The Balkan country’s emergence from its own peculiar brand of communism has been long and faltering. STAN ABBOTT visits and finds a people still yearning for a brighter future
You don’t have to spend long in Albania to get the feeling that, never mind Groundhog Day, this is Groundhog Country. Recurring protests are an ever-present feature.
The latest involved students demonstrating against fee increases and demanding improvements in the education system. They got their scalp, with the sacking of education minister, Lindita Nikolla, but the next round of protests never seem far away.
Indeed, repeated student demonstrations are no more than bookends to other protests, with recent direct action by interests as diverse as anti-road campaigners, miners, opposition parties, small business owners, oil companies and groups from the Albanian diaspora.
The backdrop to all these demonstrations is the habitual allegations of corruption in public life and of politicians being in the pockets of international drug traffickers and worse.
Genc Sejko, an Albanian living in the UK, has been the unofficial leader of diaspora protests, and the demands of his group, under the slogan Nën një flamur (‘Under one flag’), seem to encapsulate the sentiment behind many of the demonstrations. Albanians abroad – as well as those back home – demand a homeland in which all citizens might flourish, without the young and ambitious having to seek their fortune overseas.
Prime minister Edi Rama has been sufficiently rattled by the recurring protests to sack half his government. He is the former mayor of the capital, Tirana, and his Socialist Party led a centre-left coalition to power in 2013
on a promise of ending corruption and graft. But these days, weary Albanians ruefully reflect that they’ve heard it all before.
Ever since the fall of communism, it is corruption allegations that arrive like buses, weakening the rule of law in a country whose reputation across the rest of Europe obscures its many extraordinary natural and other assets.
Against this familiar backdrop Monika Kryemadhi, chairman of the small but vocal opposition party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, recently chose the website European Interest to launch an impassioned plea to EU politicians to help Albania exit this vicious circle by giving the green light to accession talks later this year.
‘Since Albania was granted a candidate country status in 2014, the process has decelerated,’ she wrote. ‘Today we are faced with an unpredictable process, lacking a clear road map, which makes our European prospects appear less tangible.’
While former Soviet Bloc countries, most notably Poland and the Baltic states, seem to have enjoyed a relatively frictionless move into the European mainstream, Albania’s journey after the fall of the isolationist Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, was never going to be easy. And it got worse in the late 1990s when pyramid investment schemes, some government-sponsored, collapsed, costing many citizens their savings and leading to the temporary collapse of law and order.
However, Albania joined Nato in 2009 and its citizens have enjoyed visa-free travel to the Schengen countries since late 2010 – achievements for which
the centre-right, which ruled for a time early this century, never tires to claim credit.
Currently the country receives 1.2 billion euros of pre-accession development aid annually from the EU and yet, despite broad commitments to start negotiations as recently as last summer, it remains – with the Republic of Northern Macedonia – the only candidate state not to have at least begun that process. Even ‘forgotten’ Turkey is ahead on that criterion.
But Kryemadhi senses an easing of momentum for expansion in Brussels. ‘EU commitment to enlargement policy appears to be waning, under the pressure of Brexit, migration, and terrorism, which dominate the political agenda,’ she writes. ‘And yet, Albania is at the crossroads, in urgent need of EU support.’
This support is essential, she says, to help Albania to build strong social and democratic foundations; to weaken ties between the state and organised crime; to bring transparency into government contracting; to complete planned infrastructure improvements.
She concludes: ‘Albania needs a green light as well as a tough merit-based process, not only for the sake of the result but also for the catalytic role of the accession talks in its own right.’
There is another reason why the EU might be mindful of goings-on in the Balkans. Some in Albania accuse the EU of ‘pampering’ Serbia at Albania’s expense, and effectively seeking to fast-track Serbian accession, aware that Russia is playing a much lower-key but possibly more effective game.
As Michael Birbaum, the Washington Post’s Brussels bureau chief, puts it: ‘Across Serbian life, the Kremlin has been expert at finding ways to attract friends and good publicity at bargain prices.’
Recent Russian tactics have included the gifting of half a dozen MiG fighters, but – perhaps more importantly – it has stepped into the disputed territory of Kosovo as a ‘mediator’ to help resolve the long-running question of sovereignty, an area in which Nato and EU have largely failed.
But Roland Bejko, a city councillor with the opposition right-leaning Democratic Party in the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra, pooh-poohs the idea of EU favouritism towards Serbia.
‘Any one of the Albanian officials who says the EU is unilaterally favouring Serbia in the European accession process, simply wants to justify the failure of the Socialist government,’ he says. ‘I am convinced that each country is evaluated for the reforms and measurable achievements by approaching the fulfilment of the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, which define whether a country is eligible to join the EU.
‘Unfortunately, the Albanian government is far from fulfilling these criteria, and as such I do not believe that the eurocrats will be sympathetic towards starting the accession negotiations in June.’
Kosovo too is a complicating factor, as it is one that is very close to Albanian hearts: most Kosovars are ethically Albanian and speak Albanian, and Albanians continue to celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the League of Prizren in 1878, whose aspiration is the realisation of a notional ‘greater Albania’ uniting all peoples sharing language and ethnicity.
And so a low-grade tussle continues, as Albania plans to scrap all trade barriers and tariffs with Kosovo by the middle of this year, Kosovo has slapped high tariffs on what it claims are heavily subsidised goods from Serbia destined for the Kosovar Serbian minority.
The EU appears powerless to intercede, perhaps for fear of upsetting Serbia, but also because a number of EU states have not followed the European parliament, which called on all members to recognise Kosovo as long ago as 2010.
Into this vacuum have stepped some individual EU members, offering help to Albania in developing its infrastructure. Germany is a major benefactor, but, on a smaller scale, Slovenia is lobbying hard for its Adriatic near-neighbour to begin accession talks this summer, while Bulgaria has pledged practical assistance in the process.
Perhaps more significant are the activities of Turkey and China. Ankara says its investments in Albania total 2.5 billion dollars and Turkish interests are in place to build a controversial new airport on the Albanian riviera, at Vlorë, while Turkish money is behind the latest faltering attempts to set up a national airline.
Beijing sees in Albania a country rich in minerals and with immense tourism potential and its investment in the Balkan country today is probably at its most significant since China was
just about Enver Hoxha’s only international friend.
So where does this leave Western economic interests? There are clear signs that the country’s undoubted tourism potential holds the key. At a recent tourism investment conference in Tirana, there was a mood of general optimism, epitomised by the announcement that Marriott was among international brands moving in. It will develop a five-star hotel in Tirana, while there are other significant coastal developments planned, by companies such as Hilton, Hyatt and Best Western.
‘This year Albania has had its best tourist season, with six million visitors,’ prime minister Rama told delegates, with the assurance of a man who believes he can ride out the latest political storms. That equates to 6% revenue growth against 4% GDP growth.
He and others set out a coherent policy framework for the industry, with an emphasis on sustainable development, backed by a re-energised rail network and other new infrastructure, alongside exploitation of the country’s rich culture and cuisine, spectacular mountains, dramatic coastline, turquoise lakes and remarkable Roman and Ottoman World Heritage Sites.
On the face of it, the ‘100 Villages’ programme – a state-sponsored initiative that encourages rural development by bringing together both local mayors and five government departments – sets out an impressive model of cooperation to deliver sustainable tourism to the benefit of local communities. However, Bejko scoffs: ‘It’s yet another half-baked idea which has only been implemented in a few villages, which happen to be the home villages of members of the current government.’
Gillian Gloyer, author of the Bradt guide to Albania, which remains the only commercially published English language guide to the country, is a committed Albanophile who has learned the language and spends much of her time in the country. But she shares the widespread sense of resignation in the face of what she sees as worsening corruption in some areas, and a readiness to slay the goose that lays the golden eggs by sanctioning environmentally damaging schemes.
‘I think corruption is at a much higher level now than it was, say, ten years ago. In my view, the most visible examples of this government-level corruption include the rush to grant hydroelectric concessions on the country’s most unspoiled rivers, including some that are actually in National Parks.
‘On the Valbona River, for example, 12 hydroelectric plants are planned – without the environmental impact assessments that the EU would usually require.’
However, Stela Dhami, managing partner in the Tirana office of Colliers International, the global real estate and investment management company, is more upbeat: ‘There is a strong motivation in the country to ensure that international standards of doing business and process are followed and to put clear water between the present and some of the more difficult past.
‘Albania is opening up even more to international markets by the attraction of international brands who bring with them international standards and expertise, much needed in a developing economy.’
There have been false dawns for a people who’ve had more than their share of disappointment, but if the government could actually deliver on what one delegate to the recent conference described as ‘the clearest message I have heard… on destination development in many years’; and if the EU might bring itself actually to begin accession talks this year, then there just might yet be hope of reversing the migration flows and helping the country develop.
Sadly, both the if and the but still feel daunting.
EMERGING FROM COMMUNISM’S LONG SHADOW
Communist leader Enver Hoxha comes to power
Albania breaks ties with Yugoslavia and begins receiving Soviet aid
British and US back landings by right-wing guerillas who fail to topple Hoxha
Albania becomes a founder member of the Warsaw Pact
An ideological rift with the USSR sees Albania ally itself with China
Albania is declared the world’s first atheist state, with a violent clampdown on religious activity
The country withdraws from Warsaw Pact over crushing of Prague Spring
China’s reconciliation with the US strain relations with Albania and aid from Beijing comes to an end
Hoxha dies and is replaced by Ramiz Alia
Alia signals changes to the economy as communist rule collapses in eastern Europe
The communists and their allies win multi-party elections; opposition protestors are killed
The Democratic Party is elected
Restoration of the monarchy is rejected in a referendum; fraudulent pyramid investment schemes collapse, triggering protests; government resigns and socialist coalition takes over
Unrest in Kosovo sends refugees into Albania
Albania takes first step towards EU membership
George Bush becomes first US leader to visit Albania
Albania joins Nato and formally applies for EU membership
EU rejects request for candidate status by eases visa requirements for Albanians
European Commission recommends Albania as candidate for EU membership
PM Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade to mend bridges fails and ends in public row over Kosovo
EU accession talks mooted for June, amid fears the process is stalling