More than just the tip in Albania

Corruption in the Balkans: Part 1

Living in the US, you get used to tipping for just about anything. If there is a hint of service in any transaction, you throw in 20% for good measure. When you travel, however, you need to get accustomed to new rules. In most countries, people will be tolerant with tourists when they do not understand the customs. In highly touristic areas, it's also common to find distorted customs, caused by American tourists who have changed expectations.

I was born in France, where nobody tips, and it's almost never expected. Employees are paid a wage and no matter how good the service is, you pay the same thing. After living in the US for 15 years, I've gotten used to tipping, I really appreciate the ability to reward a good service.

Now that I live in Albania, I've discovered yet another tipping culture. Here, employees are arguably not paid a fair wage, and tipping is not so common. While 20% is considered a good tip in the US, 5% will make people happy in Albania. They don't expect it, and will appreciate it. There is one place, however, where you would not expect to be tipping, but often find yourself encouraged to: the public administration.

For me, and most people in the West, the position of public servant implies a level of respectability and fairness. If something has a cost, you assume it is a fair cost, you assume the money goes into a register, accounted by the administration, and everyone paying that fee would get the same service. In Albania, you are encouraged (by locals) to give a little extra to state workers processing your documents. I tipped a lady at the local government office to file for marriage. On top of that, she kept the change for the fee, so she took about $20 extra for a 10 minutes operation. That's money that goes straight into her pocket, it's obviously not declared anywhere. I could not believe it, I gave her the money, she counted it, thanked me and moved on to other business. Since you want your document processed instead of being thrown into a bin, you suck it up. Light blackmail.

This is abuse of office. This is corruption.

I wasn't certain of this before, I didn't know whether I should be respectful of something that seemed to be part of the culture or just be outraged. I chose to be outraged despite bribery being part of the culture. A Kosovar critical of some Albanian bad habits told me once not to play by the customs and set a new standard, but trying not to take too much risk.

The libertarian in me is thinking that after all, this is just another form of taxation, but more granular. If you consider taxation an abuse of government, whether this is done by the "legal" government, its local warlords or their employees, it's really all the same theft. You could also squint and see the whole operation as commerce, and argue that they are offering a service (e.g. proper processing of your documents) and you are just paying for it. You are dealing with one person who could easily create a roadblock for you, and you pay to avoid that. However, there is no competition possible, the person taking the bribe is in a position of power, you have no option to go somewhere else and give business to someone else. You would need to form your own government in order to compete.

What's really frustrating–and that appear to be true in the whole Balkans–is that those in power, i.e. those who can fix this, are doing the same thing at a much greater level. It's $10 Leke for me, it's $10,000 for the local mafia warlord (also known as "The Mayor"), it's 10 million dollars for the national government. And I think this is why nothing is getting done in Albania, it is deeply ingrained in the landscape of the country. Everything halts to a grind because money is bleeding. Every dollar you spend only operates at a fraction of its capacity, because it has to fuel a parallel economy of theft and deceit.

Last updated: 2021-11-11 07:09:08 CET