Troubled Reformation: Albania and Edi Rama

Albania’s newest Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has had a long career in Albania politics.  Before reaching his current post he was mayor of Albania’s capital, Tirana, for eleven years.  An artist by profession, Rama went through with a program of beautification for the city, clearing illegally constructed slums, opening up thousands of acres of green areas, and most famously painting Tirana’s drab communist apartment buildings with bright colors.  Rama’s efforts earned him the title “World Mayor” in 2004 in annual international competition run by mayors from throughout the world.  Besides his position as mayor, Rama also gained a reputation as a rapper, where he appeared in music videos about Tirana and Albania.  Rama’s long-held post as Mayor of Tirana was eventually lost in 2011 in a highly contested election where accusations of voter fraud were exchanged on both sides.


Image courtesy of TEDx Thessaloniki, ©2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of TEDx Thessaloniki, ©2012, some rights reserved.

Rama has long been considered the national leader of the Socialist Part of Albania (PS), in opposition to the Democratic Party of Albania whose leader, Sali Berisha, has dominated Albanian politics since the fall of communism in the country in 1992.  The conflict between the two parties has taken deadly proportions, with the 1997 civil uprising in Albania being the most prominent.  In this instance, a collapse of several national Ponzi schemes led to riots throughout the country.  Rival gangs representing both parties took advantage of the chaos and competed in a scenario similar to a civil war.  The most recent spate of violence occurred in 2011, when PM Berisha’s personal guards killed four and injured over a hundred protestors who were gathered in response to a viral video which featured Berisha’s Deputy PM, Ilir Meta, taking a bribe from a contractor.

Apart from rampant corruption (which, according to Transparency International, is one of the highest in Europe) and the lagging economy, Rama has to contend with a public which is highly disillusioned with the country’s politics and more than aware of its recent history of violence.  The new PM tackled these problems as Mayor, claiming that people began to pay taxes and stopped littering as a result of his project to “repaint” the city.  His promises to eventually get Albania in the EU, combined with other promises, such as his decision to stop receiving shipments of garbage from Italy, work in tandem with his efforts to restore pride in the country.

In order to stem corruption, Rama has hired young professionals with little connections to politics, considered to be “untainted” by corruption, to work in his ministries.  Of course, this could also mean that they would be more prone to Rama’s influence.  The new leader has also increased the representation of women in his government, taking six out of the nineteen positions available.  These are just a few examples of many progressive policies initiated by the new government.  Efforts must be made by the new administration to not only stymie political corruption, but also organized crime.  Albania is a major transit point for many drugs and human traffic flowing to Europe.  If Rama is trying to get Albania into the EU, this is a major sticking point which he must address.

It is hard to criticize the new PM of Albania since he only been in power for a couple of months.  As can be seen above, Rama is a master of show and perception.  His efforts to renovate Tirana were largely aimed at appearance.  Illegal apartment blocks still sprang up throughout the country while he was mayor, suggesting that corruption was still high, since a contractor would need to bribe officials to illegally build something.  The same could be true of Rama’s recent movements as PM, where public perceptions take priority over concrete results.  Nevertheless, if Rama is sincere about his plans to make Albania an EU candidate state, he needs to implement tangible reforms.

Something which could sprinkle doubt on Rama’s sincerity is his alliance with Ilir Meta during the elections which brought him to power.  As mentioned above, Meta is notorious in Albania for his corruption made famous by a viral video.  The logical counterargument is that Meta’s “socially democratic” position is theoretically not far different in ideology from Rama’s own Socialist Party.  Furthermore, Rama needed the necessary votes in parliament to make himself PM and defeat Berisha.  Nevertheless, such an alliance is bound to bring skepticism for the new head of government.

Rama has a lot to contend with in his upcoming term.  A decade of neoliberal economic policies will be hard to reverse in a few years.  It is unclear how many of these policies Rama will reverse in the years to come, although it is likely that he will implement policies with more favorable services — such as universal health care or education reform —  to aid the still suffering population.  Furthermore, he has to contend with the rival Democratic Party which still has a major presence in parliament.  Politics in Albania is based around personality, however, and ideology plays a less prominent role than in, say, the United States.  It is thus likely that much of the opposition against Rama will not be based around his policies, but his character.

Rama is one of the representatives of a corner of Europe which is still not in the EU, the Western Balkans.  Rama hopes that Albania’s accession to the EU could be a model for other countries in the region.  However, that would be if the extensive reforms Rama promises are successful.  It would be incorrect to say that Albania is ahead of other countries in the Western Balkans, especially now that Croatia is in the EU.  However, should Rama be successful in bringing Albania out of the depths of corruption and should he bring his country to the fulfillment of EU standards, Albania would be a model for any country seeking to join the EU (including various Eastern and Caucasus Republics).  It is still to be seen how successful these reforms will be, but any policy advisor on the region from the West should keep a close eye on what is to come.

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