Democratization through the eyes of a Euroskeptic

Democratization through the eyes of a Euroskeptic 

Tirana Times -

By Anastasia Nazarko 

In an exclusive interview with Tirana Times, Albania’s well-known political analyst, Blendi Kajsiu, discusses his skepticism of the EU project, Albania’s transition, and his work as a social activist. 

Tirana Times: What is your opinion on the role of the international community in Albania? How do you think this relationship will change in the coming years? 

Blendi: First it is important to emphasize that by international community in Albania we actually mean ‘the West’, which we identify with the world in general. This international community plays an important role in Albania. So important in fact that such community can no longer be called properly international. In Albania we are dealing with a “local international community” that is often quite similar to the local political actors. 

First, some (although not all) international actors just like many local political actors enjoy very much the spotlight; they like to be everywhere, to talk about everything, and to appear important. In part this is also due to the obsession of the local media with the local internationals. 

Second, just like the local politicians the local internationals often use a patronizing language. They look at the Albanian society from above, advising, guiding, and generally defining what is wrong and what is right. 

Third, international community behavior is similar to that of the local political class in as far as it says something and it does something else. While the internationals talk about democracy all day long, in reality they are interested primarily in stability and fear direct popular democracy. One can hardly remember an occasion in the last ten years when the international community has supported popular protests against corrupt Albanian governments. Instead these protests have been openly condemned as sources of instability. 

Given their important presence it is impossible to understand the failures of the Albanian democracy without the participation of the international community in Albania. The essence of the international community failure in Albania lies in its elitist approach to Albanian democratization. Once communism collapsed the international community, and especially the USA, fearing the return of the communists initially backed the strong and authoritarian leadership of Berisha so that he could undertake some harsh economic reforms. This of course eventually led to an authoritarian leader that was later criticized by the very internationals that assisted in his making. 

After the 1997 crisis the international community saw EU integration as the path to Albanian democratization. Here again the focus was on strong leadership or the political elite that would modernize Albania into a European nation. EU integration became an elitist process that consisted in the local elite doing the homework that the EU elite gave to them. Direct popular democracy was openly discouraged in as far as the internationals were always critical and suspicious of popular protests against corrupt governments. This has produced an apathetic population that constantly blames the political class and awaits solutions from abroad. 

Tirana Times: In some of your writings, you seem to be a bit of a Euroskeptic. How would you evaluate Albania’s European integration path? What do you think Albania might lose during the process? And, if possible, what changes would you like to see in this endeavor? 

Blendi: I believe that after twenty years Albania’s integration path has been disappointing, but not because we are not yet members of the EU. Albania’s EU integration path would be disappointing even if we joined EU tomorrow or yesterday. EU integration was embraced primarily as a process of democratization. In other words EU integration and democratization were sold as two identical processes; the more we approached the EU the more democratic we would become. Today we clearly see that this is not the case. Today Albania is closer than ever to the EU, it has become a NATO member, and yet today we have an unprecedented level of corruption that has been exposed on tape, we have protesters shot dead in the main square, we have major scandals such as Gerdec, and a political scene where the political parties debate about almost everything but important issues of society. Today we have less democracy and more impunity than in the last twenty years of transition, despite our ever closer union with EU. 

In short my skepticism lies in the fact that EU integration is not identical with democratization or development. Quite to the contrary EU integration has removed the Albanian demos from the political sphere and it has reduced democracy to a legislative process through which we copy EU laws that have little connection with Albanian realities. EU integration has produced a growing asymmetry and dependency between Albania and EU, where the more the latter treats the former, the more the dependency and asymmetry grows. This is why at this point we should stop thinking of how to become an EU member and instead start thinking of how we should become a democratic and developed country, for our sake and not for that of the EU. 

Tirana Times: What model of transition do you think Albania has been pursuing in the past two decades? Is this an appropriate model? 

Blendi: Albania under the leadership of international organizations such as IMF, the World Bank and EU has followed a contradictory model that can be labeled ‘neoliberal Europeanization’. This model has consisted of two contradictory dimensions; a neoliberal developmental model and a modernization project that sought to Europeanize Albania. On the one hand Albania needed to Europeanize, which called for a strong and extended state that would serve as the engine of this modernization process; changing the economic, political, legal, institutional and administrative infrastructure and practices, along with social values. 

On the other hand international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have implemented a neoliberal developmental model that called for a reduced role of the state in society and economy, which in turn undermined the capacity of the state to successfully carry out the modernization process called Europeanization. In other words during the last twenty years Albania has been pursuing a transition model that seeks to achieve a process of modernization (read Europeanization) without assigning a central role to the state as its engine (the neoliberal developmental model). The outcome has been Europeanization on paper; a growing adoption of EU laws and institution along a decreasing ability to implement them. This means a growing weakness of the rule of law, or a growing gap between the law and its implementation in practice. 

Tirana Times: Furthermore, when the topic of Albania’s transition and EU integration comes up among civil society, there is often this perception that it is a job for the government, and citizens are mere spectators. However, surely there are things that the average person can do as well to contribute to the country’s progress and change…

Blendi: This perception is correct. EU integration is indeed a job for the government and the political elite. In this process the citizens are indeed spectators, they are expected to cheer the process, but cannot truly participate in it. The adoption of EU legislation, EU institutions and practices, the homework that EU gives to Albania all pertains to the political class. Reforming the judiciary, the criminal and civil code, or the public administration are all elite or technical process that by definition exclude citizens’ participation, especially given their lack of expertise. This is why the attempts of civil society to engage the common citizens in this process often fail, or are reduced into clichés of the type ‘raising EU awareness’. 

This is not simply an Albanian problem. EU from the very beginning has been a project of the European elite. EU itself suffers from a serious democratic deficit in as far as it operates as an organization that cannot accommodate democratic participation. Indeed EU itself has become increasingly suspicious of direct democracy such as referendums for example. Therefore, what the average person can and should do is not to be brainwashed by promises of future EU bliss, not to expect solutions from outside, and to understand that change comes from within. 

Tirana Times: A cause you have recently become involved in is the Alliance Against the Import of Waste. What is the goal of the AAIW and how does it intend to achieve this? 

Blendi: The Alliance Against the Import of Waste (AKIP in Albanian) aims to organize a national referendum in which the Albanian people will decide whether Albanian should import waste or not. In order to achieve this during the last four months we organized a campaign to collect more than 50 000 signatures along with photocopies of id cards in order to initiate a national referendum on this issue, which we think is important for the present and the future generations. As part of the campaign for collecting signatures we appeared in the media calling upon the people to sign for the referendum, we organized meetings with citizens in different municipalities in Albania, and we also set up points in different cities where citizens could go and sign. Eventually we succeeded in collecting 61 856 signatures, which we deposited to the Central Elections Committee along with our request for a national referendum. This is 10 000 signatures more than what the Albanian Constitution requires to initiate a national referendum. 

Tirana Times: What is the level of public support for AAIW’s cause so far? What is your strategy to increase this support? 

Blendi: The level of public support for our initiative is very high. In January 2012, the Institute for Development and Research Alternatives (IDRA) carried out a survey in which it asked Albanian citizens in the urban areas whether they supported or not the idea to organize a referendum regarding the import of waste in Albania, almost 80% of the respondents thought that a referendum should be organized on this issue. Another 76% thought that Albania should not import waste into its territory. Furthermore, by far the majority of respondents thought that the issue of waste import was an important issue that needed to be decided by the citizens. We have also felt the public support for our cause through the large number of people that came to sign our request for referendum. In fact due to our limited capacities we were unable to collect the signatures of thousands of other citizens that wanted to sign. 

Tirana Times What other public figures have joined the alliance so far and what is their contribution towards your common goal? 

Blendi: Some of the most well-known public figures that have joined our cause are the former president of the Republic of Albania, Alfred Moisiu, other well known public figures such as the well known publicist Fatos Lubonja, and the well known public intellectual Ardian Klosi have been founding members of the movement. They have contributed by providing public support for our cause. There have also been institutions such as the SOROS foundation that have played an important role through their financial support, especially since they were the only donor organization that supported our initiative financially. However, I would like to emphasize that equally important has been the support and participation of young volunteers who have offered their energy and enthusiasm in collecting the signatures and in organizing different activities. I believe that the beauty of the initiative is the fact that it has been primarily based on voluntary work as well as on personal financial contributions, which goes to show a high level of dedication. 

Blendi Kajsiu completed a PhD in Ideology and Discourse Analysis, at the University of Essex, U.K, in 2011. During the last seven years he has been engaged as a political analyst, a political and social activist in the Albanian public scene. Kajsiu has researched different aspects of the Albanian democratization such as corruption, local government, EU integration, and the anti-politics discourse in Albania.