One such region is the Western Balkans. With such a bloody and painful past, transformation has not been an easy process and the journey is still only halfway through. Many steps need to be taken, including state-building and good governance based on the rule of law, human rights, civil liberties, human rights, a free-market economy, pluralistic democracy and socio-cultural changes. The EU has been playing a key role in this process in the belief that the prospect of EU membership would prevent the possibility of the region falling back into violence. EU membership has been used as leverage to help drive forward sometimes very difficult reforms. While different countries have progressed at different rates with many hiccups and difficulties along the way, all of the states have made progress in moving away from their bloody pasts.
Of course there are some laggards. Albania, for example, started its transition to democratic rule with a significant number of challenges, not least because of its heavy communist legacy. Albania’s leadership continues to declare that EU integration is a top foreign policy priority and the country formally applied to join the EU in 2009. However, while Albania is nowadays a member of NATO and has a visa-free regime with the EU, it has still failed to secure the status of candidate country. Tirana is hoping to achieve this later this year following the publication of the European Commission’s annual progress report. Having been disappointed twice before, Albania will be hoping that it will be a case of third time lucky. The refusal of the EU until now to grant the country candidate status is a direct consequence of the behavior of the country’s quarrelsome and confrontational politicians and their failure to make progress on EU-demanded reforms, with Albania yet to achieve effective and stable democratic institutions or hold trouble-free elections. Even if Albania manages to get candidate status, membership is still a long time off, with strengthening the rule of law and combating organized crime and corruption remaining significant challenges. Albania’s judicial institutions continue to suffer from political interference and financial instability.
Albanians are not the world’s greatest compromisers with political deadlock after political deadlock keeping Albania hostage for long periods of time. The two main political parties in Albania have been unable to get along. During the period from 2009-2011, policy making was, for all intents and purposes, frozen, with personal battles between high-profile figures a regular feature. This often turned violent. For example, in January 2011, four people were shot dead at the gates of the prime minister’s office in Tirana, part of an opposition protest that turned violent.
However, today things look slightly brighter and there seems to be a new impetus and political will in Albania to get itself sorted out. In November 2010 the European Commission issued the country with a list of 12 priorities that need to be met in order to progress the European integration process. Today, according to the foreign minister, Edmond Panariti, Tirana has made good progress in the last six months, something which has been endorsed by the EU; the most recent breakthrough coming in June, when both sides endorsed electoral reform. However, there remains a critical hurdle, namely removing the immunity status that MPs and other high-ranking government officials hold. Limitation of immunity is very important for the EU as it is a key element in the fight against corruption. Unfortunately, Albania’s political class transforms every issue into a battle. The Democratic Party of Albania and the opposition Socialist Party of Albania agree in principle to approve the constitutional changes leading to immunity reform; both said the prosecutor’s office can sue MPs, but must seek parliament’s approval to arrest them. The opposition, however, demands changes to the constitution that would have the attorney general and constitutional and high court judges appointed by an overall majority -- a move that would give the opposition a say in the appointments, hence the ruling party’s objections. Prime Minister Sali Berisha is now talking about calling a referendum on this.
Clearly, as with other countries in this region, beating back corruption is not going to be easy. According to international watchdog Freedom House’s 2012 report, “corruption remained deeply entrenched in all sectors of life in Albania, negatively affecting the country’s economic and political development as well as the consolidation of democratic institutions. While some efforts to combat low and mid-level corruption have been successful, high-level corruption remains largely untouched.”
Albania needs to find a way to put its political rivalries behind it for good and adopt a far greater level of compromise that will allow the country to develop its considerable potential.