By Bruce P. Jackson and James C. O'Brien
1 July 2005
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Compared to the French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitution, the upcoming elections in tiny Albania elicit little outside media attention. But Sunday's parliamentary poll may be the most important vote in Europe this year. What is at stake is not only the immediate future of Albania but also the success of the decade-long project to construct a Balkan region that is stable, at peace and fully a part of Europe.
Before the collapse of communism, Albania had been one of the most repressed and isolated countries in the world. The countryside is still dotted with thousands of concrete bunkers built by the eccentric dictator Enver Hoxha to defeat an imagined military invasion. At the time, it was a country teetering between comic opera and abject poverty.
Since the early 1990s, the political landscape has been dominated by two parties and two men: the Socialist Party led by Prime Minister Fatos Nano and the deceptively named Democratic Party of Dr. Sali Berisha. There could not be a greater contrast between these two men and their records in government. The Albanian people will in effect choose between them this weekend.
In April 1992, Dr. Sali Berisha became the first democratically elected president of Albania. His first year in office seemed to bring reform, but that proved short-lived. It quickly became apparent that Dr. Berisha was far more interested in power than in democracy. Two years into his term, he attempted to amend the constitution to consolidate power in the presidency. The proposal was defeated in a referendum. He then went after jurists who rendered verdicts against his interests. In 1995, he tried to remove the chief justice of the Supreme Court who had the temerity to reopen the case against Mr. Nano, then an opposition leader, whom President Berisha had imprisoned on corruption charges that were regarded as politically motivated. After four years of imprisonment, the charges were dropped due to international pressure. Over the next two years, independent media were subjected to physical intimidation and NGOs such as George Soros's Open Society Institute were forced to leave the country. Allegations of governmental corruption on a grand scale were abundant.
Finally in 1997, when most observers believed that things could not get any worse, Albania collapsed into chaos and riots after most of the country's people lost their life savings in a pyramid scheme that many believed the government had sanctioned. In July of that year, President Berisha was forced to resign, ending a bleak period in Albania's history.
From the low point of national bankruptcy and killing in the streets, modern Albania began its comeback. Between 1997 and 1999, a series of Socialist governments started to rebuild a crippled economy and to deal with the looming crisis next door in Kosovo. While thousands of refugees poured over Albanian borders, fleeing the ethnic cleansing unleashed by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Mr. Nano's government provided a moderate voice in Albanian politics and supported the NATO allies in the 1999 intervention to stop the war. Although the Socialist government, and Mr. Nano personally, have been dogged by persistent allegations of petty corruption, the overall political character of Albania seems to be improving since 1999.
In the intervening years, the story of Albania has been one of gradual progress. Since 1998, GDP has risen by more than 7% each year and foreign direct investment has tripled. Per capita income has more than doubled.
On the international front, Albania has re-established good neighborly relations. Unprecedented cooperation with Macedonia and Croatia has led to closer military ties, intelligence sharing and vastly improved regional trade. If these reforms continue, Albania should be invited to join NATO next year and the European Union in the early years of the next decade.
Albania's relationship with its neighbors and its role in the region have great consequences for the overall stability of the region. Major decisions on the status of Kosovo will be made this year. Next year, the European Union will have to decide whether to open membership discussions with Albania, and NATO will weigh whether to include Albania in the next round of expansion. Decision makers on both sides of the Atlantic will be influenced by the progress or lack thereof of reform in Albania, and by a subjective sense of whether Albania shares European political values.
The United States has been a strong supporter of Albania's move toward membership in the organizations that have kept Europe at peace the last 60 years. But now the U.S. must speak up, clearly and publicly, to make clear that it expects Albania to reaffirm its choice for Europe and to reject political extremism. America's voice means a great deal in Albania -- especially now that many in the region have reason to doubt the EU's continued interest in them. Extremists have begun to exploit this uncertainty to block urgently needed reforms on everything from privatization to the protection of minorities, and to restore reactionary governments in the Balkans.
The choice of the Albanian voters will not only affect the future of their own country but the stability of the Western Balkans and, indirectly, both Europe and the United States. Without moderate leadership in Tirana, hopes for a final resolution on Kosovo's future grow dimmer. Without a cooperative Albania, Macedonia's challenge of integrating its Macedonian and ethnically Albanian population will be harder. Without a modernizing Albania, the prospects for the economic development of the Western Balkans recede. And without a liberal Albania en route to Europe, the entire project of building a permanent peace in the Balkans will take Europe and America years longer than it should.
For most of the 20th century Albania didn't matter, but what the Albanian people decide Sunday will matter a great deal to all of us.
Mr. Jackson is president of the Project on Transitional Democracies. Mr. O'Brien served as Special Presidential Envoy for the Balkans in the Clinton administration.