Albania’s democracy at 25: Challenges and opportunities

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 1, 2015 11:03


Elez Biberaj

Elez Biberaj

Twenty-five years after the demise of communism it is appropriate to consider Albania’s democratic trajectory and to highlight its successes and challenges.  I will attempt to review Albania’s accomplishments in the past quarter-century, as well as current and near-term challenges that it confronts in fully consolidating its democracy.  I do this from the vantage point of an outside observer, but an observer that cares deeply about the progress of Albania and the Albanian nation.

I have always considered myself extremely lucky and very grateful for the opportunity that the Voice of America has given me to closely watch developments in my mother country. VOA has been intimately connected with developments in Albania, having been a constant across the different eras of Albania’s post-World War II history.  Arguably the most memorable period of VOA’s coverage of Albanian affairs was the post-Hoxha period, and more specifically the dramatic events in 1990. VOA offered a countervailing narrative that debunked the regime’s propaganda and emphasized that communist rule had trampled on Albanian aspirations to build a modernized country, based on political pluralism and market economy. Thus VOA served as an external influencer and an agent of change by successfully challenging the regime’s monopoly on news and information, providing an outlet for Albanian dissent, and promoting the ideals of a free, pluralistic, and democratic society. But VOA was just one of the many internal and external factors that together contributed to the fall of communism.

The demise of Albania’s communist system unleashed a democratic momentum and ushered in a diverse and dynamic political landscape. With significant political support and financial assistance from the United States and the European Union, Albania embarked upon rapid political and socio-economic reforms: revamping the constitutional order, and creating a new system with checks and balances, safeguards for fundamental rights and freedoms, and judicial reform.  Albania also reintegrated itself in the international community, pursuing a distinctly pro-Western course, developing close political and military ties with the United States and NATO.  A succession of rapid reforms was followed by social dislocations and then an implosion in 1997, which came close to turning Albania into a failed state.  The crisis resulted in political fragmentation, and a dramatic erosion of state power.  However, Albania recovered from the pyramid scheme crisis within a relatively brief period, and continued its reform agenda, making progress on many fronts.  Albania is now a NATO member and a candidate for membership in the European Union, and its regional saliency has increased significantly.

Thus Albania has seen its transition to completion.  I would submit that twenty-five years after the demise of communism, the use of the terms “transition” and “post-communist” is of limited, questionable utility.   A country that has held eight parliamentary elections since 1991, with power alternating between two major political parties, and is a full member of NATO and an EU candidate member cannot be classified as “a country in transition”  or as a “post-communist” country.

The issue is what type of a regime has Albania transitioned to? Have Albanians fully attained their democratic aspirations? And is the current system or current level of democracy the highest form of a democratic order that the Albanians can achieve?

Developments in Albania during the last quarter-century should be viewed within the broader regional, East European context.  Eastern Europe’s political transition has resulted in several types of regimes: full-fledged democracy, hybrid, and authoritarian regime. The Baltic, East and Central European countries, and two former Yugoslav republics – Slovenia and Croatia – have had a relatively rapid and successful transition and have largely succeeded in consolidating their democratic order.

Albania, on the other hand, has lagged significantly behind, and its shift to democracy has been slow and more challenging.  Albania is part of the cluster of former communist countries – Armenia, Bosnia, Georgia, and Montenegro – that are beset by democratic deficits and classified as “hybrid regimes.”  While rating higher on democracy indices than “authoritarian” regimes, such as those of Russia and other former Soviet republics, “hybrid regimes” are characterized by semi-democratic political arrangements; elections that do not always fully conform to international standards for free, transparent and credible ballots; prolonged post-election disputes; lack of rule of law; superficial checks and balances; widespread corruption; weak civil society; and governments that are largely not accountable to the citizenry.

The slow pace of Albania’s democratization has been conditioned by a multitude of interrelated factors, which go well beyond the totalitarian nature of Hoxha’s regime and the lack of a democratic tradition. They span a host of political, social, and economic factors.  These obstacles, combined with the general failure of political elites to deepen democratic institutions, provide effective governance and pursue greater economic growth, have weighed heavily on Albanian democracy.

This is neither the time nor the place to go into details, but let me just mention several factors that continue to impede Albania’s democratization. The persistence of the old elite – most of those in leading positions had been part of the communist nomenclature that made a seamless transition into the post-communist system – has adversely impacted the country’s democratic maturation. These elites in general did not display democratic views about the nature of politics, proved to be poor politicians, and tended to show little appreciation for the give-and-take of democratic governance.  While paying lip service to democratic ideals, once in power political leaders make efforts to assert control over all levers of power, impose control over the media and business, and divide and marginalize internal opponents as well as the opposition. The elites tend to demonize their opponents, often resorting to highly confrontational, accusatory, populist, and arrogant rhetoric.  Few of the top elites can be viewed as a model for the rest of the society.

Albanian politics remain deadlocked and deeply dysfunctional, having essentially deteriorated to a struggle for power between the country’s two major political parties, although they no longer offer stark and consequential choices.  The 2008-2009 constitutional and electoral code changes resulted in the concentration of power in party leaders, leading to a significant degradation of intra-party democracy. Party leaders control and determine the list of candidates – witness the current process for the selection of candidates for the June local elections.  Invariably, they promote or install people in higher positions that are personally loyal to them.  Members of the parliament adhere closely to their leader’s stance and officials across the political spectrum rarely project flexible or independent positions.

Corruption is pervasive across all levels of the government and society.  Wealth and access to power have been concentrated in the hands of a small group, while sizeable parts of the population still live in poverty.  This situation has created widespread resentment and is politically destabilizing.  There is a widespread perception that all are corrupt.  This of course is a gross oversimplification, but perceptions can be as important as reality.

The widespread malfeasance is a very serious obstacle to good governance and a fair distribution of the country’s resources. The very institutions that are critical to fight corruption and uphold the rule of law – government officials and politicians, the parliament, political parties, courts, judges, prosecutors, and the police – have undermined the campaign against corruption.

While current challenges should not obscure the progress Albania has made in the last quarter-century, there is growing evidence that Albanians are not satisfied with the level of democracy that their country has achieved.

The question now is will the current system endure or will it evolve into a less or more democratic regime?  Given the many internal challenges it faces, the global and regional trend of democratic backsliding, and the growing clout of authoritarian alternatives, is Albania likely to experience deterioration in its democratic performance?

In the near term, chances appear low for major and rapid political change.  It is painfully clear that established elites are not likely to fundamentally change their style of governing or how they treat each other. They remain firmly entrenched and politics highly informal and personal. The pace of democratization has largely lost its momentum, resulting in political malaise and an incremental advance in democratic development. While in the initial stage there was political will, immense drive and appetite for radical reforms, now there seems to be an absence of political will to move to the next level of deep reforms. There are no indications that Albanian leaders are seeking ways of lowering the volume of the rancorous relationship between the ruling coalition and the opposition, engage in an inclusive debate, and reach a national consensus on major issues that would make it easier to carry out far reaching political changes, deepening democracy and improving governance.

The 2013 parliamentary elections were widely seen as a watershed moment.  However, the country rapidly slipped back into the old style of conflictual politics. The prolonged political impasse, slow economic growth and increased social challenges, and a series of corruption scandals have severely undermined good governance.

The international community has invested significantly in Albania’s democratization process.  But the international community has been increasingly less inclined to use the important levers it has to influence the Albanian leadership, apparently having resigned itself to the fact that the situation in Albania is likely to change very slowly.  This reinforces the view that the European Union is not likely in the near future to absorb Albania with its current political troubles and corrupt institutions.

Real change, therefore, would have to be advanced from within.  For radical reforms to take place, the current system would need to be shocked to action. But despite growing dissatisfaction with the current political and economic situation, there seems to be little pressure from below that would force Albanian politicians to fundamentally change course.  The civil society is too weak to administer a dose of reality to Albanian elites to take serious measures to end the maddening patterns of contested elections, protracted disputes, and boycotts. Similarly, the society at large seems to condone the politicians’ misguided policies, political shortsightedness, unprincipled political struggle between the ruling party and the opposition, greed and corruption.

If these negative trends persist, the best that Albania can expect in the near term is to muddle through, at times muddle up and at other times muddle down.  But business as usual will delay Albania’s integration into the EU, exacerbate internal problems, and promote bad governance. The divisive polarization and the poisonous relationship that characterizes Albanian politics could lead to democratic backsliding and an erosion of the progress that the country has made.  Pervasive corruption, organized crime, and the culture of impunity present an existential threat to Albania’s democracy. Some might even be tempted to question democratic values and norms, and view less democratic or authoritarian systems as viable alternatives.

This leads us to pose some provocative questions:  Are Albanians in a position to challenge with real action the current widespread narrative that this country has no future?  Do the Albanians have the capacity and political will to achieve a higher level of democratic maturity, and implement fundamental reforms that would shift the country to a full-fledged democracy?

While the formidable challenges that Albanians currently face cannot be overstated, there are several factors that in the longer term – I emphasize the longer term – are likely to promote sustainable democratization.

Albanians at large are not likely to resign themselves to the current situation. There is widespread dissatisfaction, especially among the youth, with the status quo, which is likely to lead to increased demands for more responsible and responsive leaders that focus on strong institutions and rules, economic development, and have the ability to deliver public goods.

Albania has a dynamic, highly educated, young generation that tends to think in a Western, democratic context and is poised to move into influential positions. The eventual emergence of a new generation of political and economic leaders is a promising factor. As a result of the impact of globalization, technological innovation, and study abroad, many young Albanians have new ideas and a new vision of the future of their nation.  And the growing middle class, with its many intelligent, highly motivated, and aspiring entrepreneurs, is likely to demand greater transparency and accountability of officials and politicians.

While Albania has witnessed economic growth – this year the GDP is likely to increase by 3 percent – it has not experienced significant economic development. The gulf between the rulers and the ruled is huge. Many citizens are alienated, and likely to demand a voice in shaping their country’s future and influencing policy decisions that affect their vital interests.

The prospect of EU membership continues to serve as a strong impetus to implement the necessary reforms.  Albanians cannot afford to lose this opportunity and the electorate is not likely to forgive the politicians if they do.  For most Albanians, there are no viable alternatives to their European, democratic path.

What happens in Albania is important and is likely to have an impact across much of the Western Balkans.  While the current system is not likely to be accepted by the Albanians as the endpoint of democracy, Albania will require a fundamental course correction to become a fully consolidated democracy.  Albania needs capable, forward-looking leaders that are equipped to navigate the way forward.  But if Albania is to move ahead in meaningful ways, its leaders must take serious measures to eradicate corruption, establish public trust in the state and its institutions, ensure good governance, promote accountability toward all citizens, and foster economic development that will lead to growing opportunities and a higher standard of living.  This is a tall order and these goals are not easily attained.

These are times of unique challenges and opportunities. Albanians can resign themselves to the status quo and the real possibility of being marginalized or they can seize the opportunity, capitalize on the significant achievements of the last quarter-century, regain the democratic momentum, move decisively in a democratic direction and make their democratic vision a reality.

*Dr. Elez Biberaj is the director of the Eurasia Division of the Voice of America. This was his keynote address at the Conference on 25th Anniversary of Albania’s Transition on April 24. This analysis is published exclusively in English by Tirana Times. The opening paragraph of the original remarks included the following: “Thank you so much for the invitation to participate in this important conference and that very generous introduction.  I am very pleased to be here in the company of such distinguished personalities and friends and colleagues.  I am also honored to be here on this extraordinary occasion – the 25th anniversary of Albania’s transition from a dictatorial, one party-state to a multi-party, democratic system.”

** If copying this article for republication, please note that it first appeared in English on Tirana Times.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 1, 2015 11:03