Editor’s note: Italy and Albania signed an agreement for the non-EU country to hold migrants at two new detention centers there. Read about the deal in Reuters.
While in Italy there was some surprise that Giorgia Meloni signed the agreement with Rama without even consulting her government allies, here in Albania Rama’s decision to offer Italy a piece of Albanian land free of charge to build refugee camps, also made without consulting anyone else, did not surprise anyone. Even today, after 30 years of the establishment of pluralism, the idea of an all-powerful leader who identifies with the party-state and the people continues to dominate in Albania – now in the form of what John Stuart Mill calls “the tyranny of the majority.”
In Albania people are used to seeing Rama ruling over everything, imposing his own preferences and interests as if they were those of the country. His predecessors did likewise. However, his omnipotence does not stem merely from the willingness of Albanians to surrender their freedom to an authoritarian leader. That willingness itself cannot be understood outside the context of the internal and external powers that keep these leaders in charge.
If we look for the foundation of Rama’s power, in today’s Albania this is grounded in his role as a mediator between four elements, which I would liken to the four legs of the seat of his power: the power of the so-called oligarchs; the power of organized crime, the main investor in the Albanian economy; the power of the media, in which both the elements already mentioned have invested; and finally the most decisive element, the power of our so-called strategic partners, the United States and the European Union, among which Italy has a special role. So far, Rama has shown himself to be the most skillful mediator in harmonizing the interests of these four powers. His expression “When Italy calls us, we are always ready,” motivated, according to him, by gratitude at Italy’s welcome of Albanian immigrants – forgetting that this first reception back in 1991 ended up shamefully herding them all into Bari Stadium, or the tragic Kater I Radës shipwreck in 1997 – must be read in the context of his game to maintain the four legs of power.
This willingness to act out of “gratitude” has also been on display towards the U.S., whenever Rama did them favors against the interests of Albanians, such as offering to bring Syria’s chemical weapons to Albania for dismantling, agreeing to take in 3,000 mujahideen, etc. There are rumors in Albania that a part of the sea off the shore of southern Albania will also be given over to Italy. I remember Rama’s predecessor Sali Berisha, with the same ease and personal decision-making, offering Berlusconi Albanian land to build a nuclear power plant.
This vassalage of Albanian politicians towards the powerful foreigners who keep them in power is an old story that began in 1912-1913, when Albania was established as an independent state mainly for the interests of Austro-Hungary and Italy. Since then, Albanian politicians have learned that it is easier to gain legitimacy by serving these powers-that-be than by serving their own people. This is what happened with King Zog in the interwar period, who turned the country into a semi-colony of Italy; and the same happened after the second war with Enver Hoxha towards Yugoslavia, the USSR and China who were keeping him in power, with dramatic consequences for the Albanian people. Unfortunately, the same paradigm has been in effect towards Western countries after the fall of communism.
The problem is that what seemed back in the 1990s to be a sincere commitment by Western countries to help build democracy and the rule of law in countries like Albania has gradually degraded into policies that treat these countries simply as objects of economic and geostrategic interests. Under these conditions, we are seeing (in Albania and not only) authoritarian leaders holding abusive and criminal power inside the country, not only without anyone bothering them, but even being externally supported by Western politicians who see these autocrats as the easiest way to solve their problems, without caring that in doing so they exacerbate the problems of the people suffering under these autocracies.
The Rama-Meloni agreement should be read in this context.
The agreement shows, among other things, that the two leaders have many things in common – not that it leads us to think that Albania is trying to come closer to the standards of a democratic Italy, but instead that democratic Italy is backsliding towards the Albanian model.
This is shown by the ease with which both prime ministers are violating international and European norms regarding the rights of asylum seekers; by the non-transparent, non-institutional and personal way in which they reached this very sensitive agreement; and also by the fact that with this agreement, both sides are trying to carry out propaganda campaigns through which they’re trying to hide the truth about the failure of their domestic policies. The latter, in particular, makes me think of Guy Debord’s prophecy which seems to be holding true for both countries: “If, within a system, illusion with its spectacular forms reaches the point where it prevails over reality, this shows that the whole social order is in a profound crisis of legitimacy.”
Fatos Lubonja is an Albanian writer.
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