Europe’s Wild East

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles, Europe

The traffic circles in Tirana, the capital of Albania, are a free-for-all. There are no lanes. There are no signs. There are no rules. On a visit to Tirana several days ago, I drove into the swirling chaos with all my senses alert, relieved that the rental car came with insurance. If driving was a challenge, being a pedestrian was even worse. To cross Skanderbeg Square in the very center of the city, I had to team up with other pedestrians to force our way across several lanes of traffic to get to the other side. The scariest part: I soon became accustomed to this anarchy and even began to find it exhilarating.

Albania has certainly changed dramatically in the last few years. Not long ago, the country practically had any cars at all. “Albania was so exotic for us,” a Bosnian colleague told me in Sarajevo before my road trip. “I remember a picture of Skanderbeg Square and there was only one car on it. I couldn’t wait to go there!” As the most isolated country in Europe, cut off during the Cold War even from neighboring communist Yugoslavia, Albania has taken a bit more time than other Central and Eastern European countries to make the transition. In 1997, for instance, a pyramid scam grew to such monstrous proportions that it sank the economy, the ruling government, and many people’s savings. European countries had to send in a military force to stabilize the country.

It doesn’t help that the Albanian parliament is not functioning at the moment. The ruling Democratic Party won the June elections by a very slender margin. The opposition Socialist Party has cried foul, refusing to take its seats until the parliament launches an investigation into the election. Albania’s democracy is, like its roads, a work in progress. Or perhaps regress: Before the June elections, gunmen assassinated Socialist Party lawmaker Fatmir Xhindi.

Today, Tirana is a dusty boomtown full of new construction and about as much law as one might expect in Europe’s Wild East. Restaurants and cafes are flourishing. Outside investment is flowing in, with Italy planning to make the country an energy hub for the region. And the city’s mayor, a former expressionist painter, has literally painted the town red (and yellow and pink and green) by sprucing up the façades of buildings.

But the most prominent business in Albania is a great deal more modest: the car wash. Hundreds of makeshift stalls lining the roads into Tirana have little more than a hose, a bucket of soapy water, and a hand-lettered sign. They’re cheap to set up. And with so many roads interrupted by stretches of mud and potholes, there’s no shortage of customers. You’re driving along at 70 miles per hour and suddenly, almost without warning, you’re bumping over a stretch of lunar landscape that, no matter how pitted, doesn’t prevent the cars behind you from trying to accelerate past on the left and right.

Albania’s transition is no less full of rocky stretches that the government tries its best to clean up after. Earlier this month, young Albanian tycoon Rezart Taci and his bodyguards beat up investigative journalist Mero Baze in Tirana for his reporting on the businessman’s corrupt practices. Taci, a close associate of the government of Sali Berisha, runs an oil company privatized last year. The government, concerned that such incidents could disrupt the country’s bid to join the European Union, was quick to denounce this challenge to the fourth estate. But even before the beating, Reporters Without Borders ranked Albania the lowest country in the Balkans in 2009 in terms of press freedom. “The government’s control over the public media is ubiquitous,” writes Balkan Insight, and “press management positions are political appointments, which ensures a favorable editorial line.”

But the story of the journalist’s beating is even more complex. After all, Mero Baze, the investigative journalist, is no stranger to violence. A former reporter told me in Tirana that 10 years ago he had been on the receiving end of an attack ordered by Baze, who in those days had been close to the government and had disliked my friend’s stories. The recent targeting of Baze is less a reflection of his talents at investigative journalism than his fall from grace with those currently in power in Tirana. In Albania, there’s a logic to the lawlessness.

Corruption is perhaps the key obstacle between Albania and the EU. “Our country has made some progress on petty corruption,” Socialist Party MP Ditmir Bushati told me. “But we have not captured the big fish. For example, the former minister of defense Fatmir Mediu, now the minister of environment, escaped justice because of immunity. The prosecutor’s office implicated him, when he was minister of defense, in the explosion of the depot armory in Gerdec, an explosion that killed 26 people and destroyed several houses. The courts are trying 20 people, but not the minister. The prosecutor started prosecution against him. But he was reelected, and so he enjoys immunity.”

Which brings us to the problem of organized crime. In the 1990s, Albania became notorious as a route for heroin entering Europe and later for the production of marijuana, all controlled by mafia-like organizations. In Italy, Albanian organized crime has turned car trafficking into an industry that would make Japanese efficiency experts proud. A car stolen in the morning in central Italy can be in the hands of the new Albanian owner by evening.

The unleashed capitalism, the “don’t tread on me” ethos, the occasionally opaque elections, even the love affair with the automobile: Perhaps Albania should just skip the EU and become part of the United States. The country is perhaps the only one in Europe that might endow a George W. Bush chair or build the man a statue. “Albanians think highly enough of George W. Bush to name a café after him,” I write in Postcard from…Tirana. “There’s even a George W. Bush Street in the capital of Tirana, albeit a rather short, crooked one. Bush received a warm welcome when he became the first U.S. president to visit the country in 2007. The administration’s support for Albania’s entrance into NATO and nearby Kosovo’s independence contributed to making Albania one of the few resolutely pro-American countries in Europe.”

All this pro-Americanism did not stop the EU from agreeing a few days ago to proceed with Albania’s application for membership. Still, Albania will have to change many things before it can join the elite club. It must address the culture of impunity and the deadlocked politics. It must uphold freedom of the press. But if it really wants to become an equal member of the international community, it should think about putting up signs in its traffic circles. And renaming that street after a different president.

The Decision on Afghanistan

President Obama is expected any day now to deliver his verdict on the Afghanistan war. It’s no longer just peace activists and pundits and the occasional disgruntled State Department staffer raising doubts about the escalation strategy. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, recently sent several messages to Washington expressing concerns that more U.S. troops won’t do much given the lack of credibility of the Afghan government. Eikenberry’s no peacenik. According to no less an authority than Fox News, Eikenberry was a military hawk who repeatedly urged the Bush administration to keep troops in Afghanistan.

Even if the president does announce an escalation, it won’t happen immediately. “It isn’t clear that the Obama administration can put 40,000 troops in Afghanistan by the spring fighting season, even if it wants to,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Naiman in ‘Legitimacy’ in Afghanistan. “The Wall Street Journal reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have asked Obama not to approve any plan to send more troops to Afghanistan that would require troops to spend less than 12 months in the U.S. between deployments. If Obama agrees to this condition, that would prevent 40,000 new troops from being deployed in the spring.”

One alternative to U.S. soldiers is to train Afghans to take their place, up to as many as 340,000. But this strategy, too, is flawed.

The Afghan army, writes Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan in Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail, “doesn’t have the officers and sergeants to command 340,000 troops. And the counterinsurgency formula calls for ‘trained’ troops, not just armed boots on the ground. According to a recent review, up to 25% of recruits quit each year, and the number of trained units has actually declined over the past six months. On top of this, Afghanistan doesn’t really have a national army. If Pashtun soldiers are deployed in the Tajik-speaking north, they will be seen as occupiers, and vice-versa for Tajiks in Pashtun areas. If both groups are deployed in their home territories, the pressures of kinship will almost certainly overwhelm any allegiance to a national government, particularly one as corrupt and unpopular as the current Karzai regime.”

Obama in Asia

While we all wait for his decision on Afghanistan, Obama is on a grand tour of Asia. He has already visited Japan, the APEC summit in Singapore, and China, and he will soon head to South Korea.

In Japan, there was one place the president deliberately did not visit even though he had been invited: Hiroshima. No sitting U.S. president has visited the site of the first atomic bomb attack in history, and no U.S. president has apologized to the victims. Nevertheless, the president has kept open the possibility of such a visit. Here’s why he should go on his next trip.

“In visiting Hiroshima, Obama wouldn’t question the service and sacrifice of American veterans,” FPIF contributor Alexis Dudden and I write in Obama: Visit Hiroshima. “The purpose wouldn’t be to make America or Americans feel guilty about the past. Rather, he could begin putting into action his talk of a world free of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima is a stark reminder of the incomparable destruction wrought by nuclear weapons. Americans still believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was good and necessary. This misleading account surrounds nuclear weapons with an aura of usefulness. We must instead focus on the consequences of the bomb’s use — in civilian lives lost and ruined.”

In South Korea, the president will discuss with his counterpart the ever-thorny issue of North Korea’s nuclear program. The Obama administration fortunately has changed its position on negotiating with Pyongyang. It now favors bilateral discussions and will send envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea before the year is out.

Here are my recommendations for future negotiations: remember the lessons of Beijing, Dayton, and Oslo. “The Nixon administration negotiated the opening to China in secret,” I write in North Korea: Journalists vs. Diplomats. “The Dayton Agreement emerged from a tightly controlled three-week negotiation among Serb, Croat, and Bosnian representatives. The Oslo Accords came after 14 secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators between December 1992 and August 1993 (though ultimately unsuccessful, these accords nearly brought off a peace agreement in the world’s most conflict-ridden region). With envoy Stephen Bosworth likely to visit North Korea this month, the U.S. team should bear in mind the lessons of Beijing, Dayton, and Oslo. Keep it comprehensive. Keep it secret. And remain at the negotiating table until the job is done.”

In Africa

Morocco is a close U.S. ally. Washington has often praised the country for its liberal reforms and coordination in fighting terrorism.

But recently, the Moroccan government has cracked down on dissent and squeezed the media. “To remain silent about Morocco’s backsliding because ‘it is better than its neighbors’ would promote complacency about a situation that, once a cause for hope, is threatening to settle down as one more stalled transition,” writes FPIF contributor Eric Goldstein in Morocco: Endangered ‘Model’? “In a country that Washington commended for liberalizing politically while combating extremism, that augurs ill on both fronts.”

Elsewhere in Africa, the threat of climate change is a current concern not just a future fear. ” In Africa, as around the world, awareness is growing that climate change is not a remote threat but an immediate danger causing more frequent ‘extreme weather conditions’ of drought and flooding,” write William Mintner and Anita Wheeler in Climate Change and Africa’s Natural Resources. “Ice is melting at the poles and on Mount Kilimanjaro. The waters of Lake Chad are disappearing. Drought cycles in East Africa are becoming more unpredictable.”

And, on a final note, the FPIF website will soon get its long overdue overhaul. Stay tuned…

FPIF, November 17, 2009

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