Prime Minister Sali Berisha's reelection bid centers on building the country's first motorway. But his poor track record in combating corruption and upholding the rule of law has many Western countries, most notably the U.S., wondering if Berisha is taking Albania down the wrong road.
While Albanians are trying to determine who should be their next leader, with elections later this month, the U.S. government, the historical sacred pillar to Albania's fragile democracy, and many Western countries have increasingly become frustrated with Berisha's dogmatic style of rule. But will international criticism of Berisha sway enough voters in this highly charged and politically polarized environment to oust Berisha and his Democratic Party from power and prevent them, as many believe they will, from manipulating the election results and taking the country down the path of no return?
During the democratic revolution in the early 1990s, Berisha, like many of his former members of the communist party apparatus, changed their red shirts for new colors. Berisha, wrapped himself in the U.S. stars and stripes and his Democratic Party blue, and led his party to victory on the promise to undo the wrong of the communist past, and bring Albania closer to Europe. The promises were short lived. With the world's eyes on the escalating war in neighboring former Yugoslavia, Berisha turned his attention to cementing his power base by clamping down on free speech, beating and imprisoning oppositional party leaders, while legitimizing state sponsored corruption. At the same time he adopted a policy of either "you're with me or against me" and split the country along those lines. All the while he remained the darling of the West, in particular of Washington, for keeping Albania out of the Yugoslavian conflict.
It was only after the country plunged into anarchy following the collapse of State supported pyramid schemes in 1997, that Berisha was forced out of office. Thereafter, many of his adversaries believed Berisha's days as a politician were over. However, he proved to be a master in reinventing himself as a gentler and more tolerant leader by reaching out to the former members of his party whom he had once denounced as spies and traitors, and even had beaten for their opposing views. 2005 marked the return of Berisha to power with the promise of combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law. Eight years later, Berisha might have made nice with his former party adversaries but once again his campaign promises fell short when it came to the country's democratic development.
According to the U.S. State Department 2012 Human Rights Report on Albania, "pervasive corruption in all branches of government, and particularly within the judicial system, remained a serious problem."
To the surprise of many, Berisha, who is infamous for his outbursts against critics, has held his tongue against the U.S. government and instead reserved his spoiled child-like behavior for the U.S. Ambassadors in Tirana. While questioning Berisha's manipulation of the courts last year, the current U.S. Ambassador to Albania, Alexander Arvizu, was spared from a Berisha diatribe. Instead, as he learned at a public meeting, Bersha decided to punish the Ambassador by not talking to him. U.S. Ambassador John Withers, Ambassador Arvizu's predecessor, fared no better. Criticizing Berisha for pressuring the courts to rule in favor of his cronies, Berisha falsely accused the Ambassador of personalizing the issue. In the past few years, Withers has become an outspoken critic of the Berisha government's increasing authoritarianism.
In a recent interview with VoA, Withers noted, "I worry that Albania is not following the path of western democracies... It's going the direction of Ukraine, which uses courts to attack opposition political leaders or to protect friendly political allies. I think it is going the direction of Russia, in which elections are simply not at the international standard that we would require of a full-fledged democracy."
The days when U.S. official's opinion on a candidate or party determined the outcome of the election in Albania may be gone. In less than ten days the Albanian voters will face a fork in the road: either continue down Berisha's autocratic motorway or chose the path that brings Albania a step closer to joining the European family.