It has been over two decades since Albania escaped the iron grip of communism, yet it is still struggling to sustain democracy. Since 2009, the same year it joined NATO, its elections have been marred by violence, with the Socialist Party using intimidation and mob rule to try to gain or maintain power. Sadly, Washington does not appear to be paying attention.
Albania is a small country of about 3 million mainly Muslim people bordering Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece in the Balkan Peninsula. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a post-communism history of corruption, run-down infrastructure, organized crime, and high unemployment. A key export is chromium, an element highly sought after for its non-corrosive properties and a chief component of stainless steel. Albania’s natural resources like chromium were specifically cited in the announcement this week that Albania and China had signed an Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation.
Since 2009, Albania has sought to join the European Union. But the EU appears less and less positive about Albania’s application. The European Commission for Enlargement let on that the EU is planning to open dialogues on accession by the end of the year with Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia; Albania wasn’t mentioned. One of the main reasons for the EU’s concern is that persistent disputes surround Albania’s elections.
Take the latest municipal elections in early May. One of the most watched contests was for mayor of Tirana, Albania’s capital and largest city. The incumbent, Edi Rama, heads the Socialist Party and has been in office since 2000. His challenger, Lulzim Basha, is a member of the center-right Democratic Party, which in 2009 won the presidency and prime minister slots after close elections that were followed by mass protests and intimidation by the Socialist Party.
This latest contest is a replay of those tactics. After almost two months of political and legal wrangling, a vote recount, and the Socialist incumbent vowing to remain in office, the Central Elections Commission has declared Basha the winner by 93 votes out of a quarter million cast.
Right after the election, Rama was said to lead in the ballot count by 10 votes. The problem is that many of the ballots were placed mistakenly in the boxes for other races. The commission ruled that those ballots must be counted. And after that recount, Basha was declared the winner by 81 votes. The incumbent mayor protested again, claiming that the election rules had been changed midstream and demanding another recount. Basha agreed to abide by the results of that recount. Rama said he would as well—but only if he were declared the winner. He wasn’t.
So predictably, the Socialist Party is now saying it will protest and ask the Electoral College to invalidate the election. It is threatening mass rallies like those of 2009, which were held every Friday in an attempt to overturn the elections that saw the Democrat Party come to power.
We should take Rama’s threats seriously. This past January, in the run up to the May elections, his Socialist Party mustered 20,000 supporters for violent mass rallies against the government during which several people were killed.
As we have seen again and again since the fall of the Soviet Union, and as we are seeing in Iraq today, building truly free and democratic societies from within—and the requisite political systems to sustain them—is difficult. Albania under the Democrats has been working hard to battle corruption, hold open elections, and build a free market. If the Socialist Party can undermine the legitimacy of these efforts, there will be consequences for those working to establish democracy there and quite possibly in other places in Albania’s neighborhood.