Albania has just entered its 100th year of independence. But does the internal political scene offer enough reasons for celebration? The picture is mixed. On the one hand the country has experienced almost two years of bifurcation and polarization of the political space that endangered social stability. The country experienced successive waves of political standoffs, street politics, disputed elections and high-level corruption scandals. The culmination of the crisis saw the death of four protestors in anti-government rallies, a rather gloomy picture of Albanian politics and society. On the other hand this series of crises recently came to a close when the opposition returned to Parliament and a parliamentary committee on electoral reform was established. The consensus reached between the ruling center-right Democrats (PD) and opposition Socialists (PS) is a step in the right direction. But the picture of Albanian democracy and rule of law that emerged from the last year’s developments is still quite problematic casting doubt on whether the political scene will decisively normalize. A brief review of the main political developments reveals the Janus face of Albanian politics.
The investigation of the demonstrators’ death and the attacks on the judiciary
In a recent development, the head of the Republican Guard Ndrea Prendi and two others officials were arrested in connection to the ongoing investigation over the death of protestors during last year’s anti-government rallies. This is understandably seen by many seen as a positive development in the direction of normalization of Albanian politics. But the flipside of this positive development is the revelation of – what seems to be – a high-level conspiracy to cover up responsibility for the death of demonstrators. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, members of the Republican Guard obstructed justice tamper with evidence, such as the murder weapon and a video footage.
The announcement of the investigation’s findings by the Prosecutor-General- Ina Rama, came after a highly polarized political campaign from both the government and the opposition. The opposition demanded a full investigation that would enquire the responsibility of Sali Berisha and Lulzim Basha, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and currently Mayor of Tirana. On his part, Sali Berisha attacked the Prosecutor-General after she charged six National Guard officers with overstepping their authority during the demonstrations; in a clear breach of the constitution, he refused to execute their arrest warrants. Instead, he accused the Prosecutor-General of allying with the opposition and of manipulating the evidence of the investigation over the events of the 21 January 2011 demonstrations. Berisha continues to the view these demonstrations in the context of a plot for a coup against his government and calls for the arrest of Prosecutor-General and opposition figures. Such attacks are not isolated incidents. In recent years, the Prosecutor-General has come under regular attack from government officials and the pro-government media. These are ominous signs for the health of the Albanian democracy, which have been criticized by the European Union. The Albanian judiciary continues to be under pressure by political authorities and lacks the independence and capacity to adequately prosecute prominent cases of corruption.
The malaise of corruption and Ilir Meta’s case
One year ago, the Tirana district Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into alleged bribery and abuse of power by senior government officials. The case involved Ilir Meta, the Deputy Prime Minister and junior partner in the government, who was seen in a broadcasted videotape to discuss corrupt deals Dritan Prifti, the former Economy Minister and Meta’s close ally during his 1999-2002 premiership. This highly-publicised case became one of the impetuses for the anti-government demonstrations which later cost the lives of four protesters.
A year after anti-corruption demonstrations swept the nation, the Supreme Court found Ilir Meta innocent of active corruption, maintaining that charges against him could not be proven; the judges rejected the prosecutors’ recommendation for a two-year prison term. The court’s verdict left a number of unanswered questions and cast doubt on neutrality of the country’s judiciary. Ilir Meta’s case appears reinforces a common pattern in Albania. To this day, high-profile charges of official misconduct have largely fizzled out without being fully tried in court. Legal proceedings have been either terminated due to lack of evidence or been postponed. This track record, many believe, gives credence to charges of political interference in the judiciary. Unsurprisingly, the Albanian public appears less easily convinced that the judiciary about Ilir Meta’s and other officials’ alleged corruption.
Tainted political consensus
In this explosive political atmosphere, PD and PS, the two main political parties with a long history of mutual animosity, are trying to reach a significant political agreement. Under pressure from the European Union, which threatens to put Albania’s accession process in the backburner, the two parties attempt to reach an agreement on a new electoral code in time for the next parliamentary elections in 2013.
But, some analysts are again pessimistic about the outcome of the dialogue. They argue that the process will lead to another major political bargain between the Democrats and the Socialists. This will benefit the two main parties at the detriment of genuine democracy in the country. It has all happened before, say the critics. In 2008 the two parties reached again a political consensus. Although this initiative was praised by the European Commission, it was disputed by the smaller political parties, which saw the balance of power being altered in favour of the large parties. While they did not contribute to party pluralism, at the same time the changes did not bring about stability, as the subsequent parliamentary and political crisis in the country made plain.
With such track record it is understandable why many view the new agreement with suspicion. The September 2011 agreement of the two main political parties has probably much to do with the relentless political feud, that hampered the country’s image significantly. Critics argue that two main parties use their willingness for political cooperation as a card for convincing a suspicious public that are working for Albania’s EU accession integration.
What comes next?
In 2012 all eyes in Albania are on the European Union. Albanian politicians are optimistic about the benefits of the consensus results. Owing to the deep distrust between the parties, the local observers do not share the politicians’ optimistic projections about Albania’s EU accession. The big question is whether the Berisha-Rama armistice can survive the challenges ahead, including the election of a new president, which is considered as the golden opportunity for Albanian politicians to mend the tarnished image of their democracy. But individual interests often prevail over national ones and the two main political parties are uncertain about whether and to what extent they are ready to end the political games they have been playing for the past two years.