Tiny Albania wants to lower the number of its more than 300 small unincorporated municipalities, aiming to gain savings and efficiency, but a political minefield surrounds the proposed administrative reform
By ANDI BALLA / TCJE.org
At the eastern edge of Albania’s capital, a large neighborhood of new tower blocks emerges just across the administrative line between the city and the neighboring municipality. Where there were only olive trees two decades ago, concrete now reigns.
There has been rapid growth, because it is cheaper to purchase an apartment here due to the distance from downtown. But it had also been easier to obtain construction permits, because the Fresku neighborhood is not part of the Tirana Municipality, residents say.
Those who live in the area, aptly named after the Albanian word for fresh air, are residents in one of Albania’s 319 communes – rural or suburban municipalities that don’t have the population concentration to incorporate as a city or a town. In this case, Dajti and several other communes surrounding Albania’s capital are among the country’s most populous, but the vast majority of their counterparts that operate across Albania are tiny, with 309 having a population ranging from 500 to 10,000 people.
The problem, the central government and Albania’s international advisers say, is that they are also expensive and inefficient for a small country. The communes spend 2.5 billion leks annually, about 24 million dollars, on salaries alone, with about 100 of these units spending more than 80 percent of their budget on paying salaries to their employees. In addition, half of the total number of communes raises no money through local taxes, relying entirely on the central government for funding. Fifty percent also make no investments in the communities they govern, according to a study published late last year with the assistance of the Swedish government.
The central government says it has a plan to deal with the problem. It wants implement a major administrative reform that would shrink the number of municipalities in Albania by two thirds, and hoping to save millions in the process. One of the proposals involves merging any commune with fewer than 10,000 residents, with two or three exceptions granted for communes inhabited by national minorities.
“Much more can be done with the same financing resources just by changing a number of internal territorial and administrative borders,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said at a recent conference on the matter.
Rama’s Socialists and their political allies say that this reform is fundamental and required along the efforts to get Albania closer to the European Union. They also say the reform will scrap unneeded spending and bring millions in savings to the state budget.
But despite proponents who point to the benefits, this is also a politically contentious issue.
The main opposition Democratic Party says it fears the governing Socialists will end up using the reform to draw the new borders to serve political interests in elections, starting with next year’s administrative polls, which the central government says should take place under the new structure. The Democrats also say there should be wide public consultation on the matter.
“Territorial and electoral reforms cannot move forward without bringing back legitimate consensus decision-making at every step between the majority and the opposition. Not only consensus with the opposition, but broad consensus with citizens through consultation, transparency, inclusiveness and accountability is a constitutional imperative,” Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha said at a recent meeting, adding no municipality, no matter how small or rural, can be erased from the map without offering a hearing to its citizens.
Other obstacles exist, as all political parties are likely to come under pressure from their own local representatives who might see their entitlements cut under the new system, as hundreds of public employees, often with political ties, would be terminated under the plan.
In addition, the Democrats are likely to push for other concessions from the ruling coalition in order not to veto the reform. The Democrats requested and were granted veto rights on the reform, because the ruling coalition said the reform was important enough that it would not have legitimacy unless it was done by consensus, though the government has the needed votes to pass the deal.
The parliament has created an ad-hoc commission on administrative reform, giving equal rights to the opposition, which has so far refused to participate, saying not all their requests were met, including the government’s refusal to launch two unrelated investigative commissions in parliament.
Albania’s minister for relations with parliament, Ilirijan Celibashi, has indicated the government might push the reform through without consensus. He said recently the government has been very patient with the opposition, but it can’t wait forever to implement the reform.
But international and local independent representatives stress that the reform must be implemented by consensus.
“We firmly believe that this process will move forward,” U.S. Ambassador Alexander Arvizu said last week. “It is something very important for Albania, and we hope that the process will result in a good final product.”
The EU’s progress reports on Albania have been quite explicit about various concerns about the functioning of local government units, says the head of EU’s delegation to Albania, Ambassador Ettore Sequi, adding that these concerns related to collection of revenues, strategic planning, human resource management, financial control, transparency, as well as a high number of staff with temporary contracts in local government units.
The OSCE, which has been one of the organizations helping to study both administrative and electoral reforms in Albania, says the administrative and territorial reform is a key component of ensuring good governance
“The reform should comply with the provisions of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and, in particular, must guarantee the political, administrative and financial independence of local governments,” said the head of the OSCE in Albania, Ambassador Florian Raunig, who spoke a conference on administrative reform late last year. “It is essential to ensure that the decision-making process for this reform be transparent, inclusive and consensual,” he added.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Tirana Times newspaper.