The Unofficial View of Tirana (91)


Albanian Greek MP Pirro Dhima cyring on Skai TV because he is “afraid for the children” and the “Albanianization” of Greece

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

A few weeks ago, on June 21, Albania held its municipal elections. In a way, these were heavily anticipated, as they would confirm the implementation of the territorial reform the Rama government fought for dearly, drastically reducing the number of municipality-level entities in Albania from a few hundred to 61. It was rumored last year that the opposition party PD would not take part, or refuse to recognize the elections, arguing that gerrymandering had taken place when redrawing the municipal borders (see Adela Halo’s article that fully debunks that argument). However, on election day, as I was monitoring for the Albanian Helsinki Committee, there they were, all the political parties – and their party-affiliated “observers” – happily hanging out at the voting centers.

The run-up to the elections had been such that each of the two major power blocks, the Alliance for a European Albania spearheaded by the currently ruling Socialist Party of Edi Rama, and the Popular Alliance for Work and Dignity, bringing together the opposition parties under the wings of (now ex-Tirana mayor) Lulzim Basha’s Democratic Party, carefully calibrated its candidate in each new municipal district against the other, in an endless dance of announcements, retractions, petty conflicts, and the American Embassy actively engaging in the vetting of individual candidates. Even if the municipal borders hadn’t been redrawn according to party lines, in most municipalities, including the new and enlarged municipality of Tirana, the race seemed a bit of a done deal even before the elections took place. Anyhow, the Alliance for a European Albania won an overwhelming majority of the new mayors and seems to command comfortable majorities in most municipal councils. The blistering defeat of Basha’s campaign, mainly based on new faces and excluding most of Berisha’s former PD nomenklatura, was only masked by a well-timed explosion of violence in former cannabis-hotspot and PD base Lazarat, where a group of a dozen well-armed youngsters waged a quickly lost battle to reestablish the Cannabis Free State of Lazarat.

Dutch football fans supporting Lazarat, last year during the Australia–Netherlands football match

Last Friday, I decided to travel to Athens to witness another democratic event, the national referendum on the latest package of austerity measures proposed by the European “institutions” to Greece. With an “Alliance for European Albania” ruling at home, I was especially interested in figuring out why the Albanian elections not for a moment involved a proper discussion of the economic situation of the country, the silent assumption that entering the EU and the eurozone is profitable, or how the political and economic situation of an important neighbor of ours, Greece, would influence the domestic situation. This, against a background where Albania in 2014 had, one of the largest budget deficits in the region (5%), and the highest public debt (69.1% of GDP), above the 40% IMF threshold and the highest figure in 15 years. According to the IMF, levels of “bad debt” in Albania remain one of the highest in the region (22.8% of all outstanding debt), preventing economic growth. It also seems that Rama’s government is unable to meet the taxation targets set out by its own “institutions,” even though assisted by well-paid foreign “professionals” such as Crown Agents. In the period January–May 2015, tax collection only showed an increase of 5.1%, whereas 10% was planned, leading to a budgetary gap of, yet again, about 5%. Moreover, the exposure of the Albanian economy to Greece is large. There are three Greek banks operating in the Albanian market, together responsible for 32% of Albanian banking capital, and even though the Minister of Finance and the IMF consider the risk of contagion “low,” the World Bank states in a recent report on Albania that “the Greek economic and debt crisis pose significant risks to Albania.” It is ironic, then, that the ECB’s containment plan in case of a Grexit is called “Operation Albania.”

Albanian support for an OXI vote by left-wing organization Organizata Politike

During the last few weeks, the overall silence, or, at most, one-sided coverage of the Albanian media vis-à-vis the national economic situation in relation to Greece’s was contrasted by an echo chamber of “regular” EU media chastising Greece’s “bad behavior” and empty calls to “get your act together.” PM and leader of the Alliance for a European Albania Edi Rama’s comments on the Greek crisis amounted to praising former PM (and since Sunday night former right-wing Nea Demokratia leader) Antonis Samaras for his “respectable efforts” to get Greece onto the right track and calling Greek PM Alexis Tsipras a “radical.” Again, this should be no surprise from a politician who refers with praise to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but again feels a bit disingenuous from a socialist party leader. But then again, also Jeroen Dijsselbloem (who is comfortably and seemingly indefinitely extending his term as Eurogroup president “due to the Greek crisis,” by postponing the elections of a new Eurogroup head and thus avoiding being fired by big sister Germany) is supposed to be a social democrat in spite of (or owing to) the fact that he doesn’t like “to tell ideological stories.” Exceptions to this willful blindness to the actual political and economic situation of our neighbor have been far and few in between, including an op-ed by Andi Bushati deploring “Albanian provincialism” and support from the only left-wing grassroots organization, Organizata Politike.

“Opinion polls” shown by commercial media channels at the closing of the ballot boxes

The situation of the Albanian mainstream media, blabbing along the lines set out by its owners and their political affiliates, turned out to be surprisingly similar to the one in Greece. During last week, I consistently had the feeling – and I was far from the only one – that the incessant “informal” polls by Greek sources, portraying a “too close to call” or even “narrow victory” for the NAI camp on purpose deformed the actual situation, which was upheld until the very last moment, until the moment that a 61% victory of the OXI vote could no longer ignored – after which commercial channel Skai even went as far as suggesting that the vote was invalid, because they themselves had violated the voting law by illegally promoting a NAI vote a day before the elections.

So in a way the victory of the OXI vote should not only be read as a rebuttal toward utterly counterproductive and criminal (now former Finance Minister Varoufakis rightly used the word “terrorist”) Eurogroup austerity politics, but also as a public revolt against an utterly corrupt and defunct media system, in which the entire public debate is dominated by journalists-become-politicians-become-businessmen-become-writers-become-intellectuals-become-journalist, who massively, and with an ethics of “whatever it takes,” attempted to terrorize an entire population in voting in such a manner that would topple a government that for the first time in Greek history attempted to impose a corporate tax that would hit precisely those magnates that have avoided paying a single penny so far. In other words, there appeared, within the NAI camp, an utterly unsavory coalition between neoliberal economics, established business interests, and an entire political and media class divorced from the people they are supposed to represent and inform. It was this coalition that was forced to appear by the referendum in 10-hour marathon emissions, and apart from any value it may hold for future negotiations of the Greek government with the “institutions,” the discrepancy it showed between the “intellectuals” and popular sentiment – not only in Greece, but certainly also in Albania – is one that should be noted duly in other European countries where the close relations between media and politics are as yet less well articulated (such as the Netherlands) but nevertheless becoming ever more pronounced.

Some time ago, I watched the documentary Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis, on the Soviet and American attempts to bring respectively communism and democracy to Afghanistan. One quote that remained with me was (and I paraphrase here): “the Soviets and Americans thought that they could influence Afghanistan to change it for the better, but they were unable to imagine how Afghanistan would change them.” Curtis here suggests that the influence of Afghanistan – the absence of a state of law, rampant corruption, tight connections between crime, business, media, and politics – turned out to be much larger and effective than the influence in the opposite direction, precipitating among other things, according to Curtis, the fall of the Soviet Union. I have seen a similar backfiring logic in Albania with many international institutions, and, with the slow absorption of the Balkans into the European fold under all kinds of perceived, supposed, or imaginary terror threats, the media and political dynamics surrounding the Greek referendum are a taste of what is to come with many future elections inside the EU heartland, no matter what “choice” or “options” they pose.

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 blog on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.