How Albania went from isolated basketcase to diplomatic powerhouse

How Albania went from isolated basketcase to diplomatic powerhouse
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Tirana ahead of the Ukraine - Southeast Europe Summit. /
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow February 28, 2024

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrives in Tirana for the Ukraine - Southeast Europe Summit, bne IntelliNews looks at how Albania was transformed from an isolated country, whose name evoked poverty, drugs and crime, to an increasingly prominent player on the world stage. 

A tough transition 

30 years ago, Albania’s GDP per capita was less than one tenth of the current level. The country has been in extreme isolation during the Cold War era, its long-term dictator Enver Hoxha pursuing a hardline communist doctrine that saw it fall out with first neighbouring Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union and finally China. Seeing enemies on all sides, Hoxha ordered the construction of hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers in case of an invasion, which still dot the landscape today.  

Albania was the last country in the region outside of the Soviet Union to bring down its communist regime, with mass protests breaking out in December 1990. With the sudden freedom to travel came a mass exodus of Albanians; photographs from the time show tens of thousands of Albanians crammed onto boats crossing the Adriatic to Italy. 

By 1994 Albania was in the very early years of its transition — well behind other countries in the region. The 1992 general election brought to power the Democratic Party, whose leader Sali Berisha became the first non-communist head of state in over 50 years, and launched privatisations and a large range of political and social reforms. 

Still, the country continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. In 1994, Albanians were already investing into huge Ponzi schemes that would start to collapse two years later, sparking mass demonstrations and violence that would bring the country close to civil war in 1997. 

Socialist comeback 

The Socialists had two brief stints in power under their former leader Fatos Nato, but it was only in 2013 that the party made its real comeback under its charismatic new leader, artist and former basketball player Edi Rama. With the reputation of Berisha’s Democrats eventually tarnished by a series of corruption scandals, the Socialists won the June 2013 election, forming a majority with the help of the Socialist League for Integration (now the Freedom Party). 

The communist era by then more than two decades in the past, the Socialists were sufficiently distanced from the old Party of Labour of Albania to present themselves as a modern European party. 

Their first months in office were marked by a dramatic military operation aimed at wiping out cannabis cultivation at Lazarat, dubbed Europe’s ‘marijuana mountain’. Albania at that time was characterised in much of Europe as a source country for drugs and migrants. The operation paid off, convincing previously sceptical EU members that Tirana was serious about tackling its drugs problem, leading to the decision to admit Albania as a candidate country in June 2014. 

Less high profile were the campaigns against corruption, as the new government worked to legalise the large grey economy and tackle issues such as electricity theft. High ranking officials were not immune. Former interior minister Saimir Tahiri was sentenced for drug trafficking, while deputy environment minister Diana Bejko was fired for not paying her electricity bills. These efforts were reflected in Albania’s much improved score on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), where it boosted its score from 31 (out of 100) in 2013 to 39 just three years later. Wide-ranging judicial reforms, a prerequisite for progress on EU accession, were pursued despite violent opposition protests. 

Diplomatic efforts 

Throughout the Socialists’ time in office — they went on to win general elections in 2017 and 2021 making Rama the longest-serving post-communist prime minister — the government has pursued the goal of EU integration. This has been a struggle, as Albania has been held back both by concerns among EU members such as the Netherlands over drugs and migration, and because it has been coupled with North Macedonia, whose progress is held back by bilateral disputes with its neighbours. 

Albania did, however, secure membership of Nato in 2009, at the same time as Croatia and ahead of Montenegro and North Macedonia. The Kucova airbase in the country, which will serve as a Nato hub, is due to open next week. It has very warm relations with the US — as highlighted during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Albania — as well as with regional power Turkey

A less likely alliance is with Serbia, with which Albania long had a contentious relationship. Historic rivalries were deepened when Albania and Yugoslavia parted ways in the early years of the Cold War, and worsened further with Belgrade’s repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Rama’s visit to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in November 2014 was the first meeting between leaders of the two countries since Hoxha’s meeting with Yugoslav leader Josip Bros Tito back in 1947. The meeting was not wholly successful, as the two clashed over the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, declared six years earlier.

Still, that meeting was followed by a concerted effort to build relations, culminating in the founding of the so-called ‘mini-Schengen’ — now renamed ‘Open Balkan’ — by the two states plus North Macedonia in 2019. Other signs of the two states’ public rapprochement followed, such as Serbia’s vaccination of the entire Air Albania flight crew against coronavirus. 

Regional spokesman 

Rama is now the longest-serving leader in the region, having come to power the year before Vucic became prime minister for the first time in 2014. His outspoken, highly quotable communication style has also raised Albania’s profile on the world stage, as have his friendly relations with politicians from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to former UK prime minister Tony Blair

In recent years he has been highly vocal about the treatment of the Western Balkans, becoming a spokesperson for the region on issues such as the slow pace of EU enlargement to the EU’s reluctance to share coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines with aspiring members. As well as criticising Brussels on these topics, he has been unafraid to take on other much bigger powers, for example lambasting the UK for scapegoating Albanian migrants

The war in Ukraine gave Tirana a chance to prove itself as a staunch ally of both Kyiv and a member of the Western camp. Albania was one of the first countries to condemn the invasion and despite being one of Nato’s poorest members has provided ammunition and military training to support Ukraine. By contrast Serbia, the biggest economy in the Western Balkans, has fallen out of favour in the West because of its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia

In 2023-23, Albania was one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. Again, Rama grabbed the headlines when he slapped down Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, after the latter objected to Zelenskiy taking the floor. 

"I want to assure our Russian colleagues and everyone here that this is not a special operation by the Albanian presidency," Rama said, a reference to Moscow’s own term to describe the war. 

"There is a solution for this. If you agree, you stop the war and President Zelenskiy will not take the floor,” the Albanian prime minister added in comments that made headlines around the world.

Enhanced reputation 

Albania’s tourism sector is booming, and it was picked as the top tourism destination in Europe for 2023, according to the UN Tourism Barometer. Speaking at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Western Balkans Investment Summit in London on February 26, Rama pointed out that the number of tourists visiting last year was three times the domestic population. Albania has “changed a lot from its stigma as an unsafe place,” he commented. 

More controversially, Tirana cemented relations with Italy when Rama struck a deal with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni under which thousands of migrants heading for Italy will be processed at centres to be built in Albania. Strongly criticised by the opposition in both countries as well as international human rights groups, the deal will undoubtedly boost relations with Rome and secure Italy’s further support on Albania’s EU accession path. 

There are also controversies in domestic politics. Berisha and other opposition politicians accuse Rama of having captured the Albanian state, and have announced a campaign of civil disobedience. The opposition’s failures to make headway in recent elections is partly down to the bitter (and sometimes violent) power struggles between rival factions of the Democratic Party. 

However, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) report on the latest general election in 2021 that the ruling Socialist Party “derived significant advantage from its incumbency, including through its control of local administrations, and from the misuse of administrative resources”.  

Albania’s performance on Transparency International’s CPI has also flagged since it peaked in 2016, and several ministers have become embroiled in scandals. The most notable of these is the incinerators scandal, concerning waste-to-energy plants built for hundreds of millions of euros, one of which was never used. International partners including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have raised concerns about the widespread use of unsolicited public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the country. 

Zelenskiy in Tirana 

However, these will not be in the spotlight as Rama welcomes Zelenskiy to Tirana, where officials from the region will discuss how they can work together to support to Ukraine, as well as contribute to regional stability. 

At a ceremony on the morning of February 28, the leaders of Albania and Ukraine signed a friendship and cooperation treaty, after which Zelenskiy gave Rama the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, in recognition of his “extraordinary personal contribution”. 

“Albania has been ranked at the top of the list alongside countries supporting Ukraine and its just war in defence of the Ukrainian people,” an Albanian government statement said.