Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A test for 'Europe whole and free' ; From Albania, of all places

There's an important election next Sunday, one that may make a significant difference not only to the prospects for consolidating a democratic transition, but also to regional peace, security and stability, and to the question of whether "Europe whole and free" still has meaning after the failure of the EU Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands. It's in Albania. That's right, Albania.

During the Cold War, Albania was the ne plus ultra communist country of Eastern Europe, a place where strange little apparatchiks in ill-fitting black suits and plastic shoes had grown deeply suspicious about the fidelity of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Mao's China to the principles of Marxism-Leninism and severed their ties accordingly. Albania was the North Korea of the Balkans, tucked at a far distant end of the earth past the point where the rail lines stop running. Even if you could get there, you couldn't. Albania was closed to the outside world, hermetically sealed by its deranged political class to prevent the intrusion of corrupting influences. Albania was the place people living under the thumb of the Soviet Union in its heyday could point to as consolation that things could be worse.

The post-communist transition was difficult. Albania's communist rulers held on a couple years longer than their brethren in Eastern and Central Europe, and it looked for a while like the poor Albanians - and by poor, I mean about as poor as possible in Europe, even in the Balkans - would long be fated to a choice of communist- era goons repackaged as "democrats" but more interested in seizing political control to enrich themselves and their cronies than in improving the lives of Albanians. On a good day, there's not much to steal in Albania; nevertheless, it beats working - at least for a certain sort of opportunistic political entrepreneur.

Sali Berisha was the first post-communist president of Albania. Elected in 1992 following his party's sweep of parliamentary elections, he had a golden opportunity to steer Albania into the modern world. He didn't. Instead, he cracked down on press freedoms and political rights in a fashion that earned the condemnation of Western human-rights groups; attempted to politicize the judiciary by firing and demoting judges who ruled against him; tried (and failed) to ram through a constitution in 1994 that would have consolidated his own power; and rigged the 1996 elections in favor of his party, prompting calls from European monitors for new elections.

Meanwhile, the Albanian economy had essentially been turned into a giant ponzi scheme. Albanians, though new to capitalism, took to it well enough to generate substantial savings (including remittances from the 400,000 or so Albanians then living abroad out of a total population of 3.5 million, according to a World Bank report). They weren't quite sophisticated enough to refrain from depositing their savings in accounts seductively offering sky-high interest rates. Fund managers made payments straight from the deposits of new investors, minus what the managers stole, until the whole scheme collapsed in 1997. People lost everything, the country dissolved into riots and chaos, and the Berisha government fell.

Now, Mr. Berisha wants back in. He is hoping to unseat the incumbent prime minister, Fatos Nano, who helped steer the country out of chaos as prime minister in 1997 and was named prime minister again in 2002. Mr. Nano's past is somewhat checkered in the manner of most of the country's politicians - the exception being his party- mate Edi Rama, the extraordinary mayor of Tirana. But what Mr. Nano has that Mr. Berisha lacks is a genuine record of performance: The economy has grown by nearly 7 percent per year since 1998, per capita GDP has increased from $800 to a little over $1,700 and unemployment has been falling.

Perhaps even more important, Mr. Nano has been energetic in seeking Albania's permanent integration into Western institutions. Albania, Croatia and Macedonia jointly created the Adriatic Charter for regional cooperation, a novelty in the war-ravaged Balkans. Mr. Nano's Albania has aspirations to join NATO and contributed a small contingent of troops to Iraq. Albania has also been working to strengthen ties with the European Union.

In truth, I don't know what Mr. Berisha would do in office. Perhaps he is a very different man from the one who was in charge a decade ago. But with Mr. Nano, we know that Albania will get someone who can keep pushing for his country's further integration into the West. This comes at an important time, with the European Union looking inward as a result of the crisis over the constitutional treaty and with crucial negotiations over the future of Kosovo looming. The danger posed by backsliding in the Balkans would be acute.

One test of the maturity of a democracy is that the United States need be no more concerned about which party wins the election than in the case of Britain, France or Germany. Albania may be getting closer, but it's not there yet. For Albanians, Europeans and Americans, Mr. Nano would be the better choice.

* Tod Lindberg is the editor of Policy Review magazine and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His column appears on Tuesdays. E-mail: lindberg@hoover.stanford.edu.


Ilir said...

I really hope that these elections are free and that the best candidates may win, but deep inside I really hope that if Berisha is to win, I'd rather mot have free elections.

We all know what happened 10 years ago, or even e few years before that. Ever since Berisha took over Albania there was only downwards and backwards for us, United States withdrew from helping Albania, Europe took a step back, and we all know what happened next. Many may say that this wasn't Berisha's fault, but however he is to be blamed. He is the one going around blaming Nano and company, but his blames hold no ground, he fires stupid words out of his mouth, and all he can do a hole in the water. He is the one who manipulated elections, who tried to take away the freedom of speech, the one to steal our money, and most importantly the one to steal our national pride! I really hope that this Jack Ass of the Albanian politics doesn't win any votes.

All this being said, Nano is not much better. However, nobody can argue that Nano isn't smarter than Berisha. He has proved this over and over again. I am 150% sure that Nano is involved in every kind of trafficking that goes through Albania, he is a Godfather, and he is to be feared. However, Nano is already rich and recently I have noticed that he is trying hard to help Albanians. This might be a sign of compassions for poorer Albanians from his side. We all know that rich people after a certain period feel compassion for poor people, so maybe this is what is happening to him now. It is not right, but is better than having that jackass of Berisha come back and make a mess out of everything.

It is a pitty that Albanian politics cannot at this time offer something better than these two politicians who should have stepped down a while ago.

Bill Clinton said...


I really hope that Sali Berisha gets the Albanians woters trust to
move Albania closer to United States and Europe.We all know that Albania is governed by criminals and drugdealers.Ok Tiranas mayer may be a good fewllow but hes Party Leader, Fatos Nano is a disaster for Albania, Balkans, Europe,United States and the world.
Jack Ass of the Albanian politics doesn't win any votes.
Our prayers are with you DR.Sali Berisha.
Bill Clinton former Us President.

Chris Blaku said...

Bill Clinton, spell check.

Anonymous said...

First of all, let me publicly THANK President Bill Clinton, Hero of Kosova, for joining us in this blog.
Second of all, Albanians need to wake up and get rid of BOTH gofdather Nanosi and redneck Berisha. Nanosi is very smart but uses his smarts in evil ways and Berisha is very honest but dumb and a failed politician. It's as simple as this, if both of them suck, get rid of both (or all) of them. Albania can afford better, western-educated leaders such as Erion Veliaj. Give the last kick to the communists once and for all.

Anonymous said...

This time we gotta get rid of both of them.

Antirevolucionaristi said...

If you need to have an idea what Albania was before, read '1984', written before 1945, that's before it all begun, and not 'Pallati i ëndrrave' by Kadare, written after everything came to an end.
Fuck Berisha, Fuck Nano, wake-up and see. Don't wait for North Korea to be democratized before you do.

Anonymous said...

Yes another 5 years of corruption with Nano,....!!anthother 5years of Nano will mean destruction for Albanians and suffering..ALBANIA NEED CHANGES Mr

Dardani said...

The hope is in the new generations.

Xhino said...

First of all I would just like to point out that this article is very biased and communist. As to the 1997 crisis I would like to recall that it was the socialists (aka communists) who started the revolts and riots. Most of you would say that Mr. Berisha did not do much, but you are all very wrong and misinformed. When a nation's political spectrum changes drastically it is almost impossible for its economy to skyrocket immediately. Mr. Nano did not change anything, he just followed Berisha's footsteps and continued what Berisha was doing. Just as a note I would like to point out that I am nt a democrat fanatic, but rather a 19 year old Albanian going to University for Political Science. This election means a lot to Albania and its future. There is no Socialist country in the Western World. Democracy and capitalism are the way to go.

Chris Blaku said...

Xhino- I will not comment much on inter-Albanian issues such as partisan bias in Albania's election. However, it is necessary to point out that there are numerous Socialist governments and political parties in Western Europe.

Nano's group is quasi-Socialist, and many of their actions have been pro business and pro free market over the past year. Do not take this to mean I endorse Nano, nor condemn Berisha. However, I do believe that Nano needs scolding for his screw up involving Greek schools in Albania and Berisha needs scorn for his proclamation of Albania as a Muslim state.

I know that this is not the best that Albania has to offer, and the future will prove me right.

Anonymous said...


Chris Blaku said...

Sounds like you need a hug.