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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Albania cracks down on dirty money
Street money dealers at theTirana market
Traders offered better rates than the banks
By Bill Hayton

The streets around Tirana's central Skanderbej Square are quieter than usual.

In place of the usual hundreds of money changers there are just a few policemen - and some bemused business people unable to trade their Albanian leks for foreign currency.

For a decade the traders oiled the wheels of international business in Albania, but this week the central bank has cracked down.

Where once men holding huge wads of cash would use the pavement as their dealing room, now they are being arrested for trading without a official licence.

You are leaving 8,000 people without bread to eat

Tirana street dealer

One of the Tirana traders says the crackdown is going to cause a lot of hardship.

"They are cutting off more than 800 money changers in Tirana alone, not to mention the other towns - it could come to 2,000. If you think that each Albanian family has four members, you are leaving 8,000 people without bread to eat".

Valuable service

The traders may have given the capital a slightly seedy appearance, but they also provided a valuable service in a country with little financial infrastructure.

They offered better rates than banks and they were quick and convenient.

Albania's international airport, for example, does not even possess an official bureau de change.

Around $2.5 billion dollars of 'dirty-money' pass the hands of money changers each year
Tirana's city centre was the favourite place for dealers
Last year, under pressure from the Council of Europe, Albania passed a new law against money-laundering.

But for a year nothing was done, and the street traders carried on working. Now the authorities are taking action.

An American consultant on financial crime, Trifin Roule, believes the September attacks were the spur, and they have given the Albanian government the chance to improve its image.

"The recent actions, I believe, were taken to head off criticism from western European countries and the United States regarding lax regulations of banking and non-banking institutions in Albania," he says.

"A number of these institutions have been linked over the past three to four years with al-Qaeda and the Bin Laden network."

The Albanian Government estimates that about $2.5bn of so-called dirty money passed - quite literally - through the hands of the money changers each year.

And it was taking place right under the government's nose - their main trading area stretched from outside the central bank itself, towards the offices of the ruling Socialist party.

Vain efforts?

Any money-changer who wishes to keep on dealing now, will have to do so from a registered office and with a licence from the central bank costing around $20,000.

Enio Haxhimihali, from the Ministry of Justice explains the new regulations.

"We are not talking about the closure of this trade, but it's just putting it under regulations."

But while the latest steps will clear the money changers from the streets, will they solve the problem?

Trifin Roule does not believe the measures will be effective.

"The problem lies in the fact that there are significant deficiencies in Albania's anti-money laundering regime. There's a lack of due diligence, a lack of staffing, a lack of adequate funding for the Albanian regulators and law enforcement entities," he says.

Until those problems are fixed, the difficulties of Tirana's street traders may turn out to be in vain.

See also:

19 Oct 01 | Americas
Rebuilding Albania
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
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