Edi Rama said he is proof his country Albania is making progress towards EU membership.
Speaking in an interview in Tirana, Rama said the April 25 elections, which offered him a third term as prime minister of the south-eastern European country of 2.9m, showed the nation was embracing stability in the three decades since one of the continent’s most repressive communist regimes was toppled.
“Albania is a teenage democracy, and like every teenager it has problems but it is growing up and will reach maturity in not a long time,” he told the Financial Times.
Rama’s party won 74 of 140 seats. But analysts said the outcome belies a polarised society still struggling to overcome political paralysis that has plagued the country for the past four years.
Elections in Albania have been mired by violence. In the past decade, polling stations were stormed and ballots burnt, with several fatal incidents.
Opposition parties boycotted 2019 local elections and refused to participate in parliament, prompting Albania’s western backers the EU and the US to mediate a compromise ahead of last month’s vote. They negotiated a pledge to conduct electoral reform — a requirement for opening negotiations for EU membership.
The elections were smoother, but political opponents have denounced vote-buying and intimidation. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that, while the polls were largely fair, the “ruling party derived significant advantage from its incumbency, including through its control of local administrations and from the misuse of administrative resources”, they wrote.
A Socialist party supporter was killed during unrest in the city of Elbasan. It was ignited after President Ilir Meta, founder of Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), accused Rama of running a “kleptocratic regime” that “grabbed all the powers and the sovereignty of Albania’s people and . . . eliminated all accountability”.
Rama dismissed opposition complaints of election irregularities and state capture: “Those who don’t know what to do with freedom of speech complain about lack of freedom.”
He said this refusal to engage in political institutions was the reason for the poor performance of the Democratic Party (DP) and the LSI. The DP improved its share of the vote at the expense of LSI.
“The opposition has lost its fifth battle in a row — three general and two local elections — because they’ve never been good losers. If you are a bad loser, you cannot win,” he said.
“Many voters felt that is unacceptable for the opposition to fight for democracy, values and open markets while at the same time not participating in elections,” said Gentiola Madhi, a research associate at OBC Transeuropa, a think-tank focused on south-east Europe.
Rama said he was now more focused on implementing a €10bn development plan with a focus on tourism. This will include a coastal highway project, a €2bn touristic port in the city of Durres, the largest in Albanian history, developed by the Emaar group, the developer of the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall.
He qualified two recent leaked EU “non-papers” on the future of the Balkan region as “a lack of vision”. One, which surfaced last month ahead of Slovenia’s rotating presidency of the EU, called for the unification of Kosovo, which is 90 per cent ethnic Albanian, with Albania. A second outlined concessions Kosovo could make to gain recognition from former master Serbia.
“It shows a weakness within, a lack of cohesive vision about enlargement, and lack of steady process to implement it,” Rama said.
Although more than 100 countries recognise Kosovo, powers including Russia, China, and five EU members do not. Since 2011, Brussels has been mediating unfruitful negotiations between Serbia and its breakaway province. In March, Kosovo elected Albin Kurti, an anti-corruption activist who supports unification with Albania, as premier.
Albania has been grouped with neighbouring North Macedonia in its advancement towards EU membership. But a row between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, an EU member, over the recognition of the former’s language, has hampered the process. Last week the EU signalled Albania could move ahead without North Macedonia.
Rama said membership remained attractive despite the EU’s woes during the 2015 refugee crisis and the pandemic.
“If Albania is a teenager, Brussels is suffering from some amnesia about who they are, what’s the purpose of their existence,” he said. “They are the biggest force for good humankind has created, and I hope they will recover fast because without them the world is a much worse place.”