Following Kosovo independence, Albania tries to come in from the cold – The Sunday Business Post

Statue of Skanderbeg, Tirana (Simon Roughneen)

TIRANA — “It has been a long time coming, but Albania is ready to rejoin the West. In truth and in spirit, it never left,”  Tirana’s Catholic Archbishop Rrok Krol Mirdita said in an interview.

Muslims are the majority, but Albania is a country split four ways confessionally — between Sunni Muslims, Sufi Muslim Bektashis, Catholics and Greek Orthodox. There’s a two0-way tribal split as well, with northern Ghegs and southern Tosks making up most of the country’s roughly 3 million population.

But all Albanians now seem to be pulling one way politically, after the recent declaration of independence by Kosovo, where the majority of the population is Albanian.

A Kosovar delegation visited recently to discuss forming a common market between the two states. Despite the terms of Kosovo’s internationally-supervised independence precluding unification with Albania, the latter”s Minister for Economy and Energy, Genc Ruli, stated that a free Kosovo “paved the way for a common market […] and coordination of economic policies with Albania.”

Albania itself could become the first Muslim-majority EU member-state, but as 19th-century writer Vaso Pashko argued, “the religion of Albanians is Albanianism,” a legacy, in part, of the country’s communist past, which stressed nationalism over religion.

The Ottoman-built Ethem Bey mosque in downtown Tirana stands overshadowed by an adjacent statue of Skanderbeg, the national warrior-hero who fought the invading Turks for 25 years during the 1400s. Skanderbeg was given title by the pope for his efforts before being immortalised in Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

A replica Skanderbeg statue stands in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and bronze statues of the Catholic nun Mother Teresa, arguably the most famous Albanian, are landmarks in both cities.

Nowadays, however, rather than trumpet their nationalism, it seems Albanians want to forge links with the West. “Euro-Atlantic integration” was the buzzword touted by officials from Albania’s Prime Minister’s Office and Ministries for Defence and Foreign Affairs during briefings given to visiting media last week.

Last July US President George W. Bush visited Albania to rapturous acclaim – a pro-Americanism that locals date to Woodrow Wilson’s vetoing the partition of Albania after World War I.

Albania expects an official invitation to join NATO at the upcoming Bucharest summit, and the country has started the complicated EU accession process.

Last week Tirana pledged another 160 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, backing pro-Western rhetoric with boots on the ground.

Over 70% of Albania’s trade is with EU members Italy, Greece and Germany — another factor that could bolster its EU membership case.

But after communism, the Albanian mafia flourished and near economic collapse saw one million Albanians emigrate. Remittances now make up around 13% of GNP. Prime Minister Sali Berisha regained office in 2005 after a controversial 1997 ouster when a national pyramid scheme collapsed costing Albanian citizens unknown billions of lek in hard-earned savings.

UN-mandated Italian peacekeepers quelled the anarchy, but only after looted arms were spirited across the border to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Berisha, the leader of the centre-right Democratic Party of Albania, has vowed since his return to office to curb corruption and crime, banning speedboat use to help stop drug and human trafficking to Greece and Italy.

All the same, the lure of EU and NATO membership seems to be pulling the country along the reform path. Corporate tax has been cut to 10% and the economy has opened up: all banks are in private hands. The payoff has been 5-6% annual economic growth rates since 2001. Another reward came last week when Brussels opened a visa liberalisation scheme for Albanians.

That will make it easier for Albanians to travel in Europe. But Albania also hopes to attract visitors from the West. With over 2,000 Greco-Roman cultural artifacts, the country is a playground for archaeologists and culture-vultures.

Despite the attractions, Albania’s infrastructure is below-par — be that roads, hotels or public transport — while the electricity supply is unreliable.

Image problems persist as well. During Enver Hoxha’s Communist rule, only North Korea rivalled his Stalinist outpost for hermetic autarky.

But communism could have bestowed Albania with one quixotic tourist draw — 170,000 old military bunkers dotting the countryside, a legacy of the Hoxha regime’s fear of foreign invasion.

Larne man Andrew Henning manages the Tirana Sheraton – Albania’s only 5-star hotel – and says the country should be able to develop a booming tourism industry — if it can get its marketing strategy right.

“Albania has great mountains, scenery, and beaches to rival any, he said.

“But it remains perhaps Europe’s last unknown.”

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