“When we were opening towards the West,
we realised that the most important game in town was the EU.”
Ditmir Bushati, today a member of the Albanian parliament, was in his teens when Albania’s communist regime, one of the harshest in Europe, fell. Over the last 15 years, since he entered university, he has been interested in Albania’s European integration and worked on it in many diverse functions, as a civil servant, a think tanker and now as a member of parliament.
“When I started law school in 1995, I had an interest in international relations and particularly European affairs. I wanted to learn about European issues because we had been cut off from the rest of the world for a long time. At that time, Albania had just taken the very first steps towards the European integration process. The European Community was completely unknown not only to the Albanian population, but also the Albanian elite. We were the only communist country in Europe that did not have even diplomatic relations with European Community, not to mention a trade agreement.”
Looking back at the first half of the 1990s, Ditmir recalls that it initially looked as if things played out surprisingly well in Albania.
“We had a chance to be involved in the European integration process together with other Central and Eastern European countries because the first steps, the first reforms were really promising at the time. In a certain way, Albania was considered a success story. From 1992 to 1994, we made rapid steps in the transformation to a free market economy. We didn’t have ethnic problems or border disputes; we were not involved in any kind of war, as other countries in the region; we were quite stable; and we made rapid progress.”
Unfortunately, the political situation started to deteriorate in November 1994, after a referendum on a new constitution supported by president Sali Berisha failed. The May 1996 elections were heavily criticised by the OSCE due to many irregularities. Soon afterwards, a number of pyramid schemes collapsed and left hundreds of thousands of Albanians without their savings. Angry at the government for having let this happen, Albanians took to the streets. The protests soon turned into violent riots. Army weapons stores were ransacked and big chunks of the country descended into anarchical chaos, leaving the government without effective powers in most of the country. The European dream had evaporated into a nightmare scenario.
“We were facing fundamental problems with security and public order, the lack of basic institutions and the collapse of the economy. We moved from a promising track to one where the most important goal was to re-establish stability. We were not thinking anymore about Europeanisation.”
From April to August 1997, an Italian-led, 6,000-man military peacekeeping mission helped restore law and order and things slowly returned to normal. However, Albania was far behind other Central and Eastern European countries, as Ditmir was forced to realise in 1998 when he went abroad for the first time.
“The first country I visited was Hungary. I participated in a youth conference organised by the Council of Europe. It was quite shocking for me to see the difference between Hungary and Albania at the time. Although we belonged to the same group of countries labelled “former Communist countries”, there were a lot of differences in terms of economy, infrastructure, culture, mentality. At that time, Hungary had already started EU accession negotiations.”
For many young people, studying abroad was the only opportunity to visit foreign countries. After Ditmir graduated in law at the University of Tirana in 1999, he left for one year of postgraduate studies at the European Public Law Centre of the University of Athens and then obtained a master’s degree in public international law in the Netherlands. He then worked as a law clerk in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and later as a research fellow at the TMC Asser Institute in The Hague. Ditmir also followed shorter courses in negotiations, human rights and international law in the US and Finland. He thoroughly enjoyed his time abroad and began to think about how Albania needed to develop in the future.
Back in Tirana in 2002, Ditmir worked briefly for the President’s Office and the Constitutional Court, but his ambition was to move to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs or European Integration. His dream came true in 2003 when he became the Director of the Department for Legal Approximation at the European Integration Ministry. His first task was to help negotiate a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU.
“There is not much to negotiate about the principles and rules of the EU which are reflected in the SAA, but you need to prepare yourself as if for an exam, and you have to represent the interests of specific interest groups. For example, when we were discussing the agricultural package with the EU, this was the most heated discussion we had with the EU in the context of the SAA because it was about quotas, about the trade regime. It was a challenging exercise. We were under pressure from interest groups and we had experience from the accession talks for the World Trade Organisation, which we had joined in 2000. As a result, we were thinking more of Albania’s interests when we were negotiating the SAA with the EU.”
It was a learning-by-doing process.
“I could see the difference between what I had learnt in school and what I had to do in practice. I studied at very good universities, but I was never told how to draft a national plan for the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement or a National Programme for the Approximation of Legislation. At school you learn about EU institutions, EU law and so forth, but you don’t learn how to build administrative capacity. At the time, our leading examples were Slovenia and Croatia. There, we discovered a system that was working. We visited our counterparts there and they came here to Tirana. We also signed a cooperation protocol. One of the biggest challenges of this process is how to put the machinery in place. If you have put the machinery in place, then it is easier.”
Ditmir left the Ministry in June 2006, on the same day the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union was signed. He was keen to set a new challenge for himself.
“Together with some like-minded people we founded the Agenda Institute and a few months later the European Movement in Albania. It was a very exciting experience at that time; it was something completely unknown, something new.”
These policy institutes sought “to set the agenda” for Albania’s European integration process. At both institutes, Ditmir monitored how Albania was implementing its obligations from the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the visa liberalisation process.
“I had had the chance to see the European integration process from the government’s side. Then, from 2006 on, I sat at the other end of the table. I was critical but constructive. I also wanted to push things forward, because Albania cannot lose more time. I had more freedom in a way. I was no longer a civil servant. I was invited by the media much more often. At the same time, I maintained the channels of communications with Commission services and EU member states for consultation and exchange of views on different matters. I was more visible for the public that was interested in European issues. What we did, for example, for visa facilitation and liberalisation at the European Movement in Albania, I couldn’t have done in the public administration, because there you operate under certain rules. I think we were influential when it came to European issues and Albania’s European agenda.”
Ditmir and his colleagues pushed the government to implement reforms that would help Albania qualify for visa-free travel. He critically followed the EU-led visa liberalisation process launched in January 2008 and was a partner for ESI’s Schengen White List Project.
“There is a space that needs to be filled by policy centres and think tanks in Albania. Albania really needs creative and fresh thinking. We do not have a mature policy making process in this country. Our public space needs think tanks that combine evidence based research with advocacy. You can have a very good research paper, but you need to be active in promoting the findings and the conclusions of the paper, in order to instigate change.”
In 2009, Ditmir decided to join the Socialist Party and became one of the leading candidates during the parliamentary elections in June 2009.
“I did not think that I could change the world or change Albania, but I thought – and I still think – that I can change a bit of it in the fields where I have expertise and where I have ideas. I am convinced that being part of the policy making cycle, now in opposition, allows me to shape the European agenda in a different role, but in a very constructive way. I am also trying to play this role with regard to the challenges that Albania is facing nowadays with regard to its application for EU membership.”
Ditmir is a member of the EU-Albania Parliamentary Committee, which brings together Albanian MPs and members of the European Parliament. However, he has not yet been able to fully play the role he would like to. The Socialist Party narrowly lost the June 2009 elections and contested the results, demanding that some of the ballot boxes be opened and recounted, which the winning Democratic Party had refused to do. In response, the Socialists have boycotted most parliamentary sessions, and staged street protests and a hunger strike. The political impasse and ineffectiveness of parliament has been the most prominent criticism in the European Commission’s opinion of Albania’s readiness for EU accession talks.
“The government is using the political stalemate as a scapegoat for its failure with the application for EU membership. The political stalemate is one of the reasons why Albania was refused the candidate status, but not the only one. Albania has to meet other benchmarks which are crucial for the Member State building process such as organizing free and fair elections, functioning of the democratic institutions, reforming the justice system, fighting corruption and organized crime, ensuring freedom of media, ensuring property rights, reforming the public administration. Unfortunately, time is running out!”
However, Albania has been successful with regard to the visa liberalisation process, having fulfilled all the demanding conditions put forward by the EU. Since 15 December 2010, Albanians are able to travel to the Schengen area as tourists without having to obtain a visa beforehand. For Ditmir, this means a lot.
“The visa free regime is a success story for the EU and for Albania. Letting people travel freely adds to the feeling of dignity and it helps countries reform. When people travel or work abroad for a while, they expect and demand more from their national and local authorities, and this helps change things and accelerate the democratisation process … I am happy to see that one of our dreams became a reality!”