Despite it being rejected as a candidate for EU membership, Albania is on the right track both politically and economically, according to Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
In early November, the European Commission dealt a blow to the Balkan country's hopes of joining the EU in the near future when it stated that the country had failed to meet the Copenhagen criteria on political development. Commenting on the decision, the enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said: "What is needed is the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law. I urge Albania to make the necessary efforts to build on efforts so far." Fule added that he hoped to be able to recommend Albania for EU membership candidacy status next year.
At the heart of the rejection is the lack of dialogue between Berisha's administration and the opposition following the fiercely contested parliamentary elections in June 2009, which saw Berisha's Alliance for Change centre-right coalition narrowly defeat the leftwing Socialist Party opposition, who cried foul at the election result, alleging widespread fraud. In its report, the Commission noted: "Political dialogue is confrontational and unconstructive, not least because of the political stalemate since the June 2009 elections. This obstructs parliamentary work and prevents necessary policy reforms based on consensus."
The report said the government and opposition must work together to come up with solutions needed for the country to move forward on its EU integration path. "There is a general consensus on the goal of EU membership. Yet the effectiveness and stability of democratic institutions is not sufficiently achieved. Parliamentary institutions and procedures do not function properly. As a result, parliament does not exercise effective oversight and control over the government and its scrutiny of legislative development is weak," it said.
Speaking ahead of the EU's rejection, Berisha maintained that he had already reached out to the opposition with regard to implementing electoral reforms that would enable Albania to convince the international community that the country is capable of holding truly free and fair elections. "I believe that last election met most of the principles of a free and fair election according to the OSCE," Berisha told bne in an interview, adding that he had told Edi Rama, chairman of the Socialist Party and mayor of Albania's capital Tirana, to draft changes to the country's election legislation that it would pass onto Europe's regional security organisation, the OSCE, without comment or amendments. "It's the biggest compromise I've made in more than 20 years in politics," said Berisha, who after the fall of communism served as Albania's president from 1992 to 1997 until his government fell in the wake of the collapse of series of pyramid schemes, which led to widespread civil unrest. After eight years in opposition, he returned to power in 2005 as prime minister.
Berisha said that Albania's integration into the EU remains the top priority of his current mandate, which runs until 2013. "Albania is totally committed to pursuing membership of the European Union, with 94% of Albanians supporting integration into the EU." He added that with enthusiasm for EU enlargement having waned in existing member states, it is important that Albania demonstrate its commitment to further social and economic reforms to make it fit for EU membership. And this, he insisted, it has been doing.
Berisha noted that in terms of the fight against corruption and organised crime, Albania can point to substantial progress. In the latest corruption listings published by anti-graft body Transparency International (TI) at the end of October, Albania rose eight places compared with 2009 to rank 87th out of 178 countries. When Berisha came to power in 2005, Albania ranked 125th out of the 158 countries surveyed by TI at the time. "We are doing our best to increase transparency in all government sectors," said Berisha, adding that Albania is the first country in the world to introduce 100% digital public procurement.
He also pointed out that in June this year Albania placed second in the world after Germany in the UN Public Service Awards in the category of "Improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness in the public service." Berisha said that the country's ant-graft efforts have reaped real financial rewards for the country. "In the last five years, we've doubled our fiscal and customs revenues, which is a clear demonstration of our successful fight against corruption."
On the crime-fighting front, Berisha claimed that in recent years the country has made great strides in combating the criminal gangs that had given the country an unenviable reputation for criminality, and that as a result Albania now has lower criminality indices than many EU member states. "We have dismantled more than 200 criminal groups and more than a 1,000 crime bosses and their lieutenants have been apprehended," he said. "We have excellent cooperation with the likes of Interpol and Europol, and many government and police agency visitors to Albania have been impressed by out efforts."
Berisha said his government's crime-fighting and anti-corruption efforts in conjunction with the introduction of business-friendly legislation have helped to shield Albania from the worst of the global economic crisis. "We've passed more new laws in the past year than ever before," he said, adding that the legislative reforms are helping to deliver concrete economic results. In 2009, Albania was one of only two European countries to avoid slipping into recession, posting a 3.7% increase in GDP. Berisha said latest government forecasts put GDP growth at 5% this year, driven by a more than 60% annual rise in exports.
In terms of areas of development, Berisha said there are clear signs that Albania is at long last beginning to realize its true tourist potential. "Tourism is a very important branch of the economy and we have seen a very dynamic increase in the number of tourists. This year we had 3.5m tourists versus just 200,000 back in 2004," he said. "Albania is a country with very high tourism potential - it's the most mountainous country in Europe and has over 400 kilometres of sandy beaches with great, clean waters."
To boost tourist numbers further, he said his government is focusing on upgrading the infrastructure along the coast, building new roads and upgrading wastewater treatment facilities.
The agricultural sector, a traditional mainstay of the economy, is also receiving a makeover, with the county looking to build on an historical reputation for high-quality production thanks to favourable geographic and climatic conditions. "There's interest from companies from Israel to Norway to invest in the agricultural sector in Albania," said Berisha. "I'm pleased to say that there's real olive tree fever in Albania at the moment, with plans to plant more than 20m new olive tress in the next four years."
In addition, there are plans to plant more than 30m chestnut and hazelnut trees, which as well as boosting export revenues will also remedy the ills of deforestation that plagued the country under communism and whose effects are still felt.
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