Albania's Long Road to Reform

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After 18 months of debate and delay, advocates for reform in Albania released a collective cheer in late July when parliament approved constitutional amendments that pave the way for meaningful changes to the judiciary. The government and opposition, long at each other's throats, seemingly cast their differences aside for the good of the state.

On paper, the amendments and legal changes they allow are steps in the right direction for a country where criminals, politicians and criminal-politicians have long influenced the courts. The proposed vetting of judges and prosecutors and reviewing of their finances should help shield the judiciary from corruption and organized crime.

In practice, however, the impact of the reform remains in question because, rather than having grown from within, foreign governments unabashedly imposed the changes from abroad. International experts helped craft the package and the U.S. and European Union shepherded it through approval. The vetting will include reviews by an international committee.

The EU made passage of the package a requirement for Albania to begin accession talks with Brussels. The outspoken US ambassador threatened "grave and long-term" consequences for political leaders who blocked the reform.

Parliament's unanimous vote for the amendments reveals the power of Western capitals and not the enlightened solidarity of Albania's political leaders. Despite overwhelming popular support for reform, the political elite will largely suffer from, and therefore resist, changes that challenge nepotism, cronyism and back-room deals.

The international focus on institutions over individuals offered a welcome change for post-Communist Albania; the US and EU learned that bolstering one or another political force contributes to Albania's unhealthy tradition of the all-powerful state. But the arm-twisting means that sustained attention to corruption is needed for the reform to have teeth.

That means holding Prime Minister Edi Rama's feet to the fire, challenging him to make anti-corruption more than a mantra. This is especially important after the US and EU forcefully challenged last-minute efforts by the opposition to block the reform.

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Rama has repeatedly argued that the system in Albania, and not the people, is to blame. The laws of that system are slowly changing so will he push Albanians to also change? Amending laws is easier than ensuring their enforcement. Vetting and financial reviews alone won't alter a political culture infused with the nectar of opportunistic rule.

The internationally-mandated constitutional amendments, hopefully followed by new laws, set the stage for positive change. But they also show how far Albania has to go.

Fred Abrahams is the author of Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy (NYU Press, 2015)