The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania
The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania
Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?
Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania

On June 24 the Albanian parliament elected retired general Alfred Moisiu as the country’s new President, ending a period of political uncertainty that had lasted since last year’s disputed parliamentary elections. The European Parliament’s role in resolving Albania’s political difficulties has been more significant than most observers realise.

Last year’s parliamentary elections in Albania were not a completely untroubled event. Voting was originally scheduled for two rounds on 24 June and 8 July 2001, but repeated polls called as a result of electoral disputes lasted until 19 August. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections, finally released on 11 October, found serious flaws in the running of the elections and blamed the Socialist Party-led government in particular. However, it concluded that the government had nonetheless won re-election, even if the extent of its victory remained a matter of dispute.

International attention at the time was concentrated on containing the conflict in neighbouring Macedonia, and the preliminary reports from ODIHR after the early stages of the vote had been relatively positive. Because the elections were relatively peaceful compared with previous campaigns, and because the many disputes were sorted out with varying degrees of efficiency and neutrality by the system, most observers concluded that the vote could be considered as a modest success.

In addition, the Prime Minister, Ilir Meta, had an exceptionally good reputation as a reformer in western capitals, and his victory was welcomed as a sign of stability – the only reformist government to have won re-election in the Balkans to date. It seemed entirely credible that Albania’s progress might be recognised in the shape of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union; such agreements had already been signed with Macedonia and Croatia.

Once all the counting had finished, the Socialist Party and its coalition allies had won a total of 87 seats of the 140 up for election. The vital factor here was that the President of Albania is elected by the Parliament, and a successful candidate must have the support of 60% of all MPs. The fact that the government coalition had managed to get a few more than 84 out of 140 seats meant that, other things being equal, they could expect to easily impose their own candidate when the election came in June 2002.

The opposition, led by former President Sali Berisha, therefore boycotted the new parliament when it met in September, arguing that any president elected under such circumstances would lack legitimacy because of the tainted nature of the government victory, and demanding fresh elections under new legislation. Berisha claimed further support from the OSCE report when it finally appeared. However it was apparent to Berisha’s supporters that the tactic was not working, and that rather than damaging Prime Minister Meta’s reputation, it was in fact reinforcing the perception that Berisha was unreliable and a sore loser. The OSCE actually called on Berisha to end the boycott.

The gloomy political landscape shifted again toward the end of 2001, when an open dispute broke out between Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party, and Prime Minister Meta, with each accusing the other’s supporters of corruption and bitter words being exchanged at party and parliamentary meetings. It became apparent that neither faction within the Socialist Party could rely on the full support of the governing coalition, and it suddenly seemed a very real prospect that there might be two Socialist candidates for the position of President, with Berisha – if he were to participate in the parliament – wielding a casting vote.

At this point the European Parliament became an actor in the process. A number of Albanian politicians were invited to participate in a meeting of its Foreign Affairs Committee on 24 January 2002. The event was a stormy one, with MEPs led by rapporteur Doris Pack sharply criticising both sides for their lack of responsibility and political maturity. Sharp divisions were apparent between the Albanians present, with the Minister for European Integration visibly bruised from a physical assault the previous evening. The visitors were told that unless they got their act together there was no chance of further European integration, or of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

This meeting was of crucial importance because it brought home to Berisha the extent of the international community’s lack of sympathy for his boycott. He declared on his return to Albania that he would lead the opposition back into parliament; the Foreign Affairs Committee had given him some political cover by endorsing his demand that the government enact the recommendations of the ODIHR report on the elections, enabling him to retreat with some dignity.

By now relations within the Socialist Party had broken down and Meta resigned as Prime Minister on 29 January. His predecessor, Pandeli Majko, who like Meta is in his early 30s, was persuaded to return to his old job and brought in a new government balanced between supporters of Nano and Meta. Nano formally declared himself a candidate for the post of President. Berisha rapidly discovered that he was able to use his supporters in parliament to exploit the differences within the government, on occasion supporting one faction against the other. He was also very aware that if the parliament was unable to elect a President with 60% support, new elections must follow.

At this point the European Parliament again took a hand. During April and May, Doris Pack navigated a resolution through the Foreign Affairs Committee urging the leaders of both government and opposition to find a joint candidate for the post of president. (The incumbent, low-key physics professor Rexhep Meidani, quietly indicated that he was available, but nobody seemed interested.) The message delivered in public by the European Parliament was also delivered in private by European diplomats; the General Affairs Council expressed the hope that the “presidential election would be conducted in such a manner that would preserve political stability”.

Faced with external pressure as well as the impasse within his own party, Nano finally gave in and on Friday 21 June, three days before the election was due, agreed on a joint candidate with Berisha and duly announced their choice. The lucky man was Artur Kuko, Albania’s Ambassador to the European Union, who is a familiar figure in Brussels since he previously served as Ambassador to NATO during the Kosovo bombing in 1999. Nano and Berisha had however not done their background work. Kuko very much enjoys living in Brussels, is preparing intensively for serious negotiations with the European Union, and therefore declined the offer, causing some embarrassment for the political classes in Tirana.

A substitute candidate was quickly found and duly elected with 97 votes out of 140, well ahead of the 84-vote threshold and with support from both government and opposition. The new President, 74-year-old retired general Alfred Moisiu, had served as defence minister under both communist and anti-communist governments, and is regarded as someone who can revive Albanian’s faltering aspirations of joining NATO in the near future. For the country as a whole, the civilised if not completely transparent conduct of the election is an important milestone.

But the affair also marks an interesting development for the European Union. At the time of the last presidential election in 1997, Albania was emerging from a year long political crisis caused by the hotly disputed parliamentary elections of 1996 and the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes. Europe’s institutions had failed to provide the necessary peace-keeping force, which had eventually been scraped together in a coalition of the willing led by the then Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi.

In 2002, the European Parliament, which is far from the most powerful organ of the EU, has successfully intervened twice, once in providing a forum for the resolution of the boycott issue, and a second time in giving an institutional voice to the international pressure to find a single presidential candidate. The last few years have seen significant interventions from the much more visible personality of Javier Solana as the High Representative for foreign policy, notably in Macedonia in 2001 and in brokering the agreement between Serbia and Montenegro in 2002. The Albanian episode shows that less powerful institutions, in a less obvious way, can score their successes as well.

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