Critics see echoes of Albania’s feared Communist-era ‘Sigurimi’ in the discovery of a database that purportedly belongs to the ruling Socialists and contains detailed personal data of almost a million voters, each of them assigned to a party apparatchik often on the public payroll.
The contents of a database leaked last week and reportedly belonging to Albania’s ruling Socialist Party indicates that the party has an army of roughly 9,000 officials engaged in monitoring individual voters, many of them while on the public sector payroll.
The existence of the database, reported on news website Lapsi.al, has sent shockwaves through Albania ahead of an April 25 parliamentary election; it contains the names of 910,000 voters in the Tirana region, along with detailed personal data including place of work and voting record in what critics say amounts to a massive tracking system.
For each voter, a party official known as a ‘patronazhist’ – derived from the French patronage – is assigned.
A BIRN analysis of the data suggests that many of these patronazhists are employed in the public sector, including central and local government entities and state utility companies dealing, for example, with water and electricity supplies.
Some appear to be members of the National Guard, state police and army, who by law would be prohibited from engaging in party politics.
Likened by the opposition to agents of Albania’s Communist-era Sigurimi, the Socialist Party says the patronazhists are regular party activists simply working to get out the vote and that the database is standard practice for any serious political party.
But concerns have been voiced about whether the Socialists are using state resources for political ends and exploiting detailed personal data obtained from state institutions to coerce voters. It raises questions about the separation of party and state and the creation of a professional public administration – key conditions for Albania’s further integration with the European Union.
The database includes information about the ethnicity, religion and health of voters and the employment status of family members.
Some citizens are referred to as ‘black hand’, a pejorative term used for Roma or Egyptians in Albania, while one elderly voter is identified as needing incontinence pads and so perhaps unable to get to a polling station. “We will lift her by her clothes,” the assigned patronazhist wrote in the ‘comments’ column.
“This is a scandal in which the citizen sees himself as powerless before a system of blackmail and patronage promoted by the prime minister,” said Afrim Krasniqi, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Tirana.
“If among those party officials there are also army or police officers, then this is also a threat to national security,” he told BIRN. “In a NATO member country, military or police resources cannot be used for the surveillance of citizens or political critics.”
Echoes of ‘Sigurimi’?
Prime Minister Edi Rama, who is bidding for a third consecutive term as prime minister in the upcoming election, has scrambled to deflect criticism of the party’s practices, telling his supporters that the existence of such a database is “normal” and that the patronazhists are simply activists who “knock on doors to ask for votes.”
Party ally and Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj said he was “grateful” to those who “obtain information and present the [party] program.”
President Ilir Meta, however, called them “fuks”, a pejorative term used in Albania during the Communist era to identify those who spied for the feared secret service Sigurimi.
An online app has been created to help citizens identify who is ‘spying’ on them while a ‘name-and-shame’ campaign has been launched.
The database seen by BIRN contains the names and personal data of 910,061 people in the Tirana region, the biggest and most important electoral battleground. The eldest person in the database was born in 1922, the youngest at the end of 2002.
The database appears to be based on the electoral roll, with additional information added such as phone numbers and places of work. It includes information on the party for which each individual voted in the past and how they are likely to vote in the next election.
BIRN was able to identify 9,027 patronazhists, or roughly one for every 100 voters.
Many of them work in the public sector; some 300 are employed in the municipality of Tirana and many others in the municipality offices of other smaller towns in the region such as Kavaja, Kamza and Rrogozhina.
Many others are employed in municipal enterprises, which are notoriously overstaffed. Around 30 work at the municipal tax office of Tirana and some 150 in the capital’s water and sewage utility. Even the municipal funeral service, which manages Tirana’s cemeteries, boasts patronazhists.
The opposition and some members of the public say they believe the data originated in the National Agency of Information Society, AKSHI.
A number of Albanians living in the United States said they had found their US phone numbers in the database and noted that they had submitted the numbers to the AKSHI when applying to renew their Albanian passport from abroad.
AKSHI has denied it is the source of the data, stressing that it is merely an interface for services offered by other state agencies. Rama and other Socialist officials have denied stealing data from the agency.
Notably, seven of the names listed as patronazhists match with the names of people employed at AKSHI. There are dozens working in other sensitive sectors such as the National Tax Directorate. There are even kindergarten staff members among them.
These patronazhists delve into private matters of the voters they are assigned, noting in the database whether, among other things, a person is in poor health or belongs to a certain religion. In two cases, voters are marked as ‘LGBT’.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Despite the claims of Rama and Veliaj, the ‘comments’ column shows that the patronazhists do far more than simply present the party program to voters.
In dozens of cases, there are references to ‘TIMS’ as the source of information, TIMS being the electronic registry of the Ministry of Interior that is used to keep track of who crosses Albania’s borders. Access to TIMS data is strictly limited to law enforcement bodies.
BIRN matched the names of dozens of patronazhists with employees of Albania’s police force, though there is no concrete evidence in the database that these particular individuals exploited their access to TIMS data.
In a response to BIRN, the Ministry of Interior said it was unaware of any Socialist Party activists among its ranks, but stressed that police officers are prohibited by law from joining or working in any form for a political party.
It cited an ongoing investigation by prosecutors in declining to comment further. At least 29 names also matched those of people working in the Albanian Armed Forces.
BIRN contacted the State Police, the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence but received no responses. Rama’s spokesperson also did not respond to a request for comment.
Alban Dafa, a researcher on security and governance at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation, a Tirana-based think tank, said the database should be looked at in the context of Albania’s totalitarian past, when, according to data obtained by BIRN, the Sigurimi operated a network of spies that in the early 1980s number some 14,000 in a country of – at the time – 2.5 million people.
“This is a parallel system of information collection outside of official channels,” Dafa told BIRN. “It is concerning when you see that – according to the information published in the media – even the country’s intelligence chief has been marked by a patronazhist.”
“If some of them are officers of the Armed Forces or police, that also indicates the politicisation of these institutions. I do believe a parliamentary inquiry is needed to assess the nature and the scale of the problem.”