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Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in Albania: Is It Working?

Posted: 07/13/11 04:54 PM ET

In 1990, as the Albanian revolution against 45 years of communist rule was gaining momentum, a young professor of art named Edi Rama warned that the post-communist government should be free of former communist party members. He warned of "corrupt intellectuals" highjacking the democratic movement and turning it into a self-serving system, as they had done for the past 45 years. Ironically, today Rama leads the Socialist Party, heir to the communist party and Albania's largest opposition party, while his arch-rival, Prime Minister Sali Berisha, a former communist, is the head of the Democratic Party, heir to the anti-communist revolution.

Twenty years and billions of dollars in foreign aid later, Albania remains one of Europe's poorest and most corrupt countries. Elections are rarely free and fair, foreign ambassadors are frequently called upon to mediate between bickering political parties, and the laws drafted by Western experts are, for the most part, used by the ruling party to maintain control over political opponents. Civil society has been relegated to sending petitions requesting the international community to hold their elected officials accountable.

International aid organizations run with open arms to assist countries just emerging from decades of totalitarian rule. With the exception of programs for physical infrastructure, projects that promote good governance, rule of law and civil society have too often fallen short of their target in most post-totalitarian societies. Albania is an example.

Between 1991 and 1999 Albania received more foreign aid per capita than any of its former communist counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, modern day Albania is far from a model democratic country, which begs the question: what went wrong?

For the most part, Western aid in a post totalitarian society is perceived as a reward and a sign of partnership between the donor, the recipient public (which has waged a battle against the despot and won in the name of dignity) and the new government. In most cases, both the general public and the new government perceive the international donors as honest brokers. The government expects the donors to provide training and financial support, while the public expects the internationals to police their elected officials. The donor science of democratic development is quickly put in place, which promises economic development, improved public service, justice, stability and good governance.

Non-government organizations (NGOs) are quickly formed and funded in the hope that they will fill the vacuum between citizens and government. They are joined by politically independent media outlets that are given financial support to report objectively. Mainstream political parties are offered training by Western organizations on how to manage elections campaigns. In a matter of months, Alexis de Tocqueville's social and political three-tier system is put in place, ready to ensure civic participation in government, a state rooted in the rule of law, a government that seeks to serve its citizens, and a society and government leaders united by a common belief and practice in basic personal and professional ethics. It's a tall order for Western democracies, let alone for emerging societies like Albania.

But as we have learned from Albania, wide-scale corruption becomes the norm rather than the exception. The party in power quickly learns that, in return for its commitment to regional stability and combating terrorism, the West is willing to turn a blind eye to their undemocratic methods that stifle political opponents and muzzle critical voices. This leads to a system where a position in government is an opportunity for personal and party wealth.

The question many are left to wonder in Albania and in other post-totalitarian states that face similar problems, is: where did the so-called "critical mass" go? There has been marked economic and political freedom in Albania, but high unemployment and rampant government corruption still plague the country. And in the end maybe it's not a question of where the leaders of the previous revolution disappeared to, or where the critical mass is, but rather what happened to the ideals and principles that brought the public together to end corruption and abuse of power in the first place.

The case of Albania raises many questions regarding the impact of civil and democratic development programs. Is a consequence of foreign aid an institutionalization and professionalization of civic participation? Before they can take action to end abuse of power in their local municipality, do people's spontaneity and call to justice first have to be replaced with project management skills: how to write a proposal, a budget, measurement and evaluation plans and expense tracking reports? Are recipient organizations perceived by the general public as comprised institutions whose funding is dependent on pre-identified activities? Have donors taken off the open market people with vision and know-how, people who are able to organize public support and hold their governments accountable, and instead wrapped them in a bubble of donor-driven civil society projects?

Maybe Albania has reached its maximum foreign democratic development aid potential, if such a thing exists. And maybe foreign aid is no longer an award for progress but rather a "carrot" to prevent the country and its leaders from regressing -- at least until the day the corrupt intellectuals disappear.