Albania: A New Beginning
As I left Albania for Montenegro by car in late June 2006, following visits with several of the key leaders of the country, I felt that a new sense of optimism about the future was taking root in Albania. Albania’s new Prime Minister Sali Berisha, with whom I met on June 30, is determined to eliminate corruption in his country and gain the respect of the inter-national community.
I knew from my pre-visit research that the Prime Minister was making significant changes. He realized that the international community was concerned about persistent corruption, illegal drug smuggling and human trafficking that have plagued Albania since the end of almost 50 years of Communist rule. The Communist government of Enver Hoxha was regarded as the most extreme Communist government in the post-World War II period.
The legacy of the past is a major handicap for Albania. The post-Communist government was faced with the reality that Albania, for centuries, was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
In the elections of 2005, the Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha campaigned for significant change: reducing corruption and crime, while downsizing the government. His campaign focused on the theme that life should and could be improved. International observers declared the elections to be free and fair.
After almost a year in office, there are signs of a “new beginning” in Albania. One such signal is the high caliber of senior officials that are serving in the new government. A good example is Besnik Mustafaj, a former Albanian Ambassador to France, who is the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I met with him in Tirana. There is no question about his competence in international affairs. His main focus now is to achieve Albania’s goal of becoming a member of the European Union and fully integrated into NATO.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs met with me in the spring of 2006, shortly after the United States (US) government announced on April 2, 2006, that it had awarded a $13.85 million grant to Albania. The grant will fund a program to reduce corruption through reforms in tax administration, public procurement and business registration. In doing this, the US government indicated that the Berisha administration is serious about tackling corruption.
However, the Minister was quite open with me in discussing the challenge of reducing corruption since it is closely tied to nepotism. Granting preference to one’s relations is not unique to Albania. But the countries of Europe and North America, for the most part, have been able to modify this cultural tradition.
The Minister, in an open and frank way, discussed this challenge. The anti-corruption grant is for a two-year period, and given the determination of the Berisha government to make progress on this issue, I am confident that the world will see an improvement.
Another impressive member of the Berisha government is Ms. Jozefina Topalli. As the Speaker of the Parliament, she is the second highest-ranking government official. Educated at the university level in Italy, she is a competent and articulate advocate of the “new beginning” in Albania.
Situated in southeastern Europe, about the size of Maryland, Albania is at the edge of the West Balkans. Approximately 3.5 million people are of Albanian ethnic background. The Greek population numbers three to five percent. There is greater diversity in religion; Muslims constitute around 70 percent of the population, Albanian Orthodox are 20 percent and Roman Catholics number around ten percent.
History has had a significant impact on contemporary Albania. In some ways, Albania was looked upon negatively by the Western European establishment. This negative image was aggravated by the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, regarded by many as the most brutal of the post-World War II dictators.
Albania has never received credit in the post-Communist era for its commitment and practice of religious freedom. This is most likely rooted in the pre-Communist period of Albania. The culture of this predominantly Muslim country was always tolerant of other religions. The only non-tolerant period before the Communist era was during World War II when Albania was occupied by the Axis fascists.
My own impression is that an anti-Albanian bias still exists. The cultural divide between the Albanian-Muslim culture and Western Europe resulted in various cultural images that did not (and still do not) favor the Albanians.
But this attitude is changing. The increased pressure of the United States—through diplomacy, the US Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps—and Albania’s growing rapport with Croatia and Macedonia through the Adriatic Charter are all indications of a changing attitude.The strong support that Albania gave to neighboring Montenegro as it moved toward independence is also a good sign that a relationship based on mutual respect is developing. In my discussions with leaders from Croatia and Montenegro, it was very apparent that they wanted strong bilateral ties with Albania.
The Berisha government faces many challenges. In less than two decades after the end of Communist dictatorship, Albania has gone through several difficult periods of adjustment. The core challenges remain: unemployment, a crime network that, in some instances, is interwoven with cultural traditions and a lack of unity on the resolution of core problems.
The “breath of fresh air” from Sali Berisha and his government is generating new enthusiasm for Albanians to push their country to a new level. However, the opposition seems unable to recognize that there are key national issues that should be addressed by working together with the government. The goal should be a bipartisan approach to finding solutions for the significant core problems of Albania.
This is an area of interest where Western European and American advisors could assist. In the United States, one speaks of bipartisan support. This occurs on issues of national interest that merit bipartisan support.
Albania needs assistance to establish a tradition wherein all political parties agree to work together and come to consensus on solutions. Albania cannot afford excessive internal bickering.
There is no question that Albania has had a rocky transition from Communism to democracy. From 1992-2006, there have been three governments. Substantial progress is being made to elevate Albania to the next level, i.e. a democracy that offers its people hope for the future.
Sali Berisha, the Prime Minister, is completing his first year as the head of government. He has selected leaders with very good reputations to work with him. Besnik Mustafaj, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Jozefina Topalli, Speaker of the Parliament, are part of his impressive team.
In my two visits to Albania, I have always appreciated the beauty of the country’s Adriatic coast. This is an important asset that can be developed so that tourists from all parts of the world will visit the country and help to transform it into a land of opportunity.
The United States and the West should assist Albania to identify other assets which can help to transform the country to a new level of prosperity.
The Western community, having ignored Albania for so many decades, should reject its past policies, which never recognized the potential of this country on the Adriatic.
Given the “new beginning” of Prime Minister Berisha, the time is ripe for the West to cooperate with Albania to transform the country into a land of opportunity.