Among the precious little remaining friends of a quick EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans, the threat of non-friendly powers encroaching in the region is a recurrent main argument. By this, they mean fending off Russia, China, Turkey, and some Middle Eastern countries, which have been steadily investing politically, economically, and culturally in this European enclave.
While the issue is real, albeit sometimes overblown, it overlooks the fact that the body politic in all the six states of this region commits unwaveringly to EU integration and future membership in the Union. This position is supported by a large majority of the population as year-by-year opinion polls demonstrate. I have argued in the past that the exclusive geopolitical reasoning sidelining the transformational motivation (i.e. Copenhagen Criteria: rule of law, accountable and democratic government, human rights) is rather a straw man argument.
Enter Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, who upon assuming office in 2013, enjoyed a lot of international support to the point of claiming through propaganda proxies that Western Powers see him as “our man in Tirana”.
On 30 January Rama stated that regarding meat exports Albania shouldn’t and won’t wait for the EU markets as there are better opportunities in the Eastern, Turkish, and Middle Eastern markets.
Technically this statement makes little sense since meat export quotas into the EU market remain largely unfulfilled and Albania remains a net meat importer.
Last November Rama signed an economic cooperation accord with the United Arab Emirates which was hastily, and in breach of parliamentary rules, ratified one week later. With the same speed, the government has produced a law that allows the handing over of the country’s main commercial harbor, Durres Seaport, to the Emirati company ‘Symphony Invest’ in the form of a concession.
This breaches the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the current treaty with the EU, that provides for fair access of European companies to Albanian market opportunities. Members of the European Parliament have publicly expressed concerns and the Commission has raised the issue formally.
Mr. Rama was not amused. But instead, he opted to discuss meat export markets.
In the last two months, the Albanian Prime Minister has often attacked the EU for lack of vaccine solidarity with the Western Balkans despite a €70 million grant announced by the Commission in December to co-finance the purchase of the jab.
He called it morally unacceptable, politically incomprehensible, logically unjustifiable and said it left him shamed as a European and indignant as a human.
Interestingly he repeated the charges during an official visit to Ankara (Rama has cultivated a personal relationship with the Turkish president and many say he found some inspiration there concerning high-handed governance). The EU, especially France, rebuked sharply.
Most observers would agree that Rama, differing from his Serbian counterparts, didn’t negotiate in time with the vaccine producers. As such, his grand promises on this sensitive subject would remain unfulfilled but with general elections looming in April, he needed a scapegoat. What surprises many is the way he pointed the finger at internationals and used unusually brazen language.
A very recent spat could be more revealing: Prime Minister Rama rebuked the US and UK ambassadors for insisting publicly that parties have clean candidates (without criminal records) on their lists and live up to reformed electoral legislation. He reminded them Albania’s elections were not their business and he couldn’t possibly know if Socialist candidates lied about their criminal past.
Back in 2013 the opposition found out dozens of serious criminals entering parliament and mayorships via Rama’s Socialist Party ticket. Their guns and money were instrumental in getting the votes that wouldn’t normally go to the SP. Under US pressure Rama was forced in 2016 to adopt a law banning former convicts from public office; a law he kept questioning in principle and disregarding in practice. This was later evidenced by several cases of Socialist Party mayors with concealed criminal records, being voted into power during the June 2019 single party local elections.
But perhaps the biggest confrontation with the EU took place last autumn when Rama departed from a consensual reform of the electoral law that was painstakingly mediated by the EU, US, and the UK. As soon as he found out that other rules would advantage his party he unilaterally changed the law and the constitution, disregarding warnings by the European Commission, cross-party appeals by the European Parliament, and individual governments.
He didn’t care about exposing the mediators as impotent and insignificant; or maybe this was the desired side effect: showing the domestic audience who is the strong guy in town.
0AThere were days when PM Rama would skillfully use certain relevant internationals to cover up his unconstitutional power grabs, grand corruption, and collusion with the criminal underworld. He used their reticence, ambivalence, and sometimes their plain wrong posture to retain and increase his power. “I am their son of a bitch, you know!”
Now he is sparring with some of them but his aim remains the same.
What does this have to do with the non friendly encroaching powers, a patient reader might ask? Actually nothing transcendental. Apart from the old adage that (absolute) power corrupts (absolutely) and that constitutional checks on government power are essential to prevent human character flaws to cause harm to society.
Albania may be the Western Balkans country where current membership in NATO and the future one in the EU enjoy the highest popular support. Kosovo might rival it, which again makes this a rather Albanian thing.
Still, in the absence of checks and balances any ruler confronted with domestic and European/Western requests for accountable government and free elections might want not just to resist pressure but also signal extra European alignments.
Whoever thought this was possible only in Serbia has not been watching the Prime Minister of Albania since 2020.
Genc Pollo is a former Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Telecom & IT, former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Media and also of European Integration.