It is understandable that in a small country like Albania foreign policy is not going to get much attention on the campaign trail. That’s even more the case in a small country that is poor, has frighteningly high unemployment and has a state system that is so weak it cannot guarantee its citizens the basics of quality in services like infrastructure, healthcare, education and justice. These take priority, and so foreign policy has to take a back seat.
The political context has changed too. In the early days of Albania’s transition, foreign policy was seen as a strategic choice in state formation to focus the economy on creating ties with the West. Albania had to leave behind its isolation forced from a system that had placed surreal barriers on relations with the world.
Now that country has solid relations with the West, the major challenge is the creation of a proper functioning economy and the creation of a fully democratic society. A successful foreign policy that is stable gives its positive results only when internal policies are also successful, as a rule of thumb.
Less than a month ahead of the election, the 25-year-old tradition of conflict and division continues. Albania’s political class also continues to show it is dependent on and has a frightening inferiority complex toward the international community. So what kind of foreign policy can there be under these circumstances?
The above mentioned factors make foreign policy issues unattractive for political parties on the campaign trail. Structured foreign policy programs are nowhere to be seen in electoral discussions. Instead there are promises – all tied to getting more jobs and more perks – and mostly unrealistic, according to experts.
Even though there is an absence in discussions, foreign policy, especially in dealing with regional issues, does make an appearance in the official programs of political parties in Albania.
The current situation comes as a contrast at how the government has acted in the past four years, launching Albania as a global giant that can play on issues like the future of trans-Atlantic relations, the crisis in South Asia, North Korea’s nuclear program – and issues like relations between Russia, the US and the EU. Back to reality in the electoral campaign, Albanian parties are of course staying away from these grander global issues.
That might be a good thing, but parties that are hoping to rule the country for the next four years should indeed focus on certain foreign policy issues which relate to the basic interests of Albania, its democratic rule, regional security and stability. These are issues that do affect Albanian voters and Albania.
For example, let’s look at Albania’s relations with Greece. There has been for the past four years a status quo of relations with this very important country for Albania. A populist approach has done much harm to these relations and stopped their improvement.
When it comes to relations with Greece, Tirana has had an amateur approach to foreign policy, with its diplomacy showing arrogance and often ignorance of proper foreign affairs — intertwined with a populist approach that has resulted in an ongoing conflictual relations.
In the past four years, leaders have been beating their drums on relations with Kosovo too, however, the real result is seen in the low level of economic relations between the two countries. The populist approach has again hurt the proper development of relations as two sovereign countries.
This is made worse by a paternalistic approach by Tirana on Prishtina, something that saw a lot of resistance by the Kosovo government and its political elite.
Relations with Macedonia too ended up nearly frozen, again due to to a populist and paternalistic approach by Tirana’s foreign policy chiefs, including the famous cooking up of “the Albanian platform” in Tirana, giving the agreement among ethnic Albanian political parties the hue that it was done from the outside rather than being an organic deal for the betterment of that community and Macedonia as whole. Moreover, the agreement said nothing more than is already spelled out in the Ohrid Agreement.
Relations with Serbia, despite growing dialogue between the two prime ministers, failed to be channeled into a normal, stable and long-term foundation. Exchanges between the two countries remain weak, especially when it comes to the economy.
Moreover, Albania’s approach to reconciliation between Albanian and Serbs in the region lacks proper foundation and it cannot be done because it is not accepted from Kosovo, the government of which made it clear that Albania cannot discuss issues relating to Kosovo with Serbia on behalf of Kosovo. Serbia and Kosovo can discuss bilateral issues as two sovereign states. The government of Kosovo has been clear that reconciliation of Albanians and Serbs goes through Prishtina, not Tirana.
All these issues could and should have been part of the campaign, but in the absence of a coherent and beneficial approach, the drums of populism continue to beat.
The PDIU party is the sole nationalist element in the campaign after the Red and Black alliance folded out of the race. PDIU is speaking about uniting all Albanian lands, selling a lie to voters with the hope of getting more votes. This party, which represents primarily the Cham community, is the only still focusing on the national issue, speaking about it as if 100 years have not gone by. While the rhetoric is there, there is an absence of a serious foreign policy approach about making its promises happen. Even the Cham issue is spoken as a myth, rather than finding a real solution for the community.
And the cherry on the cake is Tirana’s renovated Skanderbeg square, which opens this weekend following a multimillion-euro reconstruction. It includes stones from all areas of the region where ethnic Albanians live, including the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia and Filat in northern Greece, under the idea that Tirana is the capital of the Albanian nation. This is populism at its best. Presevo’s capital is Belgrade. Filat’s is Athens – also the capital of Albania’ NATO ally, Greece. And Tirana is not the capital of Kosovo, it’s Prishtina