I have many thoughts, reactions and worries about what’s going on in the U.S. right now — both the impending inauguration of Donald Trump and the divisiveness, loss of civility and marginalization of the truth that appear to be taking over America. I feel tremendous concern — a sort of weight on my chest that won’t go away. There’s no need for me to weigh in on the U.S. political situation itself, but I would like to use the recent election as an opportunity offer some reflections on politics here in Albania, a country where the political system is so dysfunctional that it verges on being broken. Also, I think that Albanians’ reactions to the election are interesting (in a heartbreaking sort of way) and demonstrate how much Albanians value and respect America.
Welcome to Dysfunction Junction
During my time in Albania, it’s been both interesting and dismaying to watch the ongoing circus that is the Albanian political system. Having grown up in a political system that, for the most part, works*, I never fully appreciated the extent to which democracy functions only because its interlocking pieces are finely balanced. Here in Albania I have had the opportunity (although I’m not sure that “opportunity” is the right word) to observe a system where the pieces are woefully out of balance and, as a result, it’s a mess.
*Yes, I acknowledge that, as a result of the ongoing animosity between Democrats and Republicans, our system has worked less well in recent years. However, I also think that the American drive to expose problems and refine the functioning of government allows us to fall prey to the availability bias: we are more aware of the flaws in our system of governance than we are of they many ways that it is a well-oiled machine.
What are these interlocking “pieces” I’m referring to? Having studied very little Political Science in school, I admit that I am naive about political theory — my self-generated model of governance is pretty basic. With that as a caveat, here — in no particular order — is what I observe in Albania:
Rule of Law — Albania’s judicial system is notoriously corrupt. So corrupt, in fact, that the European Union has made clear that it will not move ahead with Albania’s application for membership* until the country gets its act together judicially. In theory, the country has just recently laid the groundwork for judicial reform but in fact, the system continues to roll along with corrupt judges, unenforced laws and distrust on the part of the Albanian people. The system is so ineffective that one of the key barriers to attracting foreign investment to Albania is that contracts are, essentially, unenforceable — companies would have no guarantee that the terms of the contracts would be honored by the courts.
*Albania was granted EU candidate status a few years ago and is now awaiting the next step: formal member negotiations.
The implications? Corrupt judges and unenforced laws means that, below the surface, the system tolerates all sorts of bad behavior. People able and willing to pay bribes go free and perhaps more important, politicians on the take or with shady business dealings act with impunity. The dysfunctional judiciary system is a direct contributor to political corruption as well as a sense, on the part of everyday people, that the system doesn’t work and that they are not promised justice.
Political Corruption — In Albania, rumors of political corruption run rampant: mayors siphoning funds or granting contracts to family members, ministry officials and members of parliament taking bribes or successfully intimidating journalists and, at the top of the list, high-level government officials engaging in drug trafficking or other forms of organized crime. Are these allegations true? Who knows…the corrupt judicial system enables white collar criminals to bribe or intimidate their way out of media coverage and criminal charges. Once again (as above), this engenders a loss of faith on the part of the citizenry, who are so jaded by the lack of repercussions for those known to be guilty that they generally distrust politicians and believe that corruption is endemic — whether or not it is.
I never realized the extent to which a functioning democracy relies on an independent, investigative media.
“But, what about the media?”, you say, “Can’t the media help to expose the corrupt politicians, the corrupt judges?” Until I got to Albania, I never realized the extent to which a functioning democracy relies on an independent, investigative media to keep it functioning. I now see more clearly that, in America, journalism helps to both ensure our rights and correct imperfections in our system(s) by shining the light of day on flawed laws, lawmakers and institutions, and by exposing injustice. It’s not a big surprise to hear that things don’t work that way in Albania — instead, conflicts of interest and intimidation (and its natural outcome, fear) drive media coverage.
A recent study by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), an independent group of journalists based in Serbia, reported on the pervasiveness of censorship and self-censorship in the Albanian media. Ninety-two percent of the 121 journalists responding said that editorial policy at their media outlets are affected by political pressure. Fifty percent said that they often or very often avoid covering stories because of the “inter-relationship of media owners’ business interests and owners’ relationships to politicians.” Last year, Parliament considered a law that criminalizes defamation of government officials by journalists; the law said that journalistic allegations of wrongdoing on the part of officials, if found to be untrue, could result in imprisonment of the “offending” journalist. It was only after international bodies involved in Albania’s EU candidacy reacted strongly, saying that the law was “excessive and disproportionate,” that the government withdrew its proposal. And, of course, this begs the question of how allegations would ever be found true in a system with a corrupt judiciary.
Democracy — It’s hard to have a functioning democracy without the demo- part: the people. Officially, Albania is a democracy, but I’m not sure it functions as one. As a result of the factors above: corrupt politicians, rule of law issues and insufficient journalistic oversight, Albanian people have very little faith in “the system” and this results in an lack of political will. In an earlier blog post I wrote about the distressing shortage of hope in Albania and how it manifests as a kind of passivity — a reluctance to speak up or speak out, an unwillingness to get involved and a sense that things can’t/won’t change. Some of the hope problem is a function of Albania’s weak economy, but the dysfunctional political system is also a big contributor.
I could go on and list other factors (for example, commitment to action on the part of elected and appointed officials) whose inadequacy contribute to the state of affairs in Albania. But, I think you get the idea. One of the reasons that the latest election cycle is so upsetting to me is that I fear that the pieces of our system are rapidly falling out of balance. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. would ever end up with a system as debilitated as that of Albania, but Albania is certainly a cautionary tale. One key difference between Albania and the U.S. is that Americans have a great deal of political will and aren’t afraid to speak up and speak out, to raise a ruckus, to say “I’ll take this all the way to the Supreme Court” — they believe in the system and they believe that the system works. I think, though, that much of the malaise affecting (infecting?) a certain chunk of the American populus right now is a fear that our system may be more fragile than we thought, which brings us back to the all-important factor: hope.
“But How?….But Why?”
In previous posts, I’ve written about how Albanians love and respect America and Americans. As I’ve described, this is not American egocentrism — Albanians view America as an aspirational model and are endlessly grateful for the ways the U.S. has protected their interests (and their very existence) for more than a century. During my time here I have been consistently surprised by the extent to which Albanians follow news from the U.S. At first, I thought that it was simply that my co-workers at USAID tend to be more interested in global and political issues. But, over time, I have seen that many Albanians — even teenagers — are aware of political developments in the U.S.
It’s not surprising then to hear that Albanians followed the recent presidential election with great interest. And, that interest was heightened because the Clinton name has particular resonance in Albania thanks to Bill Clinton’s actions during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. As a result, I — and many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers — have been bombarded with questions about the election, many of them beginning with “how” or “why” and many of them accompanied by the famous Albanian sign of disapproval — a combination of finger wagging and tongue clicking.*
*Unfortunately my blog format does not allow for video. For some time now I’ve wanted to show you two important Albanian gestures: the disapproving finger wag/tongue clicking combo and the affirmative head shake where “yes” is signaled by body language that we Americans would interpret as a “no.”
For me, it has been both tiring and tiresome to respond to questions about the election. First and foremost, the reasons for Trump’s victory are complicated: the dissatisfaction of the working class, Hillary’s email server, Comey’s 11th-hour interventions, the difficult-to-explain Electoral College, media fragmentation, etc. and it’s hard to explain all the nuanced, intertwined pieces, particularly when people are looking for a single, easily digestible answer. Second, it’s tiring and tiresome because rehashing the “how” and the “why” is painful, depressing and frustrating when the listener keeps reminding you that “these things don’t happen in America.” Third, it’s exhausting because the same people, trying to digest their disbelief, ask me the same questions day after day looking for answers that will probably remain incomprehensible to them. Nonetheless, Peace Corps Goal #2 is “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” and so I try.
For many Albanians, the U.S. is its aspirational model — the “shining city upon a hill.”
More important than “how” and “why,” though, is what’s behind the questions — the fear that Albania will lose its aspirational model of American as a “shining city upon a hill.” Several of my co-workers have talked with me in depth about this and have expressed fears that continued disruption in the U.S. has the potential to further erode Albanians’ already thin sense of hope. And then, for some of them, there’s a more fundamental fear: that America will no longer foster and protect Albania. One Albanian colleague is convinced that a loss of American interest/support would make the country easy pickings for Russia. I don’t know if that’s true and I’m equally uncertain that a Trump presidency would mean reduced aid to Albania, but we’re talking about fears and it’s hard to counter them when I have no facts.
I wish I could end this blog post on an upbeat note, but I’m not sure how to do that. The political situation is Albania is particularly dismal and efforts at reform are hard-fought and often unsuccessful. It’s corny to say that America and Americans give Albanians hope, but most of my Peace Corps colleagues and all of my USAID co-workers will tell you that it’s true. At a time when many Americans are feeling a diminishment of hope, it difficult to keep transmitting it to others.