Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Baller By James Traub (published at Foreign Policy)

I write today to bring you good news from a remote corner of the world: Last Sunday, the Socialist government of Edi Rama took office in Albania. In case you missed the news, in June a coalition led by Rama's Socialist Party won a landslide victory over the incumbent government, led by Sali Berisha's Democratic Party. The new prime minister is a 49-year-old painter who has lived in Paris,  a former member of the Albanian national basketball team -- itself a remarkable proof of multiple intelligences -- the former three-term mayor of the capital Tirana, a leader of street protests, a canny politician, a bearded Bohemian, a dedicated reformer, and quite possibly the best thing to happen to Albania in a very long time.
God knows the country could use a break. Albania is about as close to the Third World as you can get without leaving Europe. Rama himself once called his home "a land of prostitutes and illegal immigrants." He forgot "mafias." Albania ranks 103rd in the world in GDP per capita, slightly ahead of Indonesia. Its only significant export is cheap shirts, which it sends to Italy. Albania is a transshipment point for the trafficking of drugs and women and a pit of corruption in which parents must pay bribes to have their children taught and teachers must pay bribes to land a job. Between 2011 and 2012, Albania sank from 95th to 113th on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Enter Edi Rama. After becoming mayor of Tirana in 2000, Rama hired a staff of foreign-educated, English-speaking young people with no prior experience in politics. The new mayor set out to persuade the people of Tirana that civil servants could actually provide effective services. He promised to tear down the unsightly illegal structures which dotted the city -- and he did. He splashed bright colors on dingy gray facades. He set up a Citizen's Information Office where, according to former deputy mayor Albana Dhimitri, "ten nice ladies" sat in front of computers, took complaints and suggestions and forwarded them on to the administration. Dhimitri herself once had to pay a bribe to get married; with Rama in office, clerks sat out in public and distributed marriage licenses. After eight years as deputy mayor, she says, she found that "when you improve services, people stop trying to corrupt you." Rama, who once described Albanian politics as "the highest level of conceptual art," was the Vaclav Havel of Tirana's Velvet Revolution.
Rama appeared initially to have won re-election in 2011, but was declared the loser after a recount. He then began his run for prime minister on a platform of tackling corruption and integrating Albania into Europe. His new government, unveiled on Sunday, consists largely of well-educated young people untainted by corruption, or for that matter politics generally - very much his mayoralty writ large. Every minister has signed a code of ethics prohibiting nepotism or conflicts of interest. The government's first decision was to stop receiving shipments of garbage from Italy, an industry dominated by Italian organized crime. Rama's cabinet also agreed to bulldoze the myriad illegal buildings erected in recent months, as he'd done  in Tirana.
These are, of course, gestures rather than policies; Rama and his band of merry subversives are acutely, perhaps excessively, aware of the power of emblematic actions. Erion Veliaj, the minister of labor and social affairs -- and a former activist famous for lampooning the state -- told me "We're trying to show that Albanians can be very understanding when the government looks them in the eye and says, ‘We're in this together.'" According to Veliaj, this will involve a great deal of Tweeting and elaborate displays of transparency on budget and finance.  Veliaj also shocked Albanians, who treat gypsies as virtual untouchables, by bringing a Roma boy to a hospital from which he had been turned away and demanding that he receive emergency care.

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