Albania, a nation of 2.8 million people, has seen its development stutter in the past three years due to political wrangling between the two major parties, the Socialist Party, led by Edi Rama and the current ruling party, the Democratic Party, led by current Prime Minister Sali Berisha. The country applied for EU candidate status in summer of 2009, the same year in which disputed elections pushed it into the longest political impasse in its history. The political crisis resulted in a legislative desert, since for any law to be passed would require a majority in parliament, a parliament boycotted by the Socialist party. A considerable amount of legislation relating to legal reform fell by the wayside as a result. Recent months have seen some political momentum return, notably the inauguration of a new president, Bujar Nishani. There have also been some steps forward in terms of fulfilling the 12 key priorities stipulated in the European Commission Opinion on Albania’s application for membership of the EU in 2010. This nation, blighted by corruption, legal nihilism and a weak economy, has only suffered further from the polemics of its political leadership.
Sparring between the two ruling parties shows little sign of abating. The issue of removing political immunity, a reform required by the EU in order to reduce corruption (for which the state is sadly notorious), is proving particularly challenging. Several international bodies have asserted the necessity of introducing this reform, including the EU, OSCE and US ambassadors in Tirana. Whilst both political parties agree with the idea in principal, there has been considerable debate as to the timeframe of introducing such reform. Whilst the Democrats were pushing for an August vote on the matter, on July 24 the Socialist Party made it clear that they would not vote on immunity before September, on the basis that this change would have an impact on other procedures, such as the appointment of judges and the attorney general. The fundamental fear of the Socialist Party is apparently the ‘potential abuse’ of the law by the Democrats. The Socialists are advocating waiting until September and then introducing the change with a raft of other reforms.
Berisha has used Rama’s refusal to countenance an earlier vote on immunity as a way of implying that the Socialists are attempting to safeguard legislation that would allow them to act with impunity. He has also cited the Socialist’s heel-dragging as a sign of their lack of commitment to the EU project and holds them squarely responsible for the state’s dilatory progress. On August 7, Prime Minister Sali Berisha received Mr. Luca Volont, the chairman of European People‚ Äôs Party group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In notes released on the meeting, Berisha had stated that: “over more than 5 years Mr. Rama blocked removal of immunity arguing that it must be realized through Constitutional amendments. When we accepted the removal of immunity through change of the Constitution and forwarded to the Parliament the Council of Europe and Euralius prepared-draft, Mr. Rama rejected to vote for it”. Rama countered these accusations by arguing that the “Socialist Party has done in this political year for European integration and for EU candidate status of Albania, more than any opposition has ever done before.” Apparently a referendum on the issue of immunity has now been agreed upon.
A political event of note to have occurred in the summer months was the election on June 11, of Albania’s fifth president, Bujar Nishani. This event could certainly not be heralded as a point of progress for the political establishment, given that the election of the former Interior Minister, was backed by the ruling right wing coalition, but boycotted by the Socialists. In June during talks with the General Director of the EU Enlargement, Stefano Sannino, Sali Berisha assured the EU official that the upcoming presidential elections were in accordance with constitutional norms and that there was majority backing for a consensus candidate Xhezair Zaganjori. The reality, however, was that the process of attempting to find a consensus candidate had ended in disarray. Back in May in the first round of voting, Zaganjori had been rejected by the Socialists who claimed they were not consulted on his candidacy. In the third round of voting he withdrew, as he wished to be elected as a consensus candidate only.
Indeed the new president has already been accused of partisanship, over changes in the secret service. On August 16, Bahri Shaqiri, the head of the intelligence services, was dismissed by Berisha and replaced with the deputy minister of innovation, Visho Ajazi Lika. The fact that President Nishani approved him without a public debate apparently provoked anger among oppositionists, particularly because prior to this dismissal Berisha had accused Shaqiri of colluding with the socialists, and pinpointed him as one of the plotters of last year’s violent attempt to overthrow the government. Ilir Gjoni, the vice chairman of the national security parliamentary committee and socialist MP, has voiced fears that Prime Minister has planted Lika within the security services in order to be able to manipulate its procedures for political gain.
A positive point to emerge from the slow summer months has been on the matter of electoral reform. In a rare sign of unity, and after several abortive attempts, on July 20 a new law reforming the electoral code was voted through, with 127 out of 140 votes. This piece of legislation, which was one of the main requirements for the state pressing towards EU candidacy status, is designed to put a stop to the contesting of election results which has stymied political development. The law on the new electoral code will institute changes in how the electoral commission is established, impose tighter controls on voter identification, and will see the introduction of electronic voting in a key district. Given that allegations of fraud (as a result of which the Socialists decided, in 2009, to boycott parliament) have dogged each Albanian election since the fall of communism, this move is a key advancement in improving transparency and due political process. The EU’s Ambassador to Albania, Ettore Sequi, hailed the vote as a “significant step forward”.
The path to EU candidacy has been rocky, and whilst any reform should be warmly greeted, much remains to be done. Regarding the aforementioned issue of political immunity, whilst it would represent a significant step forward in adherence to European standards, the US ambassador to Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, stated, following a meeting with Socialist leader Edi Rama, that: “We believe that lifting immunity is but one step of several that need to be taken to effectively combat corruption”. The country is hoping to achieve candidacy status by the end of this year. When Stefan Fule, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, visited at the start of May, he was positive in his outlook. ’2011 wasn’t the best year,’ he told Albanian MPs, ‘but now I feel the wind of change and I hope that this chance will become real by the end of this year’. His optimism was contingent, however, upon the Prime Minister’s ‘commitment for making the presidential election negotiable’ – in other words, finding a consensus candidate. Was the commissioner therefore disappointed with the results? When asked by the media he said flatly, ‘The presidential elections belong to the past. Now we have a President,’ before adding, ‘The clock can be heard as it is ticking away now, and the tasks are challenging.’ The European commission’s progress report will start in September.
Fule did of course also highlight matters which have, for many years, impeded Albania’s development, namely problems relating to the rule of law and human rights. The new president acknowledged the gravity of the former when he announced, upon his election, that reforming the justice system would be his priority. He announced: “I have decided to fully engage in favour of the reform of the legal system which remains a key factor in Albania’s integration in the European Union.” Since according to the Albanian constitution the president is the head of the legal system, appointing judges and prosecutors, he is well placed to make an attempt at doing so. Media sources have noted that in opinion polls, this area of administration is typically considered to be the most corrupt. A recent court case shed light on judicial malpractice. At the start of July, a court in the city of Fier handed down suspended sentences to three people accused of attempting to influence the verdict of a supreme court murder trial, which critics suggest shows how leniently the notion of a corrupt judiciary is treated. Albania’s General Prosecutor, Ina Rama, has continuously called for a constitutional amendment which would reduce the immunity of judges. In the country’s rural north, where poverty is rife and infrastructure underfunded, there has, in recent years, been a resurgence of the Kanun (a code developed by Leke Dukagjini, a 15th century prince). This offers an eye-for-an-eye justice system, resembling the Italian vendetta. This has been taken as a possible indication that people have little faith in the rule of law as offered by the state apparatus.
This was a point recently emphasised by the US Ambassador Alexander Arvizu, on a trip to Elbasan, who made the importance of trust in state mechanisms clear in terms of its overtures towards Europe. “This mistrust has had a direct effect in the country’s failure to obtain EU candidate status”, said the ambassador. Another issue reflecting the state’s problematic relationship with European standards of freedom and civil rights is that of the independence of the press. Following a meeting with the Albanian parliament’s Media and Education Commission, the OSCE Commissioner for the Media, Dunia Miatovic, underscored the fact that slander remains in the penal code, which means that journalists and media outlets are often liable for large fines for expressing critical opinions about those in power. Another problem noted by the Commission was that state advertising space tends to be monopolised by the powers that be, meaning that citizens are subsidising a biased media rather than an independent one. It was also recommended that a National Council of Radio and Television be established.
One area in which the current government can be relieved that it is making relative progress is that of economic transparency. In the 2011 Economic Freedom of the World Report, released in August and entitled ‘Socialism Destroys Wealth, Economic Freedom Leads to its Creation’. Albania had leaped up from 93rd position to 12th as a result of greater economic freedom. The country was compared directly with BRIC aspirant South Africa and fared better than the sub-Saharan nation on many indices, which cover a ten-year period. Albania impressed in terms of emphasising economic freedom in its reforms and in terms of lower general government consumption expenditure for Albania (10.43% of GDP as opposed to South Africa’s 25.53%). These reflect long-term changes; what has proved testing for the state is the recent economic crisis, which has been extremely cruel to Balkan nations. Just this week an analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit noted that the Balkan transition economies, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia suffered the most from the global recession of 2008-09. Real GDP in the Balkans contracted by 5.2% in 2009 and the recession lasted into 2010, with average GDP falling by 0.4%. Albania is particularly vulnerable as it relies heavily on remittances, and two thirds of its migrants work in debt-stricken Greece. With debtors Italy and Greece being its main trading partners, the state has suffered considerably from their financial quagmires.
Given the rough and tumble of the European markets, Albania has in some respects actually demonstrated some tenacity. According to state statistics, in 2011, the Albanian economy increased by 3.1% compared to 2010. In the fourth quarter of 2011, the economy grew by 3.8% compared to the same period in 2010 and in the third quarter, 2011 it increased 0.1%, according to INSTAT. Prime Minister Sali Berisha also claimed this week that over the summer tourism has increased substantially compared with one year ago, with 277,000 more visitors. This has in turn created 190,000 jobs in this sector. Whilst it might be tempting to take these figures as clear signs of potential, a problem is the source of such statistics. The Socialist opposition persistently claim that any figures released by INSTAT are likely to have been massaged considerably by the ruling party. On the tourism boom, Edi Rama challenged the INSTAT figures saying that the numbers of vacationers had manifestly declined. The two factions have also clashed over unemployment statistics. The Socialists believe that the number of unemployed in Albania has reached 1 million people, a claim which Berisha refutes. A source of particular contention is the number of farms in rural areas that have near subsistence level output. Accessing something resembling the ‘true’ statistics whilst there is political capital to be gained from their manipulation remains extremely difficult.
If a lack of transparency mars our understudying of the economic data, then the same can be said of most areas of the Albanian political process. It is clear that until politicians relinquish their thirst for dispute, the country’s progress will be continually stymied by divisions. The need for some sort of consensus not only over reforms but, crucially, how and when these will be instituted is clearly needed if the country is to progress towards its ostensible aim of gaining EU candidacy status. According to the president, 90% of Albanians citizens support this and it would certainly be in the interest of the populace to pursue this trajectory.
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