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Albania takes strides towards EU accession

Many in Albania - which has Europe's fastest-growing economy and aspirations to join the EU - feel the former dictatorship has come a long way fast, reports the BBC's Paul Henley from Tirana.

Tirana
Albania has come a long way since it threw off what was the continent's strictest communist regime only 19 years ago

Lufti Dervishi is old enough to compare living in Albania today with how life used to be.

Whenever he thinks the road towards European integration is not a fast enough one, he stops to remind himself how far his country has come since it threw off what was the continent's strictest communist regime only 19 years ago.

"I can remember the terrible things of the past", he says. "There were times when you could end up in prison just for learning English."

He describes how conversation with a foreigner could be harshly punished and how any mention of "sensitive information", like the fact there were no potatoes in a shop, could result in a long jail sentence.

"And there was awful poverty," he says. "I myself - we were four in the family, four children - can remember the time when my parents could only afford one egg between us for breakfast.

"But when I tell this story to my son who is 12 years old, he just laughs, he cannot understand the reality of the past."

Rule of law

Nowadays, Mr Dervishi is executive director of Transparency International in Albania, working to establish a more democratic, prosperous country whose citizens feel integrated with Europe.

Lufti Dervishi
There are standards we still want to achieve in order to become a member of the EU family... we don't have the tradition of rule of law
Lutfi Dervishi
Transparency International in Albania

"We have a new generation now and it has many aspirations," he says. "They expect Google, iphones, ipods and high-definition TV. And the country should look to this generation, not to mine."

Technically, Albania can currently boast Europe's fastest-growing economy.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is the biggest institutional investor in Albania, the national economy grew by 7% in 2008 and 6% in the first quarter of 2009, driven largely by investment in public infrastructure and in the telecommunications industry.

It is not recession-proof, but foreign investment is increasing, as is confidence in the banks. And all predictions are for the country to stay in the black.

Albanians have been used to power cuts for years, but things have improved to such an extent that, in the spring of this year, the state-owned power company started exporting electricity to neighbouring Greece.

Hardship and widespread unemployment are far from eradicated, though. And in Transparency International's Corruption Index, Albania ranks a less-than-distinguished 95th out of 180 countries, below Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

"The country does have its problems," says Mr Dervishi. "There are standards we still want to achieve in order to become a member of the EU family. And when I talk about standards, I mean the rule of law.

"We don't have the tradition of rule of law. For five centuries, Albania lived under the Ottoman Empire and for four and a half decades under the communist regime. So in that respect we are still in transition".

Construction plans

The speed of that transition is obvious in the capital, Tirana, a city barely recognisable from even a decade ago. The ever-intensifying love-affair of ordinary citizens with the car is obvious in the noisy and often smog-bound streets.

Edi Rama
Tirana before was like a woman lying in a bed because of a very serious disease - and now it is like a woman who got up, made herself up and is walking again with pride
Edi Rama
Mayor of Tirana

But all over town, drab, grey communist-era buildings have been given a multi-coloured make-over, as part of a policy spear-headed by Tirana's mayor, former artist Edi Rama, now in his third elected term.

He defends his clean-up and repainting as being far more than superficial. In the streets that have become patchworks of green, scarlet, yellow and purple, tax collection has become completely successful, he says.

He adds that pride in newly planted public spaces has been restored and with it a civic optimism. And he has many more ambitious design and construction plans.

Mr Rama is cynical about the promising economic statistics and dismisses many as the political calculation of the Albanian government.

He calls national growth "jobless" and says too many people still want to leave their native Albania in search of a better standard of living. More than a third of Albanians are currently in voluntary exile.

Walking with pride

But Mr Rama does not for a moment question popular support for Albania's bid for membership of the EU.

Women in Tirana
Mayor Edi Rama compares Tirana to a woman walking with pride

And he points to surveys suggesting more than eight out of 10 residents want his makeover of the capital to continue - more, bizarrely, than confess to actually liking the new look.

"After many years of a totally rigid, collectivistic society, we found ourselves in an atomised, individualistic society," he says.

"So the deal now is to try to reconstruct a sense of belonging to the city and its public spaces, along with a sense of responsibility for them.

"Tirana before was like a woman lying in a bed because of a very serious disease. And now it is like a woman who got up, made herself up and is walking again with pride."



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