It can seem naive in retrospect, but there once was hope that fresh young faces might bring something new to Albanian politics. These days, as political parties come to blows ahead of elections scheduled for June, and as Albanians are once again treated to the wretched spectacle of politics-as-a-form-of-civil war, it might be worthwhile to reflect on why a younger generation has failed to produce substantive change.
First of all, the newer entries in national politics have failed to assert themselves vis-à-vis the establishment, preferring to submit to the existing power structure. They have generally agreed to do the dirty work – lying in public, whenever party leaders have demanded it, for example – which has won them favor with their bosses, but has also kept them captive within existing power dynamics. They have emerged as willing participants to be used and discarded on a whim.
Secondly, a younger generation has failed to soften the tone of political squabbles (as some may have hoped). Indeed, young politicos (both in terms of their age, and in terms of their career span) are often among the most abusive speakers in public. They have proven to be hardline defenders of their bosses, and they have not shied away from viciously denigrating their opponents. Their Western university degrees, which they have heavily marketed, have made them seem above the lure of tribal politics. But they have hardly been immune. Indeed, one might say that the veneer of Westernization, alongside an enduring cult of strongmen, has added to an already toxic political scene.
Finally, a younger generation has generally failed to capitalize on the single biggest advantage it has had – the ability to put to good use the latest communication technologies. They have generally used social media as an old-fashioned propaganda machine, turning Facebook and Twitter pages into top-down amplifiers of the party line. The political left has been particularly good at doing this, whereas the largest party of the opposition has been disastrous.
Such a picture admittedly generalizes, and one might reasonably take issue with it, pointing out, for example, that it is not easy for new actors to establish themselves within rigid party structures. One needs time to do so.
But how much time? Some of these individuals have been in politics for anywhere between five and ten years – and some of them for much longer. That they are even thought of as “young politicians” merely serves to illustrate politics in a country where party leaders almost universally prefer to die in office rather than resign. Some, moreover, have already served as ministers, mayors, or high-level administrators. It cannot be said that they have not had the chance or the opportunity to build their own political profile.
More convincing is the argument that the younger actors, and especially those who have managed to survive in the gruesome extreme sport of Albanian politics, have not had the desire or the ability to forge their own path. Therefore, on the verge of these elections, the surprise is not that Albanian political parties are yet again knee-deep in a self-manufactured crisis. (The big story would have been if Albanian parties had managed to pull off semi-normal elections.)
What’s striking, instead, is the fact that two of the current major political figures got their start precisely by rebelling within the older socialist establishment—and how there seems to be little desire or intention to rebel within today’s younger contenders. This needs to be explained.
It was the Democratic Party, let us recall, that heavily promoted “new faces” in politics with the so-called KOP (Komiteti i Orientimit të Politikave) ahead of the 2005 elections. More than a decade later, what has been the legacy of that move? The so-called liberal-democrats promised to inject ideology into the small-minded Albanian politics, but they mostly implicated themselves in the vicious battle for appointments and profitable government contracts. Others did not dare or care to recognize – if they had looked beyond the immediate electoral victory—the need for a substantially reformed party.
At most, “the younger faces” of Albanian politics have tried to capitalize on the latest developments in American politics. Thus, in 2008, elements on the left pathetically tried to take advantage of “the Obama moment.” Equally ridiculuous is the more recent attempt, from today’s comatose opposition, to capitalize on “the Trump moment” – as if the half-baked anti-Soros ramblings of an amateurish gaggle in the Balkans might reliably lead to power.
So here we are: An opposition rightly concerned about the possibility of fair elections but wilfully inching closer to self-destruction, and a majority delirious in its self-denial. To be sure, this is not new: Albanian parties have long functioned as parasitic structures, primarily organized around the benefits of denying power to internal alternatives. They have also grown by rewarding mediocrity, especially among the young, which might help explain the rise of a political generation fiercely committed to the party line. As exhausted as many Albanians might appear with the political establishment as it now exists, and the promise of a permanent crisis, even more alarming is the lack of alternatives within this younger generation.