West puts pressure on Alabania ahead of EU accession talks
A PRO-American NATO member, a Western ally in the war against Daesh and a European Union candidate state, Albania faces a game-changing year in 2016, writes World Review Expert Professor Dr. Blerim Reka.
With its accession talks with Brussels expected to start in 2017, the Balkan country has come under intense pressure from outside to reform its institutions and resolve a handful of seemingly intractable problems with neighbors. The stakes in the region, however, have become so high for the EU and NATO that the odds favor a positive outcome for Tirana, even if it comes shy of meeting all preconditions for admission.
One set of obstacles faced by Albania is internal: rampant corruption and weakness of the judiciary system. Western ambassadors in Tirana have been imploring local elites to impose tough anti-graft measures instead of merely talking tough, to rein in political clientelism and strengthen the rule of law.
The external challenges stem from the country’s traditionally bad relations with Greece and Serbia, two states with ambitions to act as regional powers. The biggest bone of contention between Belgrade and Tirana is Kosovo, a former province of Serbia with an overwhelmingly Albanian population. Belgrade has refused to recognize the Republic of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence in 2008. It also blocks Kosovo’s UN membership. This state of affairs has frozen Albanian-Serbian relations at just a notch above absolute zero. There is a possibility, though, that in 2016 things may begin to warm up.
If Moscow refrained from using its Security Council veto to block Kosovo’s UN membership – as part of a larger deal with the West – Serbia would have a face-saving alibi to follow suit and fully recognize its “province’s” independence. That, in turn, would open the way for normalization with Albania by 2017 and help both Balkan states in their efforts to join the EU.
With Albania and Serbia making amends, a new era in the West Balkans could ensue as a reconciliation process after the bloody decade of dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia (1991-2001) finally would begin.
With Greece, Albania has a historic quarrel over mistreated Albanians in Greece’s Chameria region and a contemporary problem of disputed border on the Ionian Sea shelf. At stake are oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed, worth an estimated 20 billion euros in potential income over the next two decades. Albanian and Greek territorial claims overlap in the area. The two countries negotiated a border line there in 2009, but the deal has been blocked by the Albanian Constitutional Court, after a complaint brought by the ruling Socialist Party.
The issue will not be resolved this year, but the Greeks are not giving up; according to their foreign ministry, bilateral relations with Albania will be Athens’ top priority in the Balkans for 2016. Apart from historical and energy issues, the Greeks remain concerned about Albania’s close military cooperation with Turkey. Since 1998, it provides for the Turkish use of the Pashaliman naval base in Vlore and the air base in Kucove.
These will be pivotal issues in October 2016, when the European Commission puts together its report on Albania’s progress.
To date, only two countries in the region have succeeded in starting their EU admission talks: Montenegro in 2012 and, most recently Serbia, in December of 2015. If the EU Council rules against adding Albania to the list next year, questions would arise about the political underpinnings of the decision. It would seem to many, not only in the Western Balkans, that EU entry standards have been eased for two Russia-allied states willing to join – while keeping the bar high for a nation with a clear Euro-Atlantic orientation.