Albania in the next ten years

Author: megi / Date: 18-02-2015 /

Albania in the next ten years 

Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

An Agenda for Change 

By: Albert Rakipi 

TIRANA, April 5 - Following the collapse of the communist regime two decades ago, Albania has undergone some of the deepest political, economic and social transformations in modern history. However, despite such undeniably significant processes, the completion of the post-communist transformation continues to be a contentious issue. 

The post-communist transformation – popularly known as the transition – has been theoretically and practically considered to be an endeavour with two basic, closely-related components: the replacement of the totalitarian/authoritarian regimes with democratic governments, and the move from a centralized socialist economy to a free market economic system. As in many other countries, both of these components became fundamental objectives of the Albanian elite who came to power following the collapse of the dictatorship. 

However, the early nineties were a period of optimism, faith and hope for change as much as they were a period of wonder and concern of what was to replace the entrenched communist regimes. It was uncertain whether the transition from Marxist-Leninist dictatorships would gradually lead to a pluralist democracy or whether it would rather produce some form of authoritarianism. 

Where is Albania after two decades of transformation? Have the two main objectives been achieved and can the transition process be considered complete? It can be immediately and unequivocally claimed that the totalitarian regime has fallen long ago and that the command economy cannot be found in any feature of the country’s current economic form of organisation. From this point of view, the transition process is complete. However, the answer becomes less apparent if one is to ask whether the totalitarian regime has been replaced by a democratic government and a democratic society. Similarly, it is still questionable whether the command economy has opened the way for a competitive, capitalist economy. 

If these large projects have not been implemented in Albania two decades later, is it still relevant or useful to talk about the post-communist transition? Does it make sense to talk about post-communist transition for a country that is a NATO member applying for EU membership? 

Indeed, many of the characteristics of Albania’s current democracy, state, society and economy can no longer be called transitional. Weak or failing institutions, eroding legitimacy and distrust of political institutions, popular apathy, sustained political tensions, lack of economic competition and consolidated corruption can no longer be considered temporary distortions or symptoms of a transition towards democracy. It is becoming increasingly evident that these phenomena are not characteristics of a transitory period but ‘tangible products’ that threaten to become permanent features of the Albanian political landscape. The politics of a zero sum game, permanent political conflict, the lack of consensus and unfair competition in the political, economic and societal realms unfortunately continue to remain basic features of Albania’s post-communist reality. 

The use of the word “transition” therefore obscures more than it explains. It also seems to justify the country’s problems by means of a perceived sense of inevitability that accompanies the intangible forces of transition. It portrays transition as a process that cannot be controlled, managed, or directed. 

From another point of view, post-communist transition is a term that refers to the past rather than the future. Transition helps to mark the point of departure – the early nineties. But what is the point of arrival? Is it the establishment of a functioning state and a democratic society? Is it accession to the European Union? 

Rather than a purely intellectual or academic endeavour, the discussion of the completion of transition in Albania is an undertaking that carries real political and policy implications for the country’s democratic future. 

THE NEXT TEN YEARS 

The next ten years will be crucially important to Albania’s future and its prospects to establish democratic governance and to consolidate a functioning state that enjoys full legitimacy and provides basic public goods to its citizens. Similarly, they will be critical to the country’s capacity to build a developed capitalist economy based on free competition. 

Such a development process is in essence Albania’s Europeanization project. Although these major objectives occupy a longer-term perspective, the next ten years will be decisive for the future of this project. Any other perspective that expects membership in the European Union to magically bring about democratic governance, a functioning state and a developed economy is clearly misinformed. 

But what are the problems that Albania needs to address before it can even aim to establish a democratic, viable /functional state and a really sound market economy 

1. (MULTIPLE) ROTATION OF POWER VIA FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS 

Chris Patten, the former Commissioner for EU External Relations, has perhaps provided the most philosophical description of the Balkans’ technology of change. Exactly a decade ago, talking about the Balkans, he stated: “In the Balkans, like the old English folk dance, it is often a case of two steps forward, one step back.” 

Indeed, Albania is a typical example of a country where progress and development has been advanced through internal crises - some of which (1997) has been serious enough to shake internal stability and security. When it was generally believed that the “back to the future” legacy of development was left behind, Albania found itself in a new crisis on January 21, 2011, when four citizens were shot dead at a violent opposition protest. 

The recurring political crises that Albania has experienced in these twenty years have been firstly related to the rotation or confirmation of power via free and fair elections. With the exception of the 1992 elections - which replaced a regime and not a government- Albania has failed to hold internationally certified, free and fair elections. 

The experience of the past two decades shows that political conflict and the approach of zero sum game have led the country into multiple, deep crises (1997, 1998, 2001 and 2009). 

From this perspective the next ten years, will start in 2013. Should the forthcoming political elections of 2013 not achieve the transfer or confirmation of power via widely recognised elections, Albania may face deep political crises that can potentially threaten the country’s stability and security. 

2. Democratisation of political parties 

Political parties remain key political actors and simultaneously the most undemocratic institutions in the country. When the party is in power, it is identified with the state while whether in power or in opposition, the party is identified with its leader. 

Political leadership of most parties remains the same since the overthrow of communism and Albania’s political life has ever since been dominated by two or three individuals. Despite the provisions of written statues and procedures, party leadership remains almost unchanged. 

In addition, the bipolar party system (with two major parties in a permanent conflict) continues to diminish the potential role of a civil society in Albania. It remains to be seen if the bipolar status quo of the two main parties, PD and PS, will continue when the Black and Red Alliance—a recently registered political party— looms in the horizon; and another political party by the current President Bamir Topi is expected. 

Leadership changes are expected in both big parties in the next ten years. The way such changes are conducted will be decisive to the democratic functioning of the respective parties and a as a result, also to the democratic future of the country. 

Albania is the only Balkan country where the ruling elites haven’t been renewed since the regime changes of the early nineties. If the natural replacement of leadership in the Albanian political parties does not happen in the next ten years, then at least in this aspect, Albania will resemble the regimes of the Middle East minus the Arab spring 

3. BRING THE LEVIATHIAN HERE 

If a single most importance issue is to be singled out in Albania at the end of two decades of transition, it would have to be the weakness of the state, expressed as a lack of state presence, with few capacities to provide the basic public goods starting from security justice and a very low degree of law implementation. 

Though paradoxical, citizens associate the weak state with the democratization processes that started after the early nineties. Although one cannot speak of nostalgia for the communist state, citizens nevertheless acknowledge a variety of qualities of the state under communism as regards public order and the degree of law enforcement. 

It is in fact a paradox that needs explaining. Both theoretically and practically the state is weak under communism and strong in a functioning democratic system – when the state is not defined in terms of its coercive capacity, but the capacity to produce high quality basic public goods, security, law and order, justice, health, education and the alike. This is thus an interesting result. The post-communist performance of the state has been so poor that though Albanian citizens currently have no nostalgia of the state under communism, they nevertheless perceive a current lack of the state and of rule of law in Albania. Such views are testimonies to the weak functioning of the state. 

In the early nineties, along with the fall of the regime in Albania came a near fall of the state that had been equated to the oppressive regime. At least two immediate implications of this state failure were the loss of control over national borders and loss of control over territory. Such identification of the state with the regime was the first reason for the weakening of the state, even though the relatively recent tradition of the state in Albania was another contributing factor. 

Another reason for the weakening of the state is exogenous and has to do with the triumph of neoliberal ideas of the state that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Heavy reliance on the market and the extraordinary shrinkage of the size of the state was proved wrong even in the consolidated capitalist economies. The shrinking of the state based on neoliberal ideas in a country like Albania where capitalism was, and to a certain extent continues to be, little more than a facade of capitalism, only led to the further weakening of the state. 

However, the fundamental reason for the weakening of the state in Albania has to do with the deformation of the political system and its components. It has to do with the country’s non-functional, weak democracy. We seem to have entered a vicious circle where the weak democracy breeds a weak state and where the weak state recycles the weak democracy. What is the way out? 

The next ten years will be vital in escaping this heritage of the past two decades that threatens to turn into ‘normality’. 

The ‘de-partisation’ of the state is the first step that the two main political parties need to achieve on the basis of wide political consensus. A ‘pact for the state’ needs to guarantee the separation of the party from the state as well as the construction of a state bureaucracy that is not based on clannish, tribal or clientelistic relations. 

The reestablishment of state control over the territory also requires the consensus of the two political parties. Laws and procedures exist but they are not implemented. Albania has for twenty years now undergone the so-called process of legalisation of illegally-built dwellings. Neither of the two main parties that have held power in these twenty years has dared to put an end to this intentional loss of state control over territory. For similar political reasons, a large number of citizens in Albania are allowed to forgo the payment of electric energy bills. Similar scenarios can be imagined in the taxing system. 

The return of state control and rule of law over the territory, if achieved, can also stop the degradation of the environment. This is importantly relevant to the economic development of the country - and especially to areas where the potential for the development of tourism is high. 

4. TIME FOR A CAPITALIST ECONOMY and prioritization 

There were no private banks in Albania in 1994 and now the country hosts a chain of western banks. Similarly, though the number of banks per capita is higher than in almost any country of the region and the EU, banking products and services are offered at the highest rates in the entire region. Such developments are difficult to comprehend in circumstances of free competition. Similarly, in 1992, the fixing of a line phone could only be achieved via a government authorisation. Now, there are four mobile telephone operators but charges remain to be some of the highest in the world. Why does there seem to be no competition between the four mobile communications companies at a time when the Albanian economy claims to be a capitalist economy? 

These are only two massive examples as such developments can be easily observed in the markets of various consumption products and services. Why does there seem to be no competition in the Albanian economy? To what extent does the Albanian economy function as a capitalist economy? 

The second issue that needs to be critically considered is the hierarchy of priorities for the country’s economic development. Where are the advantages of the Albanian economy and which sectors should be prioritised? 

In the last twenty years, economic development in Albania has been chaotically shaped by a long list of priorities, which has in essence made every sector a non-priority. Although a holistic assessment needs to be undertaken, local and international experts nevertheless believe the country’s development should focus on the sectors of tourism and energy. 

After such priorities for economic development in Albania are outlined, a critical evaluation needs to also be undertaken on the interaction of these sectors with other important sectors such as the environment, infrastructure and the quality of education in Albania. 

5. DEGRADATION OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM - STOP IT NOW 

The coming ten years will be deterministic to the quality and the future of the education system in the country. Albania inherited a strong tradition of education from the communist system. Though based on the Russian school, the education system in Albania maintained generally high levels of quality and commitment in all of its educational cycles. Even in conditions of extreme isolation, with the exception of the social sciences, the Albanian university system and academia were able to produce a noteworthy elite. Similarly, the regime invested highly even at the lower levels of pre-university schooling. In her work on Albania, anthropologist Clarissa De Waal notes that Albanian teachers at the beginning of transition were more professional than teachers in Greece. Becoming a teacher and especially a university professor in the Albanian society under communism was a sign of social status. The regime paid particular attention to the individuals and institutions that were to form the body of the country’s future educators. 

Paradoxically, the quality of education in conditions of freedom has fallen considerably compared to the period of the communist regime. The first hit to the education system in Albania in general, and to university education in particular, took place in the early years of transition. This was the time when a large number of university professors, scientific researchers and even talented teachers choose to leave Albania – often to take up unqualified jobs abroad. But the degradation of the educational system deepened in the following years. Both local and international experts now affirm the nearly hopeless condition of education in the country. Corruption was certainly the first step in the spectacular degradation that started from lower cycles of the education system all the way up to the university level. Low-paid teachers and professors choose the wrong path to survival - that of corruption. Now, one simply needs to pay a bribe to pass a class. The same route can be followed all the way up to the awarding of a diploma. 

A parallel significant development of transition and the opening of borders in the last twenty years has also been the creation of excellent opportunities for tens of thousands of Albanian students to study in western universities each year. 

Currently, the education system, particularly at the university level, faces a chaotic, almost desperate situation. A dozen or so private universities have appeared like mushrooms after the rain. Largely serving as profit sources for the owners, they are undermining the underlying idea of quality private education through entrepreneurship. 

6. ALBANIA’S FOREIGN POLICY – TIME FOR CHANGE 

Albania’s social, economic and political transformation during the last twenty years has been significantly supported by Albania’s foreign policy and international relations. Further development necessarily also depends on the contribution of foreign policy and international relations in general. Success in Albania’s foreign affairs will largely depend on success in domestic affairs. However, it is also critical that Albania reviews its international relations, focusing on, but not being limited to, the Balkan states. 

The review of Albania’s bilateral relations should start with Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia. It should then continue with the two EU frontline neighbours, Italy and Greece- and particularly the latter. Albania does not seem to have a Balkan foreign policy and seems to shy away, if not fear having a foreign policy on the region. Albania’s foreign minister in the past twenty years has spoken about the Balkans as the Foreign Minister of Sueland speaks of it. Regional cooperation in the Balkans cannot be successful unless there is first a healthy relationship between states at the bilateral level. Albania has always claimed a constructive role in the region, which has meant an active support for Western policy in the Balkans. The pursuit of an opposite course has mostly been an assumed concern of the western partners rather that something likely to materialize. 

The next ten years will be extraordinarily important to the future of Albania’s relations with the countries of the Balkans, starting with Kosovo. If Albania will seek to have a role in Balkans, will this continue to be the role mostly invented by the west - one that assumes a region under the fear of instability and conflicts? Or will it be one that will support Albania’s interests without giving up commitments as a member of the international community (NATO) and a country aspiring EU membership? 

There are also problems between Albania and Greece that need to be solved based on international law, the stock of international documents, and on European values. The relations between Albania and U.S. are considered to be in transition. Should this be the case, the future of these relations also needs to be mapped out. Albania’s relations with other regions such as the Middle East and the Islamic world in general are almost frozen. In this regard, the country needs to ask if it is willing, and particularly why it should be willing to pursue a 360 degree foreign policy. All of these issues should be not only a matter of academic pursuit but also areas of relevant consideration to policy and decision makers. 

The development of critical thinking on foreign policy debates and decision-making will bring about the democratization of foreign policy and the relevant decision-making processes. Such developments will consequently translate into positive changes in terms of both domestic and foreign affairs. 

Last but not least, a realistic, serious foreign policy must be supported by a qualitative and competent service. To steer such progress, Albania’s diplomatic service needs to be reformed. Like the rest of the state machinery, it has been built and functions on the basis of political, clan and even family-based nepotism rather than on the country’s laws and procedures.