By Alba Çela*
It was this time 25 years ago when the Albanians joined together to overthrow a brutal communist dictatorship under the slogan “We want Albania to be like the rest of Europe!” While they knew nothing of the long and arduous procedural tasks that align the integration process with the many bureaucratic steps of candidate status and negotiations, the Albanians had a European dream. They wanted a free, democratic and modern state where economic welfare and the rule of law and justice were available to all, just like they thought was the case in western Europe. In the early 1990s, hopes were high that Albania would soon join the European Union.
Today, a quarter of a century later, Albania has barely managed to gain official EU candidate status after long and repetitive attempts. Albania remains one of the laggards of EU integration and of transition in general, despite being one of the few countries in the region free of legitimacy, border and minority problems. Apart from technicalities, deep and extended internal political conflicts combined with the low degree of state presence and functionality has been holding Albania back.
This is not to say that there have been no important changes during the last 25 years. In fact, the process of change in Albania has been quite radical, and the country looks, feel and operates in a completely different way now. However the challenges of building a full democracy, a functional market economy, and of achieving the major milestone of becoming an EU member state have become increasingly daunting. As the majority of opinion polls show today, Albanians have very little trust in their political and economic systems.
Rule of law is the essence of what does not go well in Albania, from the cumbersome daily life details to the grand stories of state capture. The state has often faced problems related to the complete control of its territory and now it is facing difficult reforms of the judiciary as well as targeting corruption. As laws are constantly being fitted to the acqui communitaire, the state is yet to guarantee their implementation fully, transparently and consistently for all of its citizens.
Albania has yet to find its economic niche, exploring and focusing on many options from tourism to agriculture, from services to the mining industry. A long-time dependent on foreign remittances, Albanians now have seen this source of income being cut off from the financial crisis hitting its neighboring countries, Greece and Italy, which host the overwhelming share of Albanian migrants. The economy still needs major infrastructure investment in order to be connected to the rest of the region; hence it has eagerly welcomed the recent Berlin Process, which strengthens the interconnectivity approach to regional cooperation and economic development.
Finally, the Albanian society has been, for most of its transition time, in upheaval seeking to accommodate the new values of capitalism and consumerism and slowly shedding the traumas of dictatorship. However, a lot of necessary changes are required in order for the citizens to become more responsible, more involved and more active so as to keep their politicians accountable and also to contribute to the integration into the EU itself.
Albania meets the world
During its time as a communist state, Albania was so isolated from the rest of the world that the best example to illustrate its situation would be today’s North Korea. The country broke all relations, even with its communist counterparts – first with Yugoslavia, then with the Soviet Union, and finally, even with its last anchor in the global system, the People’s Republic of China. After the regime change, Albania started to establish its presence in the international arena. Its relations with many neighbors and other states in the region such as Serbia or Greece have gone through many changes. From an optimistic view, the country’s current trends seem to be heading towards normalization. Albania is praised by the international community as an exporter of security in the volatile western Balkan region, having primarily maintained a cool head towards ethnic nationalism. Albania has been a NATO member since 2009, which strengthens its position in the region and enables it to take part in the global dialogue about security and peace.
Where are we going?
Considering recent developments, such as the reluctance of the European Union itself to keep pursuing enlargement and the simultaneous crisis in Greece, Ukraine and Syria (with the aftermath of the refugees crisis), it is safe to say that accession still remains a pipe dream for the time being. It is important to highlight that the EU, even now, is a much different entity than the one Albania began the process of joining in the 90s. What better witness to this than the famous declaration of Commissioner Juncker that there would not be any new accession within his mandate! Even though this declaration reflected the mere reality that no country would be ready in the western Balkans anyway, the symbolic negativity it conveyed about enlargement resounded throughout the region.
In fact, the European Union institutions are doing overtime in many countries of the region, trying to convey the message of unyielding European perspective in the face of ever-more reluctant attitudes towards enlargement, both from various member states and from political figures in the European Parliament.
Albanians, trapped in the difficulties of transition, have had very little time to reflect on whether their European dream still fulfills their aspirations. However given the strong pro-western sentiment in the country, both on a societal level and within the political elites, the entire system is geared towards integration with no qualms and very few questions. Integration continues to provide the impetus and legitimacy for many national reforms and actions. The next step in line for the process is to set a date to open negotiations.
As we say in Albania, there is no Plan B.
*Alba Çela is Deputy Director at the Albanian Institute for International Studies, Tirana based think-tank.
**This article was first published in Analist monthly journal’s November issue in Turkish language.