The Washington Times

There’s an important election next Sunday, one that may make a significant difference not only to the prospects for consolidating a democratic transition, but also to regional peace, security and stability, and to the question of whether “Europe whole and free” still has meaning after the failure of the EU Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands. It’s in Albania. That’s right, Albania.

During the Cold War, Albania was the ne plus ultra communist country of Eastern Europe, a place where strange little apparatchiks in ill-fitting black suits and plastic shoes had grown deeply suspicious about the fidelity of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China to the principles of Marxism-Leninism and severed their ties accordingly. Albania was the North Korea of the Balkans, tucked at a far distant end of the earth past the point where the rail lines stop running. Even if you could get there, you couldn’t. Albania was closed to the outside world, hermetically sealed by its deranged political class to prevent the intrusion of corrupting influences. Albania was the place people living under the thumb of the Soviet Union in its heyday could point to as consolation that things could be worse.

The post-communist transition was difficult. Albania’s communist rulers held on a couple years longer than their brethren in Eastern and Central Europe, and it looked for a while like the poor Albanians – and by poor, I mean about as poor as possible in Europe, even in the Balkans – would long be fated to a choice of communist-era goons repackaged as “democrats” but more interested in seizing political control to enrich themselves and their cronies than in improving the lives of Albanians. On a good day, there’s not much to steal in Albania; nevertheless, it beats working – at least for a certain sort of opportunistic political entrepreneur.

Sali Berisha was the first post-communist president of Albania. Elected in 1992 following his party’s sweep of parliamentary elections, he had a golden opportunity to steer Albania into the modern world. He didn’t. Instead, he cracked down on press freedoms and political rights in a fashion that earned the condemnation of Western human-rights groups; attempted to politicize the judiciary by firing and demoting judges who ruled against him; tried (and failed) to ram through a constitution in 1994 that would have consolidated his own power; and rigged the 1996 elections in favor of his party, prompting calls from European monitors for new elections.

Meanwhile, the Albanian economy had essentially been turned into a giant ponzi scheme. Albanians, though new to capitalism, took to it well enough to generate substantial savings (including remittances from the 400,000 or so Albanians then living abroad out of a total population of 3.5 million, according to a World Bank report). They weren’t quite sophisticated enough to refrain from depositing their savings in accounts seductively offering sky-high interest rates. Fund managers made payments straight from the deposits of new investors, minus what the managers stole, until the whole scheme collapsed in 1997. People lost everything, the country dissolved into riots and chaos, and the Berisha government fell.

Now, Mr. Berisha wants back in. He is hoping to unseat the incumbent prime minister, Fatos Nano, who helped steer the country out of chaos as prime minister in 1997 and was named prime minister again in 2002. Mr. Nano’s past is somewhat checkered in the manner of most of the country’s politicians – the exception being his party-mate Edi Rama, the extraordinary mayor of Tirana. But what Mr. Nano has that Mr. Berisha lacks is a genuine record of performance: The economy has grown by nearly 7 percent per year since 1998, per capita GDP has increased from $800 to a little over $1,700 and unemployment has been falling.

Perhaps even more important, Mr. Nano has been energetic in seeking Albania’s permanent integration into Western institutions. Albania, Croatia and Macedonia jointly created the Adriatic Charter for regional cooperation, a novelty in the war-ravaged Balkans. Mr. Nano’s Albania has aspirations to join NATO and contributed a small contingent of troops to Iraq. Albania has also been working to strengthen ties with the European Union.

In truth, I don’t know what Mr. Berisha would do in office. Perhaps he is a very different man from the one who was in charge a decade ago. But with Mr. Nano, we know that Albania will get someone who can keep pushing for his country’s further integration into the West. This comes at an important time, with the European Union looking inward as a result of the crisis over the constitutional treaty and with crucial negotiations over the future of Kosovo looming. The danger posed by backsliding in the Balkans would be acute.

One test of the maturity of a democracy is that the United States need be no more concerned about which party wins the election than in the case of Britain, France or Germany. Albania may be getting closer, but it’s not there yet. For Albanians, Europeans and Americans, Mr. Nano would be the better choice.