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Large and mostly peaceful protests took place against the government in February 2004. A dispute about electoral reform required intervention from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Albania also saw its first terrorist bombings.
From World War II until 1990, former dictator Enver Hoxha's xenophobic Communist regime turned Albania into the most isolated country in Europe. The Communist government collapsed in 1990, and in March 1992, multiparty elections brought the Democratic Party (DP), led by Sali Berisha, to power. Continuing poverty and corruption weakened Berisha's government, and in 1997, the collapse of several popular pyramid investment schemes resulted in widespread looting and violence. The prior progress made by the country was destroyed.
In the years since the unrest of 1997, Albania has been ruled by the Socialist Party (SP), led by Prime Minister Fatos Nano. After the 2001 parliamentary elections, Berisha's DP announced a boycott of parliament to protest alleged electoral irregularities. The party returned in January 2002. However, the truce between Berisha and Nano proved fragile, and by the beginning of 2003, Albania's short-lived national political unity again broke down. More signs of the continued turmoil within Albanian politics came with the resignation of Foreign Minister (and former prime minister) Ilir Meta, a bitter Nano rival, in July 2003. Disagreements within ruling factions in the government prevented the nomination of a replacement for the rest of the year. In December, Nano was reelected chairman of the SP, after which he reshuffled his cabinet; the Meta faction was sidelined.
Because of such infighting, little serious progress has been made to combat organized crime and promote economic reform. Although in February 2003 the European Union (EU) opened negotiations with Albania for a Stabilization and Association Agreement - generally seen as the first step toward full EU membership - realistic analyses of the country's situation suggest that it has far to go before joining the EU. As one sign of this, in March the EU accused Albania's leaders of lacking the political will to meet preconditions for concluding the agreement.
Huge protests took place in early 2004 against the Nano government amid opposition claims that he manipulated the October 2003 elections and has not done enough to improve the standard of living. The rallies were the largest in seven years, and although there was some violence, they were generally peaceful.
Albania experienced its first terrorist acts in 2004 when a chemical bomb exploded in Tirana in January. Such violence had not previously been a problem.
Albanians can change their government democratically. The last elections to the 140-seat Kuvend Popullor (People's Assembly) were held in 2001. One hundred seats are filled in elections for single-member districts; the remaining seats use proportional voting for party lists. Socialists are the largest party and rule as part of a majority coalition. Although international monitoring groups admitted that there were "serious flaws" in the election process, the polls were nevertheless deemed valid. The president, who holds a largely symbolic post, is chosen by parliament. Prime Minister Fatos Nano is the most powerful government leader.
Parliament passed a new electoral code in June 2003 that sought to ensure a more balanced election process. However, two major flaws remain: the Central Election Commission currently has five ruling coalition members and only two opposition members, and voter lists are in dispute. After municipal elections held in October 2003, elections were repeated in 130 out of 346 precincts because of irregularities. Although the opposition claimed that the Socialists had manipulated the voting lists, largely the same lists were used in the second round of elections. In fall 2004, the OSCE intervened in an effort to improve voting procedures before 2005 parliamentary elections, but no resolution was reached.
A number of political parties operate throughout the country. The most important political organizations are the DP and the SP; the differences between the parties are more a matter of the personalities leading them than of serious programmatic or ideological approaches. Albanian society remains clan-based; in very general terms, Sali Berisha's DP commands the allegiance of the Gheg clans in the north, while Nano's SP has the support of the Tosk clans in the south. Except for the 1992 elections, all multiparty elections in Albania since the end of Communism have been controversial, having been contested or boycotted by some party.
The Greek minority is mostly represented through the Party of the Union for Human Rights, which has three seats in parliament. Other minorities are less directly (and less well) represented. Muslim leaders were prevented from registering a party called Motherland in 2004 because religiously or ethnically based parties are illegal in Albania, although supporters denied that the proposed party was Islamic.
In December 2003, an SP congress decreed that all party members must vote according to party decisions or give up their mandates. The measure was intended to curb the power of the party faction led by Ilir Meta.
Considerable anticorruption legislation is in place, but little progress has been made. Petty corruption is rife, as is corruption in business. Government regulations are not excessive, but implementation is unpredictable. There are also international concerns that some Albanian politicians are linked to organized crime. A further problem is that the state does not pursue accusations of official corruption, except in the case of low-level officials. A law was passed in 2003 requiring public officials to publish their assets. In June, Nano was the first to declare his wealth. Albania was ranked 108 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and freedom of the press has improved since the fall of communism, although considerable harassment of journalists persists. The intermingling of powerful business, political, and media interests inhibits the development of independent media. The government controls crucial subsidies that are doled out to those outlets providing sympathetic coverage. The number of libel suits is rising as well. In May, the prime minister filed a lawsuit against the publisher of Koha Jone that resulted in a fine of 2 million leks (almost $20,000, or more than 100 times the average monthly wage in Albania). Journalists and press groups protested, alleging irregularities in the court procedure. The government does not limit Internet access, although poverty means that most people cannot afford it regardless.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and religious practice, and Albania has not seen the inter-religious turmoil typical of its neighbors. However, there has been a rise in tensions in northern parts of the country between rival Muslim sects, as well as between Roman Catholics and Muslims. The restitution of church properties confiscated during the Communist period remains unresolved. Albania's small Greek Orthodox minority has intermittently been subjected to various forms of discrimination.
The government does not significantly limit academic freedom, but some educational institutions have had to accept political appointments.
Freedom of association is generally respected, but problems remain. In the huge protests that took place in February 2004, groups attempted to storm official buildings and at some points were dispersed by police using gunshots and tear gas. However, the protests were largely peaceful. About 200 independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, and while locating funding for NGOs can be difficult, these groups have had an effect on national politics at times. In contrast, trade groups tend to be weak.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, the judiciary, along with law enforcement agencies, remains inefficient and prone to corruption, and judges are often inexperienced and untrained. The combination of a weak economy and the growth of powerful organized crime syndicates makes judges susceptible to bribery and intimidation. The structure of the judiciary also leaves room for government pressure. Amnesty International published a report in February describing inhumane and degrading conditions for detainees. Violence by police does occur, although it is generally investigated and perpetrators are disciplined.
Widespread lawlessness plagues large parts of Albania. Weak state institutions have augmented the power of crime syndicates, and international law enforcement officials claim that Albania has become an increasingly important transshipment point for drug smugglers. The weakness of state institutions in northern Albania has also resulted in the resurgence of traditional tribal law in these areas, most importantly the tradition of blood feuds between different families and clans. Revenge killings continue to take place.
Parliament passed a bill in 2004 on property restitution and compensation for pre-Communist property owners. The opposition did not take part in the vote.
The constitution places no legal impediments on women's role in politics and society, although women are vastly underrepresented in most governmental institutions. The labor code mandates that women are entitled to equal pay for equal work, but data are lacking on whether this is respected in practice. Traditional patriarchal social mores pose significant problems for the position of women. Many segments of society, particularly in northern Albania, still abide by a medieval moral code according to which women are considered chattel property and may be treated as such. The trafficking of women and girls remains a significant problem, although, with the help of advisers from abroad, Albania has seriously reduced its role as a transit country.