One moment Albania is Lonely Planet’s “must-see” destination for 2011, a NATO member whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel into the European Union; the next, government forces are shooting and killing protesters on the streets and the British Foreign Office is warning visitors to avoid large crowds in Tirana.
Albania, which escaped a North Korea-style dictatorship in 1990 only to collapse violently in 1997, now teeters on the brink of another catastrophe.
Whether the country sinks back into internal conflict or claws its way back matters to Europe. Albania has recently been a force for peace in the Balkans, building links with old enemies like Serbia and leaning on ethnic kinsmen in Kosovo and Macedonia to opt for peace. The country’s troops work alongside fellow NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. A return to conflict would be bad for the Balkans, bad for Europe and bad for NATO.
The current crisis, however, has deep roots. Since 1992, none of Albania’s elections have been considered free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the election-monitoring body. Elections are fought as if they were battles, with armies swearing loyalty only to each other and not to any democratic process. Elections are the opportunity for politicians to destroy opponents and enrich friends.
The last elections, in June 2009, were no different. The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Edi Rama, protested against the results by boycotting Parliament. The boycott is still in force, robbing Albania of a peaceful outlet for disagreements.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sali Berisha has governed in a manner that has meant Freedom House now considers the country only “partly free,” the same status given to Abkhazia, Gambia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The sharp, policy-lite, personality-driven rivalry between Berisha and Rama has acted like a two-person saw, with the back-and-forth friction of each side cutting through the country’s institutions like saw through a plank of wood.
Take the issue of Albania’s 1998 Constitution. Three years ago Berisha and Rama cynically agreed on a sweeping set of reforms, which former President Alfred Moisiu said changed the document overnight. Both leaders must have thought they would stand to benefit from the changes. Now when it seems only one is benefiting, the other side cries foul. The pattern was repeated with the introduction of a new electoral code.
Corruption is perhaps the biggest problem. Albania’s 95th place out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index was a group effort. However, Berisha has refused to dismiss key allies facing indictments. An explosion at a military depot that killed scores of people forced the resignation of the then defense minister, Fatmir Mediu. He has since been re-elected, and the parliamentary immunity that he enjoyed before the resignation has been restored by the Supreme Court (he is currently Berisha’s environment minister). There are countless other cases among members of the political class across all parties.
The situation in the media is also bleak, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Media outlets are routinely considered to be politically partisan, and journalists remain subject to lawsuits, intimidation and physical attack. Last year a critical newspaper, Tema, was evicted from its offices despite a court order halting the action. Tema’s publisher was then beaten by the bodyguards of an oil magnate connected to the government.
After years of this kind of activity, Albania’s institutions are unsurprisingly a mess. Even the judiciary is a mess, as a political argument rages over whether or not six national guard commanders, wanted in connection with the killing of protesters, should be arrested.
Rather than stop and look at the damage they have caused, Rama and Berisha have sawed on. They both now seem willing to employ extra-institutional means to gain or retain power. Berisha accuses Rama of trying to “gain power through force” and orchestrating “a crystal clear attempt” to overthrow a legitimate government.
He now intends to bring his own demonstrators out onto the streets. Rama, on the other hand, protests that Berisha’s rule is itself undemocratic, and implies that only a Tunisia-style revolution can bring change to the country.
The European Union has in recent years focused its attention elsewhere in the Balkans. Now, however, the E.U. needs to make clear that Albania’s politicians must step away from the use of violence and end their destruction of the country’s institutions.
If not, then Albanians will lose their visa-free access to Europe and their country will forgo any serious chance of E.U. membership. Even the country’s NATO membership could be at risk.
To show her concern, Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s first high representative for foreign policy, should send a senior mediator to Albania. A commission of ex-presidents should be set up to investigate the recent violence. The international community should organize and run an extraordinary parliamentary election next year, sending an unambiguous message that Albania’s institutions are no longer trusted or capable of doing so themselves. A new government should be held to a concrete agenda for reform. That may finally stop Albania’s politicians sawing through the country’s institutions. If it doesn’t, the impact will be felt beyond the borders of Albania.
Daniel Korski, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.