As I left Albania for Montenegro by car in late June 2006, following visits with several of the key leaders of the country, I felt that a new sense of optimism about the future was taking root in Albania. Albania’s new Prime Minister Sali Berisha, with whom I met on June 30, is determined to eliminate corruption in his country and gain the respect of the international community.
I knew from my pre-visit research that the Prime Minister was making significant changes. He realized that the international community was concerned about persistent corruption, illegal drug smuggling and human trafficking that have plagued Albania since the end of almost 50 years of Communist rule. The Communist government of Enver Hoxha was regarded as the most extreme Communist government in the post-World War II period.
The legacy of the past is a major handicap for Albania. The post-Communist government was faced with the reality that Albania, for centuries, was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
In the elections of 2005, the Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha campaigned for significant change: reducing corruption and crime, while downsizing the government. His campaign focused on the theme that life should and could be improved. International observers declared the elections to be free and fair.
After almost a year in office, there are signs of a “new beginning” in Albania. One such signal is the high caliber of senior officials that are serving in the new government. A good example is Besnik Mustafaj, a former Albanian Ambassador to France, who is the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I met with him in Tirana. There is no question about his competence in international affairs. His main focus now is to achieve Albania’s goal of becoming a member of the European Union and fully integrated into NATO.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs met with me in the spring of 2006, shortly after the United States (US) government announced on April 2, 2006, that it had awarded a $13.85 million grant to Albania. The grant will fund a program to reduce corruption through reforms in tax administration, public procurement and business registration. In doing this, the US government indicated that the Berisha administration is serious about tackling corruption.
However, the Minister was quite open with me in discussing the challenge of reducing corruption since it is closely tied to nepotism. Granting preference to one’s relations is not unique to Albania. But the countries of Europe and North America, for the most part, have been able to modify this cultural tradition.
The Minister, in an open and frank way, discussed this challenge. The anti-corruption grant is for a two-year period, and given the determination of the Berisha government to make progress on this issue, I am confident that the world will see an improvement.
Another impressive member of the Berisha government is Ms. Jozefina Topalli. As the Speaker of the Parliament, she is the second highest-ranking government official. Educated at the university level in Italy, she is a competent and articulate advocate of the “new beginning” in Albania.
Situated in southeastern Europe, about the size of Maryland, Albania is at the edge of the West Balkans. Approximately 3.5 million people are of Albanian ethnic background. The Greek population numbers three to five percent. There is greater diversity in religion; Muslims constitute around 70 percent of the population, Albanian Orthodox are 20 percent and Roman Catholics number around ten percent.
History has had a significant impact on contemporary Albania. In some ways, Albania was looked upon negatively by the Western European establishment. This negative image was aggravated by the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, regarded by many as the most brutal of the post-World War II dictators.
Albania has never received credit in the post-Communist era for its commi