More Good News From the Balkans. No Kidding.
Sali Berisha, a towering figure of Albanian politics since the early 1990s, finally admitted defeat in Sunday's elections this evening, resigning as head of his party and wishing his opponents well. There's no cause for mourning.
Berisha's departure is the latest in a rash of big news from a region that at times has seemed hopeless. Berisha has been prime minister for eight years. He was also president from 1992 to 1997, so Albanians have to be at least in their 30s to remember a time when he wasn't a key figure in political life. He brought Albania into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and paved the country with roads. The last few years, however, have been blighted by scandals for which no senior official has been brought to account.
The scandals have involved everything from alleged skimming on road construction contracts to the shooting deaths of four people by guards from the prime minister’s office last year during a demonstration. The killings remain under investigation. Berisha claimed at the time that Edi Rama, the newly victorious leader of the Socialist Party, was attempting to mount a coup d’etat with guns disguised as pens and umbrellas. (Berisha has since dropped that accusation).
Rama won Sunday's election by a landslide, but he has a big job ahead of him. However he turns out as a leader, though, the passage of Berisha is good for Albania -- all true democracies require a regular rotation of power.
Meanwhile, Croatia joins the European Union on July 1, and on June 28, EU leaders are expected to endorse a proposal to begin accession talks with Serbia. This was made possible by the Serbian leadership's recent agreement with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, on what amounts to peaceful coexistence.
That deal was all the more remarkable because Serbia is now led by men who were extreme nationalists during and after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Once in power, though, they junked ideology for pragmatism and a pro-European path. Unlike the last government, which was more liberal, they were able to strike a deal because their nationalist credentials made them immune to accusations that they were betraying the nation.
Even in Bosnia, where political life has been paralyzed for years by squabbles between its Serb, Bosniak Muslim and Croat leaders, there has been some good news lately. Fed up with stagnation, citizens have been protesting for the first time in years. The trigger came when the endless political squabbling meant that for several months, newborn babies could not get ID numbers or passports. One child may have died as a result of not being able to get foreign medical attention in time. Bosnians are calling their protests the “babylution.”
All of this bodes well for the Balkans, but the big challenge ahead is economic. All the nations except Albania have been in and out of recession in recent years, and creating jobs is a huge task for all the region’s leaders. That is easier to promise than deliver, because so many jobs and remittances from those working abroad are tied to the fate of the euro area. In 2009, gross domestic product across the western Balkans decreased by 3.9 percent on average, and it fell again last year by 1.2 percent.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter.)