Aug 16th 2007 TIRANA
A tale of corruption and power cuts
BAMIR TOPI, Albania's recently elected president, may find himself doing rather more than his job description would suggest. A 50-year-old biologist, he is the first head of the republican state never to have been a member of the Communist Party. He is also one of the country's few senior politicians not to have been seriously tainted by scandal.
The president does not have executive powers, but he has a say in appointing senior members of the judiciary and is also head of the armed forces. Mr Topi, deputy leader of the ruling Democratic Party under Sali Berisha, the present prime minister, has a reputation as a moderate. Could he give Albania's image abroad a boost and help to calm the chronic political in-fighting that came close to wrecking last month's presidential vote and precipitating an early general election?
It took four rounds of voting for Mr Topi to scrape together the three-fifths majority he needed to win. The final vote came after days of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring between Mr Berisha and Fatos Nano, his Socialist predecessor. Mr Nano's own hopes of becoming president were dashed when he failed to win the backing of his successor as party leader, Edi Rama.
The feud between Mr Berisha and Mr Nano, both prominent under Enver Hoxha, is one reason why Albania still suffers from high unemployment and low investment. Albanian migrants working in western Europe and America send home almost $1 billion a year in remittances. Most goes towards building homes and looking after jobless family members. Many Albanians are wary of setting up businesses at home, where licences are given out to political cronies, existing firms use blackmail and intimidation to discourage rivals and the judiciary is corrupt.
Mr Topi's first big task will be to name a new chief prosecutor to replace Theodhori Sollaku, who has been accused of having links with organised crime. Mr Sollaku, who was appointed by the Socialists in 2002, denies this, and his mandate has no expiry date. But Mr Topi is expected to push for a constitutional amendment to set a time limit. He will present this as one of the reforms that are needed for entry into NATO, a goal Albania hopes to achieve at next year's NATO summit in Romania. Without even a remote chance of early European Union membership, Albania is eager to join the other principal Western club soon.
Mr Berisha hopes to attract more foreign investment with his “Albania one-euro” policy of offering sites to foreign companies at minimal rents. But there are likely to be few takers so long as electricity shortages persist. In Tirana this summer, power has been switched off for at least six hours a day; in the countryside, power cuts can last as long as 20 hours. Plans for private investors to build new power plants are way behind schedule. Continuing power cuts are a big reason for a recent dip in the government's popularity and a revival in the Socialists' fortunes.
On the other hand, the economy is growing by about 6% a year. Land prices are rising, especially along the Adriatic coast, as foreigners buy up plots for future development. If the future of Kosovo is settled satisfactorily later this year, the prospects for Albania should brighten.