Among the precious little remaining friends of a rapid EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans, the danger of unfriendly powers invading the region is a recurring main argument. This means fending off Russia, China, Turkey and some countries in the Middle East that have steadily invested politically, economically and culturally in this European enclave.
The problem is real, if sometimes exaggerated, but it overlooks the fact that politicians in all six countries in this region are steadfastly committed to EU integration and future membership of the European Union. This position is supported by a large majority of the population, as opinion polls show from year to year. I’ve argued in the past that the purely geopolitical reasoning that overrides transformation motivation (i.e. Copenhagen criteria: rule of law, accountable and democratic government, human rights) is more of a straw man argument.
Give Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, who enjoyed a lot of international support when he took office in 2013 until he claimed, through propaganda proxies, that the Western powers see him as “our man in Tirana”.
On January 30th, Rama stated that Albania should not and will not wait for EU markets in terms of meat exports as there are better opportunities in markets in the East, Turkey and the Middle East.
From a technical point of view, this statement makes little sense, as the meat export quotas in the EU market remain largely unfulfilled and Albania remains a net meat importer.
Last November, Rama signed an economic cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates, which was hastily ratified a week later, in violation of parliamentary rules. At the same speed, the government passed a law allowing the country’s most important commercial port, Durres Seaport, to be handed over to the Emirati company “Symphony Invest” in the form of a concession.
This violates the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the current treaty with the EU, which provides for fair access for European companies to Albanian market opportunities. Members of the European Parliament have publicly expressed concerns and the Commission has formally raised the issue.
Rama was not amused. So he decided to discuss the meat export markets.
In the past two months, the Albanian Prime Minister has attacked the EU on many occasions for lack of vaccine solidarity with the Western Balkans, despite the Commission’s announcement in December of a € 70 million grant to co-finance the purchase of the sting.
He called it morally unacceptable, politically incomprehensible, logically unjustifiable and said that it embarrassed him as a European and outraged him as a person.
Interestingly, he repeated the allegations during an official visit to Ankara (Rama cultivated a personal relationship with the President of Turkey and many say he found inspiration there for high-level governance). The EU, especially France, criticized sharply.
Most observers would agree that, unlike his Serbian counterparts, Rama did not negotiate with vaccine manufacturers in time. As such, his great promises on this sensitive issue would go unfulfilled, but with the upcoming general election in April, he needed a scapegoat. What surprises many is the way he pointed his finger at international matches and used unusually brazen language.
A very new spit could be more revealing: Rama rebuked the US and UK ambassadors, who have publicly insisted that parties have candidates with no previous convictions on their lists and comply with reformed electoral laws. He reminded them that Albania’s elections were not their business and that there was no way he could know whether socialist candidates had lied about their criminal past.
As early as 2013, the opposition found dozens of serious criminals who entered parliament and the mayor’s office via Rama’s ticket for the Socialist Party. Their weapons and money were instrumental in getting the votes that would not normally go to the Socialist Party. In 2016, under American pressure, Rama was forced to pass a law banning former convicts from public office. a law that he repeatedly questioned in principle and ignored in practice. That was later proven by several cases the Mayor of the Socialist Party with hidden criminal records brought to power during each party’s local election in June 2019.
But perhaps the biggest confrontation with the EU took place last autumn when Rama strayed from consensus reform of electoral law, carefully mediated by diplomats from the EU, the US and the UK. As soon as he found out that other rules would benefit his party, he unilaterally amended the law and the constitution, regardless of warnings from the European Commission, bipartisan appeals from the European Parliament and individual governments.
He didn’t care to expose the mediators as powerless and insignificant. or maybe that was the side effect we wanted: showing the local audience who the strong guy in town is.
There were days when Rama skillfully used certain relevant internationals to cover up his unconstitutional assumptions of power, his great corruption and his collusion with the criminal Underworld. He used their reluctance, ambivalence and sometimes their clearly wrong attitude to maintain and strengthen his power through external legitimation. “I’m her son of a bitch you know! ”
Now he’s playing with some of them, but his goal remains the same.
What does this have to do with the unfriendly intervening forces, a patient reader might ask? Aside from the old adage that (absolute) power corrupts (absolute) and that constitutional controls over government power are essential to prevent human defects of character from harming society. Actually nothing transcendental!
Albania may be the only Western Balkans country where current NATO membership and the future of the EU enjoy the highest popular support. Kosovo could take on him, which in turn makes this a more Albanian thing.
In the absence of checks and balances, any ruler faced with national and European / Western demands for government accountability and free elections may want to not only resist the pressure but also signal additional European alignments.
Anyone who thought this was only possible in Serbia has not observed the Albanian Prime Minister since the beginning of 2020.