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 Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 12:35 GMT
Albania's gun culture proves hard to shift
View of Tirana
Guns remain a key part of Albania's black economy

I asked the anonymous man, a former champion wrestler, sitting in the chilly cafe he owns on the ramshackle outskirts of Tirana, if he personally owned a gun.

There followed about five seconds of nervous laughter, followed by a simple yes. He would hardly be alone - in Albania - in keeping a firearm at home.

The chances are he owns several, anything from a Russian sub-machine gun to a Chinese army-issue pistol, to an anti-aircraft weapon.

Kosovo KLA soldier with AK-47
Many Albanian guns found their way to the Kosovo war
Hundreds of thousands of them were looted from army and police barracks in the chaotic days following the collapse of the Albanian Government in 1997.

There were tales of civilians towing MIG fighter jets out of air force hangars, of farmers driving around in tanks.

Much of the stolen weaponry played a major role in the war in Kosovo.

Much of it is a key commodity of Albania's highly-organised criminal network.

The guns make their way, via tried-and-tested smuggling routes to wherever they can make a good profit, including the UK.

Going rates

The man I was interviewing in Tirana was not exactly telling me how to get hold of a weapon. But he knew how.

He knew the going rates (around 250 for an AK-47) and he knew the right people to contact.

As a foreigner, I would never be trusted with access to the supply chain, of course, but were I an Albanian, I got the distinct impression doors would be opened by the right money.

The United Nations in Albania have been battling illegal gun ownership for years.

With varying degrees of help and hindrance from the government, they have organised a series of arms amnesties.

If you're in trouble, and the police can't come to help you because they don't have a vehicle, then you can't really be blamed for wanting to hang on to a weapon for your own protection.

Lawrence Doczy
United Nations
In the most successful, villagers in the most remote mountain regions have presented police with donkey-loads (literally) of semi-automatic guns in exchange for deals on UN aid money which have rebuilt local schools and roads.

But changing Albanian hearts and minds on the gun issue is an up-hill battle.

"You can imagine yourself as a villager, isolated in the mountains, out of sight of the nearest house", says Lawrence Doczy, who is in charge of the United Nations' Small Arms Control Programme.

"If you're in trouble, threatened, and the police can't come to help you because they don't have a vehicle, then you can't really be blamed for wanting to hang on to a weapon for your own protection."

Protesters fire in the air during 1997 riots
Many guns found their way onto the streets in the 1997 unrest
The truth is that Albania's lawlessness is no longer a spiralling problem.

Criminal groups, whose stock-in-trade is people-trafficking, drugs and prostitution, as well as arms, are a threat mostly to each other. And the state of anarchy is only a (recent) memory.

Today's government in Tirana - in power only since last July - angles its ambitions fairly and squarely towards Brussels and potential membership of the European Union.

The only effective pressure to deal with illegal weapons, many argue, must come from Brussels. At the moment, according to the UN, there is no such pressure.

Poverty trap

Making a lot of money in a hurry remains the Albanians' national dream.

Tirana's chief of police, Ilirian Zylyftari, told me that with almost unabashed pride.

The only problem is that they are still prepared to take huge risks to make that money. The temptation of crime in a country in poverty and in flux remains enormous.

It will be a long time before the guns that accompany and perpetuate Albania's criminal economy are removed from dangerous hands.

See also:

19 Dec 01 | Europe
07 Dec 01 | Europe
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