In politics, just as in life, timing is everything. Albanian politicians have developed a knack for instigating a new crisis at decisive moments for the country’s democratic and integration future.
As the stakes rise, political factors have pursued various troubling means to dwindle hopes of progress through prolonged parliamentary boycotts, hunger strikes, and mass protests.
Similarly, the destruction of the National Theater building in the early hours of Sunday morning provides a coincidentally opportunity distraction from the reform agenda. With economic prospects faltering and deadlines for implementing important reforms approaching, the timing could have not been worse.
The political detente reached by Albania’s political leaders at the beginning of the pandemic was a rare but welcome sign of collaboration and bipartisanship that Albanians are not accustomed to. Although short-lived, it provided a glimpse of hope cooperation would enable the passing of some key reforms and the fulfillment of the 15 conditions set by the European Council, which must be completed prior to the first intergovernmental conference with the EU.
Among the pre-conditions is the electoral reform which aims to give an end to the malicious repeat of problematic elections, ensure the transparent financing of political parties and electoral campaigns among others.
Earlier this year, all sides, including non-parliamentary opposition parties, agreed to a working timeline that targeted mid-March, latter postponed to the end of May as the deadline for adopting the outstanding OSCE-ODIHR recommendations of the last three elections.
In effect, the reform aims to bring about sweeping changes to the administration, management, and the conduct of elections in Albania. If implemented, the recommendations would significantly boost the country’s democratic credentials.
However, these reforms are not to everyone’s liking in Tirana as their successful implementation seeks to eliminate shortcomings of the current system. Although the current rules of the game may not be best for the country, the system has some powerful beneficiaries in the entrenched political circles who stand to lose from the implementation of the reform. The latter have governed the country uninterruptedly for almost three decades.
In the course of this time, established political elites have extended their power of influence through patronage and corruption. This has made them immensely rich and powerful but has proven to be a poor recipe for development, democratization and prosperity, making the case for reforms a necessity.
Another important EU condition is the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the High Court. Both courts are expected to have their say on deeply politically issues, including the legality and validity of the local elections held on 30 June 2019 that were boycotted by opposition parties.
Considering the approaching deadline to deliver results on all these accounts, the political crisis emerging from the demolition of the National Theatre is a welcome distraction for the reform-averse segments of the society. For the rest, this is painfully reminiscent of missteps the country’s leadership has made at the expense of welfare of its citizens, stability, development, democratization and integration in the last 30 years.
Actions speak louder than words
The next few weeks was going to be a crucial period for progress on meeting the conditions, when political maturity and leadership was most needed. The government was being closely scrutinized for its management of the pandemic and along with it, its plans to recover the economy. As the lockdown measures eased, in part due to effects of government measures, pressure on institutions and responsible parties to move ahead with the reform agenda mounted.
In response, Albanian’s international partners expected swift action in the reform agenda. Instead the government’s credentials in the area all but crumbled in a matter of days.
The ongoing Justice Reform with its sweeping transformation of the system forms one of the
government’s most credible claims for its commitment to reform. Yet, the demolition of the national theater and the actions that accompanied it, including the disregard for open investigations, legal uncertainties and the use of disproportionate force against demonstrates, demonstrated anything but a commitment to rule of law and transparency.
During its action, the government and the municipality ignored an open investigation by SPAK, the special anti-corruption body and a key component of the justice reform. In addition, the government also ignored a legal proceeding from the Constitutional Court.
Working in tandem as a joint unit during the process, the government and the municipality of Tirana, openly disregarded all forms of institutional checks and balance. That includes a presidential veto on a draft law that enabled the transfer of the property where the theater used to be to the Municipality.
The Ombudsman’s office had also an ongoing investigation, while the State Supreme Audit office had also launched its proceedings and had called on the government to halt its plans for the demolition until the Constitutional Court gave its verdict on the already opened case.
Concerns were also raised about the transparency of the process at the Municipality level. Councilors, a number of who are also Deputy Ministers, rushed in to decide on the demolition of the theater via video call last Friday, in a process marred by mystery. Almost a week later, Albanians still do not know if a voting took place at all, and if it had, who voted how.
Instead, the police was mobilized to impose checks on travel to and from the city of Tirana, and surround the part of the boulevard to keep away protesters as the building was bulldozed to the ground.
Simultaneously, the government managed to duly disappoint its international partners as well by ignoring their calls for dialogue.
In addition, it managed to use disproportionate force against protesters on several occasions. Although the Prime Minister and the police have refuted the claim, the media footage strongly proves the case. The Ombudsman and several human rights organizations raised serious concerns for the high level of violence used against peaceful protesters, including a young activist who ironically held Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment above his head.
The government and the country cannot afford a backsliding in the reform process. Tirana went a painfully long process to get the green light to open negotiations. Effectively, Brussels gave the government a second chance to demonstrate its credentials for EU membership.
Government’s hasty decision to demolish the theater despite the ensuing legal, cultural and political ramifications represents a serious violation of trust and a possible setback on the reform agenda. While this may deliver dividends for the reform-averse, it overcasts the prospects for meaningful change, enhanced trust in institutions or democratization.