Stop Albania's Self-Destruction

By Daniel Korski

This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune

One moment Albania is Lonely Planet’s “must-see” destination for 2011, a NATO member whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel into the EU; the next, government forces are shooting and killing protesters on the streets, and the Italian government is warning visitors to avoid 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. Its 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, few of its elections has been considered free and fair by the OSCE, 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.

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 Abkazia, 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’s pulls cutting through the country’s institutions like a plank of wood. Take the issue of the country’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. When it seems only one is benefitting, the other side cries foul. As a result, the country’s constitution now divides rather than unites people.

This pattern was repeated with the introduction of a new electoral code. The changes were not debated in the Parliament’s Commission on Electoral Reform and were pushed through at break-neck speed.

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, Prime Minister 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 defence minister, Fatmir Mediu. He has since been reelected, 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 others 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 attacks. Last year, the authorities evicted a critical newspaper, Tema, from its offices in a state-owned building despite a court order to halt the action. Then an editorial in a paper seen as close to the ruling Democratic Party called for the murder of Mero Baze, Tema’s publisher. A few months later, Baze was beaten by oil magnate and Berisha associate Rezart Taci and his bodyguards, after the journalist accused Taci of tax evasion on his TV show.

After years of this pulling at the saw from each side, Albania’s institutions are unsurprisingly in tatters. On Sunday, the judiciary suffered a further blow when Berisha said that the Albanian police would refuse to abide by an order from country’s prosecutor general to arrest six commanders of the national guard. They were wanted in connection with the killing of protesters, but Berisha argued that the prosecutor general was biased in the opposition's favour. The police, meanwhile, are now seen as instruments of power by the opposition.

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 and implicitly threatens to use the military. 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 elsewhere in the Balkans. Now, however, the EU needs to make clear that Albania’s politicians need to step away from the use of violence and end their destructive sawing through 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 EU membership. Even the country’s NATO membership should be at risk.

Lady Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is now sending an envoy, former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, to mediate in the dispute. He should push for the parties to and agree an end to the protests and reforms for a new constitutional set-up that is not so open to majoritarian abuse and encourages consensual politics. A commission of ex-presidents should be set up to investigate the recent violence. Local elections, planned for May, should be postponed. And once the new constitutional set-up has been agreed, an extraordinary parliamentary election should be called for next year, organised by the international community. This would send 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 EU-inspired 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.