Three years later, following the collapse of the former Soviet bloc in the winter of 1989/90, Alia had been ousted, and Albania took its first tentative steps on a road whose Damascus seems to hover perpetually on the horizon.

Albania's engagement with the free market has never been less than dramatic. Following the demise of communism many Albanians went on a rampage intended to be cathartic - destroying almost any physical remnant of the ancien regime - but which ultimately proved economically disastrous. Then, in 1997, there was a pyramid selling fraud, which left thousands of Albanians out of pocket. Riots ensued in many parts of the country. Albania's clash of old world and new continues, and regrettably the country is in the news more often than not these days for the alleged role its countrymen play in the Soho vice trade.

Throughout all this, lawyers like Perparim Kalo have faced the immense challenge of reviving the good parts of Albania's legal framework annulled by Hoxha and synthesising them with modern legal jurisprudence. The result hasn't always been a success, not because of Kalo and his brethren (now able to practise privately, which had been banned) but because of the raft of foreign consultants retained post-communism, who advised piecemeal incorporation of overseas laws that have subsequently proved inappropriate.

However, Albania has emerged with one area of law that appears breathtaking in its transparency, that quality so coveted by Joseph K in The Trial.

As Genc Boga, managing partner of Boga & Associates, puts it: 'In Albania, there is only one law about the press. The press is free.' This is guaranteed by Albania's constitution. Though there is a law of defamation (in the country's criminal code), when it is used it appears that the courts have better things to do than worry about damages for so nebulous a concept as an impugned reputation. Rarely does anyone get any compensation, and, remarkably by comparison with UK standards, a claimant will have to pay a newspaper for space if that same newspaper is to run an apology.

All of which is enough to make any newspaper lawyer salivate with envy. But being Albania, things are not as they seem. While the country is remarkably tolerant in terms what the media can publish, the downside is that its government and police have retained wide-ranging powers to compel disclosure of sources and evidence. Whistle-blowers are routinely fired and have no comeback at all. And western concepts such as employee rights and protection from sex and race discrimination barely exist.

As Boga says, 'we are still suffering from what Hoxha did.' Lest we forget, Hoxha was a devotee of Stalin who ruled Albania from 1945 until his death in 1985. He banned Albanians from going abroad and stopped everyone else from visiting. If Albania once again has a Ministry of Justice, it is still suffering from Hoxha's abolition of private property, with the courts tied up with endless land ownership disputes.

In light of such a past it is easy to agree with Boga's statement that the courts remain 'poorly developed we don't have the infrastructure yet.' Its costs just $5 to start a claim, and cases trundle on for years without any likelihood of ever coming before a judge, much as Joseph K was doomed never to have his day in court.

Boga himself takes the long view. He had studied in France and could have stayed to work as a lawyer in Paris. Surely a more enticing prospect than Tirana, with its bizarre mish-mash of colours, dug up roads and half-finished buildings? 'This is my country and I wanted to come back', says Boga. 'You can't change everything overnight.'

Wise words. If only Joseph K had known.