Not a Country for Dreams?

02 / PHOTO ESSAY

Photographs:
Nick St. Oegger

Ask most people what they know about Albania and you might hear something about organised crime, rampant corruption, or human trafficking – things that aren’t exactly the hallmarks of a European Union member state. Yet as Britain leaves the EU, Albania has been slowly making its way towards membership. Travelling between both countries over the last three years, I’ve observed their divergent journeys, which have prompted some searching questions about what it means to be European. 

 
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Ask most people what they know about Albania and you might hear something about organised crime, rampant corruption, or human trafficking – things that aren’t exactly the hallmarks of a European Union member state. Yet as Britain leaves the EU, Albania has been slowly making its way towards membership. Travelling between both countries over the last three years, I’ve observed their divergent journeys, which have prompted some searching questions about what it means to be European. 

Albania’s path to becoming a candidate for EU membership has been far from smooth. Thirty years ago, it was considered the “North Korea” of Europe, having spent decades suffering under a communist regime so repressive that it was left completely isolated from the world. This era came after centuries of Ottoman rule, a brief period of independence, and six years of occupation during the Second World War. Italy has left an especially significant mark upon Albania: before Mussolini invaded in 1939, Italy had helped introduce both a modern banking system and an enduring love of espresso. 

 
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These shifting influences have left Albania with something of an identity crisis as it adapts its historic alignment with the East to a new Europe dominated by the West. This confused narrative is played out in the nation’s architectural landscape: where communist-era bunkers compete with 1920s Italian modernism, Ottoman bridges, and contemporary high rise apartments. Today, Turkey is funding construction of a large mosque in Tirana; while the UAE and Kuwait are financing infrastructure improvements. This Middle Eastern influence is contrasted by the ever present symbols of Europe: the EU flag flying from government buildings; bars and restaurants bearing the names of cities like Amsterdam, Dublin, or Berlin; and the sheer number of Mercedes Benz cars on the road. There may be a willingness to accept funds from the Middle East, but one gets the sense that “European quality” remains the benchmark. 

 
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Albania’s reverence for Europe extends beyond physical symbolism. Europe is often spoken of as an entirely different geographic space – which Albania isn’t a part of. For young people, Europe is a powerful external reference point for their own lives – a place that seems to offer everything from better jobs and education, to a society where things function properly. This perception has resulted in a high degree of “brain drain” amongst the young – with some Albanians even claiming asylum in EU countries. Every time I have returned to the country, I have found fewer friends or acquaintances there to greet me. And for many of those who remain, the EU is still a “promised land”; a place where hard work allows people to reap the fruits of their labour in a way that doesn’t seem possible in Albania. This was eloquently summed up on the back wall of a popular bar in the northern city of Shkoder where someone scrawled a note: “This is not a country for dreams.” 

This exodus of the young and the skilled is not the only thing that gives pause to Albania’s readiness to join the EU – there are political issues as well. This past June, protests calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister Edi Rama reached fever pitch – with protesters citing allegations of corruption, ties to the drug trade, and vote rigging. At the same time, Albania had hoped to open accession talks with the EU, but the German government postponed a decision to set a date for such talks. This diplomatic move followed scepticism from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands – all of whom have seen an increase in Albanian organised crime in recent years. Despite this setback, Albania has been willing to pull its weight on the international stage. The Albanian army was involved in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and has participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Albania is now a full member of NATO, and has stemmed efforts by Islamist terrorist groups to radicalise its citizens. 

 
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Given these complexities, the question of EU membership is not just about Albania’s readiness to join, but what being in the EU would mean for the country. The “brain drain” could become even worse once Albanians gain freedom of movement rights (as was the case for Romania and Bulgaria), while the largely agricultural economy might suffer amid an influx of imported products. In any case, EU membership would not provide an overnight solution to Albania’s flagging economy, institutional inefficiency, and widespread corruption. There is also the question of whether increased tourism could negatively impact upon those elements of the landscape and culture that have so far remained untouched by development.

However, EU membership might offer a less tangible, but more meaningful, benefit. After centuries of occupation and conflict, being part of the EU could give Albanians the chance to belong to a community of nations – and a common European identity – that they have felt external to for hundreds of years.

 
 

This photo essay is also in issue two


 
 

The Connected, Divided Island

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Calais Belle Ma Ville

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