Albanian Prime Minister Dr. Sali Berisha
His Excellency Dr. Sali Berisha
I would like to thank you for the great honor of being invited to address this very impressive audience with regards to Albania’s development efforts and its views on security. I am thrilled and privileged to speak before you in Berlin, a city which played a fundamental role in helping us attain freedom: It was the courage of its citizens, their tearing down of the wall, which made it possible for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to gain independence.
ALBANIA’S PATH TO DEVELOPMENT
Twenty years ago, Albania emerged from the most totalitarian regime that Europe has ever known—a regime which severed the country from the rest of the world in the most brutal manner imaginable; a regime which, in many aspects, left Albania not decades but centuries behind other nations. Coming to this meeting, I met an old friend who was the German ambassador to my country at that time. He told me that after leaving Albania, he was posted in Africa but never encountered rural areas as poor as those in Albania. At that time, my country ranked among the third or fourth poorest countries in the world.
With $200 USD per capita, I flew all over Europe and elsewhere as President of the country with $16 USD per month as my salary. Unemployment was at 80%, the economy was in total collapse, and technological development was virtually nonexistent. I was a beginner because my background was a medical one; I was very fond of my profession as a surgeon but one day I told myself that it was time to take an active role in my country’s political future. The man who inspired me most was Andrei Sakharov for two major reasons: First, he had a background in technical sciences, something I identified with since I was in medical sciences. Second, he never left his country. In the same way, despite the fact that I traveled a lot, I never considered leaving my country for a second. That is why, once Albania stood up and decided to oppose the Communist system, I entered politics. We did not win the first elections, but were victorious in the second ones. As the newly-elected President at the time, I had to work hard with my team to change the country. We went through very difficult and painful reforms, but they were successful. In four years my country quadrupled its revenue per capita.
In parallel, however, there was a growth in pyramid schemes, which brought about a major crisis similar to today’s financial meltdown. This was a very difficult time for Albania because there had been a total legislative vacuum: No laws, no audits, and no supervisory reports. At first, the owners of the pyramid schemes sued in court, and the courts ruled in their favor because civil courts allow the borrowing of money with interest. However, we eventually managed to investigate the owners’ activities and succeeded in shutting down the pyramids. But of course, half or more of depositors’ money was missing by then. Some people thought that the money was used by the government in the budget, but this was not the case: Not a penny was used. I also stood against bailouts of depositors. As a result, we called elections, and I resigned and went into opposition. I then came back in power as Prime Minister.
Overcoming Problems of Crime and Corruption
There have been two major obstacles in the development of my nation. The first was organized crime. It became a very damaging factor that blocked our road to development. We then pledged zero tolerance on this issue. In 18 months, our law enforcement agency very professionally managed to dismantle 206 criminal organizations and gangs and to apprehend and put to justice more than 1,000 bosses and members of these organizations: Wherever they were—in Albania, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, or the United States—we tracked them down. Now criminality in my country is lower than the European Union average.
The second obstacle was corruption. It was like a cancer which could not be eradicated, and a permanent fight against it is vital. As part of our war on corruption, we shrank the size of the Albanian government. Within a short amount of time we eliminated 33% of the administration. Now Albania has an administration that amounts to half the cost per capita of that of any of our neighbors, including Macedonia. Since then, we have managed to keep the government small. As another anti-corruption measure, we put strong restrictions on the use of public money. This included reforming the means of transport for government members: In the old nomenklatura, all high officials were provided with a personal car. Now there are only 31 people, who are either heads of ministries or major institutions, with official plates and drivers. This, accompanied by a strong policy of penalization, helped us eliminate these excesses. In four years, we were able to recoup $5.2 billion USD more than previous governments in revenue. We owe this mostly to the fight against corruption. In addition, we have started to make use of digital procedures. In Albania now, we only use e-procurement and I think this increases the transparency of the process tremendously. My country is currently the only one with 100% e-procurement.
We are also working to create a friendly environment for foreign investment: We want businesses to have the lowest possible fiscal burden. I believe low taxes are the best stimulus for the economy, and we have now moved to a flat tax rate of 10%. In addition, we have eliminated dozens of tariffs or lowered them to one euro. This has had the additional benefit of simplifying our fiscal system from 26 national taxes to six. With the assistance of the Millennium Challenge Threshold Program which has supported some of our major programs against corruption, we have also streamlined the administration of business registration procedures. Two thirds of previously required licenses have been eliminated, and the remaining one third have been assembled into a greatly simplified “one-stop shop” process. It is much more efficient and the business climate has been much improved as a result.
More than anything else, however, our efforts to achieve NATO membership have been extremely beneficial. The Membership Action Plan became our roadmap and greatly motivated my government to implement a wide variety of reforms in order to meet targets for NATO entry. As I told the Council during the many times I went to Brussels, we understand that the process is a merit-based one. Accordingly, we proceeded with a large number of reforms, including very tough ones in our military. Your nations were very gracious and we are extremely grateful because on April 4, 2009, Albanians gained their greatest achievement since independence: NATO membership. This will bring many benefits to the people of Albania.
This has been possible in part due to the tremendous progress of my nation over the past 20 years. It is true that Albania is now a different nation: The nation which started out with an average monthly salary of $4 to $7 USD, now has an average monthly salary of $460 USD. The nation which started out with an economy in a state of total collapse has kept up a growth rate of 3.5% and has doubled exports this past year. It now has a fully liquid banking system, with a 60% ratio between deposits and credits, despite this having been one of the most difficult years for the world economy in recent history. But it was also your help, your solidarity, as well as your money and the money of your taxpayers that made a vital difference in helping my nation cut with the past, the bitter past.
THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE
Naturally, I remain committed to my initial ideals in my political life which were very simple: Universal suffrage and free speech. My government therefore did its very best to ensure a free and fair electoral process. We had elections on June 28, 2009 which were unique in the history of my country due to their use of totally new and modern technology. This included digital voter lists as well as digital biometric passports and ID cards. So that the opposition could be certain of the fairness of the elections, I decided to accept all opposition proposals and I was right to do so. My collaborators asked me, “Why are you doing this?” and I explained to them that, “The duty of government is to provide full security and assurances to the opposition. This is a duty.” We therefore went into these elections with many rules, regulations, and instructions for all parties to follow. In addition, every Commissioner and observer had the right of veto in the event that they suspected any electoral improprieties. What results did this electoral process produce? It produced a total unanimity in assessment because anything which might be construed as questionable was not accepted. After the election, the opposition was disheartened with the results and left for some months. But they came back and are now definitely very determined to do everything needed in order for us to work together. I remain deeply convinced that as a government, we have to give the best assurances possible to the opposition. This is a moral obligation and we will continue to abide by this principle.
Now, we are working hard on another major goal: EU integration. This year some very crucial decisions were taken with respect to Albania. After the elections, the EU ministers voted in favor of opening negotiations with Albania for candidate status. As part of the procedure, my government was asked to answer a series of 2,284 questions. We responded to all of them and sent the responses to the Commission, and currently we are waiting for the Commission’s assessment. On another positive note, in May the Council of EU Commissioners decided to recommend Albania for the removal of visa barriers. Many representatives from your countries came and visited Albania, and we sought to meet the highest standards possible. This also had the benefit of greatly motivating our country. We are very committed to pursuing the road to the EU.
Future Outlook for Kosovo and Macedonia
We are situated in a region which faced extraordinary difficulties in the past. However, a new chapter is now open for the Balkans, and we are trying to work together for our common European future. Of course, there are still problems, including in Bosnia. I fully support NATO’s decision to offer the Bosnian government the Membership Action Plan. It was very kind and helpful, and I am convinced that it will provide a strong incentive for Bosnian leaders and the Bosnian people to work towards NATO membership.
There were also problems in Macedonia last month. Those trying to incite tensions deserve to be punished under the law. It is undoubtedly their own personal cause that they are serving and has nothing to do with the Albanian national cause. The Albanian national cause in Macedonia is centered on promoting peace, stability, and the development of the country. We very much appreciate the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement, in which the Albanians are treated as equal citizens and their rights are fully respected. My government has excellent relations with its neighbors and we fully support the integrity of Macedonia. Keeping the existing borders is of fundamental importance since any attempt to modify the country’s borders could trigger a chain of unforeseen events.
ALBANIA’S FUTURE IN NATO
Albania is trying to do its duty in Afghanistan, in Bosnia, and in Georgia. The war in Afghanistan is of vital importance. We have contributed by sending two companies and will soon be sending another one in a combat mission. I also promised the NATO Secretary General a police unit for training Afghan police, and we are providing scholarships for 100 Afghan students and building eight schools there. Indeed, we are determined to make every possible effort in order to meet NATO’s expectations.