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Vladislav Kurbatskiy

Third Secretary, RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Albania, once a closed, isolated country standing apart from the rest of the socialist camp, has traveled a hard road from an autarky to an open market economy. Today it experiences increasing pressure from its current allies - the United States and the European Union-- and is seriously thinking about returning to its "old friends” - China and Russia.

Albania, once a closed, isolated country standing apart from the rest of the socialist camp, has traveled a hard road from an autarky to an open market economy. Today it experiences an increasing pressure from its current allies -- the United States and the European Union-- and is seriously thinking about returning to its "old friends” - China and Russia.

Albania, which has transformed itself in recent history from a socialist country into a developing democracy, experiencing transition shocks similar by nature to those in the post-Soviet Russia, began to actively seek new allies and protectors. The first to extend a "helping hand" at the time were the U.S. and the EU, which readily took the former socialist country under their wing. However, tough EU regulations with respect to "democratic" reforms Albania was expected to carry out, crisis of the euro zone and the dollar instability make Albania think about the search for new potential economic partners. In this situation the official Tirana has come up with the idea to resume an active cooperation with China and Russia. And while Beijing has eagerly entered the Albanian market (China got control of a sizable chunk of copper production), Russia is in no hurry to invest into Albania. The world practice suggests that new emerging markets do not remain empty for long. Will Russia be able to take advantage of Albanian economic potential, however small, and open up for itself a new market? This question must get the answer without delay.

The socialist past

Albania withdrew from the socialist bloc long before the rest of its members. The severance of relations in late 1961 was triggered by several factors. First, after Stalin's death the Soviet Union took the course towards the improvement of its relations with Tito who unabashedly spoke about the exceptional role of Yugoslavia in the Balkans. This certainly made the Albanian leader E. Hoxha think hard. Second, Albanian leaders were seriously concerned about the methods with which the Soviet Union dealt with the events in Hungary in 1956. It became clear in which way the Soviet Union could contain the sovereignty of "a fraternal socialist country."

However, tough EU regulations with respect to "democratic" reforms Albania was expected to carry out, crisis of the euro zone and the dollar instability make Albania think about the search for new potential economic partners.

E.Hoxha, Albania's ambitious leader could not put up with the interference in the internal affairs of his country. He set out to systematically criticize the “revisionist regime” of Nikita Khrushchev, and in December 1961 the diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken. The pretext was Khrushchev’s frivolous utterances during his visit to Albania in 1959 when he described his vision of Albania’s role in the system of socialist countries as a “common socialist health resort with a naval base.” He ignored the fact that it would have necessitated the demolition of cultural monuments of antiquity and reshaping the coastline.

It was then that China, unwilling to miss a chance of getting a European foothold, started its active “courtship” of Albania. As a result of getting Beijing’s loan of $ 125 million for the development of heavy industry Albania withdrew from the CMEA membership in 1962. Despite the forecasts the shift away from the Soviet Union wreaked havoc on Albanian economy, as the USSR was then its main economic partner. (Friendship between Albania and the Soviet Union sprouted after the Second World War when Moscow staved off famine in this poor Balkan country). Huge financial assistance, construction of industrial enterprises and hydropower plants in the country, which the Albanians are now actively developing --all that stopped overnight. Beijing, taking advantage of the deepening chasm in relations between the "former friends", increased funding and sent its advisers to Albania. What finally strengthened the Albanian leaders’ conviction of the wisdom of their choice of a new ally were the events of the "Prague Spring", after which Tirana broke completely with the Soviet Union withdrawal from the Organization of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. However, because of Hoxha’s whim this "Chinese" idyll did not last long - in 1978 began a "stagnant" era of Albanian autarky.

Albania in the 1990s

In the early 1990s Albania experienced the same systemic crisis as Russia. The destruction of the socialist system was painful, especially after nearly twenty years of autarky. Few people know that the Albanian leadership whose memories of the good old days when the Soviet Union had restored the country from the ruins were still fresh in their minds repeatedly appealed to Russia for help and support during its difficult transitional period. It was the time when Albanians were ready to go to any lengths in order not to be left alone. However, Moscow was too preoccupied with its own affairs. Albanians were forced to seek help in the West, which readily agreed to provide assistance and later drew Albania in its orbit. In 2009, Albania became a member of NATO.

The present state of relations between Russia and Albania

Nowadays relations between Russia and Albania are improving rapidly, in so far as it is possible given the country's Western orientation and NATO membership. As it has already been noted Albania is now in dire need of new potential partners. This is due to the pressure from the EU, which demands from the Albanians immediate implementation of "democratic" reforms and criticizes it for the situation after the 2009 parliamentary elections. Also, the US continues to exert pressure on Albania: Albanians spend less on defense than it has been prescribed by the alliance; besides, the U.S. isn’t happy with the state of Albanian internal affairs. All this makes Tirana look for partners willing to collaborate with it on equal terms. The Albanian leaders are turning to the east for rapprochement with their "old friends" - China and Russia.

Relations with Beijing suddenly blossomed in 2009 when Vice-Premier of China’s State Council visited Albania. The visit of the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs to Tirana in summer 2011 strengthened the relations still further. In 2009-2011 trade between Albania and China has almost doubled, reaching the level of $ 250 million, modest though it is, with the Albanian exports increasing fivefold.

The Chinese experience based on old friendship is of great importance for the development of Russian-Albanian contacts, given that the Albanian leadership is aware of the Russian potential. However, there are some nuances. Albanian political elite has all the time to reckon with the West and its alliance partners, which constrains "room for maneuver" for the Albanian business in its relations with Russian companies. But this does not mean that there are no opportunities for improving economic cooperation and interaction, based on pragmatic interests of both countries. Albania is a relatively small market, even for Russian medium-sized companies (although this could be used as an advantage for the development of our small enterprises).

The base for building multi-faceted co-operation is already in place. Cultural links are actively developing; there are organized tours of culture creators groups and prominent figures in the field of art of both countries. In September 2011 in Albania there were held “Days of Russian Spiritual Culture” which enjoyed tremendous success, causing great interest among the Albanian public with its nostalgic "hunger" for Russian art. Political contacts, too, have become more frequent: there was a visit of K. Kosachev, chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, while the head of Albanian parliament J. Topal visited Moscow. Unfortunately, so far the economic sphere has not been able to boast similar achievements.

Meanwhile there is much room for cooperation in this area. Albania is rather rich in mineral resources (chrome - 32 million tons; copper - 53 million tons; nickel - 220 million tons [1]). It was Soviet specialists who had explored them. The Albanian government is ready to grant concessions for the existing mines on favorable terms to any company interested in their development.

Albania is the richest water resource country in the Balkans One hundred fifty eight rivers flowing into the Adriatic Sea discharge 1308 m3/s. of water, which is a huge amount. The first hydropower plants in Albania were built by Soviet engineers. The Albanian Ministry of Economy, Trade and Energy announced a tender on developing energy capability of Albanian rivers, construction of new and renovation of existing hydropower plants. Besides, Albania is one of the few countries that are not yet covered by a pipeline system. And, of course, recreational resources are impressive: the coastline is over 400 km. European and Chinese companies have already started the development of all these natural resources of Albania. Isn’t the right time for the Russian business community to start looking at the Albanian market with interest?

In addition to economic opportunities, Albania has a significant political potential in the area. Albania has the fourth largest population in the Balkans, which tends to increase. The "Albanian factor" has to be reckoned with. All this, along with nostalgic memories of the former strong friendship and the development of economic relations could yield good results, given a thoughtful approach to modern Albania.

1. Strategjia e zhvillimit te industrise minerare bazuar ne politikat rajonale per menaxhimin me efektivitet te burimeve minerale ekzistuese dhe atyre qe do te zbulohen per nje periudhe 15 vjecare. Tirane, Maj 2006.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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