Editorial: Better late than never: A late night agreement to the rescue

Editorial: Better late than never: A late night agreement to the rescue

Last night, the leaders of the two major parties in Albania, Edi Rama, Prime Minister and Head of the Socialist Party, and Lulzim Basha, Head of the Democratic Party and head of the Albanian opposition coalition, seemed to have reached

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The importance of willingness to save the country even at the cost of resignation from own privileges

The importance of willingness to save the country even at the cost of resignation from own privileges

By Karol Bachura* Ambassador of Poland to Tirana I am honored to welcome you on the occasion of the national holiday, commemorating a special event in Polish history: the adoption the Constitution on May 3 of 1791. The 226 anniversary

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Op-Ed: The French saved Europe – to strengthen it, bring the focus back to the Balkans

Op-Ed: The French saved Europe – to strengthen it, bring the focus back to the Balkans

If France was the battleground that saved Europe’s soul, the Western Balkans is where the continent can save its united future in peace and stability. By ANDI BALLA If 2017 was the make-or-break year for a united Europe, then the

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Editorial: Worrying scenarios on the horizon for Albania

Editorial: Worrying scenarios on the horizon for Albania

Looking to solve the ongoing political crisis in Albania, some high level international representatives visiting from both European members states and the United States are making last resort attempts to find a compromise between the two sides, keeping a flicker

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Serbian policy and the Kosovo political crisis: Adding fuel to the fire

Serbian policy and the Kosovo political crisis: Adding fuel to the fire

By Aleksandar Pavlović* The deepening political crisis in Kosovo exploded on Thursday when Kosovo government fell after MP’s voted overwhelmingly (78 to 34) to overthrow it. Following the vote, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci dissolved the parliament and is to set

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Albania’s new president: A window for solving the crisis and new opportunities for beyond

Albania’s new president: A window for solving the crisis and new opportunities for beyond

Ilir Meta was elected as the country’s new president in a vote conducted without the opposition in the Albanian parliament. He received 87 votes out of the 89 present MPs who participated in the process having so the entire constitutional

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Editorial: Why did the European negotiators fail to resolve the political gridlock in Tirana?

Editorial: Why did the European negotiators fail to resolve the political gridlock in Tirana?

The visit of the two representatives of the European Parliament, David McAllister and Knut Fleckenstein in Tirana on Tuesday came among high expectations that they were bringing along a much-sought after platform for the solution of the political crisis in

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Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these

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Failing to understand Albanian reality

Failing to understand Albanian reality

By Vaske Papa Visiting Albania this week, Germany’s foreign minister said: “In my country, and in Europe, it is absurd to boycott parliament.” This is one of those statements that is so obvious, no one really needs to say it.

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Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings

Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings

Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at the Princeton University came to Albania to look into the problems the electoral system faces ahead of Albania’s general elections. They interviewed

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                    [post_content] => Last night, the leaders of the two major parties in Albania, Edi Rama, Prime Minister and Head of the Socialist Party, and Lulzim Basha, Head of the Democratic Party and head of the Albanian opposition coalition, seemed to have reached a final agreement after a protracted political crises that risked the boycott of general elections by the opposition.

Details of the agreement are yet to be made public. A sigh of relief on being rescued from dark potential scenarios, which this paper has outlined in previous editorials, was palpable almost all over. Many people watched on their screens, with mixed feelings of disappointment, that their life is still hostage to these political games, and of joy that the worst had been avoided.

As the two key politicians were leaving the parliament, they stopped for a moment at the gate to talk to the waiting journalists. It was exactly these journalists, camped there and waiting patiently to do their jobs, exhausted and yet excited to see the two key figures come out together, that insisted to ask them to please shake hands. A swift handshake with a very casual movement followed. It was unfelt yet the journalists applauded and laughed with relief.  Their exasperated joy was so symbolic of the popular sentiment of the times of the ordinary citizens that do not count themselves among party activists in this deeply politicized society.  

The agreement feels still vulnerable, feeble, and delicate. It feels like things could go wrong again, easily, quickly. Details have still to be ironed out.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge, much of the trust and basic ethics has been violated between sides. People on both camps have been polarized to the extreme in these tough days. Many others have joined the ranks of cynics giving up all hope in the political development of the country, abstaining, refusing to participate. The recovery will be tough.

However, if the agreement truly falls in line with the proposals of European and American envoys, it will provide some key open opportunities for the development of democracy in Albania, for the strengthening of accountability, the progress in implementing the decriminalization process as well as invest new positive energy into the country’s European integration process which is sorely stuck.

The elections shall be so much better, more representative and with a real potential of pushing forward a good agenda for Albanian citizens of all sides.

Good news from Albania’- tweeted European MPs today in reaction to the agreement. In comparison to their enthusiasm, the feeling in Albania is more cautious. In spite of this there is room for optimism. We might really be, finally, out of the woods.

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131922" align="alignright" width="300"]karol Ambassador Karol Bachura[/caption]

By Karol Bachura*

Ambassador of Poland to Tirana

I am honored to welcome you on the occasion of the national holiday, commemorating a special event in Polish history: the adoption the Constitution on May 3 of 1791. The 226 anniversary of the 3rd of May Constitution, is most exceptional in many ways – we do not celebrate the memory of military victories, of which there were quite a few in the Polish history, but the anniversary of the establishment of rights. A battle that was not an armed struggle involving bloodshed but a parliamentary strife, political fight, a discussion of the parties and above all it was a debate that ended with understanding and agreement of the vast majority in comprehension of the really difficult situation of the state, and the above partisan willingness to save the country even at the cost of resignation from own privileges. It gave proof that patriotism and well-being of the state can rise above party and private interests.

As the first European constitution and the second in the world – after the American one and a few months before the French constitution, it enforced the thought of Montesquieu on division and equilibrium of power, stating that all authority in human society takes its origin from the will of the people. It established legislative, executive and judicial power, a bicameral parliament, and – although it recognized Catholicism as a dominant religion, it also provided the freedom of belief and peace of faith along with government protection and freedom of religious rites throughout the country.

The May 3rd Constitution was a symbol of the struggle against the oligarchy defending its privileges. It acted in the name of building a strong, modern state, elevation of bourgeois to civic status, embracing peasants with state protection, two-state judiciary and the principle of a three-tiered power. It guaranteed protection to the weak, treated equally all citizens, promoted the victory of honesty above cynicism and injustice. This act combined the Christian traditions of Europe and the values of Enlightenment. This act enabled the rise and survival of the Polish nation through the period of partition, captivity and occupation. It introduced the intercultural dialogue into the canons of state legislation and outlined the ideas underlying the foundations of today’s European Union. European thinkers recognized the May the 3rd Constitution as "the most noble good ever received by any nation". The May constitution of 1791 is an example of the parliamentary and democratic traditions of the Republic of Poland. Values contained in it – freedom of religion, equality before the law, tolerance, division of power, governments based on the will of the people – have become the cornerstone of the development of civil society and a role model.

In the year marking the 80th Anniversary of Polish-Albanian diplomatic relations I would like to wish you a very happy evening and thank you so much for your presence.

*Comments made at an event organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies earlier this month.


 
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                    [post_content] => If France was the battleground that saved Europe's soul, the Western Balkans is where the continent can save its united future in peace and stability.

By ANDI BALLA

franceIf 2017 was the make-or-break year for a united Europe, then the French presidential election marked the decisive moment on whether a trend of nationalism and populism that swiped around the world in 2016 would be able to create a large enough tsunami to wipe away the European Union. Luckily, French voters decided that an anti-establishment vote need not be an anti-EU vote, saving not only the European Union in the process, but also the positive sense of a shared destiny and belonging for Europeans around the continent. Most experts could see that while the European Union could survive Brexit – the departure of a member state that was not a founding member and due to its history and location always kept the union at arms length – it would not survive without France, one of the main pillars of the union.

So when the French elected the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen, the French version of extremist nationalists and populists, pro-EU people everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. A united Europe had been saved.

And perhaps nowhere was that relief deeper than in Southwestern Europe, and the Western Balkans in particular, where the strength of European Union had been for more than a decade the best guarantor of peace and stability, even-though most of the countries of the region are not yet members of the European Union.

Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all fragile states with a history of conflict and undemocratic rule. They are poor by EU standards, and the people are largely not happy with the their leaders or their economic opportunities. The only thing that kept them for more than a decade stable and away from thoughts of taking over the neighbors was the idea of becoming members of the European Union – what the people of Southeast Europe have seen as a borderless, wealthy utopia unlikely to become a reality for the region for a generation or two, but which is something to aspire to nonetheless.

Then the global economic crisis and the populists came with their us-vs-them rhetoric. The “us” became the wealthy and advanced countries of the European Northwest and the “them” became the unfair image of the backward, conflict-prone peoples of the Southeast. It is no wonder then that the first reaction of the European Union leaders was to make sure to tell European voters enlargement in the Balkans was no longer a priority and would not take place for more than a decade. While the message was technically true, EU experts don't believe that the Western Balkan countries would not be able to meet the criteria to become EU members for another decade or so, the image it created in the Balkans was that an EU in crisis means there is no point of trying any longer, and so old troubles started to resurface.

One after another the states fell into differing modes of crisis, with the worst case scenarios starting to pop up again – a potential civil war in Macedonia, a Serb army intervention in Kosovo, a coup in Montenegro, a break up of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the perpetual deeply divisive political environment that has kept Albania weak since the fall of communism. Without the hope of a European future, what point is there to be stable and good?

To be fair, EU leaders and diplomats kept up a good front. “The EU door is open for the region” was the most repeated talking point. There was only one problem with the rhetoric. The talking points were identical to those spelled out 15 years ago -- there was no real progress. And thus, the idea of waiting forever and frustration started to take root. Many people people in the region no longer believe the European utopia is going to be available to them in their lifetime and thus are increasingly removing the pro-EU pressure from their leaders – many of whom pay lip service to a shared European future but show little interest in abiding by the best values of democracy and fairness EU brings forward. 

To make things worse, the region risks becoming a new football pitch for geopolitical players. The United States, which for decades has played a key stabilizing role and a helpful hand to move Balkan countries toward the European Union has become distracted by its own populist upheaval with the recent presidential elections and their aftermath. Several visits in the region by U.S. officials and lawmakers have not done enough to alleviate regional fears that the United States might not be able to have as strong of a role as it has in the past. On the other hand, the region is clearly seen by Russia as a place where it can have an influence as a counterbalance to those in the region hoping for a Euro-Atlantic future. Nowhere is that influence stronger than in countries like Serbia and other Serb-inhabited areas of the Balkans, where there is a historical affinity with Moscow. 

The good news this month is that the European Union is here to stay and can only grow stronger and better from this point. For the Western Balkans that is paramount. The next should be an immediate and strong focus by the European Union on the Western Balkans, tied to a firm admission date promise for its members. Delaying endlessly is not an option. If France was the battleground that saved Europe's soul, the Western Balkans is where the continent can save its united future in peace and stability.

twitter.com/andiballa
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                    [post_content] => Looking to solve the ongoing political crisis in Albania, some high level international representatives visiting from both European members states and the United States are making last resort attempts to find a compromise between the two sides, keeping a flicker of hope alive to bring back some semblance of normalcy to the situation. 

The resolve of the internationals to keep pushing is commendable. It comes in the face of the harshest and most vocal rebuttal they have ever witnessed in Albania while attempting to broker dialogue and resolve gridlocks. 

However, most signs would indicate that Albania for the first time after 26 years of democratic elections will enter in an electoral process without the major party of the opposition, in this case the Democratic Party. As the ballots are being printed with a limited number of parties written on them, as the Central Election Committee is distributing public funds for the campaign and exempting the DP from them, all the procedural steps are going onward regardless of the boycott of the opposition. The international community in Tirana including several important western embassies and the mission of the election observers have publicly declared that elections shall be recognized as regular despite the decision of the DP. 

However the scenarios that seem likely for the short and medium term are not very optimistic. The worst case one is the possibility of violence and instability. This scenario foresees violent acts and clashes between opposition militant supporters and other unaffiliated criminal elements with the state police or even worse citizens who will approach voting centers. This seems unlikely given that the boycott of the opposition and the associated rallies have been so far largely peaceful. However, unlikely is not the same as improbable.  Albania is very vulnerable to outburst of violence and would suffer tremendous hazard should this be the case. Politicians who toy with notions of civic disobedience should draw clear red lines and respect them against inciting violence. 

Even if this nightmare does not materialize, the election result will be contested and certainly not representative of the entire fabric of the Albanian citizenry. In this context authoritarianism might find fertile soil to bloom without much concern for check and balances. A grand unconstrained majority will have dangerous leeway to go through with many laws and reforms that will be discussed superficially and passed in a rushed way to use the moment. Elections might need to be repeated sooner than many people think. 

Most importantly, the circular repetition of political gridlock in Albania is more and more resembling a torturous hamster wheel in which the whole society turns exhaustively with no clear perspective in sight. The unstable conditions, the never ending scuffle is an obstacle to economic development as foreign investment as well as strategic projects seek more advantageous conditions present elsewhere.

In addition, given the unfavorable context and the upheaval in the west, both the European Union and in the United States, attention and focus from the international community has been retreating from the entire region. The willingness of the international community to mediate such crisis and tolerate such behavior is on a sharp decline. 

Under these conditions, Albania should forget about receiving a date for the opening of the negotiations and progressing on the path of European integration. 

The aggressive polarization and the lack of consensus over major reforms that are supposed to build the rule of law institutions in Albania are bound to wane support in the ranks of the EU for the country. Even enthusiastic backers of Albania’s candidacy have made this very clear.   

Finally, the Albanian citizens who don’t find themselves in either of the camps are increasingly checking out from the task to determine their political fate, they are turning their back to the television screens and to the ballot box with equal disgust. They are seeking ways to immigrate or live their lives in pursuit of some well being, while pretending that nothing is going on. This rise in disenchantment, apathy and even cynicism will have long term consequences for the democratic development of Albania, far beyond the duration of the current installment of the crisis. 

Given the fact that constitutional and legal time and procedural limits have been exhausted, a compromise regarding this round of elections is farfetched. However, it is not impossible. In the meantime there is much to be done in using opportunities for improving communication, restoring trust and alleviating some of the tension between the political sides. If Albanian politicians don’t want to risk the negative scenario implications they should pay more attention. 

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Worrying scenarios on the horizon for Albania
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                    [post_content] => By Aleksandar Pavlović*

The deepening political crisis in Kosovo exploded on Thursday when Kosovo government fell after MP’s voted overwhelmingly (78 to 34) to overthrow it. Following the vote, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci dissolved the parliament and is to set the date for the new elections, which are to follow within the next 45 days, probably in mid or late June.

This was the result of the crisis that has been affecting the fragile coalition between the two main parties in Kosovo, the (freshly) former Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s conservative LDK (Kosovo Democratic League) and Thaci’s centre-right PDK (Kosovo Democratic Party).

The immediate reason for the collapse of the government seems to be the opposition to the proposed demarcation line with Montenegro, the main condition for obtaining visa-free travel to “Schengen” countries for the Kosovars. The opposition – and even some MP’s from the ruling parties – opposed vigorously this deal for months now, claiming that it would mean seeding the Kosovo land to Montenegro. Another significant factor in the crisis was the standstill in Serbian-Kosovo negotiations and the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo with significant autonomy, a move that Kosovo agreed to in 2013 Brussels agreement but is yet to implement.

So, what does all this have to do with Serbia? To be sure, Serbia – in addition to its role of the usual suspect – hardly had immediate influence on the present Kosovo parliamentary crisis. Truth be told, Belgrade surely influences Serbian representatives from the Kosovo Parliament joined in a “Serbian list” (“Srpska lista”), and its MPs were very vocal these days in describing Kosovo government as the “dying patient” and invoking its collapse. But so did the MP’s of a number of other, Albanian political parties.

Perhaps, somehow, Serbia will profit from the political crisis? Again, it is hard to see how exactly that would play, inasmuch as Serbia demands rights for Kosovo Serbs, Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian Heritage in Kosovo, and putting all this in motion requires a functional and cooperative political institutions in Kosovo.

And, yet, curiously, Serbia manages to influence Kosovo political scene on a more profound level, albeit, unfortunately, in a (self)destructive manner. First, in January 2017, it created a crisis by dispatching the infamous train from Belgrade to Kosovska Mitrovica, painted in the colors of the Serbian flag and armed with an inscription “Kosovo is Serbia”. While the train, predictably, never reached its destination, it enabled Thaci for the first time to send Kosovo special forces to the North of Kosovo, where the Serbs form stable majority of population and where the presence of Kosovo institutions is hardly – if at all – visible. While international community responded coldly to Thaci’s subsequent plans to form the Kosovo army, Serbian move certainly gave him good arguments about the need of such military formation.

As if this had not been enough, Serbia additionally spiced up cold January by issuing an Interpol war crimes warrant against Ramush Haradinaj. the current Kosovo MP’s  and the former high ranked KLA member, for his alleged crimes against the Serbs during the late 1990s conflict in Kosovo. Since Haradinaj has previously been put to trial, and freed under the lack of evidence, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague, it was highly unlikely that Serbia will manage to present anything strong enough as to persuade French institutions to expedite Haradinaj to Serbia for a new trial. Predictably, after four months of detention, Haradinaj was eventually allowed to return to Prishtina, and just a fortnight ago was greeted as a hero and martyr by the Kosovo crowd in a public celebration of their reunion. At present, he appears to be the most influential politician in Kosovo and the likely candidate for the new Prime Minister.

In short, if current Serbian policy towards Kosovo is to bore any fruits, these would soon prove to be rotten ones. By its stubborn and (self)destructive insistent on Ramush Haradinaj’s detention in France, it additionally fuelled the already charged Kosovo political scene. Rather as a convict, Serbia will see Haradinaj as the Premier. While the chances of him being receptive to Serbian claims and requests were previously already slim, they are not virtually non-existent. In a cognate manner, Serbia’s “train affair” enabled Thaci, another former KLA member, to score patriotic points, and under present circumstances it seems likely that he would outperform the more moderate Mustafa on the elections to come.

Thus, overall speaking, Serbia curiously managed to radicalize the Kosovo scene, but to its disadvantage. While the present political life in Kosovo could be now subsumed to a citizen and nationalistic option, Serbia effectively assisted in empowering the latter and raising its former war enemies into the most popular and influential political figures in Kosovo.

 

*Aleksandar Pavlović is a researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory of the University of Belgrade, and is currently a fellow of the Centre for Albania-Serbia Relations at the Albania Institute for International Studies in Tirana. He holds BA and MA from the University of Belgrade and PhD in Southeast European Studies from the University of Nottingham.

 
                    [post_title] => Serbian policy and the Kosovo political crisis: Adding fuel to the fire
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            [5] => WP_Post Object
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                    [post_author] => 29
                    [post_date] => 2017-05-05 11:21:45
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-05-05 09:21:45
                    [post_content] => Ilir Meta was elected as the country’s new president in a vote conducted without the opposition in the Albanian parliament. He received 87 votes out of the 89 present MPs who participated in the process having so the entire constitutional legitimacy as spelled out in the respective laws.

Most important than all else, Meta’s personal political profile contributes considerably to the fact that his legitimacy and representativeness will be wide, and certainly wider than his predecessor’s.

In the words of Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, "one could not have chosen a president more with the DP and yet outside of the DP, even if we looked inside the DP" might have been ironic but they did bear an important truth.

Meta’s maturity and compromise-seeking prioritizing in his role as speaker of the Parliament, his experience of having worked extensively with both sides as well as his determination to stand his grounds have all the potential to benefit the establishment of a calmer political situation in Albania. He showed this with his conduct before the approval of the justice reform, accepting nothing less than wide consensus for a key reform, he signaled it again with offering his ministerial mandates to the opposition for them to enter upcoming elections and he can show it again.

The election of the President seems to have opened a new chapter for the ongoing political crisis: Meta can serve at least partially as some sort of guarantee to the opposition for their cause of fair elections. He has also upheld their other causes such as decriminalization and fight against cannabis trade. Given the time limits in place, Meta will be the president that calls the formation of the new executive after the elections and swears in the new Prime Minister and his cabinet. In this role he has at least the symbolic power to serve as a guarantor of the democratic principles. Should the most negative scenario play out and the election be conducted without the opposition, pluralism will be weakened substantially if not disappear altogether. Then Meta will have to be a key asset in the effort to bring back pluralism in Albania.

On other matters of the role of the President, Meta will have limited legal powers in the judicial sector since the constitutional changes of the justice reform have taken away the significant role the President used to play for the judiciary. However having been invested and embedded in the process for all these years, he can oversee its implementation and effectiveness from a vantage point of knowledge and understanding.

Finally but equally important, another aspect of the presidency of course is the presence in Albania’s foreign policy. In this regard, Meta has considerable previous background as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister has demonstrated a constructive rhetoric for all issues, especially some hot potatoes for the country such as relations with Greece and Serbia. The realistic expectation is that he shall carry out his presidential duties with the due consideration for Albania’s traditional constructive foreign policy and provide the necessary counterbalance at times even to the executive which might be more prone to political maneuvering in this field.

Meta’s departure from his leadership position at the helm of the socialist Movement for Integration spells upcoming big questions for the fate of the party which he almost single handedly transformed against all odds into the third pole of Albanian political sphere. Whether this party shall continue to uphold this strength it is unclear. Many will say that Meta’s presidency might spell the end of the party. However one should not forget that the party has beaten all prediction before and has increased its electorate in all previous elections. They have a chance of succeeding though they will need to find a new leadership that is as skilful as the past one to make it.

Ilir Meta’s election as Albania’s new president came at a difficult time and was done without the participation and votes of the Albanian opposition. Despite this, his strong charismatic and mature profile, vast political experience and cool-headed but determined conduct have the potential to transform this development into a positive perspective for Albania in both its domestic and international affairs.

 
                    [post_title] => Albania’s new president: A window for solving the crisis and new opportunities for beyond
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            [6] => WP_Post Object
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-28 10:14:50
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                    [post_content] => The visit of the two representatives of the European Parliament, David McAllister and Knut Fleckenstein in Tirana on Tuesday came among high expectations that they were bringing along a much-sought after platform for the solution of the political crisis in Tirana. The announced boycott of the general elections by the opposition, which has been for weeks camping outside a tent in front of the Prime Minister’s office, has put the entire legitimacy of the electoral process at risk. The opposition is also boycotting local elections in Kavaja to be held soon. A feeling of expected instability and protracted political gridlock is becoming a serious obstacle to Albania’s remaining chances to progress closer to the EU as well to its general economic and social well-being.

International actors and various diplomats have tried consistently during this time to serve as mediators, or at least dialogue facilitators, but things have remained stagnant. The same can be said for the high level visit of European ministers and European party representatives which have again not succeeded to turn parties around from their polarized positions. In fact this reality indicates a significant departure from previous situations when the role of the international community has been decisive in reaching solutions to political crisis. For example the last time when the Socialist Party, then in opposition, was staging a similar protest, a sort of resolving agreement was reached in a famous dinner in the ‘Crocodile’ restaurant which then became in a funny way famous for all Albanians.

Therefore the arrival of the two negotiators was accompanied by curiosity whether something would be different this time. It was not to be.

There are complex reasons why this mission failed despite all expectations and previous record.

First and foremost the credibility and power of international actors in Albania is decreasing. The legitimacy of European actors in particular has been challenged many times by the Albanian opposition which perceives a certain pro government bias. The opposition leader has been quick and unequivocal to shun away criticism for being against international partners. Other members have been loud in their complaints and accusations for specific ambassadors and diplomats. We may be witnessing the birth of a West-skeptic feeling in Albania that is more vocal than any in the past.

This reality is compounded by more systemic factors such as the recent reality in the EU, much preoccupied with other development and with a track record of retreat in its attention to the Balkans. The new administration in the United States has also shaken up things and perceptions to a certain degree in the region. Nothing is now taken for granted much less the power of outsiders.

Second the Albanian political sides have taken extreme positions and have upped their zero-sum game. They have reached such a crisis apex that now it only seems natural to them that any concessions would amount to total defeat. In fact the only defeated interest in this game is that of the Albanian citizen who cannot negotiate. Should the electoral process be compromised in any way, whether by boycott or manipulations or both, one of the very few instruments citizens have to voice concerns, discontent and seek alternatives will also be removed.

Last but not least all the other actors including organized society seem more and more also in extreme positions, either in the activist groups or in the placated passive camp with a very weak core of activism whose message gets drowned in the commercial and unprofessional media.  This lack of civic pressure has been plaguing public life in this country and no improvements have been seen so far. This enables a context where domestic political actors have the upper hand or even the monopoly in shaping the agenda and the stage including perception of international actors and their role.

The fact that after more than a quarter of a century of experience with democracy, after publicly declaring that their single major goal is European future of Albania and after trying the bitter ends of the crisis many times, Albanian political players still need, invoke and are so thrilled about international mediation of their problems is perplexing and shameful at best. The novelty this time is that the whole thing is resembling a hypocritical act.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Why did the European negotiators fail to resolve the political gridlock in Tirana?
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                    [post_content] => This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these four first months of 2017 that such a lobbying contract is made. Previously both the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Democratic Party had done similar contracts with US firms. The latter is reported to have as much as three different lobbying companies trying to service ties with the new US administration. The sums involved are considerable: the SP will pay 20.000 dollars per month, while the recent contract of the DP signed only one month ago with “Stonington Strategies,” is worth 25,000 dollars per month.  In the last year alone SMI spent around 300.000 dollars for lobbying services which got them, among other things, invitations to the latest presidential inauguration. 

It is now a consolidated reality that Albanian political parties are paying hefty sums to companies that have the potential to improve relations of political parties and especially their leaders, set up occasions for meetings that are then glorified back at home as well as perpetuate narratives that better serve one side. Prestigious lobbying tags of Washington D. C have become interestingly familiar names in small Albania and its citizens.

Albania is by no means the only small country that uses precious resources to buy political clout abroad. Many of the neighboring countries which share more or less the same problems, behave very similarly. Contracts such as these are common for authoritarian dynasties in the Middle East or former Soviet republics now run by eternal dictators.

On the other side even large and well established democracies are using think tanks as lobbying outlets to buy influence in the United States, according to a 2014 report of the New York Times. However with one key difference, these contracts have a much more beneficial set objective in that they try to service some well-defined national goals and not service one separate political side.   The British Authority of Tourism is well justified in lobbying for its national economic interest while Japan may have a record number of lobbies working to further economic and business interest of its countries’ companies in the United States.

None of these other examples make what is happening at home right. It is very difficult to shed light over both the means of financing and the real impact of the services bought. Regarding the latter it is clear that they serve no public interest such as political party leaders would like to boast under the pretenses that they are developing bilateral relations and improving Albania’s image abroad. Those services clearly serve short term political interest by blurring truths often in the process. No lobbying contract of a political party should cover the services and tasks that in fact belong to the government. Extending and consolidating bilateral relations is the duty of governments and state institutions not political entities. If the Albanian parties overtake foreign policy then they should go ahead and dismantle the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The main question is where the money comes from. There is very little transparency over political party finances in Albania so the source of these funds is shrouded in darkness. There are absolutely no guarantees that the money spent is legitimate and not taken out of public finances or murky donations.

These lucrative contracts against the backdrop of a small, poor and underdeveloped country generate a stark contracts as well as ensuing a feeling of outrage. Of course parties can claim that they are using their own party finances as they see fit. However that does not exclude the fact that these kind of expenditure seems criminal when one compared to the standing emergencies that the country has in providing basic infrastructure and basic public goods, including education and healthcare, to many rural and marginalized communities, to mention just the extreme cases.

Albania is amidst a harsh political crisis with parliamentary boycott, gridlock in implementation of key reforms and a very pessimistic perspective of further steps in its integration path. The electoral campaign has started despite the fact that the opposition insists on rejecting the process. In these desperate times, the absurdness of the lobbying contracts becomes even more palpable.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies 
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-21 11:00:47
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                    [post_content] => By Vaske Papa

pepaVisiting Albania this week, Germany's foreign minister said: “In my country, and in Europe, it is absurd to boycott parliament." This is one of those statements that is so obvious, no one really needs to say it.

So, yes, it is is absurd to have a boycott of parliament in Germany or any well-established European Union country. It is equally absurd and inconceivable to have the German/EU opposition seeking the resignation of the prime minister just a couple of months ahead of scheduled elections. On the same vein, it is absurd for the opposition to seek a caretaker government to manage elections – or a government of trust as the Albanian speaker of parliament calls it.

But all of it – the opposition's parliamentary boycott and the demand for a caretaker government to prepare and organize elections – have happened in Albania, a country with a very heavy legacy of barbaric oppression of freedom and human rights, incomparable to any other country under communism. Although 25 years have passed since the fall of communism, in Albania the rule of law and constitution are applied at a very low level. And, to make things worst, the interests of the public are secondary to those of the oligarchs, politicians – and criminals.

So German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is also right when he says that: "What distinguishes Europe from [Albania] and elsewhere in the world is the rule of law and the Constitution. The rule of law must ensure and guarantee that at the end of the day, the spotlight will be of interest to citizens and not to different cliques."

But let's move beyond abstract terms when comparing Europe to Albania in rule of law and constitution. How are they different in practical terms? Let's create a scenario to better understand the difference.

Suppose for example that the German Bundestag or the parliaments of German states had members of parliament that were criminals – even murderers – elected on voting day. Imagine a scenario where it gets so bad that these German legislative bodies had to pass a decriminalization law.

Suppose that Germany or any other European country cultivates illegal narcotics at an industrial scale and then smuggles them for sale to neighboring countries by land, sea and air.

Suppose that every three days a police station has to disbanded due to its involvement in drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

Suppose that a German political party comes to power and quickly starts purges in the civil administration. Had Albania been as large as Germany, in three years, it would have had to pay 62 million euros to those who were illegally fired on political, clannish, tribal and corrupt grounds.

Suppose that in Germany, the top national television channels and the majority of the print and online press are controlled by the government – attacking the opposition day and night – as it happens in today's Albania. The four national television stations in Albania, where most Albanians get their news, are now all captured by the government. Suppose that was the case in Germany. Can you imagine a well-established European state were independent voices criticizing the government are few and far in between and drowned out by the mighty media outlets in the government's pockets. If you can't, you should know it is happening in Albania.

As such, some of the comments made by the German foreign minister this week are irrelevant because they apply to the reality of a normal European state – and Albania is not one of them.

Germany's foreign minister statements this week show more than the failure of the opposition or the success of the government to pitch their cases to the international community. It shows a clear lack of understanding of Albanian realities by key European leaders.

 
                    [post_title] => Failing to understand Albanian reality
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-19 11:10:51
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                    [post_content] => Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at the Princeton University came to Albania to look into the problems the electoral system faces ahead of Albania’s general elections. They interviewed  members of electoral management bodies, political parties, government officials, journalists, civil society groups and international organizations. Below are some of their findings. This is only part of the report, for the full version and information on the authors, please view the complete report online at: https://goo.gl/VrG9Kn.

The shortcomings in the Albanian electoral and political processes are quite salient. According to some of the interlocutors the research team met with, the focus on judicial reforms pushed by the European Union (EU) resulted in electoral reforms taking a backseat. As a result, the vulnerabilities in the electoral process that affected Albanian elections in 2013 and 2015 can be expected to emerge again next year. These vulnerabilities can be broadly summarized into the following categories: electoral process vulnerabilities; political process vulnerabilities; issues related to women and youth participation; and civil society, media, and political culture issues. 

Electoral Process Vulnerabilities

Electoral malpractice: Interviews with a range of stakeholders in Albania indicated that there is a widespread perception of electoral malpractice. The alleged malpractice that was described included both vote buying and voter intimidation. In the case of the former, interlocutors described practices ranging from one-off exchanges of votes for money or food, to longer-term patronage relationships. In the case of the latter, they described practices such as forced confiscation of voter IDs in the days before an election, though the research team was unable to verify such reports. However, their prevalence indicates at the very least distrust in the integrity of the Albanian electoral process. Lack of options for absentee voting: Since the fall of the Communist regime, a large percentage of the Albanian population has migrated to other countries in search of economic opportunities. Under current regulations, those citizens are not allowed to vote if they are not physically present in the country on election day. This severely limits the inclusiveness of the electoral process, and while different actors have been outspoken about this issue, no comprehensive solution to the problem has been discussed in Parliament.

Electoral Code designed to advantage major political parties: The current Albanian electoral framework is built on a foundation of deep mistrust between the two most prominent parties, and as a result, it includes an intricate set of checks between these two parties. At the same time, these two parties have a “frenemy” relationship, by which they protect their mutual status as the two main players of the party system. This ambivalent dynamic makes it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for new political parties to build up significant power. The politicization of the electoral commissions, both at the national and regional levels, as well as of the process for the counting of the votes, are constructed in such a way as to protect the bipartisan character of the system, at the same time that both parties mistrust each other. For instance, officers at Commissions of Electoral Administration Zones (CEAZ) are appointed by the two main parties exclusively, but mistrust among them is so high that it is often the case that each party may change its own officers even one day before elections if they think they have been bribed by the other party. The exclusion of other parties in the CEAZ effectively stifles democratic development in the country, as new parties which might otherwise have the potential 5 to gather widespread support have trouble even gaining an initial foothold. Lack of institutional capacity: While efforts have been made to increase the technical capacity of the CEC, it is still under-resourced. On the other hand, at the local level, political parties often truncate any professionalization and training efforts in fear of co-optation of electoral officials by their opponents. The result of these two forces is elections run by loyal party supporters, and overseen by a CEC with limited capacity to implement the requirements to achieve free and fair elections conducted by international standards and norms.

Political Process Vulnerabilities

Lack of issue-driven political competition: Albania’s political system is markedly non ideological. There are no real issue-driven politics, and hence, the quality of the political debate is low, and according to some interlocutors, electoral competition has become a race to buy more votes and to increase long-term loyalties. The parties adapt to their role as government and opposition, changing their policy positions depending on the role they currently play. For example, one of the major parties might heavily promote certain legislation while in power, only to vehemently oppose nearly identical legislation once they are in the opposition. This is the case of the waste management legislation, which was proposed by the Democratic Party when it was in power before 2013, with the intention of allowing the importation of waste from other countries into Albania, and was vehemently opposed by the Socialist Party. Now, in 2016, the roles are reversed: nearly-identical legislation is opposed by the Democratic Party and supported by the Socialist coalition. In sum, the mechanics of the party system, while not tarnished by ethnic or religious conflicts, are those of a dysfunctional system, disconnected from its citizens. Weak internal party democracy emphasized by closed lists: As mentioned earlier, Albania’s closed-list electoral system concentrates most of the decision-making power in the party leadership, thereby promoting a highly sycophantic environment. While some parties have internal regulations to elect their candidates, the mechanisms through which the final lists are formed is not completely clear. Political party leadership knows to expect different levels of success in different electoral zones, based on the zone’s population (and therefore, number of allocated seats in parliament), as well as on its history of support for one party or another. Based on this information, parties form their lists strategically. The problem in this case is that party leaders have excessive discretionary power to use this strategic information to block or promote internal opponents or loyal party members. Hence, they can decide to position certain party candidates higher or lower on the list for each zone, effectively ensuring that they are either near-guaranteed seats, or token candidates only.

Issues Related to Women and Youth 

Women’s participation: Some individuals interviewed for the report indicated that particularly in rural areas of Albania, women tend to have less representation in Albanian politics. For example, a woman might be included on a party’s candidate list for a certain rural electoral zone, giving the impression of relative gender parity, and yet listed low enough on the list that it will be difficult-to-impossible for her to win a seat in Parliament. Family voting, by which all members of a family are induced to vote in certain way by the male head of the family, is also an issue in rural areas. According to recent studies undertaken by UN Women Albania, pressure by the head of the family is not exercised directly at the polling station. The practice occurs much more frequently at home, with lower-ranked family members (often women) ordered to vote in a certain way by their male head of household. 

Youth’s participation: The major political parties do have youth wings, some of which seem very enthusiastic. However, there is some concern that because these youth are being trained for politics within a corrupt system, the next crop of leaders may not be able to break free from the mold set by the current generation in power. In this regard, youth wings are seen more as an extension of the political operation of the party rather than a true source of new political leadership.

Civil Society, Media and Political Culture Issues 

Lack of an independent, strong civil society: While some independent organizations can be found, a large number of NGOs are allied with or controlled by the party in government through public funding allocations. These organizations may become unofficial mouthpieces of the party in power, instead of independent scrutinizers of their government programs. When NGOs are truly independent, they actively engage in electoral observation or efforts to promote party finance reform. However, their members can face the costs of not being loyal to a party, in terms of blocking of economic opportunities or denial of funding for their organizations. Due to general mistrust, such independent organizations may also be accused of allying themselves with political interests even when they are not—and their credibility may suffer as a result. This, combined with the lack of issue-driven politics, creates an environment in which it is hard to create mass mobilization in the name of the public good or to demand political change. 

Lack of independent media: While there are many media outlets in radio, TV, the Internet, and the printed press, many of them represent specific political and/or economic interests. Media is very often (though not always) either captured by political interests, or an instrument of economic interests to influence politicians. The lack of a strong independent media sector limits the potential to address the reform issues that the Albanian electoral system needs to be improved. Disenchantment with democracy/political culture: All of the previous issues have resulted in a serious lack of democratic political culture. People in Albania regard politics with cynicism and disenchantment. The politicization of economic opportunities, the polarized political climate, the electoral malpractice and the lack of responsiveness of public institutions have increased mistrust, cynicism and hopelessness about the political system and prospects for change. 

Role of the International Community

The international community has played a relevant role in Albanian politics since the postCommunist era. The role of the international community as donors, mediators and catalysts of public administration reform in Albanian politics has been key. As most institutions struggle to find consensus and often succumb to violations by powerful political parties, the international community has become the primary source of legitimacy in Albanian politics. Although the role of the international community seems to have declined comparatively since the last two elections, they continue to remain a major source of influence in the political arena, leading some critics to argue that there is a visible lack of ‘local ownership’ among Albanian political and civil society actors. The EU has been a major influence in Albania since 1991, after the collapse of the Communist regime. In this regard, the offer of EU membership extended to Albania and other Balkans countries in 2000 increased the role of the EU and opened up a range of new instruments to influence policy and politics in Albania. The EU partnerships adopted yearly since 2004 have set concrete priority targets that include administrative, judicial and economic reforms. Albania’s integration into the EU is contingent on the fulfillment of these targets. 

Albania gained the status of an official candidate to the EU in 2014. There is widespread support among political parties for EU accession. However, important reforms have been impeded and delayed due to polarization and disagreements between the two major parties. According to critics, in light of the stagnant reform process, pro-European Union statements by those in power are likely just lip service. The international community also supports Albania in electoral reforms, election implementation, training and capacity building of election officers and international stakeholder coordination. The role of international actors has now shifted from active election observation to supporting domestic observer groups, local NGOs and institutions. For example, currently the OSCE/ODIHR conducts a technical review of elections and organizes consultations among stakeholders of the voting process. The Council of Europe and OSCE together organize training sessions for members of the Central Election Commission on electoral administration. The international actors also provide support to raise voter awareness and organize voter education campaigns. For example, focus group discussions are organized by United Nations Development Programme for voter education, focusing on gender and elections, family voting, pressures for sanctions on fraud and other issues. 

Recommendations 

Support the CEC in creating a pool of well-trained election officers – International organizations should continue to assist the CEC in conducting training and capacity building sessions for election commissioners. Capacity building of law enforcement officers in areas like electoral dispute resolution and investigation techniques for financial irregularities and technical training of counting teams (CT) and voting center commissions (VCC) on software and hardware usage must be included. Additionally, election officers must be sensitized on gender dynamics, particularly issues faced by women during elections. A recurring challenge during elections is the frequent replacement of officers at VCCs and CTs due to requests by political parties on charges of bribery. This results in untrained officers being assigned election duties one day before the elections. Creating a pool of well-trained officers would ensure that last-minute transfers do not seriously affect implementation of elections.

Encourage coalitions of issue-driven parties and build their capacity – Both international and domestic actors must push for electoral and political reforms that allow new issue-driven political coalitions to form and establish themselves. Programs aiming at fostering younger parties and party leaders and building their political management skills must be promoted. It is crucial to empower newer issue-driven parties because political stagnation due to few alternatives is an impediment to democratic development in Albania.  

Improve transparency in internal party processes – The international community must assist political parties in the design and implementation of methods to promote inclusion of party members in decision making and deliberation within the party structure. Internal functioning of political parties including candidate selection rules, internal elections for leadership positions and women’s representation in the party leadership must be objective and transparent. Best practices from other countries should be shared to promote a democratic culture within political parties. 

Stricter enforcement of media standards by empowering media regulatory bodies – International observer groups must emphasize a fair and transparent election process of members of the AMA. Strict separation between editorial content and political advertising must be explicitly stated. Additionally, quality checks on the content of online media outlets must be ensured and a regulatory body monitoring online media standards must be instituted.  

Promote independent funding of CSOs, NGOs, media houses – International aid agencies must assist with fundraising strategies in Albania in order to encourage independently funded NGOs and media outlets. The government should be encouraged to offer tax rebates and other incentives to the private sector to encourage support for CSOs. A robust domestic private sector industry and a shift from excessive reliance on international organizations is important for the sustainable development of CSOs.

 
                    [post_title] => Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings
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            [post_content] => Last night, the leaders of the two major parties in Albania, Edi Rama, Prime Minister and Head of the Socialist Party, and Lulzim Basha, Head of the Democratic Party and head of the Albanian opposition coalition, seemed to have reached a final agreement after a protracted political crises that risked the boycott of general elections by the opposition.

Details of the agreement are yet to be made public. A sigh of relief on being rescued from dark potential scenarios, which this paper has outlined in previous editorials, was palpable almost all over. Many people watched on their screens, with mixed feelings of disappointment, that their life is still hostage to these political games, and of joy that the worst had been avoided.

As the two key politicians were leaving the parliament, they stopped for a moment at the gate to talk to the waiting journalists. It was exactly these journalists, camped there and waiting patiently to do their jobs, exhausted and yet excited to see the two key figures come out together, that insisted to ask them to please shake hands. A swift handshake with a very casual movement followed. It was unfelt yet the journalists applauded and laughed with relief.  Their exasperated joy was so symbolic of the popular sentiment of the times of the ordinary citizens that do not count themselves among party activists in this deeply politicized society.  

The agreement feels still vulnerable, feeble, and delicate. It feels like things could go wrong again, easily, quickly. Details have still to be ironed out.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge, much of the trust and basic ethics has been violated between sides. People on both camps have been polarized to the extreme in these tough days. Many others have joined the ranks of cynics giving up all hope in the political development of the country, abstaining, refusing to participate. The recovery will be tough.

However, if the agreement truly falls in line with the proposals of European and American envoys, it will provide some key open opportunities for the development of democracy in Albania, for the strengthening of accountability, the progress in implementing the decriminalization process as well as invest new positive energy into the country’s European integration process which is sorely stuck.

The elections shall be so much better, more representative and with a real potential of pushing forward a good agenda for Albanian citizens of all sides.

Good news from Albania’- tweeted European MPs today in reaction to the agreement. In comparison to their enthusiasm, the feeling in Albania is more cautious. In spite of this there is room for optimism. We might really be, finally, out of the woods.

 
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