Albania: Europe's Wild East

11/17/2009 10:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The traffic circles in Tirana, the capital of Albania, are a free-for-all. There are no lanes. There are no signs. There are no rules. On a visit to Tirana several days ago, I drove into the swirling chaos with all my senses alert, relieved that the rental car came with insurance. If driving was a challenge, being a pedestrian was even worse. To cross Skanderbeg Square in the very center of the city, I had to team up with other pedestrians to force our way across several lanes of traffic to get to the other side. The scariest part: I soon became accustomed to this anarchy and even began to find it exhilarating.

Albania has certainly changed dramatically in the last few years. Not long ago, the country practically had any cars at all. "Albania was so exotic for us," a Bosnian colleague told me in Sarajevo before my road trip. "I remember a picture of Skanderbeg Square and there was only one car on it. I couldn't wait to go there!" As the most isolated country in Europe, cut off during the Cold War even from neighboring communist Yugoslavia, Albania has taken a bit more time than other Central and Eastern European countries to make the transition. In 1997, for instance, a pyramid scam grew to such monstrous proportions that it sank the economy, the ruling government, and many people's savings. European countries had to send in a military force to stabilize the country.

It doesn't help that the Albanian parliament is not functioning at the moment. The ruling Democratic Party won the June elections by a very slender margin. The opposition Socialist Party has cried foul, refusing to take its seats until the parliament launches an investigation into the election. Albania's democracy is, like its roads, a work in progress. Or perhaps regress: Before the June elections, gunmen assassinated Socialist Party lawmaker Fatmir Xhindi.

Today, Tirana is a dusty boomtown full of new construction and about as much law as one might expect in Europe's Wild East. Restaurants and cafes are flourishing. Outside investment is flowing in, with Italy planning to make the country an energy hub for the region. And the city's mayor, a former expressionist painter, has literally painted the town red (and yellow and pink and green) by sprucing up the façades of buildings.

But the most prominent business in Albania is a great deal more modest: the car wash. Hundreds of makeshift stalls lining the roads into Tirana have little more than a hose, a bucket of soapy water, and a hand-lettered sign. They're cheap to set up. And with so many roads interrupted by stretches of mud and potholes, there's no shortage of customers. You're driving along at 70 miles per hour and suddenly, almost without warning, you're bumping over a stretch of lunar landscape that, no matter how pitted, doesn't prevent the cars behind you from trying to accelerate past on the left and right.

Albania's transition is no less full of rocky stretches that the government tries its best to clean up after. Earlier this month, young Albanian tycoon Rezart Taci and his bodyguards beat up investigative journalist Mero Baze in Tirana for his reporting on the businessman's corrupt practices. Taci, a close associate of the government of Sali Berisha, runs an oil company privatized last year. The government, concerned that such incidents could disrupt the country's bid to join the European Union, was quick to denounce this challenge to the fourth estate. But even before the beating, Reporters Without Borders ranked Albania the lowest country in the Balkans in 2009 in terms of press freedom. "The government's control over the public media is ubiquitous," writes Balkan Insight, and "press management positions are political appointments, which ensures a favorable editorial line."

But the story of the journalist's beating is even more complex. After all, Mero Baze, the investigative journalist, is no stranger to violence. A former reporter told me in Tirana that 10 years ago he had been on the receiving end of an attack ordered by Baze, who in those days had been close to the government and had disliked my friend's stories. The recent targeting of Baze is less a reflection of his talents at investigative journalism than his fall from grace with those currently in power in Tirana. In Albania, there's a logic to the lawlessness.

Corruption is perhaps the key obstacle between Albania and the EU. "Our country has made some progress on petty corruption," Socialist Party MP Ditmir Bushati told me. "But we have not captured the big fish. For example, the former minister of defense Fatmir Mediu, now the minister of environment, escaped justice because of immunity. The prosecutor's office implicated him, when he was minister of defense, in the explosion of the depot armory in Gerdec, an explosion that killed 26 people and destroyed several houses. The courts are trying 20 people, but not the minister. The prosecutor started prosecution against him. But he was reelected, and so he enjoys immunity."

Which brings us to the problem of organized crime. In the 1990s, Albania became notorious as a route for heroin entering Europe and later for the production of marijuana, all controlled by mafia-like organizations. In Italy, Albanian organized crime has turned car trafficking into an industry that would make Japanese efficiency experts proud. A car stolen in the morning in central Italy can be in the hands of the new Albanian owner by evening.

The unleashed capitalism, the "don't tread on me" ethos, the occasionally opaque elections, even the love affair with the automobile: Perhaps Albania should just skip the EU and become part of the United States. The country is perhaps the only one in Europe that might endow a George W. Bush chair or build the man a statue. "Albanians think highly enough of George W. Bush to name a café after him," I write in Postcard from...Tirana. "There's even a George W. Bush Street in the capital of Tirana, albeit a rather short, crooked one. Bush received a warm welcome when he became the first U.S. president to visit the country in 2007. The administration's support for Albania's entrance into NATO and nearby Kosovo's independence contributed to making Albania one of the few resolutely pro-American countries in Europe."

All this pro-Americanism did not stop the EU from agreeing a few days ago to proceed with Albania's application for membership. Still, Albania will have to change many things before it can join the elite club. It must address the culture of impunity and the deadlocked politics. It must uphold freedom of the press. But if it really wants to become an equal member of the international community, it should think about putting up signs in its traffic circles. And renaming that street after a different president.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.