In a recent opinion piece for the Dutch Christian newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, Johan Buwalda, a former program manager for UNDP’s Weapons in Exchange for Development Program in Albania, argued for the opening of EU accession negotiations with Albania based on a geostrategic argument that has also been repeated by Prime Minister Edi Rama:
[F]or Europe the accession of Albania is of great importance. The interests of Russia and China to gain a foothold in Albania are large because of its geographical location and the fact that the inhabitants of the surrounding countries like Kosovo and North Macedonia are also Albanians. Turkey shows its influence by building a giant mosque in Tirana with four (!) minarets. Even though Islam hardly plays a role in Albanian public life. But the propaganda for Islam through the media is increasing. And the Albanians are looking for a connection with anyone to be able to derive their identity and their future from it.
The last two sentences are simply untrue and, frankly, insulting. If anything, Albanians have a very strong sense of identity and need neither Europe nor Turkey to “derive […] their future from.” They are, however, also normal human beings, and faced with a corrupt government, failing political system, collapsed rule of law, and rampant corruption it is reasonable that many would seek employment and a stable life elsewhere.
What is remarkable in Buwalda’s article, is that while he recognizes the deep social and political problems in Albania, he is unable to actually make sense of them. In a paragraph on the political situation in Albania, Buwalda writes:
A stable institution should in any case be the government of Albania. But a President who is a member of the opposition and personally intervenes in the decisions of Parliament is no example of that. In addition, the accusations of the opposition to the Albanian government are extremely strong. A week ago, the general secretary of the Democratic Party, Gazment Bard[h]i, made serious allegations against the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, of the ruling Socialist Party. During the riots of the opposition around the elections of June 30, the parliament building could possibly be set on fire. This would be a scenario, according to Bard[h]i, of the prime minister. Bard[h]i’s reaction came after a statement from the President of the Republic, Ilir Meta, to a committee of inquiry: that during those riots there was a risk that the parliament building would be set on fire. This would have partly influenced his decision to cancel the local elections of June 30. He wanted to prevent a “Reichstag,” as at the beginning of Nazi Germany. However, the elections were simply held. But the turnout was very low.
It is true that the government of Albania “should be” a “stable institution.” But instead of pointing out the havoc wreaked by the justice reform Buwalda accuses President Ilir Meta of being a “member of the opposition”! He forgets to mention that as president, Meta is constitutionally obligated to remain above the parties and as such had resigned his chairmanship and membership of the Socialist Movement for Integration. If you consider Meta to be “member of the opposition” nonetheless, then all previous presidents should be considered to be politically affiliated, making Meta part of the rule, not the exception.
Then as regards the “extremely strong accusations” of the opposition, Buwalda seems to be unaware of the fact (or doesn’t want to mention) that the potential destabilization of parliament, or even setting fire to the building, is nothing compared to the Electiongate scandal which produced wiretaps showing a widespread network of the government, Socialist Party, and mafia groups engaged in vote buying and voter intimidation. Recently, the whole investigation was conveniently downgraded by a General Prosecutor nominated by… the government.
Furthermore, Buwalda omits the fact that President Meta’s decision to cancel the June 30 elections was not a “personal intervention,” but a presidential decree which remains valid until struck down by the Constitutional Court (which has no quorum). So the fact that the government “simply held” the elections, in violation of a presidential decree, is actually one of the reasons for the current political crisis. The low turnout is the result of the fact that the election were boycotted by the opposition (not mentioned by Buwalda) and therefore 80% of the Albanians stayed home, while the remaining 20% included many civil servants and their families who were actively forced to vote, as evidenced recently by the OSCE-ODIHR report.
So why is the missing link, the widespread corruption and criminal involvement of the Rama government, absent from Buwalda’s opinion piece on Albania? Because he, like many internationals who first came to Albania in the slipstream of the collapse of 1997, remains a awe-struck supporter of Edi Rama. These internationals arrived in a country wrecked by corruption and a collapsed political system, and saw in Rama, then mayor of Tirana, the ideal “reformer” Albania had been waiting for.
This is what Buwalda wrote about Rama in 2015, again the Nederlands Dagblad:
Since June 2014, Albania has been a candidate for membership of the European Union. Because there is an unprecedented revolution going on in that country, thanks to a strong administration led by Social Democrat Edi Rama, who was elected Prime Minister in June 2013. […] His fight against corruption continues unabated. His former Social Affairs Minister [Erion Veliaj] was recently elected mayor of Tirana. That makes it clear that the population supports this.
The problem with Buwalda, but also the likes of Kouchner or Campbell, is that he is unable or unwilling to realize that his former blind trust and belief in Edi Rama the reformer was misplaced. In fact, Rama has turned out to be a figure that stands squarely between Albania and its accession to the EU, a figure that is not only intensely divisive, but who also has reshaped the Socialist Party and the government into what is basically a mafia organization, as it turns out that one of the party official was involved in crime. The list doesn’t end: Saimir Tahiri, Vangjush Dako, Artur Rroshi, Valdrin Pjetri, Agim Kajmaku, …
It must be difficult for men (they are always men) like Buwalda to realize that their judgment has failed them. Difficult, but necessary, lest they continue to soil the pages of many West European newspapers with analyses that are not only uninformed, but damaging.