Is Albania becoming a part of Europe, or just returning to it? Does granting candidate status to the country mean a chance, a present or a merit? How do we view the “EU,” as a set of values or a valuable financial source for new member and candidate states? Is this the end of the integration process for Albania, or is it just the beginning of a long course of reforms that would finalize the country’s 24-year long aspirations of EU integration? These are some of the dilemmas and questions that remain unanswered in Tirana, on June 24, 2014 – several hours after the EU decision to grant Albania the status of candidate country to join the Union.
Contrastingly, a few years ago, enthusiasm over the invitation to join the EU was restrained in Tirana. There were no signs of massive public response to the news. It was the politicians who celebrated through their social network pages and television screens. This is a new type of behavior for Albanian citizens; developed in stark contrast to the entering NATO or granting Albanians free movement, with the EU decision on visa liberalization. This abstinence is understandable for several reasons: a significant degree of tiredness from the public on the expectations of the EU; the electoral promise for EU integration to the average citizen does no longer brings massive votes nor a competitive political thesis for the parties; local politicians are no longer considered the reformers the country desperately needs and the difficult economic situation makes citizens appear skeptical towards the big political and geopolitical projects.
From December 2013, when the decision for Albania was postponed, until June 2014, when it was approved, very few changes occurred in the country. The efforts of the new government, to liberalize the nature of its governance, remain fragile. Through the success of controlling the whole territory, new police measures against drug cultivators or the development of an effective tax system, tax and law enforcement have shown positive signs, but the whole package still remains insufficient in meeting the high expectations of the Albanian citizens. The new governing coalition has full power to pass sweeping reforms, but after 9 months, the Albanian parliament has yet to pass any important laws. It still has significant problems defining its priorities and governance standards among the coalition partners.
Most of the citizens, themselves Albanians, have misunderstood the whole EU concept. There has been political and media who misleadingly explained the EU and candidacy status. As a result, most Albanians believe being granted candidate-country- status means EU membership is around the corner; they also believe the EU will help the country overcome its economic crisis and boost economic development; will fund major projects and Albanian citizens will gain equal rights and privileges within the EU space. Only a minority understands the challenges and the great need for internal reforms, – a new political behavior, full deployment of the rule of law, the functioning of a competitive economy, complete freedom of media and independent institutions, a reliable justice system, new standards of governance with more transparency and stronger actions against corruption.
In regard to geopolitical developments, the Brussels’ decision to accept Albania’s application to EU ends the Albanian fears over prejudices against a Muslim majority country. It avoids the feeling of victimization that Tirana had in relation to favorable decisions from Brussels towards Belgrade in recent years. It comes as a message of support for Kosovo, and also confirms the European orientation of Albania. Status does not solve the candidates’ problems (eg. after 9 years, Macedonia has still made very limited progress), however, it remains encouraging. In contrast to some other countries in the Western Balkans, there is no political force against EU integration in Tirana. Even the lack of constructive opposition in the country does not give much space for critical or self-critical readings of the EU’s message. For example, it still remains difficult to politically translate the need for Albania’s economy to survive and be competitive in the region and beyond, and the ability of institutions to create a new model of behavior and functions that is comparable to EU standards and the legacy of the country.
Brussels’ message lists a number of challenges for Albania on the long road to membership. These are phrases that have been repeated over the years, but remain essential for the future of Albania: rule of law, functioning democracy, independent and functional judiciary, and freedom of media, competitive economy, and most of all, the fight against corruption. For officials in Tirana, this tight and overloaded agenda might require more than a decade to be met, even if we consider the existing willingness to change and react to the lessons from past mistakes. However, if Albanian politicians choose, instead, to continue with the old practices of behavior, then the country will need more than a decade to join the EU. Albania successfully met the standard for elections in 2013, and made a smooth democratic rotation of power. However, the economy remains weak; the administration and its capabilities continue to be fragile; institutions are visibly dependant on the policy of the day; the power of the political parties is dominant over the state and society; the media cohabits, and survives, due to political lobbying; civil society lacks public impact; the state remains the largest employer; the country continues to take on new debts to overcome economic impasse and, finally, Albania is bordered by countries who have their own numerous economic and social problems.
Future scenarios are still available though. The most beneficial would be a new political behavior among the political elites; joint initiatives of the majority and opposition on a list of emergency and long-term reforms, especially, on the final resolution of land tenure reform, judicial reform, constitutional reform, and reforms on the territory and decentralization of education and health system. For most of these concerns, political parties in Albania have different political interests. Interestingly, however,, they deliver very similar election promises on solving the issues soon. Therefore, this can be a good basis for solid support for dialogue and cooperation among all the political parties.
The most probable scenario, though, remains the traditional one that political parties will follow their old behaviors under new conditions. They could decline strategic cooperation in return for immediate benefits and interests in the next local elections in 2015, or parliamentary elections in 2017. Exclusionary rhetoric, and the distance between the parties and their supporters, can lead to the same scenario as in the past, where a majority requires more and more control of power and implements it through political imposition against an opposition that provokes protests or other forms of negative refusal and labeling of the government. The public, citizens, economy and state would certainly benefit from a stabilized, cooperative and consensual political climate. Otherwise, conflicts and counterfeit political debates will continue to have negative consequences for all.
Personally, I remain dubious and not very optimistic regarding fast, visible positive changes in Albania. Especially changes in institutional life, political dialogue and quality of reforms required by the country. In Albania, as in most of the Balkan countries, rotations are associated with changes of the people in charge of the system, not with changes within the system itself. Albania needs the latter. The encouraging decision of Brussels supports this message, but in the political world of Tirana, this has not yet arrived.