Albanian deputy PM quits following videotaped bribe scandal

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Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha yesterday (17 January) appointed Nasip Naco as economy minister, after Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta's resignation on Friday. Meta said he wanted to fight allegations of corruption, after the release of a videotape appearing to show him lobbying for favours.

"I resigned from my government jobs to fight against the accusations made by the monster Dritan Prifti," Meta, who replaced Prifti as economy minister in September, told a news conference.

Meta's party is the minority coalition partner in Prime Minister Sali Berisha's government and is important for the country's political stability. Berisha said the two parties would continue to cooperate after Meta's resignation.

Last Wednesday Meta gave up his immunity from prosecution to allow an investigation of allegations of corruption made during a conversation filmed by then Economy Minister Dritan Prifti, a former ally who belongs to the same political party.

Corruption has bedeviled Albania's efforts to take the first steps toward membership of the European Union. Brussels refused last year to give Albania candidate status, urging Tirana to tackle corruption and other problems first, and has called for an investigation into the allegations against Meta.

Excerpts from Prifti's videotape show Meta, a former prime minister, entering Prifti's office at the economy ministry in March, and starting to give him orders on granting favours.

The video shows Meta asking Prifti to cancel a tender by state-owned Albpetrol to help another company take part, and to give a concession for a hydro-electric plant to another company despite an ongoing court review.

Berisha denounced the video, shown on a local television station, saying it was fabricated by the opposition Socialists. Meta dismissed the video as a "fabrication" and an "ugly political and moral bluff".

That line of defence appeared to weaken when Prifti showed the entire 13 minutes of the footage on primetime television on Thursday and added a number of potentially incriminating accusations against Meta.

"It was my duty to document the mafia-style pressure Ilir Meta has applied against me for more than a year, asking me to grant public tenders to whomever he chose. It was my duty to show what kind of mafioso I had to deal with," Prifti said.

"That man is the most corrupt person on Albanian soil. He has been stealing, accusing, threatening and cheating for 12 years. He has not been caught so far."

Listing a number of alleged abuses of public money, Prifti said Meta did not really want to sell the state-owned Albpetrol oil firm because he wanted to use its tenders for illegal profit.

He also said he had many more videos.

Natasha Butler, a spokesperson for EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, said that in the Commission's perspective, the accusations against Meta had not yet been confirmed.

She said that no EU money was involved in the alledged corruption case. She added that the Albanian government had no direct control over the spending of EU pre-accession funds under the IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance).

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

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Albania formally applied for EU membership in April 2009, but if its accession bid is to move forward it must tackle a number of issues: particularly political stability, economic reform and corruption (more: EU-Albania relations Links Dossier.

Albania became a potential candidate country for EU accession at the Thessaloniki EU summit in June 2003 and officially submitted its application for membership in April 2009.

Once it has evaluated the responses to a questionnaire aimed at determining Albania's readiness to join the EU, the European Commission will issue an 'opinion'. If it is positive and then endorsed by the EU Council of Ministers, the country will acquire official candidate status.

After Albania had officially requested to join the European Union, EU foreign ministers stated that they would return to the country's application once national elections had been completed in June 2009.

However, since the poll was held on 28 June 2009, the ruling Democratic Party of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the Socialist party of opposition leader Edi Rama have kept accusing each other of fraud.

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