Can Edi Rama take his country from basketcase to breakout star?

Can Edi Rama take his country from basketcase to breakout star?

By James Traub

This column will contain only one mention of Syria. That was it.

I write today to bring you good news from a remote corner of the world: Last Sunday, the Socialist government of Edi Rama took office in Albania. In case you missed the news, in June a coalition led by Rama’s Socialist Party won a landslide victory over the incumbent government, led by Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party. The new prime minister is a 49-year-old painter who has lived in Paris, a former member of the Albanian national basketball team — itself a remarkable proof of multiple intelligences — the former three-term mayor of the capital Tirana, a leader of street protests, a canny politician, a bearded Bohemian, a dedicated reformer, and quite possibly the best thing to happen to Albania in a very long time.

God knows the country could use a break. Albania is about as close to the Third World as you can get without leaving Europe. Rama himself once called his home “a land of prostitutes and illegal immigrants.” He forgot “mafias.” Albania ranks 103rd in the world in GDP per capita, slightly ahead of Indonesia. Its only significant export is cheap shirts, which it sends to Italy. Albania is a transshipment point for the trafficking of drugs and women and a pit of corruption in which parents must pay bribes to have their children taught and teachers must pay bribes to land a job. Between 2011 and 2012, Albania sank from 95th to 113th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Enter Edi Rama. After becoming mayor of Tirana in 2000, Rama hired a staff of foreign-educated, English-speaking young people with no prior experience in politics. The new mayor set out to persuade the people of Tirana that civil servants could actually provide effective services. He promised to tear down the unsightly illegal structures which dotted the city — and he did. He splashed bright colors on dingy gray facades. He set up a Citizen’s Information Office where, according to former deputy mayor Albana Dhimitri, “ten nice ladies” sat in front of computers, took complaints and suggestions and forwarded them on to the administration. Dhimitri herself once had to pay a bribe to get married; with Rama in office, clerks sat out in public and distributed marriage licenses. After eight years as deputy mayor, she says, she found that “when you improve services, people stop trying to corrupt you.” Rama, who once described Albanian politics as “the highest level of conceptual art,” was the Vaclav Havel of Tirana’s Velvet Revolution.

Rama appeared initially to have won re-election in 2011, but was declared the loser after a recount. He then began his run for prime minister on a platform of tackling corruption and integrating Albania into Europe. His new government, unveiled on Sunday, consists largely of well-educated young people untainted by corruption, or for that matter politics generally – very much his mayoralty writ large. Every minister has signed a code of ethics prohibiting nepotism or conflicts of interest. The government’s first decision was to stop receiving shipments of garbage from Italy, an industry dominated by Italian organized crime. Rama’s cabinet also agreed to bulldoze the myriad illegal buildings erected in recent months, as he’d done in Tirana.

These are, of course, gestures rather than policies; Rama and his band of merry subversives are acutely, perhaps excessively, aware of the power of emblematic actions. Erion Veliaj, the minister of labor and social affairs — and a former activist famous for lampooning the state — told me “We’re trying to show that Albanians can be very understanding when the government looks them in the eye and says, ‘We’re in this together.'” According to Veliaj, this will involve a great deal of Tweeting and elaborate displays of transparency on budget and finance. Veliaj also shocked Albanians, who treat gypsies as virtual untouchables, by bringing a Roma boy to a hospital from which he had been turned away and demanding that he receive emergency care.
Stagecraft, of course, comes naturally to a team of ex-provocateurs. But changing settled habits of corruption and self-dealing is not a form of conceptual art. When he became president of Georgia in 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili fired the entire police department overnight and trained a new one; Rama, by contrast, talks rather vaguely about the value of setting a new tone. I asked Veliaj what the government planned to actually do, and he promised that “in certain services, we will do a massive clean-up.” That will be an acid test.

Albanians seem fatally susceptible to ideology. Thirty years ago, a very left-wing friend (now a highly regarded journalist) sent me a postcard from the country saying he had finally found the worker’s paradise. Under Communism, says Blendi Kajsiu, a lecturer at New York University -Tirana (no relation to the actual NYU), “we were more Stalinist than Stalin.” Today, he says, “We’re more neo-liberal than the neo-liberals.” Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, a great fan of free-market economics, not only invited Steve Forbes to Tirana but turned Albania into a Forbesian paradise by instituting a flat tax and privatizing core public services, including energy and water. “We have a capitalist system with no capitalists,” as Kajsiu puts it, since political connections determine business success. The Forbesian experiment has fallen flat: Albania’s growth rate now hovers around zero.

Rama is a committed leftist who hopes to stake out the middle ground of social democracy. He has vowed to offer a national health care system; to make major investments in education; and to halt, and perhaps partly reverse, the campaign of privatization. He has said that he will find the needed revenue by instituting a progressive tax and by rooting out corruption. The government has already hired Crown Agents, a private British consulting firm which extensively reformed Bulgaria’s financial administration, to clean the Augean stables of the customs office. The danger, however, is that the new government will spend money now while only increasing revenue in the remote future.

Many of the government’s supporters worry that, in forging an alliance with the Socialist Movement for Integration, Rama has made a deal with the devil. The party’s leader, Ilir Meta, was captured on video, at a time when he was deputy prime minister, discussing a plan to bribe the country’s chief justice. Rama led the demonstrations against him. In a country where government has served chiefly as an instrument to serve private interests, Meta’s party is, says Blendi Kajsiu, “the essence of state capture.” So far, however, the alliance partner has gone along meekly with Rama’s initiatives. Juliana Hoxha, head of Partners Albania, a good-government group, predicts that things will go smoothly for the next two years or so because Meta, like Rama, is determined to prove that Albania is a grown-up country which deserves membership in the European Union. Albania hopes to receive EU candidate status by the end of the year.

The Edi Rama government has had an excellent first week. Intellectuals and activists long accustomed to apathy and despair are feeling positively euphoric; I felt, in talking to them, like I was taking a Champagne bath in giddy enthusiasm. A revolution in its infant state is a wonderful thing. The trance, of course, can’t last; Saakashvili ultimately turned into a bully, alienated all but his most loyal fans, and was turned out of office. Veliaj told me that he is already prepared for the inevitable. “I know,” he says, “that after a while the protestors will come and protest on my door.”

Nevertheless, Veliaj says that he has been waking every morning at dawn out of sheer excitement. The only other time that’s happened to him, he says, was when he was running an organization whose goal was to discredit the government through non-stop ridicule. He says that he finds the irony of this reversal completely delightful. /Foreign Policy/