Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Albanian communist government, Albania continues to experience the growing pains of a democratic transition. Throughout the years, the presence of a strong and active civil society has been a key factor in the democratization of Albania. Yet, civil society in Albania has continued to struggle to maintain their significance as advocates for citizens’ concerns.
Historically, civil society in the Balkans has been at the center of progressive change; dozens of prominent activists in the region have used civil society as a springboard for political careers. However, their entry into politics has proven to be controversial, at times even weakening or detrimental to the organizations left behind. These incidents have also triggered a broader debate about the intersection of politics, civil society and European aid in the region. Still, others argue these cases show the vitality of civil society, validating its influence and its successful penetration into politics.
Nonetheless, the cases of using civil society as a catalyst to push political agendas have shaken many citizens’ belief in civil-society initiatives. This consequently creates the opportunity for those against civil society to disenfranchise and disenable productive civil society spaces. In addition, the nuances of the bureaucratic legal and regulatory frameworks have been affecting civil society’s development and operation in the country. As a result, needed reforms and democratization have been slow to unfold within this political dynamic.
This has yet to stop Partners Albania’s efforts to address the most pressing issues for civil society development and citizen participation. Partners Albania has developed new frameworks that contribute to increased cooperation between civil society actors, and both local and national governments. By promoting new legislation that legitimizes and sanctions citizen participation processes, and by utilizing participatory methods to implement current policies, Partners Albania has made strides to integrate change and conflict management in a meaningful way. Their methods have encouraged new models of participatory governance and cooperative planning.
Regardless of the corrupt use of civil society by a few individuals or debased policies, civil society is recognized as an indispensable social partner and will continue to be an integral part of the decision-making process in the country. Given the importance of civil society participation, the Albanian government has incorporated a yearly national conference that addresses civil society concerns, entitled “Social Partners – Time for Action.”
Civil Society Milestones
To ensure action and progress after the conference, Partners Albania led the “Enabling Environment for Civil Society” Working Group; an assembly of NGO leaders and civil society experts that were in close cooperation with the Prime Minister’s office. Together with Parliament, the group engaged in a joint process to adapt the necessary strategic documents and national mechanisms for State and civil society partnerships.
The establishment of this cooperative approach between the NGO sector and the government shows that despite their differences, it is possible to develop long-term dialogue with state bodies. As a result of this constructive dialogue, several policies and developments were achieved to advance civil society’s impact:
- Adoption of the first charter that recognized and established concrete commitments by the Albanian Parliament entitled, “Recognition and Strengthening of Civil Society’s Role in the Democratic Development Process.” The charter was the first documentation to legalize principles of cooperation and to establish accountability for both civil society and Parliament;
- Preparation of a first draft law for the establishment of the National Council for Civil Society, an independent advisory body to the Council of Ministers. The establishment of this council will guarantee civil society organizations’ equal representation and participation in the discussion and decision-making processes within state policies. The council will now have the opportunity to encourage sustainable development of civil society in the country;
- Adoption of the Law 92/2014 — Value Added Tax in the Republic of Albania, which introduces a series of important, fiscal changes for the improved treatment of civil society organizations, providing clarity for the economic activity of non-profits.
Bridging Politics and Civil Society
Most people in the Balkans regard political leaders as synonymous with greed and incompetence; civil society therefore is playing a vital role for Albanian citizens’ oversight and involvement in government decisions. Overall, civil society groups such as NGOs are seen as an important counterbalance to bad government, representing the needs of the people to those in power. In this sense civil society groups have a political purpose; however, civil society organizations’ credibility often stems from their distance from political parties. Likewise, politicians can be criticized for appearing to align themselves with some in the civil society sector too openly.
In Albania the roles of politics, government and civil society are often seen as black and white. However, in order for there to be a thriving and prosperous Albania, civil society must be able to work with political leaders and government officials outside of any one political agenda. Partners Albania is demonstrating that this kind of collaboration is possible and can produce better results. The “Enabling Environment for Civil Society” Working Group has produced concrete policies through a truly participatory process. Ultimately, it will help civil society organizations to consolidate as they continue to play their needed role in a more open and democratic Albania.
Although Partners Albania has helped to establish noteworthy advancements for civil society, there is still much work to be done. NGOs need to continue to be vigilant when it comes to monitoring institutions and the enforcement of new laws that support civil society’s role in a democratic society. Under the auspices of the Working Group, Parliament will also continue to monitor and measure the progress of civil society’s enabling environment yearly by revising and setting new objectives to improve the sector. Together with other local NGOs, Partners Albania is committed to fostering this collaborative space for ongoing feedback and improvement of the legal framework, and to help oversee the proper implementation of the current laws.