Capital Tirana
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 355
Mobile Codes 66,67,68,69
ccTLD .al
Currency Lek (1EUR = 138ALL)
Land Area 28,748 sq km
Population 2.98 million
Language Albanian
Major Religion Sunni and Bektashi Islam, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

Albania’s Parliamentary Election 2009: Is the European Dream at Risk?

By Enza Roberta Petrillo*

The European Union emerged from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as a force that seemed capable of guaranteeing stability and peace in a part of the European continent perceived as a fracture-zone, an area of Europe known for its clashes.

Since 1991, Albania has radically changed, undergoing a complex transition period and a controversial process of institution-building. In contrast with countries like Serbia, Montenegro or Croatia, in Albania the power structures inherited from the Communist period were destroyed or swept away during the 1990s, especially during the explosion of violent conflict in 1997. These old and disintegrated structures were replaced during a long period of transition characterized by lawlessness, with a growing gap between the southern part of the country and the northern, and what the historian Ian Jeffries describes as a kind of €š”gangster land anarchy.”

Ever since the end of Communism, Albania has looked to the west. Hopeful and optimistic, the country has dreamed for almost twenty years of EU accession. At the beginning of this year, however, came the cold shower: Brussels denied the submission of EU candidature before the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 28.

Why are these elections so important for the young republic? Many analysts perceive them as a sort of watershed moment between the past and the future. These two dimensions might actually be two side of the same coin. Since 1991, the country has experienced five parliamentary electoral rounds; in 1991, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2005. Albania’s first-ever free parliamentary election witnessed a 97 per cent turn-out in the first round on 31 March. This electoral round was strongly contested because the opposition parties were disadvantaged by their recent formation and by the lack of political experience. The ruling Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) won 56 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, mainly thanks to its continuing hold on the Southern Tosk part of the country, and on the political behavior of the agriculture population, many of whom feared that the Democratic Party (DP) would help the big private landowners regain possession of most of the country’s agricultural land.

The new People’s assembly first met on 10 April. On 29 April, the parliament passed an interim constitutional law to modify the 1976 Constitution: Albania became “The Republic of Albania” in place of “The People€šÃ„ô Socialist Republic of Albania”, and the leading role of the PLA was abolished. Although this party was of leftist persuasion, the government program presented by the premier, Fatos Nano envisaged an extensive privatization and a rapid shift to a market economy. These measures were violently contested with strikes and protest movements that caused the resignation of Nano as Prime Minister, followed by the Interim “Government of National Stability” headed by Vilson Ahmeti, until March 1992.

Macro-economic measures, price liberalization, privatization of large state enterprises and the collapse of the agricultural system exemplify the larger context surrounding the Presidential Elections of March 1992. The response to this electoral round represents one of the focal element of the recent history of the country.

The election of the ex-Communist and DP leader Sali Berisha started off the post-communist new deal of the Albania. Since 1992 Berisha has been one the most controversial political representatives in Albanian political life. His political profile coincides with the recent history of his country. From Communism to radical anti-Communism, from the age of 16 Berisha has tried all political approaches, from nationalistic authoritarianism to liberalism.

At the beginning of his mandate, Berisha was charged with being authoritarian and, in November 1994, called a referendum on a new constitution which, if approved, would have granted powers to himself as president, including the right to nominate the prime minister, dismiss ministers at the suggestion of the premier, as well as to dismiss or arrest the chairman and the members of the constitutional court and the supreme court with the approval of Parliament. The referendum failed, however, and several ministers were replaced.

The hard-line view of Berisha was demonstrated by the “Law on Communist genocide,” passed in September 1995 with the aim of prohibiting to anyone who had been a member of the old PLA central committee or the Communist Parliament from participating in national or local elections and holding jobs in the media or judiciary.

The first victim of this law was Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party.

Several analysts and international organizations monitored the Parliamentary elections of May 1996. Opposition parties accused the DP of practicing intimidation and electoral manipulation. These elements were confirmed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which spoke out against the presence of armed individuals and unidentified persons inside polling stations who had an intimidating effect on voters and polling commission officials. The Democratic Party won the electoral round, however, despite the protests of the opposition and the OSCE. Behind this second waltz, several analysts saw the personal triumph of Sali Berisha.

In the first period of his mandate, Sali Berisha received strong support from Western countries, especially the USA. In 1993, Albania signed an accord on military cooperation with the USA and introduced the International Monetary Fund’s economic reforms. Foreign trade liberalization, flotation of the Lek, price liberalization and a wild expansion of the private sector contributed to creating the peculiar socio-political context of the pyramid schemes crisis and resulting popular insurgency of 1997.

The international press paid great attention to these fraudulent investment schemes, which paid out artificially high returns to early investors, using money paid in by subsequent investors. In this way, during the 1990s many Albanian companies became wholesome pyramid schemes, with no real assets. Unlike in many other countries, these schemes had direct political implications. Two-thirds of the Albanian population had invested in the pyramid schemes, through companies which were engaged in criminal activities.

At the beginning of 1997, about one-third of all Albanian family lost their savings as a result of the pyramid schemes€šÃ„ô collapse. Violent protests, strikes, and spontaneous movements upset Tirana and Vlore. Troops authorized by the Parliament guarded roads and government buildings. Berisha chose to respond with an iron hand, and the opposition answered with the Forum of Democracy, an alliance created to persuade the government to set up a technical executive and then hold elections.

The increasing of political tension caused in Albania a radical change of the political and social discourse. Violence became prominent. Larger anti-government protests shattered Vlore. Berisha accused the opposition of fomenting the anarchy and the insurgency, ordering the arrests of opposition politicians and declaring a state of emergency. This phase marked the acme of Berisha’s regime and his point of no return, in the eyes of the international community. The European Union and Italy played the fundamental role in persuading the Albanian premier to accept a government of national reconciliation representing all political parties.

The fundamental year to remember for understanding the political transition of modern Albania is 1997. In March of that year, Bashkim Fino, leader of the Socialist Party, replaced Berisha as interim Prime Minister. The inflows of Albanian refugees to Italy made clear the multi-dimensionality of the crisis and the necessity of new elections. Under the monitoring of OSCE observers and the international peacekeeping force, the elections were carried out fairly successfully. Voters voted without intimidation, but OSCE observers also pointed out problems with the vote-counting process. The DP, with only 25 per cent of the votes and twenty-four seats, lost the elections yielding the government leadership to Fatos Nano.

From 1997 to 2005, the centre-left coalition had various government leaderships. The resignation of Nano as prime minister caused by his coalition’s division was followed by the centre-left coalition government headed by Pandeli Majko, until the parliamentary elections of June and July 2001. In those the Socialist Party won, obtaining 73 of 140 seats, and the second socialist government headed by Ilir Meta started. However, his was a short-term mandate: after a six-month dispute with Fatos Nano, Meta resigned. The national reform period came to a halt and a near total dependence on international and EU aid began.

Why, then, did the centre-left coalition implode? The primary cause of that alliance’s collapse was internal divisions. From 2002 to the parliamentary elections of 2005, Nano and Majko €šÃ„ì who returned to the premiership in February 2002 €šÃ„ì had personified the factional conflict within the Socialist Party of Albania. This barren political debate gave the dimension of a cultural and political gap between the parliamentary politics and the Albanian society. Political feuding between Nano, Meta and Berisha impeded Albania’s progress in social, political and economic reforms, stopping the country’s progress in negotiations with the EU.

After the first EU openings in March 2004, the European Commission accused Albania’s leaders of stopping the political reforms, also accusing opposition leader Sali Berisha of paralyzing parliament’s activities. The EU also criticized the country’s incapability to elaborate a strategy against organized crime and political and economic corruption.

Economic crisis, institutional transition, international relations and institutional reforms were the main themes of the parliamentary elections of July and August 2005. Thanks to an election campaign based on the promise to fight poverty, stimulate business and lower taxes, Berisha won the elections, becoming premier of the centre-right government. In 2005 thus began Berisha’s “New Deal,” a different political phase grounded on a collective dream: entrance into the EU.

This objective has represented an element of cohesion by which the entire country has agreed to move forward, especially regarding the reduction of illegal migratory flows to Italy and Greece. The European dream was fomented also by the EU decision of 2006 to sign off on a Stabilization and Association Agreement between Albania and EU. The condition to obtain the Accord were clear: functioning rule of law, protection of minority rights, harmonization of Albanian rule with EU legislation, a functioning market economy and the increasing of cooperation with the other Western Balkans countries.

Two years after these EU conditions were presented, what has happened to Albania? For his part, Sali Berisha seems to have chosen the 1990s revival theme, raising the rhetoric against the opposition, rather than addressing European Reformism. During the election campaign, he has accused the opposition of being tied to the Communist past.

On December 22, the parliament passed a controversial “lustration” law, which is expected to allow for the dismissal from public office of a wide range of officials who participated in “political processes” while serving in higher-level government positions under the communist regime, including judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. The vague wording of the law gives the government free discretion in determining what “political processes” means, thereby allowing it considerable freedom in determining if an official should be dismissed from duty.

International observers, including the OSCE and COE, stridently criticized the law and expressed concern that the law would allow the government to assert undue political control over the judiciary, undermine due process, and circumvent constitutional protections provided to judges, members of parliament, and prosecutors. Furthermore, the law states that persons subject to the law cannot participate in its judicial examination. This places the court in direct conflict with the executive, as several members of the court were reported to fall within the scope of the law.

The European Union does not seem to appreciate this sort of political performance. Also, shadows enshroud these recent governmental acts. At the beginning of 2009, the US State Department declared in its 2008 Human Rights Report that €š”there were problems in some areas. During 2008 the government attempted to assert greater control over independent institutions such as the judiciary, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the media. The government interfered in the ongoing investigation into the March 15 Gerdec arms depot explosion. Security forces abused prisoners and detainees and prison and pretrial detention conditions remained poor. Police corruption and impunity continued, as did discrimination against women, children, and minorities. While some progress was made toward combating human trafficking, it remained a problem.”

More than being on the road to implementation, EU standards seem to be further and further away. The Albanian Helsinki Committee and the Albanian Human Rights Group reported that police sometimes use excessive force or inhuman treatment. As reporting in the Human Right Report, police have frequently mistreated suspects at the time of arrest or initial detention. Roma, Balkan Egyptians, and homosexuals were particularly vulnerable to police abuse. The overall performance of law enforcement remained weak. Unprofessional behavior and corruption remained major impediments to the development of an effective civilian police force.

At the same time, the Ministry of Interior has started a new recruiting system with standardized procedures. In combination with the new system of police ranks, authorities expect this to improve the overall performance of the police. However, low salaries and widespread corruption throughout society made police corruption difficult to combat. However, the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption and, despite several arrests of high-level local and central government officials, corruption remained a major obstacle to meaningful reform and a serious problem.

*Enza Roberta Petrillo is an Italian research consultant on Balkan and East European Affairs, with a focus on institutional transition and social and human rights affairs. She has worked as a policy analyst for several research centers and international organizations and has collaborated as a freelance journalist with a number of newspapers, reviews and web-sites. She holds a master’s degree in Political Science and a PhD in Developmental Geography from the University L’Orientale of Naples.