BALKAN BLOG: Albania’s opposition tries to take over Socialists’ EU accession mantle

BALKAN BLOG: Albania’s opposition tries to take over Socialists’ EU accession mantle
Prime Minister Edi Rama (left) has repeatedly criticised EU officials ahead of the April general election, giving the opposition Democrats led by Lulzim Basha (right) a chance to present themselves as the new pro-EU party.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 25, 2021

What a difference two years make. In 2019 Albania held local elections that were boycotted by the opposition — which ignored appeals from the EU to take part — and which followed violent mass protests in Tirana where opposition supporters hurled petrol bombs at government buildings. 

Now, as the April 25 general election approaches, the country’s main opposition force, the Democratic Party, is working to show voters it is ready to govern responsibly and guide Albania towards EU accession. 

Prime Minister Edi Rama, meanwhile, who guided Albania into becoming an EU candidate country after a crackdown on drug cultivation and pushed through an EU-required overhaul of the judiciary in the face of fierce opposition, has repeatedly lashed out at EU figures and institutions in the run-up to the election. 

In the latest incident, Rama strongly criticised European Commissioners Mariya Gabriel and Johannes Hahn after they appeared in video conferences with Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha that were then shared by the opposition politician on social media. 

In social media posts, Rama described the video conferences with Commissioner for Research, Culture, Education and Youth Gabriel and Commissioner for Budget and Administration Hahn as “interference” in the election campaign. “Someone in Brussels should tell the commissioners who spend their working time, paid for by the taxes of the peoples of Europe, to make electoral video chats with Lulzim Basha, that this is called interference in the internal electoral campaign of an EU candidate country!” Rama wrote on Twitter. 

“To my knowledge the European Commission is not in the habit of sticking its nose into election campaigns and I expect to learn it officially and publicly from Brussels, if I am wrong and maybe the commissioners really have the right to become parties when the peoples of Europe elect their governments!” he added. 

A spokesperson for Gabriel downplayed the video in comments to Albania’s A2 News, saying that the commissioner had attended a round table on education organised by Vienna University. Gabriel’s attendance had been “limited to holding a speech” on “new and forthcoming European initiatives for education and scientific research, which are important for the Western Balkans, including Albania”, the spokesperson told A2 News. 

Undeterred (or perhaps encouraged) by the controversy, Basha released another video of his conversation with the chairman of the European People Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, on March 24. Basha's Democratic Party is part of the EPP, to which Gabriel's and Hahn's parties also belong.

A crushing setback

Rama has become increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of EU politicians after the December EU Council meeting at which minsters failed to approve a date for the first intergovernmental conferences with Albania and North Macedonia, despite agreeing to open accession talks with the two countries in March last year. 

The reason for the failure to open talks was Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s bid which in turn blocked the EU enlargement process for both countries. The veto did not refer to Albania, but some countries, particularly the Netherlands, assessed that Albania failed to implement all needed reforms and recommended the reform process continue before the start of the negotiations.  

Since then, Rama has also attacked EU officials over the union’s lack of help for the aspiring members in the Western Balkans which, apart from Serbia, have struggled to secure vaccines for their populations. In January, he said the bloc’s actions were "morally and politically unacceptable” and that the EU was "only thinking of itself”. "If you see how the European Union has conceived this process, for the moment it has decided to think only of itself … It has been left to the discretion of member states to build interactive processes for vaccines in bilateral ways with non-EU countries,” said Rama. 

As the election approached, when Rama set out his objectives should he secure a third mandate, a statement on EU accession was conspicuously absent. Instead, the prime minister said he needed the support of the Albanian people to win the fight against coronavirus, complete the healthcare reforms, increase wages and develop the economy. “I wouldn’t have asked for a third time, but instead return home to pay off the big debts I have to my family … if there weren’t grandparents, parents and children that still need to have a home; if there wasn’t a fight against COVID-19 to win and vaccinate each and every citizen of this country, overcoming major difficulties,” Rama wrote on February 16. During the campaign, Rama has highlighted progress on the contraction of new schools, hospitals and clinics, as well as roads and other infrastructure. 

This is despite the undoubted successes of his two governments in moving towards EU accession before the December 2020 setback. Less than a year after his first government came to power, Albania was accepted as an EU candidate country, albeit with some EU members expressing reservations.

The decision followed a crackdown on drug cultivation that included a military-style operation using army helicopters and armoured personal carriers (APCs) at Lazarat, notorious as Europe’s “marijuana mountain”. The fight against drugs continued, as Rama pledged to wipe out large-scale cannabis plantations by the end of 2017, though more recently there have been reports that drug cultivation is on the rise again. 

Since then, the toughest challenge for the government was forcing through wide-reaching judicial reforms demanded by the EU as a condition for further progress towards accession. The reforms — which were the source of months of political wrangling and blocked by the opposition until an agreement was finally reached in May 2017 — involved the vetting of around 800 prosecutors and judges. Among those sacked during the vetting process were the heads of both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court

When the Socialists increased their share of the vote in the 2017 general election shortly afterwards, giving them an outright majority in the parliament, Rama linked the victory to the progress towards EU accession. “Albanians have made a clear choice. They have demonstrated that they want reform of the justice system and vetting, and therefore they have voted strongly for our European path,” he commented. 

With the Socialists politically dominant for years, the opposition turned to street protests, a choice made in other countries in the region where opposition parties didn’t see a route to power through the ballot boxes. Often, these turned violent. In February 2017, Albanian police launched criminal proceedings against Basha for inciting violence during anti-government protests. 

Several of the mass opposition protests in spring 2019 also ended in violence and clashes with police officers. Demonstrators threw firebombs and attacked public buildings. Local broadcaster Top Channel reported in 2019 that the US had threatened to put the Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) on the list of violent political organisations if they continued with violence during the protests. (Contacted by bne IntelliNews, the US embassy in Tirana neither confirmed nor denied the report.)

The two parties also threatened a boycott of the 2017 general election (which would have jeopardised Albania’s EU path) and while an agreement on their participation was struck close to election day, they went ahead with a boycott of the 2019 local election

Promises of change

Ahead of the 2021 election, however, the two parties are ready to run for office, having signed a cooperation agreement under which will run on separate lists, but will field a single list in districts with a lower number of voters. They hope this cooperation, and a promise to bring change to the country, will give them a better chance of ousting the Socialist Party, which is seeking re-election for a third term. “Our partnership sends a strong and clear signal to all Albanians that change is coming, that change is inevitable and that better days [are] ahead for Albanians wherever they live,” LSI leader Monika Kryemadhi said after the agreement was signed. 

It’s now nearly eight years since the last Democratic Party government under Sali Berisha was ousted in the 2013 general election. At the end of Berisha’s eight years in power, as bne IntelliNews wrote at the time, there were growing concerns about corruption and how the Albanian economy was “dominated by oligarchic and criminal interests”. Now, however, and memories of that era are fading, allowing Basha to reinvent the party for the present day. 

With the Socialists now in power for eight years, there’s more for the opposition to criticise — there have been repeated accusations from both Basha and Meta that the Socialist government is controlled by a handful of oligarchs. This has been denied by Rama, and the years since the Socialists came to power saw the country advance on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) between 2013 and 2018, though it has since dropped back somewhat. In addition, the government has been criticised, including by the International Monetary Fund, for its use of public-private partnership (PPP) projects, some of which were launched after unsolicited offers from private companies and promises of dubious benefits. More recently, the extension of the concession for Tirana airport shortly before the election by conglomerate Kastrati Group has added fuel to the accusations of a cosy relationship with local oligarchs. 

Meta, who sent the law extending the concession back to the parliament only to have his veto overturned, argued that the law had been rushed through the parliament with insufficient scrutiny ahead of the general election. “The reason is very simple, hiding from the public eye this procedure is completely unconstitutional, scandalous and illegal,” he claimed. 

Overall, while not marred by protests or boycotts, the election campaign is shaping up to be a bad tempered contest. It is also an uncertain one. The polls continue to give a lead to the Socialists — the latest from Euronews Albania and MRB puts the ruling party on 41.3%. That is well ahead of the Democratic Party on 30.8% and a few points ahead of the combined score of the Democrats and the LSI together. Rama also remains voters’ preferred leader, the same pollsters found. 

Yet with a month still to go, there is still a lot of room for change. The score of the Democratic Party has inched up recently, and the same poll shows a large share of undecided voters. Asked who they would vote for if an election was held this Sunday, 17.9% of respondents said they would not vote, did not know or refused to answer. That is more than enough uncommitted voters to sway the result in the coming month. The question is whether they can be convinced by either the achievements under the last two Socialist government or the promise of change from the opposition.