Day: June 22, 2012

Albania’s role in the neighborhood

I spoke this morning at CSIS on this topic.  Here are the notes I prepared for myself:

  1. In an important sense, Albania is the new guy on the Balkans block.  It was thoroughly isolated from 1945 through the Cold War.
  2. The collapse of the Communist regime was cataclysmic for Albanians.  I was in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Rome in August 1991 when the Vlora, a ship carrying 10,000 refugees, reached the port of Bari.
  3. Twice in the 1990s Italian troops were sent to Albania on what we would now call stabilization missions.
  4. When I went to observe the 1997 elections, I found myself in the midst of far more gunfire at night than in Sarajevo during the war.
  5. Less than 15 years later, Albania is a NATO member and sends peacekeepers abroad.  It is an exporter of stability rather than an importer.
  6. Still the poorest country in Europe, Albania has suffered a slowdown in growth since the 2008 but weathered the financial crisis relatively well.  Severe poverty is down sharply.
  7. Its role in the neighborhood is a positive one:  Albania’s relations with neighbors Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece are generally very good.
  8. This is a remarkable achievement, one that merits a gold star no matter what I say farther on.
  9. There are problems.  Albania’s problems are above all internal:  its politics are contentious and sometimes violent, its public administration is weak, its economy is burdened with corruption and organized crime, rule of law is unreliable.
  10. These are all well-known and longstanding problems that will need to be addressed in the EU accession process, which has begun in recent years with the application for membership, the visa waiver and the Stabilization and Association Agreement, even if Brussels has not given Tirana candidate status  or a date for negotiations to begin.
  11. I really see only one thing that could derail Albania’s progress towards European Union membership, if not in this decade then in the next one.
  12. That is its relationship with other Albanian populations in the Balkans.  Fundamentally, it boils down to this:  will the Albanians of the Balkans accept living in six different countries, or will they challenge the existing territorial arrangements?
  13. If I were in their shoes, I would not for a moment put at risk my hopes to be inside the European Union by unsettling borders in the Balkans or fooling with irredentist ambitions.
  14. Washington and Brussels will be unequivocal in rejecting Greater Albania ambitions, which could lead to catastrophic population movements and widespread instability.
  15. The wise course for Albania is to cure its internal ills, maintain good relations with all its neighbors, including Italy as well as those in the Balkans, and maintain close cultural ties with Albanians who live in other countries, including the United States.
  16. That Albania will continue to export stability, enjoy improving prosperity and enter the European Union with its double-headed eagle held high.

PS:  A lot of people in the room, including the Albanian ambassador, thought Greater Albania was getting too much attention in the discussion.  I trust they are right.  The attention clearly reflects how strongly Americans feel the idea is a bad one, not how strongly Albanians are attached to it.

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