PROFILE: Edi Rama, the Albanian PM who took on the UK government over migration

PROFILE: Edi Rama, the Albanian PM who took on the UK government over migration
In the deeply polarised political environment in Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Socialists have retained the upper hand for the last nine years.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow November 6, 2022

As a political storm raged in the UK over migration after the firebombing of a migrant centre and the right-wing press whipped their readers up into a frenzy about illegal Albanian immigrants, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama weighed into the debate on November 2, taking British government ministers to task for scapegoating Albanians for what he said were their own failings. 

In typically outspoken and eloquent style, Rama a prolific poster on social media took to Twitter to accuse UK politicians of ignoring the facts. "Targeting Albanians (as some shamefully did when fighting for Brexit) as the cause of Britain’s crime and border problems makes for easy rhetoric but ignores hard fact. Repeating the same things and expecting different results is insane (ask Einstein!),” Rama wrote on Twitter.

He compared the British approach unfavourably to Germany’s, making the same point a day later when he was asked about the issue at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. 

“[I]nstead of igniting a mad narrative of invaders and gangsters to cover up completely failed border and crime policies, British representatives should come to Germany and quickly learn and fix their own problems,” he said, going on to explicitly link the problems the UK is having controlling its borders to Brexit. 

“If there is a problem in the Channel between France and the United Kingdom, let them find a solution, let them try to solve it. I know that Brexit has made such a thing more difficult, but this was the decision of the British people, not of the Albanian or French people … we must not accept this kind of rhetoric at all.”

Not mincing his words, he added: “To target a community and talk about gangsters and criminals doesn't sound very British. It sounds more like a scream from a madman.”

Rama’s outburst against the UK government was nothing new. His unconventional appearance among suited international peers he stands out for his casual yet flamboyant style is matched by his willingness to voice his opinion. He previously took on the EU over both the slow enlargement process and the failure to support aspiring members in the Western Balkans when every nation was scrambling to secure coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines. 

The vaccines issue clearly still rankles; only last month he talked of Albania’s "terrible experiences” with the EU when the pandemic started. “In the first round of vaccination, we were completely forgotten,” he said. 

Artist, basketball player, politician

Like many of today’s leading politicians in Southeast and Central Europe, Rama was a critic of the communist system. He was born during the Cold War, when Albania had arguably the most hardline and definitely the most isolated regime in the communist bloc. 

A talented artist who also played basketball for Albania’s national team, Rama became part of the movement pushing for democratic reforms, led by the Democratic Party, which briefly in the early 1990s looked like it might be the country's democratic future. However, he clashed with the movement’s leader Sali Berisha; three decades later the two are still rivals, with Berisha now back in charge of the party, which is the main opposition to Rama’s Socialists, the successor to the Communist Party. 

Rama left Tirana for Paris, but returning to Albania for his father’s funeral he was offered a position in the cabinet of then prime minister Fatos Nano. He became Albania’s Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1998, then was elected mayor of Tirana two years later. 

When Nanos resigned as leader of the Socialists after losing the 2005 general election, Rama took over. He sought to reorientate the party by reaching out to Albanians beyond the traditional Socialist support base, an approach that followed that of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK (years later, Blair’s consultancy was employed to advise Rama’s government). 

Under Rama, the party made a comeback in 2013 and has been in power ever since.

A new broom 

After a series of corruption scandals under previous governments, the Socialists announced a wide-reaching campaign against corruption and the informal economy, reforms to the energy sector, as well as a concerted effort to tackle drug cultivation. 

This paid off quickly; shortly after a high-profile military operation at Lazarat, dubbed Europe’s ‘marijuana mountain’, Albania was granted EU candidate status, despite concerns on the part of member states such as the Netherlands. As the government aimed to progress to accession negotiations, this was followed by the launch of deep judicial reforms. 

The reforms led to an upturn in Albania’s performance on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. In recent years, however, Albania’s performance has tailed off; in this year’s index it dropped six places compared to 2021. 

Rama’s government has been repeatedly criticised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs) for the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). While the government used PPPs to mobilise private investment for much needed infrastructure projects, many of the projects were unsolicited and of questionable value.

Similarly, the record on fighting drug cultivation since 2014 has been patchy, and several interior ministers have had to step down because of alleged links to drug trafficking.

'Beautiful victory' or 'election massacre'

In the deeply polarised political environment in Albania, Rama and his Socialists have retained the upper hand. This was confirmed in April 2021, when following an election period that several times erupted into violence the party won a resounding victory that gave it an unprecedented third consecutive term in power. 

Rama talked of the party’s “beautiful victory”, and outlined plans in his victory speech to turn Albania into the Balkan champion for tourism, energy and agriculture. He also appointed the world’s most female-dominated cabinet; over 70% of Rama’s new government were women, including the heads of the ministries of finance, energy and foreign affairs.

Opposition leader Lulzim Basha, meanwhile, condemned the electoral “massacre”. Some of the opposition’s criticisms were backed up by international observers, who reported that members of the ruling party had taken advantage of their official positions during the campaign ahead of the general election. 

A major scandal erupted when it was revealed that the Socialists had created a database containing the personal data of Albanian citizens, using data from state institutions. That included data on citizens' employment history, their religious beliefs, tax returns, telephone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers, sexual orientation and medical records. It also emerged that each and every Albanian citizen was under the “patronage” of a trusted Socialist Party member, reportedly called “patronagists”, tasked with keeping an eye on the people they had under their “patronage”. 

Opposition disarray 

The Socialists have been helped by the disarray of the opposition. Under former Tirana mayor Basha, the Democrats failed twice to dislodge the Socialists in the general elections in 2017 and 2021, while the Socialist League for Integration’s presence in Parliament has slumped to only four seats. Within the Democrats, the last election defeat was followed a very public struggle for power between Basha and Sali Berisha, culminating in Berisha’s supporters storming the party’s own headquarters. Berisha, who is sanctioned by the US for corruption, has since then taken over the party. 

A recent poll showed that Rama remained the country’s most popular politician as of October albeit with only 40.6% support, which was outweighed by the 56% of respondents with a negative opinion of him. However, other politicians performed even worse, and the poll also revealed that Albanians are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the way their country is going. 

Despite strong growth in recent years, high poverty levels and sharp discrepancies between the haves and have nots, combined with large-scale emigration, remain some of the biggest challenges for Albania. 

International profile

While pursuing EU accession, Albania was one of the co-founders of the so-called ‘mini-Schengen’, later named Open Balkan, along with Serbia and North Macedonia, with the aim of creating a regional free market for goods, services and labour.

The initiative hasn’t yet managed to win over the other three Western Balkan states, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo, with whose leader, Albin Kurti, Rama reportedly has a strained relationship. Open Balkan also caused the Albanian opposition to criticise the prime minister for working with Vucic.

In the broader international sphere, Rama’s Albania has become more prominent and not just because of the prime minister’s readiness to voice his opinions. Rama was one of only a handful of non-EU leaders chosen to speak at the launch of the European Political Community (EPC) in September. (Albania most likely benefited from Serbia, the biggest economy in the Western Balkans, being rendered toxic by its refusal to impose auctions on Russia.)

Albania is also one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for 2022-23, a critical period for the international community given the geopolitical context. Rama will also be the host of the next Berlin Process summit the reason why he got to share the stage with von der Leyen and Scholz and expand on his thoughts on Britain’s migrant policy. From being one of the poorest nations in Europe and the most isolated, Albania is now punching well above its weight internationally.