What has been remarkable over the last four years is the support that Prime Minister Edi Rama seems to have within the international community, even though his value system has very little overlap with the rule of law or democracy. I have written before about how the international community consistently fails to understand the political and economic system they are endorsing, while Prime Minister Rama, helped by a jaded bunch of “Third Way” laboristas, has consistently been able to control the narrative about “his” country.
His success, however, is not only the result of smart PR. It is also the result of widespread ignorance about Albania itself and a deeply engrained orientalism. There are currently a number of master narratives out there in international politics and diplomacy fed by this orientalism that Rama has successfully co-opted for his foreign politics:
- The threat of radical Muslim extremism/terrorism;
- The threat of Russian expansion into the Balkans;
- The threat of regional instability.
Rama has portrayed Albania alternatively as a country in which all its four major religions (Roman-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Sunni Islam, and Bektashi) are living harmoniously together, for example during the staged parade of world leaders after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, and as a Muslim-majority country where extremism could flare up at any moment.
Rama has successfully used the Muslim extremism card in a number of situations, especially as a threat toward the EU in order to advance accession negotiations. In July 2015, he stated in the Financial Times:
In a warning about the potential risk of radical Islam spreading into the Balkans, [Edi Rama] said: “A young person in Tunis or Tobruk feels he has no future. But in Albania the star in the sky is Europe. If the EU is not able to show up in the way that is expected, there will be a huge space for radical Islam.”
And in December 2016 he said the following in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
If we want to have a secure and stable European Union and with it a secure Europe, it’s not good if there are holes.
In addition, we shouldn’t forget that there are also other, third, actors, who are playing their game and who could profit if the EU leaves a vacuum there.
I’m talking about Russia, but I’m also talking about radical Islam.
The fact is is that it is not religion that drives extremism and terrorism, but social disenfranchisement, poverty, and systematic oppression. Muslim extremism would not suddenly pop up at the moment that the EU would stop or slow down its expansion. Nevertheless, this narrative hits home in certain parts of the international community, if only because of the deeply ingrained racism and islamophobia. The simple fact that Albania is a “Muslim majority” country – even though the last census didn’t include religion and the majority is for all means and purposes atheist – is enough to put it high up on the risk list. Rama has played both sides of this game, both as guarantor of religious tolerance, while also warning for the ever-growing potential of radicalism.
Then there is Russia. Unlike the Slavic nations that surround Albania, the country has no historical relationship with Russia and was in fact the first Eastern Block country to sever its ties with the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. There is no natural foothold for any type of pan-Slavicism, nor any proof of Russian interference in Albanian politics, yet Rama mentioned “Russia” in one breath with “radical Islam” knowing that they are the two major headaches of US and EU internationals.
Finally, “the Balkans” immediately evokes images of war and genocide. It does not matter that Albania has not been directly involved in any of the recent Balkan wars, or lacks the ethno-religious divisions that could be the accelerator of such a conflict. Albania perceives itself (however unjustly) as mono-ethnic, and the most recent instability was caused by economic, not ethnic or religious problems. Again, Rama has been able to profit from the threat of “instability” by positioning himself as a “stable” leader and a “bridge” to other Balkan states.
Thus Rama has essentially profited from the stereotypes that Albania as “Muslim-majority” and “Balkan” country automatically has within international circles, and he has been able to position himself successfully as the cosmopolitan, enlightened leader that will keep everything together, allowing him to expand his political capital.
But in spite of all of this, Rama is relatively isolated on the international political scene. Visits from and to heads of state are rare, and most of his international interaction happens during summits and conferences to which he is duly invited.
The only exception is Turkey. Rama’s relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime are cordial and personal. He was a personal witness to the wedding of President Erdoğan’s daughter on May 14, 2016, together with other leaders of Muslim states. The Albanian government has also supported the Turkish government in its witch hunt against the supposed “terrorist” organization of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, while other European countries, such as Germany and Greece, offered political asylum. Rama also publicly “thanked” President Erdoğan for his “support” for the production of new Albanian police uniforms, and recently he announced that a new Albanian airline company will be under the personal “care” of Erdoğan. No other foreign leader has received such a treatment.
So is perhaps anyone interested in the close relations between Rama and Erdoğan and what these could tell us about the coming four years of Albanian politics?
For four years, the international community has been played because of its own orientalist prejudices and dated conceptual frameworks. Perhaps it is time to look at what Rama actually does, rather than fantasize about what he will protect you from.