Friday, June 03, 2011

Albania’s political crisis, a deadlock in the way of European integration

Author : Alba Cela

Recommendations for EU involvement in Albania


On May 10th the observing mission of OSCE/ODHIR called the local elections process of May 8th in Albania “competitive, transparent”[1] and admitted that the Election Day was relatively calm. However they emphasized once again the aggressive climate of the electoral campaign which marked the process and influenced some of its problems. Few could believe that after one of the most violent and incident prone campaign that Albania has seen in roughly twenty years of democracy, a normal election day would follow. However that did not turn out to be good news either since A very slow counting process followed raising political tensions especially in the two largest cities, Tirana and Durres. The final decision of who is going to be Tirana’a mayor stands now on the hands of the Electoral College, the highest authority to decide on electoral issues, since the Central Election Committee reversed the first results which gave Edi Rama, current opposition leader and mayor, a thin victory of plus ten votes. In a disputed process contested by the opposition members at the CEC, part of the votes cast in the capital were recounted and gave a preliminary victory to the other contender, Lulzim Basha. Protesters including MPs camped outside the CEC gates for days and the tensions have brought Albania as the Economist argues “on the brink of a return to violence.”[2] With the rationale that given the ongoing situation there can be no fruitful discussions about Albania’s EU integration, President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule cancelled their scheduled visits to Tirana.

A two year long crisis yet to be solved

On January 21, four people were shot dead at the gates of the Prime Minister’s office in Tirana, they were part of a protest that had turned out violent during the later part of the day. An investigation was launched and foreign experts were called to assist the Attorney General’s office. This has been the most dramatic culmination of a two year long political crises in Albania. At the core of this crisis stands the refusal of the Albanian opposition to acknowledge the results of the parliamentary elections of June 2009, a refusal based on claims that large scale fraud and intimidation occurred during Election Day. The opposition tried to advocate for its requests for complete post-election transparency with a variety of ways including parliamentary boycott as well as a 200 person hunger strike in the capital’s boulevard. They backed down on the strike with the involvement of EU high level officials who tried to secure negotiations between Edi Rama and Sali Berisha, negotiations which were limited to a dinner and otherwise have failed.

This ongoing crisis has polarized the society into aggressive division lines pro and against the ruling majority and coalition. Most importantly this crisis has paralyzed the work of the parliament regarding important law that have to be passed with a 2/3 majority, laws that are required to progress in the path of integration. The violent incidents that augmented disproportionably with the electoral campaign of this April have also been a negative mark on Albania’s democratic performance. Incidents of the campaign included: wounding of the Inspectorate of Construction director, explosive blast in the houses of political party activists and in the electoral tents, a stabbing of a teenager, weapon rivalry between flag carrying militants and confrontation between police and MPs again few meters from the PM office. These are not minor incidents and the OSCE has immediately issued reports that the campaign is being conducted in such a way that the number of incidents has increased even compared to elections done in much earlier times.[3]

The international factor has invested heavily in sending messages to both political sides to tone down the rhetoric, to collaborate about the reforms and to solve this impasse for the sake of the country’s European future. In a joint statement the President of the Parliamentary Union, the President of the and Hungary’s president criticized the Western Balkans for a problematic halt of reforms and mentioned specifically the two year political crisis in Albania as one of the factors.[4]

The burdens of the past, the challenges of the present

As Bernd Fischer a well known scholar on Albanian history observes, “The most brutal aspects of the Hoxha regime are long gone […] , But some aspects of its authoritarian rule live on: the elite’s general disregard for the well-being of the people and for the best interests of the state, brutal and intolerant politics, and the lack of a rule of law. These have obstructed the path to Albania's self-declared goals of establishing a functioning democracy, a sustainable market economy, and Euro-Atlantic integration.”[5]

The communist regime is not to be forgotten when accounting for recent political developments that would otherwise show an inexplicable lack of democratic culture. Yet the 50 years under totalitarian rule do not account for everything. Albania stepped on the track of reforms and has achieved some positive records such as membership into NATO and the granting of a visa-free regime. Some would argue that these achievements are less due to Albania’s progress than due to geopolitical interests of other parties involved, however this would obstruct the reality that does show improvement signs.

Elections however have always been a problem. The first case in which a normal rotation of power was realized was in 2005, when the Socialist PM Fatos Nano stepped down peacefully, 14 years after the downfall of the communist regime. That was the first and the only case. Albania hence has failed to go through ea series of accepted elections and rotations of power which would install a sustained climate of stability.

The strength of the political crisis has shown its effects with serious ramifications throughout the Albanian society. The Albanian media has suffered from attempts to control its activity from both parties in a dispute about using ready-made cassettes that cover campaign activities. The Media Monitoring Board and the Central elections Committee passed back and forth confusing statements and memos about the compulsory use of these cassettes exerting pressure on several TV channels. The polarization and aggressive debate fueled by the crisis has resulted in negative outcomes for the media.

Some implications in the economy are already present. There is nothing that scares away foreign investment more than political instability. As Andi Balla argues in a recent editorial in Tirana Times, more negative effects are to be expected for tourism this summer.[6] If the political crisis lingers on for too long more and more Albanians will suffer from the economic side effects resulting in more restless youth ready for more incidents, a vicious cycle of violence in-the-making.

Security aspect

Loss of lives during protests and grave incidents threatening citizens’ lives during electoral campaigns make Albania resemble Middle Eastern and North African states with disreputable systems and lack of democracy. The fact that the lives of citizens are being endangered by what should have been normal political processes raises severe doubts about the country’s general security situation. The same applies to better and more sophisticated approaches to civil emergencies when there is a potential risk for the institutions. There is a need to draft clearer responses to different degrees of danger and hence apply a more proportional response. Until complete transparence of events is made security analysts and policy makers will lack the necessary information to analyze the scenarios and draft appropriate responses to them.

The performance of the state actors responsible for maintaining order has been praised by ambassadors[7] and other international actors with the exception of the incident where the head of the Police delayed the execution of the Attorney General’s arrest order for the soldiers accused of being responsible for the January 21 deaths.

The International actors have invested heavily both in the technical and financial side for the sate police and hence have exerted maximum pressure in holding them accountable to high standards of performance and professionalism. The same should be done to the political class.

As former Albanian President, Rexhep Mejdani, argues Albanian actors responsible for national security still need to absorb the very concept of “individual security” and invest in “posing limitations to the executive power as well as increasing transparency for the sake of security.” [8] This would call for a large comprehensive effort to avoid escalations of incidents and above all guarantee the lives of citizens as well as the protection of institutions while respecting human rights and democratic values by adopting the bets European practices that are relevant to this enterprise.

Recommendations: more EU involvement

It seems that the international community is gradually accepting the problematic elections as a normal feature of Albanian political scene with a general stance summarized as “ the next elections should be better than the last ones.” Albania is a member of NATO since April 4, 2008 and the standards required from its elections should be the same as those for every other member country.

The EU needs to urge the solution of the political crisis in Albania by stating clearly the penalties if the political class fails to find a middle way. This should be combined with a positive approach that gives hope to Albanian citizens and especially young people in the country. Hungarian prime minister has rightly added “The Hungarian Presidency urges the start of negotiations as early as possible with Albania, … the postponement of negotiations will only further decrease the chances of establishing internal political stability in that state.[9] In general a more active approach from the EU has the potential to assist the situation. The EU should claim its principal role in assisting Albania to overcome this crisis in order to send Albanians the clear message that they are accountable to. Coordination and common participation in the relevant actions and statements from US Ambassador , EU delegation head and OSCE head of the Mission in Albania has proved beneficial during the electoral campaign and later on and should continue until the crisis has receded.

Increase the pressure

So far the representatives that have visited Albania, and these visits have been very frequent, have been in the level of envoys on behalf of higher authorities. Such is the case with Miroslav Lajcak, Managing Director of the European External Action Service, who has several times visited Tirana representing in fact Baroness Catherine Ashton. The highest representative of the United States visiting Tirana for the purpose of discussion the dialogue between the two political parties has been Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, Thomas Countryman.

The cancellation of the visit by Presdient Barroso while sending a clear signal to the political class that the crisis is halting all negotiations for integration, can also be interpreted as a missed opportunity to criticize the political leaders while being present in Tirana, which would enhance the message’ [10]

It might be beneficial if higher ranking figures come to Tirana and send directly in the presence of political figures the stakes of the situation and urge for a solution. Experience has shown that when confronted with direct pressure leaders of political parties have yielded some of their radical posture and have accepted compromise.

As Slovak scholar Szpala has noticed, “In these circumstances the two sides can probably only be brought round to a compromise by a strict reaction from the EU, including the announcement of severe sanctions that will encompass for example the suspension of the process of extending the EU to Albania and the freezing of EU funds combined with direct mediation by representatives of the European institutions on a clearly higher level.”[11]

Encourage young politicians and young activists

An interesting observation has been made by a young Bulgarian reporter while accounting for the events of January 21. In finalizing her article, Topalova says that “may be it is time in Albania too a new generation of younger and non-burdened by the past politicians to appear. Thus the catharsis will be genuine.”[12]

The EU should invest directly in supporting, educating and training a young generation of politicians and leaders and affiliating them with the bets practices and standards of the EU institutions. This will achieve a two fold mission. First it will prepare a generation that is ready to steer the country towards EU and then manage the political affairs accordingly. Second it will serve as a measure towards keeping off such long-term crises which has a strong personal dimension from current leaders.

Final words

So far Albania has been described as a stabilizing factor in the region and even as a “security producer.”[13] Albania’s neutral and constructive role in the many conflicts that have characterized the Balkans during these last two decades has been remarkable. Considering that most of these conflicts involved Albanian ethnic groups in neighboring states this achievement is praiseworthy. In order for this to continue though, Albania should walk in the integration path with a steady step and the current severe political crisis is becoming more and more of an obstacle. With the internal situation unstable and with grave political and security incidents waiting to happen in an unpredictable way there exist little chance that Albania still can maintain its stabilizing role. There is a role for the European Union to play in order to overpass this crisis using the right sticks and carrots for the political class responsible for the situation.

[1] ODHIR: Mistrust and Political war. Top Channel: 10/5/2011 Accessed on May 12, 2011.

[3]Interim Report,,Accessed on April 21, pp.5-6.

[5] Fischer, Berndt “Albania’s Long Dress Rehearsal”, Transitions Online (30 March 2011), Accessed on April 29, 2011

[6] Balla, Andi: “Tourism and the elections” In: Tirana Times, 27.04.2011, p.1

[7] See for ex: “Ambassador Arvizu congratulates police for professional behavior during SP rallies”

[8] Mejdani, Rexhep: Some reflections on Reviewing the Security Document, In: Hroni, Sotiraq (Ed.): Mbi Zhvilimin e strategjise se sigurise kombetare”( On the development of the strategy of national security), pp.26-47 at pp.34-35.

[10] Freizer, Sabine “The Dangers of Albania's Disputed Election” ( 20 May 2011), International Crisis Group, ( Accessed on May 22, 2011)

[11] Szpala, Marta “The political crisis in Albania is growing’, (emphasis from the author)

[12] Topalova Evelyna, EU Inside portal (January 26, 2011),

[13] Mejdani, Some Reflections on Security Document, p.40.

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