Albania’s Unstable Democracy Paralyzed by Corruption & Infighting

Albania’s fragile democracy remains mired in political instability and endemic corruption over three decades after communism’s collapse.

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The following passage is excerpted from my forthcoming memoir titled “From Secrecy to Diplomacy: My Hidden Role Bridging U.S.-Albania Ties Amidst Communism’s Collapse,” which will be available in bookstores soon.

Can Albania’s Fragile Democracy Withstand Corruption?

Albania was the last country in Eastern Europe to transition from a rigid dictatorship into a democracy.

Since its chaotic move to a democratic system in the early 1990s, Albania has struggled to overcome steep political, social, and economic challenges.

As a Western Balkan state, Albania remains far from meeting baseline institutional standards for a functioning democracy and the rule of law. It is plagued by widespread corruption and organized crime syndicates that evade justice.

Unscrupulous operators took advantage of the turmoil by employing elaborate Ponzi schemes in 1995-1996. These pyramids lured investors by falsely suggesting insurer profits based on legitimate business activities. In reality, they exaggerated their ventures’ true scope and profitability.

When these opaque and unregulated investment vehicles inevitably collapsed in 1997, Albania’s brittle state structure catastrophically failed alongside them. The country was left in complete disarray politically and economically.

Not surprisingly, for more than two decades, a culture of impunity emerged in Albania, allowing a wide range of illicit activities, including electricity theft, the occupation of public spaces, human trafficking, violent acts, illegal constructions, widespread bribery, taxpayer exploitation – and a “solve it yourself” mentality catering to party bosses.

By 1997, accumulated anger at such commonplace lawlessness finally boiled over, with citizens taking to the streets. They were protesting the very post-communist government they once heralded, now warped by one-man (Sali Berisha) rule into a corrupt vehicle of unchecked nepotism and cronyism.

Under communism’s collapse lay hopes of escaping oppression. But citizens soon found the new regime offered mere window-dressing while self-dealing and strongman tactics only intensified beneath. The 1997 protests expressed profound disillusionment at the revolutionary leaders of 1991, thoroughly betraying their own espoused principles of democracy and justice through sinister machinations once legitimately denouncing communists.

In 1992, the Democratic Party took power under the leadership of Sali Berisha as president and Aleksander Meksi as Prime Minister. In 1997, snap elections were called to pacify civil unrest following the bankruptcy of a series of pyramid-style investment schemes.

The Democratic Party lost power in 1997, and the Socialist Party took over. The Socialist Party of Albania is the legal successor to the Party of Labor of Albania, the ex-communist party of Albania, which was formed at the Ten Congress of the Party of Labor in June 1991.

Fatos Nano, a reform communist, was elected first chairman and controlled this party until 2005 when he resigned following the election defeat that year and after being corrupted and jailed for more than ten years. Tirana Mayor Edi Rama succeeded him.

Albania’s political landscape has been dominated by two major parties, the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, for the last three decades. These two parties have taken turns at the reins since the fall of communism, and their rivalry has led to a polarized political environment that has hindered institutional reforms and democratic consolidation.

Prime Minister Edi Rama has consolidated his authority within the country by retaining his position for a third term following the general elections in April 2021. In the 2013 Albanian parliamentary election, Rama’s coalition of center-left parties defeated the incumbent center-right coalition led by Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party of Albania.

Rama’s party has won all six elections since 2013—three parliamentary and three local. Rama is committed to restoring Albania’s judicial system, one of Europe’s most corrupt and ineffective systems.

Rama promotes private partnerships in most sectors (tourism, higher education, health, public works, and culture).

On the other side of the political field, the Democratic Party represents a weak opposition. This party has been riven by several internal conflicts in recent years. In 2021, the former president and leader of the Democratic Party, Sali Berisha, was designated as “persona non grata” by the U.S. Department of State and the UK government. He and his family were barred from entering these two countries.

Mr. Berisha declares without evidence that his U.S. and UK travel ban is part of Prime Minister Rama and George Sorros’s lobby.

The once formidable Democratic Party now lies fractured into warring camps after years of scandals and infighting. One significant bloc remains doggedly loyal to strongman founder Sali Berisha despite his current house arrest on corruption charges. This defiant “pro-Berisha” faction retains support among most veteran party faithful.

Meanwhile, a breakaway segment, smaller in numbers but court-sanctioned as the “official” Democratic Party, adamantly rejects any continued association with the tainted former president. As Albania’s two entrenched political forces, these dueling party wings both fielded candidates across the country in recent municipal elections – striving to plant their flag even in rural strongholds long assumed as an automatic domain by one side.

For his part, Sali Berisha seems yet unwilling to relinquish his dream to dominate Albanian politics indefinitely. Despite credible legal woes, he is actively courting a comeback by whipping up populist supporters to agitate against establishment elites, also once his younger proteges. This unfolding drama permeates daily headlines as Berisha maneuvers to position himself as an indispensable anti-corruption crusader rather than a poster child for the corrupt era he spearheaded.

Prime Minister Edi Rama eagerly paints his rival Sali Berisha as the black sheep ruining Albania’s image – proclaiming his leadership as the enlightened face of desired European integration.

Yet despite retaining loyalty among most old-guard Democratic Party stalwarts, Berisha’s stubborn faction hardly threatens Rama’s secure hold on power. Still, new efforts to further sideline the famously voluble ex-president could backfire.

Even under house arrest, Berisha remains the titular head of Albania’s main opposition bloc. Gagging his trademark barnstorming rhetoric may unintentionally elevate Berisha into a muzzled martyr rallying already bitter supporters.

Indeed, Democratic firebrands are actively courting such a confrontation by calling Albanians into the streets for a final “today or never” battle to restore pluralism. In their narrative, only ousting Rama can redeem Albania after years of broken promises papering over a postmodern authoritarianism limiting real choice.

The political stage is set for heated rhetorical clashes. Two dominant figures, each seeing himself as Albania’s rightful savior, vie to decisively dispatch the other amidst a polarized and fatigued electorate desperately seeking more functional leadership.

Albania’s partisan divisions stem partly from regionalism, which dates back to communist-era repression. Democratic Party chieftains typically hail from the north, which endured the harshest totalitarian depredations. They have long stressed fierce anti-communist credentials to mobilize voters in areas once subjugated as ideological enemies.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party’s leading lights usually emerge from the south – the old regime’s political base and power center. This regional favoritism extends into state institutions. When Democrats hold power, most positions go to stalwart anti-communist northerners; then southern apparatchiks displace them when Socialists return to office.

So, the country’s main parties thrive on identity politics focused more on past provincial grievances than meaningfully different policy visions for national development. Their circular firing squads dominate headlines, filling bureaucratic ranks with loyalists as each side gains temporary supremacy.

This dynamic fuels a brain drain crisis and distrust in state institutions seeming to serve partisan ends rather than the public. The zero-sum pathology traps Albania in old ideological grudges, which most Eastern Europeans have progressed beyond through reforms bringing more meritocracy, pluralism, and more balanced regional opportunities.

Beyond the Democrats and Socialists, smaller third parties exist but lack significant influence. One outlier was the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), recently gutted over corruption allegations against its leaders, including former President Ilir Meta.

Indeed, graft remains endemic at all levels in Albania despite continual European Union pleas to implement serious anti-corruption reforms. The judiciary is notoriously underfunded, politicized, and distrusted by citizens due to chronic susceptibility, intimidation, and opaque influence networks.

Many operating the levers of power seem interested only in extracting personal gain rather than strengthening impartial institutions for public benefit. This moral rot at the top seeps through every layer of the creaking Albanian state, crying out for far greater transparency and accountability safeguards before credibly claiming to meet democratic standards or represent genuine national interests.

The long-suffering Albanian people deserve leadership devoted to empowering them economically and socially rather than exploiting still-ascendant positions largely owed to past revolutionary mythologies and partisan cults of personality.

The sooner such self-interest reigns through actual separation of powers, the rule of law, a professionalized civil service, and protected legal channels for dissent, the sooner Albania’s boundless promise may be fully unleashed to catch up with Europe after decades of being misled in darkness.

Albania’s political order follows a unitary parliamentary republic model. The Prime Minister administratively serves as head of government, while the President fulfills a ceremonial head of state role. The Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, and President collectively exercise executive authority.

The President stands for re-election every five years. The unicameral Parliament is vested with supreme legislative powers. It contains 140 members directly elected by citizens to four-year terms according to rules enshrined in Albania’s constitution and related legislation.

Parliamentary elections employ a proportional representation system with open party lists and 12 regional multi-member constituencies corresponding to Albania’s administrative districts.

Within each district, parties must exceed a 3 percent vote threshold to gain seats in Parliament. Pre-election coalitions are held to a 5 percent threshold instead.

This framework outlines a workable democratic structure on paper. Yet realizing the system’s promise relies on more robust civic institutions and political will to implement further reforms strengthening representation, transparency, and servant leadership focused squarely on improving Albanians’ welfare rather than partisan advantage or personal gain by those temporarily occupying high offices.

Albania’s current proportional representation model replaced a mixed electoral system in November 2008. The previous framework involved 100 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies containing approximately equal numbers of voters.

Additionally, parties would gain extra seats based on their national first-round vote share, allocated proportionally to come as close to their overall vote percentage as possible. However, parties receiving under 2.5% and coalitions getting less than 4% nationally did not qualify for these supplemental parliamentary seats from multi-name lists.

The two largest parties backed this 2008 reform, hailed as a critical step toward EU integration. But smaller opponents criticized the heightened threshold for representation.

Other changes imposed a 5-year term cap for the Prosecutor General, triggered early elections if Parliament issued a no-confidence vote against the ruling government, and reduced the parliamentary majority threshold to elect the President from 3/5ths down to half of the total MPs.

While Parliament elects Albania’s President, the country has a dynamic multiparty democracy, enabling several electorally successful opposition movements beyond the two or three strongest national parties exerting dominance recently.

Albania follows a mixed majority-proportional system for parliamentary elections under its revised electoral code. Of the legislature’s 140 seats, 100 deputies are elected by majority vote from single-member local constituencies.

The remaining 40 seats get filled from national multi-member party lists. This dual approach balances localized district representation with overall proportionality between each political force’s federal vote share and final seat allocation.

Standalone parties must cross a 2.5% national vote threshold to qualify for these supplemental proportional mandates from the party lists. Multi-party electoral coalitions face a higher 4% national threshold to obtain proportional parliamentary seats reflecting their broader alliance’s nationwide support.

This reformed model continues attempting to fuse the virtues of constituency responsiveness and proportional delegate power tied to national vote totals.

In the future, Additional tweaks may seek to calibrate this system for fairness further and encourage political cooperation through reasonable inclusion rules not structurally disadvantaged smaller yet still significant parties underrepresented by stark territorial district maps alone.

While Albania’s constitution guarantees press freedom in principle, the intermingling of robust business, political, and media interests inhibits the development of truly independent journalism. Most outlets exhibit bias favoring either the Democrats or Socialists and lack professional detachment.

Reporters have little job security and remain subject to lawsuits, intimidation campaigns, and occasional physical attacks by influential figures facing scrutiny. Albania’s declining print media revenue has also depressed journalist salaries, leaving the profession ripe for compromise by opaque funding and capture.

Albanian politicians continue to wrestle with issues around nationalism and foreign influence in the complex landscape of the Western Balkans. In recent years, Albania has grappled with increased Russian propaganda and disinformation penetration, spurring distrust of Western institutions among certain factions of society.

Troubling media reports have surfaced alleging Albanian politicians received illicit Russian financial and political support. Seeking to combat this subversive campaign, Prime Minister Edi Rama insisted at the December 2022 Western Balkans Summit in Tirana that Moscow’s regional sway was real and must be repelled to keep the Balkans from falling into Russia’s orbit.

The episode highlighted Albania’s continuing vulnerability to global power machinations as competing spheres of geopolitical influence clash in the fragile region.

Albania endured a series of devastating cyberattacks in the latter half of 2022, targeting critical public and private computerized infrastructure. Sophisticated hackers shut down numerous government websites, disrupting vital administrative functions.

Even more alarmingly, the cyber intruders harvested and publicly shared susceptible confidential data, including the identities of numerous undercover intelligence officers, emails from the State Intelligence Service director, over 17 years of border entry/exit logs, and private bank customer financial records.

This sweeping security breach compromised vast troves of critical governmental and civilian data, revealing deep vulnerabilities in Albania’s digitized assets to technological sabotage by malign actors. It remains unclear whether the cyberattacks aimed to paralyze infrastructure, pilfer valuable insider information, or humiliate national security services through damning disclosures.

Nonetheless, the severe incidents highlighted acute weaknesses in Albania’s cyber defenses needing urgent attention, both through assistance from international partners and allocating greater domestic focus to modernizing protections from various threat vectors targeting society’s growing reliance on technology.

Albania maintains largely positive ties with other regional neighbors. Improved relations with Serbia have occasionally raised hackles in Kosovo, especially among nationalist-minded politicians. But Albania has struck a pragmatic balancing act between fellow Albanian populations and the realities of Serbian proximity.

Meanwhile, relations with Greece have proven amicable through ongoing border negotiations. Both parties seem willing to utilize third-party mediation should any disputes arise, complicating that bilateral process.

Albania sustains a constructive approach to nurturing good neighborly ties and participating in regional integration initiatives. These include bilateral agreements with other states on legal assistance, border administration, and economic/investment development.

By proactively facilitating regional cooperation, Albania aims to overcome a history of external threats by making itself a valued partner. With the Balkans’ stability and prosperity intimately intertwined, this small country has much motivation and increasing opportunity to lead by example and reduce chronic anxieties through open dialogue and mutually beneficial exchanges.

Albanian-American relations have spanned a century of pivotal moments—from President Woodrow Wilson supporting Albania’s border claims in 1920 to NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999 to present-day consensus among Albanian political factions embracing the United States as the country’s foremost strategic ally.

Albania relies profoundly on its superpower transatlantic partnership as a small state for security assurances and advocacy within a still-volatile Balkan neighborhood. Tirana has consciously maintained its position as a stable pro-American factor in a divided region.

Albania likewise enjoys mounting integration with the European Union after officially opening accession negotiations in July 2022. This long-term process involves adopting the EU’s 35 policy chapters into domestic legislation and implementing pivotal political, economic, and administrative reforms. Currently, Albania remains in the initial screening phase assessing candidacy criteria.

Before the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly last year, Prime Minister Edi Rama affirmed Albania’s “European destiny as our anchor to the future.” While the road ahead poses profound governance challenges, Albania views Euro-Atlantic alignment as its best chance for prosperity after years of isolation and authoritarian stagnation.

However, even as Prime Minister Rama actively cultivates European ties, he enjoys maneuvering on the broader geopolitical stage. His close rapport with Turkish President Erdogan is well known. But Rama recently developed a similarly cozy bond with Serbia’s Alexander Vucic, sparking critical reactions in Albania and Kosovo.

Rama risks forgetting Kosovo remains ethnically split, with most ethnic Albanian society and politicians fostering identity through confrontation with Serbia and local Serb minorities. Social tensions also stem from economic woes like low wages, high costs, unemployment, poverty, a subpar welfare system, and ongoing discrimination against non-Albanian communities.

By embracing regional personalities like Vucic too enthusiastically, Prime Minister Rama threatens to inflame tensions between Tirana and pricklier Albanian populations in Kosovo, still nursing historical grievances against Serbian encroachment. While statesmanship involves difficult compromises, Rama must not breach sensitive fault lines around issues of sovereignty and identity, stirring passions on all sides.

Adroitly balancing Albania’s interests with regional realities and EU accession prospects poses growing challenges. As the continent faces internal strains from rising nationalism and external pressures from Moscow, the path ahead for Tirana’s multilateral diplomacy promises only growing complexity.

As long as Serbia maintains its stance toward Kosovo, prospects remain dim for Pristina to develop significantly politically and economically or integrate with the UN, EU, and NATO. Though talk of unifying with neighboring Albania occasionally arises during electoral seasons, Kosovo’s constitution prohibits such separation from Serbia.

Moreover, the lack of normalized Kosovo-Serbia relations hinders prosperity and slows progress toward potential EU membership for both countries while imperiling broader Western Balkans stability.

Kosovo faces uniquely complicated EU accession dynamics since five member states still refuse formal recognition. This leaves Kosovo as the only Balkan territory lacking passport-free travel access between most other European countries.

Until the Kosovo-Serbia conflict gets resolved, the region’s complete stabilization and integration with Western institutions will stay stalled – jeopardizing hard-won gains. The West maintains a rhetorical dedication to shepherding this process for the Western Balkans’ sake and its security.

Yet the hollowness of such commitments is exposed by NATO’s failure to persuade Serbia to embrace reality over revanchism regarding its former Albanian-majority province two decades after its fateful intervention. All sides have traded intransigence at various points, but Belgrade’s continuing obstructionism remains the lynchpin, prolonging this frozen impasse.

The United States enjoys immense popularity in Kosovo owing to its steadfast support against Milosevic’s oppression in the 1990s, leading NATO’s 1999 intervention, ending the conflict there, backing Kosovo’s subsequent 2008 independence declaration, and providing vital diplomatic advocacy for Pristina’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations ever since.

Kosovo regards America as an indispensable security guarantor and critical ally, with many believing Washington retains considerable influence over domestic decision-making in the young republic. Indeed, US endorsement and involvement are viewed as pivotal in enabling Kosovo to develop democratic institutions and integrate globally after years of authoritarian subjugation and forced isolation under Belgrade.

However, Washington increasingly faces constraints managing the various regional dynamics and limitations surrounding Kosovar statehood. While American sponsorship remains vital, resolving the conflict with Serbia requires mutually acceptable terms before further progress can unfold. Skilled US diplomacy may facilitate this, but the principals must signal readiness for reasonable compromise beyond maximalist stances.

While welcoming greater American involvement in Kosovo, some analysts argue Washington proves most effective when aligned closely with European allies on Balkan issues. They contend recent gaps between US and German positions on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and Pristina domestic politics have undermined overall engagement efforts.

Indeed, the prevailing European stance opposes any territory swaps or border changes as part of a final settlement. The priority remains stabilizing Kosovo’s sovereignty within recognized borders, not redrawing lines that could trigger wider regional unrest by aggrieved populations.

Fundamentally, Serbian leaders face a binary geopolitical orientation choice – either embracing the West despite Kosovo’s independence or aligning with Russia out of territorial spite, thereby sacrificing integration hopes.

For its part, Albania is firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community through NATO and EU membership aspirations, retaining a broad pro-Western foreign policy consensus no politician would breach. Between European integration promises and growing US security support, Tirana feels its interests best served to consolidate hard-won gains rather than chasing ethnic pipe dreams at the cost of isolation.

The pathway ahead remains complex, but patient alliance diplomacy coupled with incentives promoting modernization may gradually moderate stubborn zero-sum mentalities still clouding the region’s outlook.

Ilia Zhulati, PhD was key in establishing Albania's relations with the United States after communism's collapse, setting the country on a path towards international integration and cooperation.
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