Berfrois

Albania is the Future of Europe

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Skanderberg Square, Tirana. Photograph by Les Haines

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

There is a moment in Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake in which the narrator (Curtis) talks about the ideals that brought both the Soviets and Americans to Afghanistan: to create a state based on their respective principles and ideologies, to create an ally in the region, to change the country in their likeness.

But, Curtis concludes ironically, little did they know that Afghanistan would change them instead. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans could fathom that they would bring back to their home countries the very habits that they tried to eradicate in Afghanistan: corruption, nepotism, and the like.

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For seven years now I have lived in Albania. I have seen ambassadors and foreign representatives come and go. And they all, so they say, share this same ideal: to make Albania a better place. Or rather, to make Albania more like wherever they came from: the West. Their presence would change Albania, would stabilize Albania.

The government of Edi Rama has gladly and smartly catered to the feelings of self-importance of these foreign dignitaries, who, more often than not, were not exactly the brightest of their class. After all, whose career as foreign diplomat would be well served with a post in a relatively unimportant European country?

But Rama adopted their language and made them feel as if he were one of them. He would create a state, he would invite the IMF and World Bank back into the country, he would reform the police, the justice system, and so on and so forth. He clothed himself in the drapes of European enlightenment – cosmopolitan culture, contemporary art, good taste.

But looking back it seems that Albania has changed hardly at all. What has changed, however, is the West, and in particular the EU. In a relatively short period it has developed (once again) the nationalist and populist discourses that twenty years ago would have been unthinkable in the liberal, affluent, multicultural societies from which they sprang up. The EU has even experienced its first secession, a phenomenon that in the 1990s was strictly reserved to the Balkans.

In no way did Albania in the last decade become more like the EU. Instead, I want to claim that the EU became more like Albania. This is why I often tell friends curious about the country where I live: “Albania is the future of Europe.”

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I will try to explain what I mean by this, “Albania is the future of Europe.” But in order to do so we need to take an economic perspective, and specifically a perspective articulated by economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck in his article “The Rise of the European Consolidation State.” Because in part it was reading this particular essay that encouraged me to write this reflection.

The article describes development of fiscal policies such as “austerity,” the decline in taxability, and the increased dependence of nation states on multinational “investors” to provide formerly public services under the header of the “consolidation state.”

An established consolidation state is one that has managed to institutionalize a political commitment and build a political capacity never to default on its debt, projecting an uncompromising determination to place its obligations to its creditors above all other obligations. It features a general configuration of political forces that makes spending increases difficult while making spending cuts, on everything except debt service, easy. […]

In a consolidation state, citizens lose out to investors, rights of citizenship are trumped by claims from commercial contracts, voters range below creditors, the results of elections are less important than those of bond auctions, public opinion matters less than interest rates and citizen loyalties less than investor confidence, and debt service crowds out public services. (11)

This in itself is already a very apt description of Albania as it has evolved under the Rama government since 2013. The government has at multiple occasions stressed that it will not acquire more debt and insistently claims to be on its way to “pay off” old debts.

Meanwhile, it is clear to even the most casual observer that Albanian citizens are completely powerless against national and international “investors” who are provided with custom-made legislation such as the Law on Strategic Investments. Private property is regularly expropriated in favor of such private investments, while reports on economic growth, whether impartial or not, are used to reject any actually lived poverty and hardship among the population. “There is work, but there are no professionals,” was one of Rama’s favorite slogans.

With a decrease in taxability caused by the desire not to scare off potential investors, spending cuts, and a brake on borrowing money on the international market, the consolidated state is forced to eject ever more parts of the government apparatus.

What results is a large-scale political experiment turning over to private enterprise the tasks of insuring against social risks, providing welfare, education and health, building and maintaining physical infrastructures, and even parts of government itself (warfare, the collection of intelligence). (20)

This in turn leads to a series of consequences:

  1. Budget balancing means that an ever larger part of the budget will “cover comparatively rigid, legally fixed expenditures, such as wages for public sector workers, public pensions, and, of course, debt service” (22). Public investment in infrastructure, education, health, labor policy will all steadily decrease.
  2. These public investments will increasingly be financed through public–private partnerships (PPP), “with private investment backed by the public, and governments or individual citizens paying user fees to private firms” (22).
  3. Cutting in services such as education will force the middle class to look at private alternatives, forcing governments “to allow private firms to compete with public authorities” (23).
  4. The privatization of investment will lead to an empowerment of private companies vis-à-vis the government: “The evolving connections of the new firms with the government, often taking the form of a revolving-door exchange of personnel, and their campaign contributions will further cement the shift from a redistributive towards a neoliberal state that abandons to civil society and the market its responsibility to provide for social equity and social cohesion” (23).

Although these are trends that Streeck sketches out for EU countries, it is remarkable how above consequences of the consolidation state have already become a daily staple of Albanian politics without any resistance whatsoever.

In spite of the government’s so-called “socialist” credentials, public investment in infrastructure, education, and health has seen no improvement compared to the former so-called “right-wing” Berisha government. What we have seen instead is an explosion of PPPs in all fields, ranging from construction work, infrastructural projects, education, and health care.

In the field of education, specifically, the new Education Law has pitched public universities against private universities in a battle for the little government subsidies available, leading to an exodus from the public institutions and rising education costs.

Finally, then, the revolving door between private companies and Albanian government has actually always been a wide open gate. It was never a secret that deputies, ministers, mayors, and other public officials profited privately from their government positions. Even worse, it was also never a secret that because of low access to international credit markets black money provided by organized crime was an attractive option for those in power, while for criminals laundering money through government-approved real estate investments proved equally profitable.

Because the government is managing less and less of society, Parliament steadily loses its relevance. As for civil society, we can best quote the Prime Minister himself: “Show me that civil society so I can put flowers on its grave.”

That the state is pulling back from all these fronts does not mean that it is withdrawing from society completely. In fact, certain aspects of the state have been strengthened. For example, the reform of the police forces and their reestablishment as a credible source of authority on Albanian territory has been one of the main aims of the Rama government. This is actually not surprising; at the moment that the state has nothing more to “offer” its citizens, at the moment that all its public services have been outsourced to private “partners,” why would anyone listen to the government? The state’s response to this problem is enforcing its apparatus of repression, the police. Nowhere is this more visible than in the razzias that the municipal police organizes to round up street vendors under the pretext of “tax evasion,” while “strategic investors” receive customized tax exemptions and free public (or expropriated) land.

Streeck argues that it “takes time” to convert “a popular democracy into a consolidation state” because “it requires disempowering democratic-egalitarian politics in favor of solid customership in financial markets” (12). The point with Albania is, is that there was never a “popular democracy” in the first place that needed to be “disempowered.” In 1991, when capitalism was introduced through a veritable shock, none of the democratic systems were in place that have tempered the effect of this economic system on Western societies. The absence of balancing forces such as a broad coalition between organized labor and social-democratic parties thus explains the relative ease with which Rama was able to implement the particular model of the consolidation state within just one term in office. He even made it a selling point: Come invest in Albania, we don’t have unions!

A further aspect of Albanian society is the absence of any strongly nationalist or religious tradition that could serve as the foundation for a populist political party combining nationalist and ethnocentric sentiments with a protection of the welfare state, pensions, and workers’ rights. Parties such as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands or the Front National in France combine their nationalist rhetoric precisely with the “left-wing” economic positions that the traditional social-democratic parties have abandoned long ago. Such nationalist populism, however, can only survive in a social climate in which identification with a nation, a language, or a religion (preferably a combination of the three) is already present.

In Albania, however, the history of religious pluralism and state-enforced atheism, as well as the memories of mass sociality during the communist period make the establishment of a populist party that would provide a counterweight to the Rama government’s policies exceedingly difficult. The political failure of Aleanca Kuq e Zi, which unsuccessfully tried to rally around nationalist values during the previous elections, appears to prove this.

Finally, then, there is the role of the EU (and to a lesser extent the IMF and World Bank) in Albania. For a large part, if not most of it, the EU accession process and the harmonization between the Albanian legal framework and the EU’s acquis communautaire is negotiated between the government and unelected EU officials. This further diminishes the oversight function of Parliament.

Here again Albania forms an extreme example compared to EU countries. Although for EU member states the majority of the legal framework is decided in Brussels, the national parliamentary traditions are still able to hold up (albeit with increasing difficulty) the modicum of democratic debate and their representative function. Examples such as the Greek crisis, however, show us that when push comes to shove even the sovereignty of EU members can be easily sacrificed to a “troika” of unelected officials without any popular mandate whatsoever.

As a result, the EU becomes a site for proxy warfare between essentially castrated national political forces. This is nowhere more clear than in the way in which both the Albanian government and the opposition have mobilized EU officials in their local turf war, removing the political struggle from the direct experience of the Albanians or the Albanian Parliament, while at the same time completely compromising the EU officials that get involved.

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So why did I call Albania the future of Europe?

Because, my friends from the EU – yes, I am talking to you – this is where you’re heading.

With ever decreasing levels of taxation, with the ever growing difficulty to indebt themselves, with ever more delegation of political power to unelected officials in institutions beyond democratic control, all countries in the EU will sooner or later tend toward the Albanian “model” described above. The model of an unmanned state, delivered to the forces of unelected international bureaucrats and multinational corporations, implementing laws it doesn’t understand while giving away what it doesn’t own. Of course there will be variations based on local idiosyncrasies and particular political and economic configurations. Of course some countries will be better off than others. But by and large, the future of our political and economic system is already here. It is called Albania.

This article was first published by Exit.


About the Author:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.

  • Ali

    Great article. I’m about to move to Albania and would really appreciate a steer on a reputable news source?