20th Oct 2016


The protracted death of democratic Albania

Last year, Albania was hailed as "one of this year's most intriguing prospects" by the Financial Times. Two decades after the collapse of one of the most repressive and introverted regimes in the Communist bloc, and following millions of euros spent in assistance by the European Union, the country seemed to be in rude health, having been accepted into Nato in 2008 and with EU membership apparently moving into view.

Now, however, it seems that all that might have been blush on the cheeks of a dying patient. For the reality is that for two years, Albania has been politically paralysed by a stand-off between the centre-right government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the socialist opposition led by Edi Rama, until recently mayor of Tirana.

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  • Socialist opposition demonstrators in the albanian capital (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

It began in 2009, when the centre-right Democratic Party won elections over the Socialists in what few people think was an honest contest. The opposition then refused to take up their seats in parliament – and, once they did, took no part in legislative business – making Albania the only country in Europe without a formal relationship between government and opposition.

This year, the situation went from bad to worse, as opposition-led protests against the government turned violent, with four people killed. Local elections, including for the mayoralty of the capital, were marred by irregularities and a post-ballot legal process that most found questionable. After having observed the local elections and subsequent wrangling, the Danish ambassador to Albania said it was “against the very spirit of democracy and fair play.”

A government-controlled election body has now awarded victory in Tirana to the government-backed candidate, and the scene is set for further turmoil, possibly violence and certainly little progress in reforming the country’s institutions.

How have things been allowed to deteriorate this far? The answer lies primarily with the country’s politicians, in particular Berisha and Rama, who together have done more to destroy their country’s progress than any other post-Communist leaders in Europe. Their no-holds-barred rivalry leaves no room for compromise or even adherence to basic democratic rules.

For Berisha, control is paramount. From his office in central Tirana, he interferes in everything that goes on in the country, from the election of judges and the prosecution of cases down to what the newspapers write. The way ordinary people speak of the prime minister – as an all-seeing, all-interfering leader – is far from what is acceptable in modern Europe.

For Rama, the very idea of compromise – especially with Berisha – is abhorrent. His hatred of Berisha seems to be his central political platform. And so the two fight on, destroying the country they both claim to love. Freedom House now calls Albania only “partially free”. The South and East Europe Media Organisation, an NGO dedicated to promoting freedom of the media, has been “appalled by the large number of reporters and journalists allegedly attacked” by members of the Albanian police. And the Failed States Index this year put Albania in 121st place – higher than Bahrain.

Though both men are to blame for the country’s predicament, Berisha must take the lion’s share. No other individual has held such a sway over post-Communist Albania as he has. While a member of the Communist party, he called for democracy in the 1990s and went on to win the first freely-organised elections, only to be ousted in 1997. He returned to power in 2005 and now seems determined never to let it go. Having secured control over government, parliament and the mayoralty of Tirana, the signs are that he now intends to extend his control to the presidency. This would allow control over the few institutions yet to fall under his sway – principally the prosecutor-general and the intelligence service.

Why are ordinary Albanians willing to allow such de-democratisation? One reason could be that, unlike other former Communist states, ordinary people see in the EU nothing different from Albania. To one side, across the Mediterranean, is Italy, with its unique brand of game-show politics; to the south, over the mountain ranges, lies bankrupt Greece. If this is what it means to be an EU state, many Albanian politicians can be excused for thinking they already live in one, or should qualify for membership.

But the reason for complacency could also be that to most Albanians, what happens in Tirana does not concern them. Until shortly before World War One, Albania was governed from far-away Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, save for its most remote highlands. A national sense of identity was something only few people in middle-class circles worried about; to many and for many years, family and clans were more important. To a degree, this remains the case today.

If people do not resist their country’s regress, then the concentration of so much power under one party and one person should at least be met with howls of outrage by the EU. But it is not. European governments are distracted by their own troubles and other problems both in the region, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and neighbouring Kosovo, and elsewhere, including Libya. The inability of the opposition leader to ingratiate himself with European leaders has definitely played a part too. Add to this the fact that the Tirana government is protected by powerful neighbours who seem ever-ready to protect its Balkan friends from censure, and even by the United States, which has been willing to pay a price of internal turmoil for Albania’s external help in Kosovo, reasonableness vis-a-vis Serbia and non-interference in Macedonia.

Time might now be running out to ensure that Albania does not become a small enclave dominated by illiberal politics and bureaucratic dysfunctionality, together with Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a democratic Europe. But to avoid this scenario, the West must act decisively.

First, Nato. An alliance built on protecting and then furthering democratic ideals cannot allow a member to wilfully trample on basic democratic norms. A discussion must take place in the North Atlantic Council on Albania’s membership. The EU must call a halt to the country’s accession process. It must then spell out to Tirana the steps that need to be taken if it wants to re-start that process.

Albania’s people have endured hardship like no other in the Communist bloc, but have emerged with an entrepreneurial energy that is often more American than European. They deserve better than their vote-rigging leaders have offered. If European governments want a partner to do business with and a democracy to take root, they will need to take a more uncompromising stance with Tirana than they have done until now.

Dimitar Bechev is head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Sofia office


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