Money Matters

Albania Is An Unusual Country With Unusual Leadership. Now It Wants To Join Europe


S. Karabell

The Albanian Prime Minister turned up at his offices in Tirana for our interview wearing what he called his “painting clothes”—denim work shirt and jeans, lightly paint-spattered.  Edi Rama had spent the holiday morning at a friend’s atelier—as he does once a month—in front of an easel pursuing the passion that was his first career before becoming the Labor Party prime minister of his native land in 2013.  

It has not been an easy time or task, dragging the poorest and one of those considered the most corrupt nations in the European continent out of the dark ages and into talks hopefully leading to the country’s eventual accession to the European Union in the next wave of enlargement scheduled for 2025.

The Road To Europe

Albania officially petitioned for EU membership in 2009 and was given candidacy status in 2014. In between, the EU made it clear that Albania was expected to make five key concessions in order to open accession talks: public administration and judicial system reform, combating corruption and organized crime—which meant a fight against drug trafficking and cannabis cultivation—and improving human rights, including protection for minorities and respecting property rights.

While far from complete, the efforts to date have paid off: the EU has just announced that Albania will begin accession talks at the end of June, pending unanimous approval by the EU’s 28 member states.  Rama is confident of that approval and points with pride at what his government has achieved thus far.

“We have instituted the vetting process for judges and prosecutors and 17 have been removed,” Rama told me during our interview. “One, for example, was removed because the source of his wealth could not be justified. We will find replacements. We have good schools. And for the time being, there is an old saying here, ‘Better to have an empty cradle than one with the devil inside.’ ” Though tax reform and banking are not part of this stage of reform, Rana is also working on improvements in those areas. 

S. Karabell

On the other key EU-requested reforms, Albania has opened centers for refugees and the homeless, while a crackdown on cannabis growing has drastically cut back that cash crop and is slowly replacing it with agriculture in the hopes of also cultivating an agritourism business. This has the potential to develop the inner portion of the country and to become the cornerstone of a booming tourism industry. For example, the Mrizi I Zanave restaurant, nestled in lush farmland less than an hour’s drive from Tirana, offers a kind of Balkan fusion cuisine, with original dishes created by chef-owner Altin Prenga, an Albanian who honed his craft in European kitchens in Italy and France.

Vitmat=r Qinami, Albanian National Tourism Agency

Grant For Tourism

It’s this sort of initiative that underscores the 40 million euro joint grant to Albania from the EU and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for the purpose of developing the country’s tourism industry—and creating thousands of jobs to boot. In addition to the restaurant/agritourism scene, there is a lot in Albania with which to work. The country’s landscape and traditions are home to thousands of years of human history and civilization: Greek and Roman cities and temples from the pre-Christian era when Albania was an important naval and trading outpost; Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Turkish mosques. In modern times, Mussolini’s 1939 invasion actually left the country with several decent buildings and strong cultural and financial ties to Italy (Italian is practically the country’s second language). Following the Hoxa Communist era, proselytizing evangelicals introduced other Protestant faiths. The result is a level of egalitarianism unusual for the Balkans. 

But there’s a long way to go. While Albania may have a Mediterranean climate, 296 miles of coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian seas, acres of mountains and three UNESCO historic sites, it is sorely lacking in some key tourism essentials: the number and caliber of hotel rooms, safety handrails along ancient steps and pathways, clean beaches and trash-free countryside, efficient transportation and access. That’s all on Rana’s to-do list.

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