What's at Stake in Tirana?
Albania is sliding toward conflict and chaos, and the repercussions could be more far-reaching than the state collapse witnessed over twenty years ago. Domestic political radicalism, social unrest, and institutional fragility may also generate regional instability, block Albania’s path toward European Union integration, weaken its relations with the United States, and open a new front for Moscow.
Compared to the economic crash in 1997, when tens of thousands of citizens lost their life savings, Albania’s current “pyramid schemes” are both political and economic. Clientelism and corruption have deeply infected both major parties while there is no viable third alternative. Even more destabilizing than official corruption is the extreme polarization of Albania’s politics. All countries in the Balkan region are undermined by corrupt links between politics and business, but none of them have experienced Albania’s acute bipolar disorders.
Kosova has a viable multi-party system, with at least four major formations competing for office. Even though Montenegro’s politics is divided between Montenegrin and Serbian streams, the pro-independence parties are stronger and have remained in office over several election cycles. North Macedonia may have two major parties but because of the important role played by Albanian parties in coalition cabinets, parliament functions and the government is able to arrange landmark agreements with its neighbors.
Albania is stuck in a quagmire where trust in the two major parties is falling while militants predominate and compromises cannot be reached between political leaders. The Democratic Party opposition has abandoned its parliamentary seats and called for the Socialist Party government to resign while an interim administration takes office until early general elections. However, a national election without some grand bargain between the major political players will simply reproduce resentment among the next election losers and begin another cycle of protests.
The opposition is also boycotting Albania's June 30 local elections and in most municipalities only a single candidate is standing for mayor. The Socialists, who have enough parliamentary seats to run on their own, have asserted that they cannot violate the constitution and change the Election Day. This position will simply ensure that the Democrats become more radical and aggressive, while the legitimacy of state institutions is jeopardized among a sizeable sector of Albanian citizens.
Several opposition demonstrations against the government have already turned violent and more clashes are expected between protestors and police. Democratic Party leaders warn of further escalation as Election Day approaches and protestors may try to forcibly prevent the ballot from taking place. Following violent demonstrations on June 8, Albania's President Ilir Meta declared he was unilaterally cancelling the local elections because of escalating political tensions. Prime Minister Edi Rama challenged Meta’s decision, claiming that the balloting would take place as planned, thus setting the stage for a major political showdown in which parliament could dismiss the President and precipitate a constitutional crisis and even more heated demonstrations.
It is worth noting that street protests in Albania are not manifestations of a Ukrainian-type “Maidan” uprising where in 2014 a popular, pluralistic, reformist, and pro-Western movement ousted a deeply corrupted and unpopular pro-Moscow regime. In Albania’s case, the protests are directed by the major opposition party, which primarily aims to replace the current government without eliminating the sources and drivers of corruption and clientelism.
The cycles of boycotts and demonstrations have become commonplace in Albania and have seriously damaged the country’s reputation over the past two decades, and the manifestations of violence will further postpone the initiation of EU accession talks. Governments in France and Holland, who oppose further Union enlargement, will point at the street violence, political divisions, and institutional weaknesses as evidence that Albania does not belong in Europe.
Chaos and violence in Albania can also impact regional stability by drawing into the fray neighboring Albanian politicians and parties, especially in Kosova and North Macedonia. This could contribute to radicalizing and even polarizing politics in both states. There is also a nightmare scenario of a repeat of the 1997 “pyramid scheme” collapse, in which the state basically ceased to function, weapons were pilfered from government arsenals, and armed vigilantes roamed the streets.
The descent into chaos of a NATO member and staunch U.S. ally must be prevented through a firmer diplomatic initiative that pushes both sides toward dialogue, reigns in militants, and defuses tensions. Unfortunately, Washington has paid insufficient attention to Albania, having focused primarily on resolving the Macedonia-Greece and Kosova-Serbia disputes.
For almost a year Albania has been without a U.S. ambassador. The absence of a senior envoy sends a signal of indifference and encourages political radicalism. Statements from the State Department that violence must be avoided are insufficient if the roots of the problems are not tackled and the United States does not take a more forthright role. Washington must also be aware that political fragmentation, public revolt, and potential regional instability will open another Balkan door to Moscow’s subversive interventions.
June 10, 2019