‘Isolating the Balkans is not an option’

Seventeen years ago Albania was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Today, European membership is on the horizon. But every process of transition has to deal with growing pains.

Bushat, Northern Albania

A huge wall with a grey iron gate surrounds Besian’s home. His bedroom window is bricked up, three dogs keep watch on the court yard. The thirteen year old boy never set foot outside the gate –afraid of being snuffed. To kill time, Besian watches TV a lot, Albanese films or international football. The French ‘bleus’ are his favourite team. Thrice a week a teacher drops by. Together with his little sister, his mother, aunt, nephew, niece and grandparents, Besian lives completely shut off the outside world. His father and two uncles were killed : his family got entangled in a vendetta after a row over sheep that got out of hand.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1991, the old tradition of the Kanun has resurged in Northern Albania. This five hundred year old book regulates all aspects of daily life. The most known paragraph is the one that says that ‘blood must be avenged with blood’.
‘Most of the rules in the Kanun are good for the Albanian people’ says Gjin Marku, president of National Reconciliation Committee, an NGO mediating in Kanun blood feuds. ‘In fact the Kanun’s purpose is to avoid murders. Most of the rules are about reconciliation and peace. The problem is that people don’t really know the Kanun. They believe they apply the laws, but in reality they misinterpret them. And so the killing goes on.’
For instance: the Kanun says women and children must be spared in a blood feud. Well, what a fat lot of use that is for Besian. All the National Reconciliation Committee’s mediatory attempts –they claim to be succesful in one out of two cases– came to nothing.
According to Gjin Marku blood feuds in Albania killed six thousand people since 1991 and at this moment 1300 families live as prisoners in their houses. It’s hard to verify these figures, but it is a sure thing that the Kanun is back in full force in certain areas of Northern Albania. Marku: ‘During the communist period the Kanun was banned. Who did get involved in vendetta-killings, risked death by hanging.’
With the downfall of communism and the crash of the widespread pyramid-type savings scheme in 1997, causing many Albanians to loose everything –the country fell prey to complete anarchy. Marku: ‘The institutions were weak, democracy and human rights were unknown, and there were hardly any laws or if so, they weren’t accepted. For example, most Albanians rejected the notorious law 7501, regulating landed property, and so conflicts about property often remained unsolved. People reverted to the Kanun to face the situation. Even if the Kanun is actively applied only in the north, its psychological influence is present throughout the whole of Albania. It is more important here than the Bible and the Koran.’
Besian shows his home, smelling of freshly baked bread. Frames with photos of his murdered relatives hang on the wall. Outside in the twenty to ten meters (66 to 33 feet) large court yard, there is a well and an apple tree. Cats play among the grapevines, in the background one can see the mosque of Bushat. Besian’s family provides in its needs with its own produce and a monthly church gift of about 20 euros. The boy stares at the wall. ‘I would like to play in a real football team’, he whispers. ‘But that is not possible. I can’t go outside the gate. Too dangerous. I don’t believe I will ever be free.’
Gjin Marku is  a bit more hopeful. He thinks the influence of the Kanun will diminish as welfare will grow in Albania. ‘Poverty and lack of education surely have to do with the revival of the Kanun. I expect the mentality will change as the economical situation of Albania improves and jurisdiction becomes more efficient.’

Lazarat, South-Albania

25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Greek border, the arid Mali i Gjërë mountains are towering in a pictoresque landscape. Close to Gjirokaster –a Unesco World Heritage city, and home base of both former communist leader Enver Hoxha and author Ismail Kadare– the arid mountain side suddenly turns green. The oasis, showing as an equilateral triangle in the satellite images of GoogleMaps, outlines the village of Lazarat, notorious all over Albania, since its dwellers have always been known for their rebellious nature.
During the communist years the traditionally right-wing inhabitants of Lazarat suffered particularly hard. But after 1991 many of them got a job at the customs on the Greek border, only to lose it again after a change of regime. So they had the great idea of growing cannabis to secure a steady income. Ever since the village thrives as the country’s biggest producer of cannabis.
It is said that Lazarat is functioning as a kind of freestate, beyond the control of  the Albanian authorities, denying access to police and outsiders. Its reputation was well established in August 2004 when the villagers fired upon an Italian police helicopter shooting aerial pictures of the cannabis plantations.
Through a number of go-betweens and after a great deal of preparatory talks, an exceptional visit to Lazarat would be granted. ‘In Gjirokaster, take the minibus direction Lazarat’ someone said through the phone that Sunday morning by the end of September. But all said and done, at the very last moment, all contacts fell through: ‘You may go into Lazarat, but at your own risk. We can’t guarantee your safety’.
Bye bye Lazaret then. ‘The thing is, at this very moment they’re harvesting the cannabis, they’re not keen on priers’, says Eugjëllush Serjani, local correspondent in Gjirokaster for the Albianian journal Shqip. ‘Only for funerals outsiders can get in.’
According to the reporter the cannabis cultivation has been booming since 1998 and this year will yield about 60.000 plants. ‘The income is an estimated thirty million euros. The seeds are indeed imported from Holland. They do well in the microclimate of Lazarat.’ The cannabis is smuggled over unguarded crossings into Greece, then goes direction Europe.
‘Lazarat is the most prosperous village in Albania. Cannabis has changed life radically. Thanks to the income the villagers can send their children to school in Great-Britain and the USA. Some dwellers stopped the cultivation and are starting up legal activities such as importing food and beverages, trading construction materials… ‘
Heavily armed police patrol the road boarding Lazarat. Serjani: ‘The police don’t get access to Lazarat. Not to take on the cannabis cultivation that is, they can get in for other matters like murder or theft. In August the police confiscated ten tank trucks near Lazarat to cut off water supplies. Every year the police tries to mount that kind of actions. To no avail: the cultivation continues. The police don’t want to make matters worse either, and try to avoid an armed conflict with Lazarat. For the villagers possess kalashnikovs: during communism a military unit was stationed at Lazarat, including an arms depot.’
Serjani insists one shouldn’t stigmatize all Albania because of on village. ‘As a matter of fact, I think the problem of Lazarat will solve itself when Albania makes headway with economy. As it happens, the cannabis growers’ children educated abroad might one day be working for the EU in Brussels.’
In 2004, for the EU the incident with the heli still proved that ‘essential progress in the fight against organized crime and against corruption is crucial, otherwise integration is endangered.’ Nowadays the verdict is somewhat milder. ‘It is indeed no good if there’s a village that escapes the control of the authorities and justice’, says Helmut Lohan, ambassador for the European Commission in Albania. ‘But a village is but a village. I am certain that in due time, when Albania continues on the path to European membership, the question of Lazarat will evaporate.’

Tirana, Central-Albania

Friday evening. On the Skanderbegsquare in the centre of the capital thousands of Albanians assemble –mainly followers of the left opposition– to protest against the government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha. The car accident of businessman Kosta Trebicka prompted this manifestation: he died mid September, in broad daylight, on a straight stretch of road. A few months earlier in an interview with the New York Times, Trebicka had revealed the link between persons close to the Berisha-government, the illegal arms trafficking from Albania to Afghanistan and the tragic explosions of ammunition depots in Gerdec in March 2008.
The demonstrators believe the accident of crown witness Trebicka happened on a moment way too convenient for some of the present rulers. The Gerdec disaster itself, in which 26 people died and hundreds were wounded or lost their homes, raises a lot of questions. Why did the government outsource the destruction of tens of years old ammunition to a private company? And why did the dismantling take place right in the middle of a residential area, at 15 minutes distance from the capital, and on top of that, by non-qualified personnel?
You can hear a pin drop when the colossal, charismatic mayor of Tirana and Albania’s most prominent opposition leader, Edi Rama, mounts the improvised stage at the head of the demonstration. ‘If Kosta Trebicka died in a EU-country like Germany, England or France, no-one would have thought he was killed. But in Albania, everybody thinks a crown witness was murdered, before anything else’, says Rama. ‘Our problem is not whether Prime Minister Sali Berisha has something to do with Trebicka’s death. Our problem is that Berisha has something to do with the death of hope.’
Supporters of Mjaft also joined the demonstration. This NGO, partly funded by a number of Western countries, has criticized the misgovernment of Albania since 2003. Mjaft also provides judicial advice to some of the victims of the Gerdec-disaster. ‘The biggest problem of Albania today is that the institutions don’t function independently.’ says Mjaft-spokesman Ervin Qafmolla. ‘People don’t believe in it anymore.’
Qafmolla: ‘If an examining magistrate falls out of grace politically, he is substituted by another. The judicial system fails. Same thing for administration: there  is no continuity. Every time a new political party comes into power, the whole administration shifts. Civil servants only have job security till next elections. That’s why they will try to gather as much money as possible during that time, and so corruption is ubiquitous on all levels.’
In the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Albania jumped from number 105 to 85, but there is ample evidence that corruption is still standing strong.

‘Albania is not Poland’

The revival of the Kanun up North, the cannabis cultivation in Lazarat and the problems around Gerdec are symptoms of the transition of Albania, the changeover from post-communist anarchy to a streamlined democracy with strong institutions and a healthy economy.
Albania has come a long way. For tens of years the country was shut off the outside world, Tirana even got out of touch with the Soviet Union and China for a while. ‘Really it is quite unbelievable, all that Albania has realized the past seventeen years’, says Gülden Türkoz-Coslett, resident coordinator of the United Nations in Albania. ‘Some countries need a couple of centuries for these kind of changes.’
Türkoz-Coslett emphasizes one shouldn’t compare Albania too easily with other Eastern European countries. ‘This is not Poland. The Albanians had to begin from scratch seventeen years ago, there were hardly any existing institutions. Again: the evolution of a country that was isolated for so long to what Albania is today, is truly remarkable, despite all its imperfections and challenges.’
Today Albania ranks 68th on the UN-Human Development Index, just after Bosnia and Russia, which means it is one of the least developed countries in Europe –only Macedonia and Moldavia are doing worse. And yet, economically it achieved a hopeful lot. Türkoz-Coslett: ‘The past six years the economy has grown five per cent yearly. Of course, remittances of Albanians abroad have part in it. They send about one billion dollar per year to the home country, one seventh of the GNP.’
EC-ambassador Lohan: ‘On the ax Tirana-Dürres there’s a continuous afflux of new companies. It means that there are entrepreneurs, that there’s economic activity, that there are people who expect profits. Substantial endeavours are made in the construction sector, in and outside Tirana –also a sign of confidence and economic prospects in the future.’ In the IMF-ranking Albania moved from a low-income to mid-income country.
The Albanian Chamber of Commerce reports that investments in Albania increased with four percent. To attract even more foreign investors, the Berisha government drew up a list of measures. For instance, since two years companies can buy grounds for one euro per square meter (per 3.3 square feet) and the company registration fee is one symbolic euro. Moreover, since early 2008 taxes on operating profits were reduced from twenty to ten per cent.
The World Bank is pleased with Berisha’s economic policy: in its recently published, controversial Doing Business Report, which examines how easy it is to do business, Albania is praised as one of the spearhead reformers of the past year. This doesn’t mean you can start up a business in Albania just like that. Disputes over the property rights of grounds are the worst impediment. Chances are that you buy a piece of ground today, and tomorrow you are facing a third party who claim ownership. Furthermore, infrastructure in all Albania needs a thorough facelift. Some roads are in such a bad state that it takes six hours to cover a 200 km (125 mile) distance. Let alone that electricity fails regularly for a couple of hours, even in the capital Tirana.
But despite all these hindrances Albania does have potential. One of the winning cards for the future can be tourism. Albania lies between Italy and Greece, has an ideal climate and a 362 km (226 miles) long, beautiful Adriatic coastline. It can boast a rich history, with quite a few archeological sites dating back to Greek-Roman times, or with cities such as Berat and Gjirokaster. Plus there are the mountains up north. When it comes to  holidays to anybody’s taste, Albania has it all : beaches, culture, adventure.

Europe on the horizon

In Tirana, where seventeen years ago families had to do with a ration of five eggs, two pounds of meat and 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of coffee per week, you now find the best restaurants, serving excellent pastas, fresh fish and nice wine. The grey facades all have been done up with a fresh coat of paint, roads have been repaired, the hundreds of illegal dwellings have disappeared. Mercedes cars everywhere, the status symbol par excellence in Albania. By day the city is bustling with life, by night foreigners can safely walk the streets. Tirana is alive and kicking, at least in part thanks to mayor Edi Rama.
Rama’s office in Tirana’s city hall next to the central mosque and the Skanderbegsquare looks impressive: books, CD’s, colour markers all over the place –Rama doesn’t hide his artistic background. To many Albanians Rama, with his innovative ideas and self-assured style, represents hope for a better future. If he manages to unite the divided left opposition, then next parliamentary elections may bring him into power.
Rama: ‘When I became mayor in 2000 nobody believed Tirana would change. Eight years ago Tirana was a chaotic place: buildings everywhere, without any green or public space, nothing worth a nice picture. It was just the middle of nowhere. But today the capital has a mediterranean fysionomy, with nice, intriguing quarters and squares. Nothing is impossible. Nobody expects me to turn Albania into Belgium or Switzerland within four or eight years. But it is possible to make Albania a country where people can live in dignity and safety. Look, I am not a wizard, but an acitve citizen, I don’t even insist on being a politician, but just want to do my utmost best to help change the country. To my humble opinion this must be possible.’
Rama does insist European support is essential. ‘For Albania it’s a hard road to the EU. In part this has to do with history. This part of Europe must get help in the process of integration. We must be considered a challenge for Europe, not as an isolated area. That’s of no use to any us. Isolation turns out to be much costlier than integration. And I’m talking about the whole region here, not only Albania. Europe must integrate the whole area as soon as possible, leaving out complicated bureaucratic procedures. It would be terrible if one or two countries in the region stay behind. The European Union absolutely must accept Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia, for in the end, 22 million people can’t stay behind in the middle of Europe.’
Precisely the prospect of European membership is the motor of the developments in Albania, the beacon in the turbulent period of transition. A first step to membership is the Stabilisation- and Association Agreement between Europe and Albania signed in 2006. ‘The European Union repeatedly confirmed its commitment to accept the countries in this region’, says EC-ambassador Lohan. ‘The political will is there, now it’s up to the countries to meet the entry criteria. Much progress has been made in Albania, but not equally in all areas.’
According to Lohan, a lot remains to be done in the judicial field and in the fight against corruption. ‘But you can’t expect the present situation to turn into paradise overnight. Look, Albania is a really wonderful country, its population is really friendly and open. We must help them move closer towards our standards, because that’s what the Albanians want. They’ve come a long way, from a black hole in Europe. Albania made enormous progress since 1991, we must do every possible effort to support them in this.’

area: about the size of Belgium or Switzerland
population: 3.6 million –an estimated 1 million Albanians live abroad, amongst them 600,000 in Greece and 200,000 in Italy.
religion: 70 per cent muslim, 20 per cent Albanian-orthodox, 10 per cent Roman Catholic. Alba-nia is praised for its interreligious tolerance and in this respect it is a beacon of stability in the Balkans.
economy: six out of ten Albanians make a living out of agriculture, often small scale organic crop production or stock farming. Textile and shoes are the main export products. Important trade part-ners are Italy, Greece and Germany, accounting for 85 per cent of Albania’s export.
politics: President Bamir Topi (since July 2007); Prime Minister Sali Berisha (since 10th Sep-tember 2005)
international: in 2006, the European Union and Albania signed a Stabilisation- and Association Agreement, a first step towards EU-membership. During the NATO summit in Bucharest (April 2008) Albania was granted entry to NATO.

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