As a country with fewer than 2 million people, Albania has been on the Unites States’ radar as it continues to become a growing democracy. But it wasn’t always this way. It has been 27 years since Albania was a communist country. Since then, it has struggled to overcome corruption and the influence of organized crime that began to build in the 1990s.
The U.S. has been in Albania since then, trying to help the country overcome its issues and maintain stability in order to get on the right path toward becoming part of the European Union.
So how is the U.S. doing this? Enter Jon Smibert. Smibert is the Resident Legal Advisor for Tirana Albania in the Criminal Division at the Justice Department. He has helped Albania revise its constitution and reform its criminal justice system. He is also a finalist in the National Security and International Affairs category for the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, or SAMMIES — an award that recognizes and celebrates remarkable work in the federal government. Smibert recently sat down with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER to discuss his work in Albania.
Smibert began as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta and Cleveland in the mid 1990s. When the opportunity came up to become a resident legal advisor, Smibert first found himself in Kosovo, which at the time, was going through a process of declaring independence from Serbia.
Smibert came to Albania in 2014. His job was to help the country address its issues of corruption and organized crime influence on courts and prosecutions on its justice system. From a U.S. perspective, “there’s a great deal of connections,” Smibert said. These include organized crime connections — not just with the United States but also with Europe. “The Department of Justice wants its partner countries to have good law enforcement, good prosecutors and good courts,” Smibert said.
Albania struggled with overcoming internal desires to keep things the way they were. A survey found that 25 percent of judges were admitting to corruption in their courts. Half of them admitted to being influenced inappropriately by other sources for their decisions. Albania had the lowest rate of prosecution of serious crimes in Europe. People were losing faith in the courts and prosecutions. This is where Smibert stepped in to reconfigure the systems and help Albanians regain trust in their justice system.
He was appointed by the Albanian parliament as one of its experts and advisers. Smibert helped moderate negotiations between the parties and propose solutions when those negotiations stalled. He also helped create a commission that aimed to renew and reform the systems. Recently, the country instituted a vetting commission with 27 people appointed — a week before Albania’s national elections. This ensures that judges and prosecutors will be vetted for their ties to corruption, organized crime and the wealth they got from corruption.
In his time there, Smibert helped change 58 amendments, or about one third of the Constitution. “It was a lot [about] giving them the ideas [and] the language that might work and match with European standards, and what [would] match with what they’re trying to do,” Smibert explained.
Currently, Albania is a candidate country, where they still need to go through a number of steps until they make it as an EU member.
“I think the seriousness of what they’re trying to do in a country that’s pretty well-known for political divisiveness is a pretty amazing step,” Smibert said. “It’s simply an honor to be in a country that’s trying to take these steps and help them go to that point.”
When asked to reflect back on his career, Smibert offered a few lessons. “Don’t plan your whole life ahead of yourself because the opportunities never follow the path you think,” he advised. “Be prepared and take advantage of opportunities that might come your way.”