Supporters of the Democratic Party of Albania wave flags during a rally in Tirana. GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images
TIRANA — Albania may be struggling toward membership in the European Union. With the announcement Wednesday of the results in the first apparently clean election since the end of the communist era in this remote Balkan nation, the first step on the long and still potentially tortuous path into the European community has been taken.
The winner was the Socialist center-left coalition, led by longtime Tirana mayor Edi Rama — replacing the center-right coalition of incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who’s served for eight years as Prime Minister following five years as the titular president. These left-right political labels merely so much smoke, so to speak, from the bonfire of Balkan politics. After all, Berisha — who admitted to me in an interview in his office here days before Sunday’s balloting that he was for most of his early life a member of the ruling Albanian Communist Party — believes at once in a flat tax and universal health care (though there’s some considerable controversy over who’s going to pay for this). At the same time, Rama believes in a progressive income tax while the other principal member of his coalition holds onto his view of the flat tax. Don’t ask.
So far, the country has not seen the widespread rioting and multiple deaths that marred every previous vote. Not that there wasn’t some fear of a repeat. Even while voting was underway, there was an incident in a remote region of northern Albania, where blood feuds are still known to settle even the pettiest of squabbles, a Rama supporter was shot dead and two Berisha supporters were wounded in a hail of gunfire that erupted after an argument about just who was bribing which voters. And Luca Volonte, an Italian member of parliament who heads one group of election monitors — from the august Council of Europe — told me in the last days before the vote that he’d visited each major candidate and that the prime minister was the only one who’d pledged to retire gracefully if defeated.
So at first blush it appears that fears of a bloody repeat of the past may have been misplaced. Now, the talk is that a “clean” election (at least in Balkan terms) may grease the nation’s path toward its long lusted-after membership in the European Union — a principal campaign promise of all parties in this election campaign. And there certainly are enough parties — at least 66, by most counts. If Albania eventually wins entry into the E.U., it will likely be at the top of the list for the most politically fragmented nation on the continent. As one wag put it in an effort to explain this political diversity (or cacophony, depending on where you’re listening) “wherever you have three Albanians, you have five opinions.”
Of course, as Ettore Sequi, the European Union’s ambassador to Albania, pointed out, a host of hurdles still remains even after the country formally obtains its status as a candidate member, possibly as early as December. After all, Turkey has been an associate member of the E.U. and its predecessors since 1963, a candidate member since 1999 and has not yet managed to break into the E.U.’s very jealously guarded circle. Still, on July 1, Croatia is teed up to become a full member, which rankles Albanians no end. After all, they do share the same Adriatic coastline with the former Yugoslav republic, which became an independent nation seven months after its Balkan neighbor shook off its shackles of communist rule.
Perhaps chief among barriers keeping Albania out of the European Union is a legacy of the corrupt decades of communism when mandarins ruled a nation of serfs and did as they pleased with all but total impunity. Even today, many relics of that era linger on, not the least of which is a system of pervasive corruption beginning at every street corner. A few days after our arrival, my wife Pamela and I rented a car to drive up to the mountain village of Krujë, about 20 miles outside Tirana. At the first traffic light, we had a taste of the real Albania.
„“the real chaos, with a stupit and criminal police““
The signal turned green and I started forward, when suddenly, a black, top-of-the-line Mercedes, its windows totally blacked out, went speeding through the red light. I slammed on my brakes, avoiding disaster only by inches, and looked across. There, leaning casually against their patrol car, were two police officers, taking it all in without flinching. It was hardly the first time. Crossing the main boulevard in front of the Rogner Hotel in downtown Tirana, with the green walk sign clearly visible, a large BMW went hurtling through the light, again missing us by inches. This time, there were five officers and two patrol cars (it was at the corner of the building housing the Prime Minister and directly across from Parliament). None blinked. When I flapped my arms and shouted, two began laughing. There is no challenging today’s mandarin class.
The next day, I spent an hour with Prime Minister Berisha an asked him whether he was committed to rooting out corruption. “Absolutely,” he nodded solemnly. Then why not begin with one small gesture — stop the practices of the wealthy and well-connected running red lights with impunity? “Oh, my car never runs a red light,” he replied solemnly, admitting it was a problem. “We are installing cameras at intersections.” I pointed out that cameras were hardly essential when there are cars filled with police officers who fail to respond.
Berisha is now headed to what many believe is a much-deserved retirement. But few Albanians think much will change. Simply a new crew will elbow its way to the feed trough. For some time, Washington lobbyist and fixer Tony Podesta and his crew have been counseling the Albanian government on its image. Indeed, Berisha campaign rallies looked every inch as though they might have been uprooted lock stock and banner from a Clinton-Gore rally in Pittsburgh and plopped down in Tirana. But now there’s another Tony poised to step in — former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who’s a close confidante of Edi Rama. He’s also looking at a multi-million dollar contract. Welcome to the Balkans.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously..