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Albania: Youthful, fresh exciting and finding its feet in Europe

(Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Editor-at-Large Alistair Campbell has a suggestion: to anyone yet to book a holiday – try Albania

OK, let’s get the jokes and the insults out of the way … Albania.

Isn’t that the place where there is a statue to comedian Norman Wisdom because he is the only Westerner the Albanians have ever seen on their black and white tellies?

Do they actually have a government there, or is it just run by the Mafia? I mean, have you seen that Liam Neeson film, Taken? Drugs. Prostitution. Kidnapping. People trafficking. Nobody in their right minds would want to go to a place like that, surely?

First, on the crime front, whether out running first thing in the morning, or out walking late at night, on my many visits here, I have never felt remotely unsafe. As Prime Minister Edi Rama rather memorably told Boris Johnson, ‘if there are Albanian criminals in London, they are your criminals, not mine. Do the Americans say of the New York Mafia that they are Italy’s problem? I don’t think so’. He was responding to Johnson’s use of the threat of Albanian accession to the EU as one of his many dishonest referendum campaign tactics, warning that hordes of Albanian criminals would be heading from Tirana to join the millions of UK-bound Turks he also lied about.

As for Norman Wisdom, it is true former Communist dictator Enver Hoxa was something of a fan, believing Wisdom’s films – heaven knows why – to be class war parables. It is true also that when England’s football team played in Tirana in 2001, and Wisdom went to the training ground, cameras busy following David Beckham switched en masse to the comedian. When he was invited onto the pitch at half-time during the game, he wore a half-Albania/half-England strip. But though he was made an honorary citizen of Tirana, and then Prime Minister Sali Berisha issued a moving eulogy at the time of his death aged 95 seven years ago, I have yet to find the statue, which suggests to me it doesn’t exist, and yet to meet an Albanian who raises Wisdom in conversation without prompting.

Lord Byron, on the other hand … I have come across hotels and guest houses named after him in different parts of the country, and seen many images of him in traditional Albanian dress on restaurant walls. The poet travelled here extensively in the early 19th Century, and wrote fondly of people he compared ‘in dress, figure and manner of living to Scottish Highlanders,’ adding ‘their very mountains seemed Caledonian, with a kinder climate’.

Of course it can take a long time for historical legacies to be recast. But as we enter August, let me make a suggestion to anyone yet to book a holiday – try Albania. I have recommended it to many people before, several have taken me up on it, none has regretted it.

First, even with Brexit’s plummeting pound, it is cheap, whereas many more popular European destinations will see your sterling go a lot less far than it did before the Johnson/Farage/Dacre/Murdoch lies won the day. Second, the weather and the food are Mediterranean. Today, 32C degrees, with a nice light breeze. Third, though no scenery on earth will beat the Scottish Highlands for me, Byron was right that the more mountainous parts of Albania get very close. Fourth, there are some fantastic unspoilt beaches. Fifth, the people are really nice, and not least because of our role in standing up for the Kosovar Albanians during Serbia’s ethnic cleansing under the Milosevic regime, they tend to like Brits.

Ryanair, Easyjet and the like should take a look, and start to compete with the handful of British Airways direct flights each week – first world problems and all that, but my connections via Vienna and Rome are getting a bit tedious.

Most importantly, it is a country that feels young and hopeful at a time when so much of Europe – perhaps especially Brexit Britain – feels anything but. The Communist era ended in the winter of 1990/91, a full year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it has taken a while to make the steps that have led to it becoming a proper democracy, and developing an economy that can fit with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. But the energy to the place is palpable. It literally is a young country, with one of the youngest populations in Europe, an overhang of the lower life expectancy during the harsh Hoxa era.

As for my own involvement here, which now goes back six or seven years, Edi Rama told the story at a dinner last week, where he gathered a group of former Prime Ministers from around Europe, current World Bank advisers, academics, philanthropic organisations, development experts, and communications and strategy advisers, to discuss plans for his second term, having just secured an even bigger mandate than first time round four years ago.

Fair to say that Rama is a big fan of New Labour, of Tony Blair’s politics, and of our approach to strategy and communications. But when his press secretary Endri Fuga first contacted me on Facebook, and asked if I would advise them on campaigning, I went into polite ‘fob off’ mode. He kept pressing, and when I made the mistake of saying they should look me up the next time they were in London – a classic fob off move – he announced they were on their way.

We met, then Opposition Leader Rama, Fuga and I, in my home. It was impossible not to like them, nor to be seized of Rama’s ambitions for Albania and for the Balkans more generally. His back story was more interesting than most politicians – a former international basketball player, an accomplished artist – he doodles endlessly in meetings and publishes the outcome regularly – and former Mayor of Tirana. It is also a region that had interested me since the Kosovo conflict, and so we agreed to meet up in Tirana, and see whether we couldn’t find a way to work together. I can’t say it has made me rich. But they are generous hosts and the experience has enriched me hugely in other ways, not least emotionally and politically.

A bit like David Cameron, it has taken Rama two stages to get an overall majority. His first election campaign, under the theme of ‘renaissance’, led to a landslide win for the pre-election coalition he put together with a smaller party, LSI. This time, his Socialist Party, again fighting very much on a New Labour policy and positioning platform, has won all on its own, after a suitably tough campaign. This is a country where they serve their politics rare. The election almost never happened as the Opposition Democratic Party threatened to boycott the whole thing, and instead for weeks on end staged loud round-the-clock protests in a huge tent outside Rama’s office. Only some very clever and patient dealing got them to the starting line at all.

As a mental health campaigner, one of my early shocking experiences of the place was watching Sali Berisha stare into the camera covering his speech in Parliament, where he spoke directly to Rama’s mother and asked her when she was going to admit that her son had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic? She sued, but the court (they are notoriously corrupt, though Rama has judicial reform at the heart of his agenda) effectively ruled that politicians were allowed to say whatever they wanted about each other.

Ah, corruption … I think that would go along with Norman Wisdom and the Albanian Mafia in the lazy caricature of the country. It is a problem, certainly, as in many countries. But one that is being addressed, and if Rama succeeds in his plans for proper vetting of judges, a big dividing line in the recent election, it will be an incredibly important step forward, one that is being watched closely by the international organisations here to support Albania in its development.

There is a reason all these outside experts from around the world volunteered to come to Rama’s second term brainstorm. This is a really important, historically volatile, region, and he an important leader within it. Europe’s most serious leader, Angela Merkel, has taken a close interest and has played an active part in encouraging the rapprochement between Albania and Serbia. When the country’s respective Prime Ministers visited each other’s capitals, even in the wake of a violent football match between the two countries, when Albanian fans landed a national flag by drone on the pitch in Belgrade and set off a fight between the two teams which led to the match being abandoned, they were the first such meetings in sixty-eight years. The Pope has paid a visit, and though it is a Muslim country, a bust of him has been erected close to the PM’s office … sorry Norman.

Like any European country with optimism and hope for the future, Albania wants to be in the EU, and even the process of preparing for candidate status, and now for accession talks, has been an important driver of the change that is visible to any irregular visitor such as myself. Illegally built buildings have been demolished as a proper land registry is prepared; many gambling dens and cannabis farms shut down; an aggressive campaign to collect tax and prevent the theft of electricity is helping drive the economic numbers in the right direction. New hotels are springing up as the tourism market develops.

When I first met Rama, his other main advisor with Endri Fuga was Erion Veliaj, who in looks and energy has a touch of Justin Trudeau about him. He is now Mayor of Tirana, overseeing a stunning transformation of the city centre, with a huge pedestrianised plaza at its heart. Oh, and if there are any yummy mummies tempted by my hard sell, but who can’t imagine life away from their yoga mat, Veliaj has introduced free open air yoga classes in the main park by the lake, and literally hundreds of people are turning out for them. Meanwhile I am trying to persuade Great North Run supremo Brendan Foster to set up a Great Tirana Run, and the cycling world to go for a Tour d’Albanie. Great mountain stages guaranteed!

It is still a poor country by our standards. There are huge economic challenges ahead. But it really is a place on the move. Overseas investment is rising. There is oil and gas exploration going on. There are some big infrastructure projects under way. A new 23,000 capacity national stadium is starting to rise from the rubble of the old one, crumbling even when Wisdom and Beckham were there.

I advise you to get to know it. You will end up loving it as much as I do. Promise.

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