Albania’s general election on June 23 will be heavily scrutinised to determine if it’s free and fair. So far, the signs aren’t good. The latest hint that the EU is becoming increasingly worried came from the European watchdog charged with monitoring the election, no less. Ahead of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) setting up its mission in Albania on May 15, its chief Lamberto Zannier said his team were watching with concern the harsh rhetoric of the political debate. “We are expecting a very competitive electoral process in a challenging climate,” Zannier told reporters on May 2. Zannier cited in particular the growing spectre of extreme nationalism, the rise of which could have repercussions for the stability of the entire region. “We hope that there will not be excessive nationalism that could create elements of instability in the region,” he said. “The OSCE has invested so much in Albania”. Albanian nationalism is a new wildcard to the country’s elections, which previously were marred by the more typical unsavoury aspects such as intimidation, violence, vote-rigging and electoral fraud.
This time, there are worrying signs that hard line nationalists in Albania – like those in other parts of southern Europe struggling in the face of the Eurozone crisis – could make big inroads, increasing tensions in an already volatile region still recovering from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the Kosovo War.
Albania’s Red and Black Alliance political party’s fiery rhetoric is resonating among impoverished Albanians, dragging mainstream leaders to the right, including Prime Minister Sali Berisha, as the close-run election draws near. A May poll found the left-wing Alliance for Albania Coalition was on 46%, whereas the right-wing Alliance for Well-Being, Employment and Integration (led by Berisha’s Democratic Party) had 44%.
Marking the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, PM Berisha referred to towns in Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro as “Albanian lands”, newswires reported. In January, he hailed fallen Albanian guerrillas in Serbia as “heroes of the Albanian nation.” Then in February, in a speech railing against “Albanophobia”, Berisha rejected the idea that Albanians could be regarded as five different nations because they live in five different Balkan states. “Albanians cannot accept this,” he said. “The national unity of the Albanians will be the alternative to this.”
While few observers foresee a return to war to redraw borders, the spectre of a “Greater Albania” stalks the Balkans, and is used by politicians in other countries, especially Serbia, to rouse their own populations. In such a heated atmosphere, the EU struggles to get its conciliatory voice heard.