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Challenges and Opportunities for Albania and the Balkans: Interview with Edith Harxhi

March 25, 2016

In this exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Research Coordinator in Greece Ioannis Michaletos gets the insights of Edith Harxhi on the challenges and opportunities facing Albania and its role in the region, as well as her broader views on current issues like the migrant crisis, terrorism and the pace of EU reforms.

Ms Harxhi is the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Albania, and currently is the Executive Director of Albanian Policy Center (APC) in Tirana. Founded in December 2013 in Tirana, the APC is a think-tank whose focus and mission is to formulate and promote right-wing policies that are based on individual freedom, rule of law, free entrepreneurship, a “laissez fair” free market economy, low taxes, reforms and transparency, small government, national security and securing the Albanian national interest.

Edith Harxhi- Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Edith Harxhi, the refugee crisis “has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response” capacities.

Ms. Harxhi also previously worked as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania before assisting the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (Civil Administration) in UNMIK in several positions. In this capacity, she covered topics like police, justice, minorities and social welfare. In additions, she established the Office for Public Safety and prepared the strategy for the transfer of competencies in the security sector on behalf of the Kosovo Government. On behalf of the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, she also supervised the Office of Gender Affairs at the DSRSG’s Office and drafted the Gender Equality Law.

Geopolitical and Security Challenges for the Region

Ioannis Michaletos: The Southeast Europe region and in particular its Western part face a set of challenges, some perennial ones and others of a more recent nature. What do you think constitute the main threats and challenges that local governments should be aware of, and what are the most urgent priorities they have to set their eyes on?

Edith Harxhi: The Western Balkans since the end of the last conflict in the region in 1999 still faces quite a lot of challenges. These challenges have a geopolitical nature, security nature, economic and social which are local as well as external diffused challenges and local political challenges due to hybrid democracies, malfunctioning of democratic systems, autocracies, and political oligarchies.

First, the geopolitical challenges relate mostly to the interests and influences of big powers in the region, the convergence of the political axes and the re-emergence of old history and old alliances which date back historically. The Russian influence in the region has increased dramatically since the Kosovo War, and the aftermath of the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO as well as now during the Ukrainian crisis and the possible NATO accession of Montenegro to NATO. Russia’s old alliances with certain countries in the region, economic and trade influence in Montenegro and Serbia, military influence in Serbia and its political tendency to increase its influence in other countries of the region through political or economic or energy routes and agreements demonstrates once again the geopolitical situation in the region.

Secondly, security challenges are mostly related to the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO but also nowadays the invitation of Montenegro to NATO and the aspiration for NATO and EU accession of other countries in the region. There is no doubt that Russia has not seen these developments in a positive angle and has geared up to increase its role in the region either through strengthening the military cooperation with Serbia but also through investing in different sectors such as arms production, energy routes etc… Another security challenge is also the asymmetrical threats, or threats that all Europe is faced with, such as terrorism and violent extremism.

Thirdly, economic and social challenges have to do mostly with the current economic situation that the region is facing after the European and Greek economic and financial crisis, which has badly hit the entire region. The six western Balkans countries have inherited poor economies and are currently lacking reforms and brave privatisation processes, lack incentives for [attracting] foreign direct investments, and there is lack of trust in the judiciary.

Fourth, local political challenges are more related to the political systems in the countries per se, as well as deficient democracies and ruling political oligarchies in almost all the countries in the Western Balkans region. Widespread corruption, politically and financially captured judiciaries, captured and politically dependent media, and eccentric and autocratic political classes, as well as leaders who use any means to stay in power “by hook or by crook” and accept reform as yet another word in the political vocabulary without delivering anything- leaders who are not from the people and belonging to the people!

These are all priorities where governments and societies in the region should urgently turn their eyes toward and act, since malfunctioning democracies could also easily endanger now the stability of the region and can infuse further tension within countries as well.

The Migrant Crisis and EU Policy Failures

IM: Concerning the migration/refugee crisis, how do you view the situation unfolding both in terms of the likely opening up of by-routes from Greece to Albania for example, and in terms of the wider policy of the EU regarding this topic? Is the situation critical and out of control?

EH: It is a common understanding by now that unfortunately the EU has failed in dealing with the current refugee crisis.

We should first inquire as to the reason for the refugee crisis and the explosion of the refugee waves, which has turned into the most difficult problem for Europe since the end of WWII. I believe the EU could not produce a proper foreign policy and strategic plan in dealing with neither the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor with the Arab Spring, nor with the Syrian crisis. The situation in Syria needed real strategic planning by the EU and United States on how to deal with Assad and the many groups in action on the ground.

The EU does not seem to also have a coherent strategy regarding ISIS which now unfortunately rules over half of the territory of Syria and a good part of northern Iraq, and also controls big and important parts of oil and gas production in that region.

Thus one can easily believe that the refugee crisis was not [caused by] only neglect at the beginning, but also took Europe by surprise. In such a situation we have countries such as Greece, which is lingering with its financial crisis and Macedonia, which already has a political stalemate and very little financial and political support to deal with the big amount of daily refugees from Greece, as well as Albania, which is on the brink of a refugee wave too. They have very little to do to uphold such a situation on their own, when European countries are not willing to take any more refugees and have introduced Schengen as a measure to curtail the unwanted refugee influx.

Unfortunately the refugee crisis has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response and the weaknesses of this great project of the 1950s, which has not been able to unify these countries’ foreign and internal policies.

The EU should directly deal with the cause of the crisis, as well as try to find alternative solutions such as working closely with Turkey in order to hold up the refugee wave to Europe, help Balkan countries financially and politically in overcoming this difficult situation in their borders. At the end of the day the borders of the Western Balkans are European borders too.

IM: There has been a lot of talk regarding terrorism in Europe and the role of the Balkans, as a staging ground or as a logistics base for the preparation of attacks. Are local governments ready to deal with this situation and how can international partners (i.e. NATO, EU, OECD) assist? Do you assess the possibility of new terrorist attacks either in the region or beyond?

Following the current terrorist attacks in Brussels, one believes that no place in Europe is safe right now. However saying this one cannot exclude terrorist attacks in the region too but the probability is much lower not because we have any security set up as such as to face the attacks, but because any such attack will not mean much for this type of conventional terrorism whereby the attackers would like to break the taboo of European security just in the heart of Europe and the EU rather than produce numbers of innocent victims.

A terrorist attack in our region would be much easier to accomplish than in many European capitals as the region lacks security, cannot control well the borders among the Southeastern European countries and also borders that our countries share with the EU. The [regional countries] have very little exchange of intelligence, nor well trained authorities to prevent any possible attacks, and there is a lack of trust among the countries within the region.

Unfortunately on the other side, the region has produced elements and subjects that have joined terrorist groups in the world and this has come due to many reasons starting from poverty, unemployment, an insecure future and unstable present. These subjects are an increasing problem in the region and although they do represent neither a majority nor an average number of people in the region, they have been in the public eye and international media attention during the last five years. They have unfortunately portrayed a bad image of the region and Islam in our countries.

Security Risks of the Migrant Crisis

One cannot say that we are completely immune to terrorist attacks, for as long as we are part of Europe and the European Union’s neighbourhood, and for as long as there are still people from our region joining terrorist groups around the world. Although I do not believe that the Balkans are a logistic place for terrorists and terrorist attacks, one should also be aware of the easy ground we offer to terrorist groups around the world with all the trafficking in narcotics, human beings and arms that our region is famous for. Thus we go back to the issue of security in the region and how much have we invested in this type of security set up during the last 17 years since the end of the last conflict in the region.

Albania’s EU Path and Reforms Shortcomings to Address

 IM: Albania is in the process of being accepted in the EU in the foreseeable future. What are the main obstacles for that path and what needs to be done to overcome them? Do you think that the most important problem is of economic or of a political nature?

EH: After many years of transition from the communist regime, Albania became a NATO member country in April 2009. Almost two years ago in June 2014 Albania signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the country hoped that, like the others in the region, with signing of the SSA, the Commission would also give the recommendation for the opening of negotiations for membership.

Unfortunately Albania has failed to deliver many reforms that would enable the country to move towards opening of the negotiations. During the last three years the country has stagnated, and so have the reforms that had already started. Not only we have been unable to deliver on the five criteria put forth by the European Commission, but also the much-needed reforms in the country such as justice reform, education and health have either failed or stalled.

The economy has seen some of the worst days and figures since the fall of communism, with consumer trust going down in value less than in the year 2000 and staggering unemployment rates, with the real signs of a deflation and plummeting of FDI, together with the closing of some of the most significant production plants owned by large international companies.

Also, a fluctuating progressive tax, with no stable policy on tax collection and no oversight, massive corruption in customs and other areas in administration have increased the crime rate and trafficking of narcotics. The emergence of a political oligarchy, as well as a lack of accountability from government and politicians, are some of the main reasons for Albania’s drastic economic decline in the pas three years.

Also, MPs with a criminal past who were elected to parliament three years ago have been subject of the new law that was proposed by the opposition and passed two months ago, named the Law on Decriminalisation. Certain acts of the law and other by laws need to pass in order for the decriminalisation procedure to start in the parliament and administration. However, a lack of political will and probably the captured state of law and politics have made possible the withholding of the implementation process of the decriminalisation law.

Justice Reform Issues and the EU Membership Goal

The justice reform system has been one of the main conditions set by the EU for Albania’s progress in opening negotiations, however as with the other reforms parties have failed to reach a consensus. After months of discussions by expert groups and three different draft prepared by the three main parties in the parliament, the reform with its three drafts was submitted to the Venice Commission for further advice and suggestions. Though since its final argument it has been published, still consensus is difficult.

Justice reform, as the most important political reform in Albania during the last 25 years, should be apolitical, impartial, independent, transparent and credible. The decriminalisation process, justice reform and the law on the National Bureau of Investigation (a body that will investigate corruption and crime among politicians, administration and judiciary) are the Achilles heel for Albania’s opening of negotiations with the EU.

Remaining last in the region only before Bosnia Hercegovina which already has ethnic and identity issues, as well as Kosovo, a newly founded state in the region, puts Albania in a vulnerable position and the Albanians in an unstable and uncertain situation at home. This also explains the Albanian exodus of 2014 and 2015 where more than 75,000 Albanians from Albania fled the country in search of a better life in Germany and other European Union countries. According to data from the German government, throughout 2015 citizens of Albania were the second-largest asylum seeking group in Germany after Syrians.

Under the current situation Albania will not be recommended for opening of negotiations even this year. This sets a negative trend among countries that have signed the SSA without producing enough reforms for the European vote.

Although many European sceptics blame enlargement fatigue as well as the current European turmoil with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, one cannot but show the real cause of this situation- the current Albanian current establishment’s non-delivery as well as lack of political consensus among the political class, raising doubts on Albania’s democratic deficiencies too.

(Realistic) Prospects for Regional Cooperation

 IM: Lastly, I would like to ask your opinion regarding regional cooperation, both on a political and an economic level. What are the strong points and the weak ones when talking about cooperation between Balkan countries? Can the region overcome its longstanding differences, as other parts of Europe have managed in the past?

EH: Regional cooperation has been an issue since the establishment of the Stability Pact and the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. The end of this deadly conflict opened the way to a new security infrastructure in the region and a different level of partnership and cooperation among neighbours and countries in the region.

Although not perfect, one might say that the regional cooperation policy has progressed well mostly in producing some good and safe political rhetoric and sometimes trust. Probably the soundest initiative during the last 15 years has been the Berlin Process and the Vienna Forum afterwards, with some concrete results and cooperation in some main areas of economic development for the entire region.

Due to increased political competition among states in the region, the economic cooperation, transportation lines, visa and passport regimes as well as border cooperation have seen improvement but not at the level one would expect 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 17 years after the last war.

There are still countries in the region that do not recognise each other as political, administrative entities, as states or geographical units, as there are also countries that cannot find compromise and use veto on the name issue or still have bad records on treatment of national minorities. Well, these remain issues of concern as they stop and do not allow much fruitful cooperation beyond political rhetoric and show-off scenes of so-called unity in some main European capitals.

Unfortunately, we have failed to understand that the region can be attractive to global investment and energy routes only as a unified market, which would certainly produce security and good opportunities for everyone in Southeastern Europe.

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