A young man, a student perhaps, surrounded by four policemen, hitting his head and pulling at him from all sides. In his left hand he holds a book, The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Around his neck is a photo camera. He does not actively resist or fight back, and is dragged across the street. He avoids being pulled to the ground, which would no doubt destroy his camera. He holds on to The Idiot, his knuckles turning white. He holds it high.
Another young man, lying on the ground curled up in a foetus position. A paramilitary wearing a balaclava, the ID tags removed from his uniform about to kick him in the belly. He winces in anticipation of the pain.
These and dozens of other images of extreme police violence – to hell with social distancing, of course – flooded the screens of Albanians at home and all across the world in the aftermath of the unconstitutional, illegal, and violent destruction of the National Theater, where the bulldozers moved in while a dozen of protestors were still inside, a human sacrifice that the government was clearly more than willing to make.
A friend tells me over Signal: “It’s a free for all now, they are just beating people for fun.”
Another one sends me a photograph of his leg and foot, black and blue, completely swollen. He was arrested, stuffed in an overcrowded cell, denied medical attention. I am relieved he was released.
This is the Albania that has now officially opened accession negotiations with the EU. We all remember the propaganda coming from the European capitals: The European Commission would be kept in check by the European Council and member states, no more rosy “progress reports” but accountability and reversability! The accession process should be leveraged to avoid later authoritarian backsliding as witnessed in Hungary, Poland, and Romania. All of this has come to nothing. The EU has stood by every single violation of fundamental human rights in Albania, every single violation of its justice-reformed Constitution, and remained silent.
The two tweets coming out of the EU offices high up in ABA Fifth speak of “regret” and “restraint” from the “parties” involved. While other embassies came out with more strongly worded denunciations, and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti – his country too the victim of EU weakness, double-speak, and callous neglect – spoke words of encouragement and hope, the social media accounts of EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca remained silent as a grave. Neither he nor his PR assistants couldn’t even be bothered to retweet his own embassy’s lukewarm rebuke. Perhaps he had taken a day off, who knows.
This can only mean that Soreca has realized the truth: that the EU has lost all its leverage over the Albanian government. Now that negotiations have officially opened, they gave up their last carrot, with the sticks long gone. For Rama it doesn’t matter that there are still 15 conditions. He and everyone else knows that they never will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future, and that the European Commission will at some point just give in and stage some kind of unofficial “pre-negotiation conference” to help him with another good PR opportunity to maintain the appearance of “progress.” Spring 2021, just before the upcoming elections, will no doubt offer an excellent opportunity.
Also the Justice Reform has long ceased to be a practical avenue of soft power. Rather than using the EURALIUS mission to keep a check on the strong autocratic tendencies of the Rama government, the European Commission has abandoned its oversight and allowed Rama to use the justice assistance mission as an alternative to the Constitutional Court, a non-public, opaque, unaccountable and therefore managable group of “internationals.”
Without the accession negotiations and the Justice Reform, what could the European Commission possibly hold over Rama’s head to convince him not to beat defenseless people in the streets, willfully exposing them and his own police force to a deadly virus? A few million euros in disaster relief that will simply be channeled to Fusha and Bjarke Ingels? A single phone call to Erdoğan or MBS suffices to find money elsewhere. Or just simply screw the money. With nearly the entire media and social media apparatus in his grip, Rama can easily convince his supporters that he is still the greatest leader since Enver Hoxha, if not greater. “Even I make mistakes,” he admitted on Twitter yesterday, before insulting one of the few theater workers he wasn’t able to bribe, bully, or threaten into submission.
Without leverage, and without an active stakeholding position, the EU has now been doomed to become a passive bystander, while it sees the entire Western Balkans region descend into illiberal mayhem: unable to counter Russian and Serbian agitation in Montenegro, unable to unify around a durable and humane solution for Kosovo, unable to defend North Macedonia against the bullying from Bulgaria, unable to avoid the further split up of Bosnia, unable to rule itself, unable to be solidary among itself, unable to come up with new ideas to rejuvenate the union. Unable, unable, unable.
We all desperately need Dostoyevsky’s idiot.