The New York Times, November 22, 2002
In Albania Politics, Are the Changes Skin-Deep?
By DANIEL SIMPSON
TIRANA, Albania The murky trickle of water that flows through the center of the Albanian capital still gives off a foul stench, but the rest of downtown Tirana one of the least appealing of monuments to the drabness of brutal Stalinism is getting a facelift.
Various shades of pastel paint adorn the city's decaying concrete tower blocks; bulldozers have cleared away hundreds of illegal kiosks to create parks and flower beds; stylishly dressed young people with little apparent gainful employment sit at outdoor cafes and sip endless espressos.
At first glance, the capital of Europe's poorest country looks to have come a long way in the five years since Albania plunged into violent anarchy after a proliferation of pyramid investment schemes collapsed.
But a peek behind the facades of Tirana's new center readily reveals the old Albania: crumbling architecture, a maze of illegal and often nonfunctioning phone lines, hawkers eking out a living from stalls erected on just about any plot of land.
In politics, too, the more things change the more they stay the same albeit through an unusual alliance between two politicians whose rivalry once bordered on a blood feud but who now have joined forces to preserve their own power.
Edi Rama, Tirana's mayor and architect of its recent transformation, said, "Of course, Tirana will never become Paris or Rome but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the effort." As he spoke, he surveyed the rubble of demolished buildings piled beside the shallow waters of the Lana River.
He concedes it will take a long time to make the city attractive enough to deter more people from joining the million or so Albanians who have left the country since Communist rule collapsed.
However cosmetic, the changes brought about by Mr. Rama, a former basketball player and artist by profession, are making a difference. Opinion polls show that more than four-fifths of the capital's residents are pleased with the results of his clean-up operation, and the United Nations has just awarded him a prize for environmental development.
Not everyone is impressed, however. Sali Berisha and Fatos Nano, implacable enemies for years after Mr. Berisha had Mr. Nano jailed on fraud charges in the early 1990's, are united in their distaste for Mr. Rama and others like him who, they say, are hopelessly corrupt.
"The mayor is the pillar of corruption in this city; he's a charlatan," said Mr. Berisha, 58, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party and Albania's president for the first half of the past decade.
Mr. Nano, 50, the other leading figure in post-Communist politics, now into his third stint as prime minister, is only slightly less scathing about Mr. Rama, who was elected as an independent with the backing of Mr. Nano's Socialist Party.
Mr. Rama, the 38-year-old mayor, believes that his opponents have entered into a marriage of convenience to thwart rising politicians like himself. "I could understand it if they were allying to push through unpopular reforms," Mr. Rama said. "But instead they just seem to be lashing out at people who annoy them both, including me. There's a genuine anger at someone who's making things happen."
Both Mr. Nano and Mr. Berisha dispute this, saying they have only the country's best interests at heart. Their alliance, forged under heavy international pressure to prevent their feuding from derailing reforms, has shaken up Albanian politics. No one seems quite sure whether it can last, but most people are giving them the benefit of the doubt.
"It seems it was the only way for both of them to survive politically: they were irrational in their hatred and now they're irrational in their love," said Remzi Lani, a political analyst and director of Albania's Media Institute. "But it's better that they talk than fight."
The new climate of cooperation may be a breakthrough, but many here fear that too little opposition could be just as damaging as too much. Mr. Rama is particularly forthright on the subject. "They don't understand that democracy is more important than stability," he said. "Instead they are killing democracy in the name of stability."
Six months after the European Union ordered Albania's squabbling politicians to elect a president by consensus, they have been rewarded with a decision by Brussels to begin talks on admitting the impoverished nation to the trade bloc one day.
Hoping to speed up the process, Mr. Nano is trying to persuade his Balkan neighbors, many of whom still have terrible relations after a decade of wars, to form a regional parliamentary assembly and prove to the European Union that they can get along.
"We all have the same priorities, but real change can happen only if we build a regional authority to lead the way," he said.
The same logic appears to have driven his decision to cooperate with Mr. Berisha.
Mr. Nano declined to be drawn out on how it felt to shake hands with a man who locked him up for three years. As for Mr. Rama, Mr. Nano says the younger man wants the old enemies to remain at odds so he can steal votes.
Mr. Rama insists he has no plans at this stage to mount a challenge for higher office, stressing that he has committed himself to a nine-year plan to overhaul Tirana.
But he is blunt in his criticism of most of the people who have run the country in the 12 years since Albania came out of its self-imposed isolation under Communist rule.
"There is a total lack of vision," he said. "If we didn't have the Albanian entrepreneurial spirit and financial support from the diaspora, this stupid political class would have destroyed the country by now."