A Balkan Success Story

Only yesterday Albania was the world's joke nation. Ruled over by a King Zog and then a weirdo Stalinist turned Maoist, En-ver Hoxha, Albania was communist Europe's answer to North Korea. Even Hollywood got in on the Albania-mocking act. Two movies in the 1990s, Wag the Dog and Tune In Tomorrow…, treated Albanians as global jokes.

Time to update the image: Albania is emerging as a beacon of foreign-policy stability in the western Balkans. Alone in a region that only a decade ago produced the worst European fighting since World War II, Albania is moving beyond conflict with its neighbors, working to minimize ethnic hatred and establishing itself as a steady ally of the West. Albania has enthusiastically adapted to NATO membership, and its tough, well-trained commandos are welcomed in Afghanistan—in contrast to more and more European countries that have lost the stomach to fight.

It's a striking contrast with less frequently spoofed Balkan powers, particularly Serbia. Surly Serbia is still unable to come to terms with the loss of Kosovo (where the Serbian minority is now ruled by Muslims). But Albania refuses any support to separatists among the Albanian minority in Macedonia. Albania's President Bamir Topi also speaks sensitively about Serbia's difficulties in coming to terms with Kosovo's independence, even though Kosovo is mainly Albanian. Belgrade rejects the recognition by Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris of Kosovo's independence and instead relies on Moscow in the East and Madrid in the West to maintain the fiction that Kosovo is still part of Serbia. Albania just ignores Belgrade's claims, yet all the while builds good relations with Serbia and encourages Serbs to vacation on its Adriatic coast.

No other regional power has shown a similar willingness to abandon old grudges. Macedonia is still locked in a politics-of-the-absurd squabble with Greece over whether it can call itself Macedonia, so Greece still blocks it from joining the EU, NATO, and other international institutions. Albania, meanwhile, has forgotten its Cold War rivalry with Greece and has thrown open its doors to Greek investment. Croatia is locked in an unedifying quarrel with Slovenia over a tiny stretch of coast that controls Slovenia's access to the Adriatic. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been unable to forge a common state administration among its Serbian, Muslim, and Croat populations.

Albania's forward-looking foreign policy is not always matched by its internal politics, however. The nation's hero is Skanderbeg, a medieval warrior whose image is on display all over the country. Since Albania left behind primitive communism after 1990, its democratic leaders have sought to become mini-Skanderbegs. Election battles are fought in the tradition of the blood feud, enshrined in the medieval law of Lek, which demands revenge on any enemy. Each vote produces howls of cheating and a winner-takes-all power grab, in which the victors reward their business cronies. Albanian political analysts—not a large group—look across the Adriatic and admire the fused political-business leadership of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy: a sure sign of how low Albanian standards have fallen.

Albania badly wants to use its NATO membership as a steppingstone to EU accession. The EU's representatives in Tirana say major electoral and administrative reforms have to come first. There is now clear evidence that in the 2009 elections, the ruling party stuffed at least one ballot box with a ham-handedness worthy of Hollywood mockery. After a six-month boycott of Parliament, the social-democratic opposition now accepts the results, but wants reforms to prevent future vote rigging.

Failure to de-Balkanize internal politics stands in the way of Albania's gaining the respect it now de-serves. Although it has a Muslim majority, the country's Christians live in harmony with Islam. If Europe wants a model of coexistence between Muslims and other faiths, Albania provides it. There were more Jews in Albania at the end of World War II than at the beginning, as Albania's tradition of hospitality ex-tended to Jewish refugees seeking shelter there. Albania has Europe's longest unspoiled coast and undeveloped mountains in the north. Still, to be discovered as a gem, Albania needs to first become a working democracy.