Will civil society push Albania towards the EU?

Read few comments.

Questions:

1. We have seen an interesting event when Albanians rejected the idea of destroying the Syrian CW on their soil. What is behind this? Is it also the awakening of the civil society? How much it is driven by young Albanians and maybe by the new phenomenon of social media?

2. Albania is struggling to get the EU candidacy status. Would you say that more widespread civil society, again also perhaps supported by social media and activism, can contribute on, let’s say better image of Albania in the EU and can be also helpful for the political reforms inside the country?

Answers:

Gëzim AlpionLecturer in Sociology, University of Birmingham

1. The November 2013 protests, spontaneous and rather chaotic as they were, marked the first public demonstration of the people’s unease with the government since the killing of 4 innocent bystanders by the National Guard during a political rally in Tirana on 21 January 2011.

While successive governments have allegedly made decisions against the country’s interests since the end of communism, this was the first time that the Albanians had the courage to say ‘enough is enough’. Would the newly elected government have come to the same decision if the people had not taken to the streets? I very much doubt it.

I was impressed with the protesters’ courage to literally show the door to some politicians why tried to use the people’s anger for their own political gains. For a week in November 2013, the civil society emerged as the real opposition.

Encouraged as I am by the strength of the civil society in the case of the Syrian CW protests, I am not sure we should read too much into this. The civil society in Albania is still at a rudimentary stage to be able to hold both the government and the option accountable for other bad decisions they are likely to make in the future.

The protests would not have been effective without the social media. The online petition for the Arbëri Road is another good example of the growing effectiveness of social media in Albania, especially as a result of the commitment of its organiser to turn a local project into a national and international issue, their efforts to attract and maintain the attention of the Albanian, Balkan and international media and, equally important in the climate that civil society operates in the Balkans, their determination to keep the petition free from any political influence.

2. Notwithstanding the issue of corruption which is being addressed but will not and cannot be wiped out at once, Albania should have been given the EU candidacy status at least in December 2013. Albania is being vilified and the decent, hardworking Albanians continue to be collectively punished because of a criminal element in the Albanian society.

If we stereotype old and new EU member states because some of their citizens are involved in organised crime, hardly any of them would qualify to remain in this exclusive club. Perhaps some leading EU bureaucrats need to be enlightened more on the dangers coming from national stereotyping.

The Albanian government should continue to address the issue of corruption as well as take more seriously the issue of improving the image of the country abroad. Important as joining the EU for Albania is, however, equally important is the attention the Albanian government should pay to some traditionally ignored and underdeveloped areas across the country.

This is what is unique about the Arbëri Road petition. The petition calls on the new government to invest more, considerably more, in regions like Dibra which are so rich in mineral resources and whose development will give an enormous boost to country’s tourism and winter sports in addition to bringing closer as never before several Balkan nations.

Agron TufaDirector of the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes,  Lecturer in Word Literature at Tirana University

1. The opposition that the civil society demonstrated against the dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons has been the most impressive manifestation of this kind in Albania to date. The fury of thousands of citizens across the country indicated clearly that, had their concerns been ignored, they were ready to withdraw their support for the newly elected government.

As reported by the foreign media, the government had agreed in principle to bring the chemical weapons into the country because of the promised financial rewards of this undertaking. The civil society was outraged mainly for two reasons: first, because of the lack of transparency on the issue, and, second, because the government was apparently prepared to make a decision irrespective of the will of the people.

Luckily enough, the government made a last-minute withdrawal in the face of fast spreading protests across the country. The strength that the civil society demonstrated clearly during that eventful week in November 2013 is encouraging because it showed clearly that no one will again dare make decisions of this nature contrary to the will of the Albanian people.

2. Thanks to this experience, the Albanian civil society became aware more than ever before of the role it can play when it comes to taking decisions of national importance.

Given the country’s communist legacy, the civil society in Albania should have been even more active in initiating and encouraging political and social reforms, and making citizens increasingly aware of their civic duties and responsibilities thus enabling them to be free from political manipulation.

The civil society can play a key role in solving a number of chronic social problems such as corruption in government and nepotism in administration, cleansing society from the criminal legacy of communism which lingers in school text books and names of roads, and so on. Albania is the only former communist country that still has to pass a Lustration Law. The protests against the chemical weapons made the civil society realise perhaps for the first time both its strength and potential.

Bujar Karoshi, Editor of  Rruga e Arbërit, a monthly independent newspaper in Tirana, Member of  Institute of International Studies

1. The protests against Syrian chemical weapons in Albania in November 2013 were organized by ordinary citizens with no political agenda per se, and were a reflection of their newly acquired confidence in the wake of the last general election that they can voice their concerns freely in public without fear.

So far the Albanian civil society has been subdued, fearing intimidation from the government, or unreliable, because of some of its dubious sponsors.

Following the June 2013 elections the civil society was expecting more transparency from the government. In this context, the protests were both against the destruction of the chemical weapons in Albania as well as an expression of their determination to be kept informed about important decisions that affect the whole country.

In the past the voice of the civil society either had been ignored completely which is in most cases, or has been rarely listened to. The later has happened only if the civil society raised issues that were in the interest of those who were in power.

The request of the civil society for the construction of the Arbëri Road, for instance, which links Tirana with the north east of the country, has been listened to only during general elections but never afterwards, especially when issues are raised about ad hoc changes to agreed projects, changes, in some cases drastic, that compromise the international standard the road is expected to meet.

2. For the civil society to play a key role in improving the image of Albania, it is important that its members feel that they can express themselves freely. In this direction, as seen from the November nationwide protests, the early signs are encouraging.

The issue is that so far, rather than being an effective means of communication, social media is used primarily for ‘entertainment’ purposes. This is the reason why the civil society and social media are not having the impact they should have on the country’s political life.

Erisa SaraçiPhD Student,  Institute of Chemical Technology, Universität Leipzig

1. The issue of Syrian chemical weapons was already an international hot topic by the time Albania’s name cropped up as their final destination. Albanians, and they were not the only ones, could not help asking: ‘Why Albania?!’

A number of factors, such as lack of information on the part of the Albanian government on its involvement in the issue, and the fear that spread as a result of graphic images circulated on the media of real and imaginary dreadful long-term effects of chemical weapons on humans, were instrumental in triggering mass protests across the country.

The protests, of course, spread like wild fire mainly as a result of the enhanced interconnection of people through social communities. The Albanian government had no choice but to go back on whatever it had agreed (or was about to agree) on the issue of Syrian CW.

As a result of that eventful November week, the civil society in Albania has become ever more conscious of the positive impact its actions could have on the country.

2. To be granted candidate status, Albania must put her house in order and this must start with its political class. An active civil society would play a positive role in putting more pressure on the government to address corruption, which is endemic, and increase politicians and civil servants’ accountability.

There are encouraging signs that the civil society is becoming ever more active. This is seen in a number of online petitions attracting the attention of the political class and a heavily politicised media. The most recent and perhaps most successful example is the petition for the construction of the Arbëri Road, which started on 18 March 2013. The petition has been supported by over 5000 people, which is a significant number given that the road is only 70 km long.

The reasons why people and the Albanian and international media are supporting the petition include the role this road will play in improving infrastructure not only in the north east of the country but also between several countries like Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Bulgaria thus contributing to this region’s further European integration. The petition, which will be handed in to the Albanian government in May, is another example of the positive role the civil society can play in establishing a constructive dialogue between the civil society and the government.

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