If I had 100 lek for every time someone (usually a man) tells me that I shouldn’t have an opinion on Albanian politics, I would be a rather rich woman.
Time and time again, I have been told that Albanian politics is this almost mythical creature– elusive, mysterious, unique, and completely unknown to anyone except them– a born and bred Albanian.
Whilst I appreciate that there are of course an endless amount of things that I would not be able to comprehend, due to not having lived through them, overall, I beg to disagree.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, a crook is still a crook, a money launderer is still a money launderer, a wiretap of vote rigging is still evidence of a crime, the systemic erosion of media freedom is still anti-democratic, and drug trafficking is still the cross-border movement of drugs and it is illegal. None of these things are different in Albania to anywhere else and none require a PHD in Albanian politics to understand.
It doesn’t take a local to be able read and analyse reports, to look at evidence, to interview people, to watch, observe, and then write about things that go on here. Nor does it take a political scientist with a Western Balkan speciality to know that there is something very, very rotten here. Something that starts at the top and trickles down through every level, and member of society.
Now I can understand why someone might feel threatened by an outsider reporting on, or daring to comment on politics here. I haven’t come from generations of political influence or doctrine, I cannot vote, who is in power has no influence on my work, finances, or social standing, and I couldn’t really care less who is in power, as long as they do a good job and don’t bring the country to its knees. I am for all intents and purposes impartial– untainted by years of tribalism– that in itself is a threat.
But this doesn’t matter. Things prevail in Albania that also prevail elsewhere. For example, you have a “socialist party” in power that is anything but socialist, and you have a social system that is based on corruption, nepotism, cronyism, clientelism and amoral familism.
From the moment I came here, I was told that things in this country depend on who you know and how much money you have. Whether it is a job, a building permit, or making a pesky criminal or civil issue go away, I came to understand that cold hard cash is the best way of achieving them. I also came to understand that favours run this country; “Oh my cousin works at the police station, he will help you”, “let me call my friends’ uncle, he will speed up the process”, or “ahh he is my neighbour, if you meet him for coffee everything will be resolved”. This is how things work on a basic day to day level– why should politics be any different?
Let us consider the case of Nashi Shehapi, the kindergarten director accused of beating a three year old boy and locking him in a cupboard under the stairs. From the moment the parents decided to press charges, she claimed she had protection and the case would not even make it to court. Had Exit.al not stepped in, this probably would have been the case and now it is being fought with an excellent lawyer and sufficient media attention to hopefully ensure that justice prevails.
But still, Shehapi who is a Socialist Party vote collector with ties to a number of government employees and ministers, and whose daughter works for the Municipality of Tirana, remains adamant that her political protection (and a few alleged financial contributions– nudge nudge, wink wink) will help her dodge prosecution.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day we hear of illegalities and breaches of the law– committed by the government and those close to them– that are allowed to be ignored because of nepotism, cronyism, bribery, or a combination of all of the above.
This is also where clientelism comes into the mix. A social order which depends on relations of patronage, this is a common symptom of corrupt political cultures.
A vicious circle of the exchange of favours for political support combined with other features including executive dominance and impunity, result in a system that is not built on democratic foundations. Parties get elected into power not based on what they will do for the country, how good they are at their job, or their ability to abide by democratic principles, but rather on what they promise to do for each individual voter.
By establishing themselves as patrons, winning friends, and doing favours, politicians are all too willing to promise building permits, contracts, jobs, and even money IF and WHEN they are elected into power. Voters solicit such things and politicians are all too happy to grant and offer them in abundance.
The result is the situation that prevails at the moment– if your party (or the party of the candidate you have a clientelistic agreement with) is in power, you are going to get what you need. If your favoured candidate or party is not in power, you are finished; excluded, discriminated against, jobless, and often pushed to the fringes of society.
The real issue arises once the party that has achieved dominance through nepotism, cronyism, and clientelism, is voted into power. Having carefully curated a network of clientelistic relationships, the executive dominance they now have is supreme. The police, the judiciary, every government department, authorities, and even private businesses become an extended arm of the state, via those who are in debt to the newly elected officials. The state reaches almost total control of institutions and people, and its power becomes vast and virtually unchecked.
In a normal democracy, the changing of government does not impact the country in this way, nor does it result in thousands of people out of jobs or finding it impossible to start business ventures, because they failed to make a deal with the devil.
All of these ‘isms’ combined create a situation where people are devoid of the ability to critically think. Add into the mix, a weak media that is predominantly controlled by politics or businessmen that are linked to politics and you have a democratic nightmare. Any will to hold politicians accountable for their raping and pillaging of the country diminishes because doing so, would directly impact their own personal, financial, or business interests.
Which brings me onto the next affliction– amoral familism. This is a sociological concept that is used to describe “backwards societies” where members of the community fail to act together for the common good. Instead, they focus entirely on the material interests of themselves and their immediate family. In other words; look after your family interests, maximise your material profit, and act as if everyone else does the same.
Economic freedom suffers, development suffers, civil society suffers– and overall, a crisis of democracy ensues.
The concept is well explained by Professor Banfield, a scholar of political science, Harvard lecturer, and political advisor. He observed the phenomenon in a village in southern Italy where he noted that families there were only interested in their own wellbeing– nothing further than the end of their noses.
In this society, and others, no one supervises or cares for the work of public officials, everyone expects favours from those in power, civil activism is rarely observed, and no one really cares about the situation of their neighbour, unless it also affects them. In this type of society, everyone knows politicians are corrupt but no one cares, because as long as it doesn’t impact their immediate circle, it really doesn’t matter. Additionally, the concept of anyone doing anything for the good of society– charity work, activism, having a voice that dares to criticise or question the status quo– is considered a fraud, or having ulterior motives.
In an amoral familist society, citizens predominantly vote to reap the benefits for themselves, they do not vote because of what the party has promised, their track record, or even the political ideology they subscribe to. The amoral familist probably doesn’t even like their political party and knows they are corrupt, but as long as their back is being scratched, that is where their vote will go.
Let us consider the comments of Bernd Borchardt just two day ago. He criticised Albanian protestors, implying that opposition protestors are just a group of angry people that do not represent Albanians. He also stated that the only real protests are ones that happen peacefully.
His words contain another message as well, a message that “real Albanians’ should also be amoral familists. They should get up, go to work, come home, procreate, pay their taxes, believe what the mainstream media tells them, not question anything, and of course, support the government regardless of their glaring crimes. Of course they are welcome to protest, but not too much and most importantly don’t cause a scene because that way no one will be forced to take any notice of you.
I believe that all of these concepts are present in Albanian politics and I also believe that is why we are in a situation where the country and its people are in the midst of a judicial, democratic, economic, human rights, and political crisis. The government have been allowed to get away with systemic abuses for too long with the support of the OSCE, the EU and a number of Western embassies– now the situation is becoming desperate.
Organised crime, extreme poverty, controlled media, decreased freedom of expression, corruption, drug trafficking, erosion of the rule of law, human rights abuses, institutional rot, captured state institutions, impunity, and the fact that there appears to be one law for those in power and one for the man on the streets, are having a devastating impact on the country.
This is not unique to Albania, and me being a foreigner has no impact on my ability, or right to notice them and point them out. Crook, authoritarian, and criminal might sound different in different languages but their definition is universal.
Albania deserves better and if this vicious cycle of impunity, unethical politics, and enablement is allowed to continue, and we continue to fail to hold bad actors to account, I have little hope for the future, or the future of my daughter and stepson.