Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albania: Cash-for-Guns Plan Misfires

The UN is facing an uphill struggle to convince Tirana to deal with the problem of looted weapons.
By Agim Kanani

Albania is still awash with illegally held weapons and ammunition five years after the wholesale looting of arms depots - and the authorities seem unwilling or unable to retrieve them.


The United Nations is now trying to persuade the Albanian government to introduce legislation to tackle the problem, or to extend a recent amnesty that lapsed on August 4.


Officials estimate that 550,000 weapons, 839 million rounds of ammunition and 16 million explosive devices vanished in rioting five years ago, which followed the collapse of a pyramid-selling scheme that swallowed the life savings of more than a million Albanians.


Around 150,000 weapons were believed to have found their way into the hands of ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo and Macedonia. A further 200,000 were recovered with the help of a scheme to swap guns for local investment. Many of those still unaccounted for are believed to be held by criminal gangs.


The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, has in recent years exchanged more than three million US dollars for looted weapons.


The idea of guns-for-money was first put forward by the Albanian government in 1998. Ministers persuaded the UN to offer small sums of development cash to local communities that managed to collect a certain amount of arms, while an amnesty ensured that those who handed their weapons over would not be punished.


But following the end of the amnesty in August, any Albanian found holding an illegal weapon now faces up to three years imprisonment.


The UN argues that new legislation or an extension of the amnesty should be introduced otherwise the gun problem could damage Albania's international reputation. But the government does not appear to be taking the calls seriously.


One UNDP official, who did not want to be named, told IWPR, "New amendments [on gun collection procedure] are very urgent but they don't seem to be a government priority at the moment."


Tirana has agreed in principle to take steps to extend the voluntary handover period, but legislators seem to be dragging their feet.


The authorities also appear to show no interest in the plight of 250 ex-members of the special police unit formed to collect weaponry. The group, which was strongly supported by the UNDP, was dissolved on August 4 and most of its staff are now out of a job.


Officials from the UNDP's Small Arms and Light Weapon Control Project, SALWC, told IWPR that they have been pressing parliamentarians to take action.


Parliamentary deputy and Social Democratic Party leader Skender Gjinushi, who has liaised between the government and the UNDP, said, "A draft law on this issue has been blocked by lack of coordination between the government and the political majority [the Socialist party]."


Gjinushi argued against extending the amnesty, saying the idea had "run out of steam" and that it was now time to make the handover of weapons compulsory.


Following extensive research, SALWC believes partial amnesties - to be offered to small communities in exchange for aid - could be the best way out of the stalemate. But a UNDP official told IWPR that lengthy bureaucratic delays have blocked implementation of this plan.


The 13-village commune Ndroq, which lies west of Tirana, now boasts a much-improved water supply thanks to a 50,000 US dollar donation from UNDP this spring. In return, some 270 weapons were handed in.


Another successful weapons collection was staged at Librazhd in eastern Albania, just before elections in neighbouring Macedonia. "We wanted to show that we did not support illegal fighting abroad (an apparent reference to Albanian militants active across the border in Macedonia)," said the town's police chief Gani Malushi. "I had good cooperation from the local people, many of whom told me where the guns were hidden."


Many Albanians are reluctant to turn in looted weapons, especially small arms such as pistols as they do not trust the government or police to protect them.


UNDP is still seeking innovative ways of coaxing the citizenry into doing so. At the moment, though, it seems their biggest problem is to jolt the government out of its torpor.


Agim Kanani is a freelance journalist in Tirana.


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