Friday, June 21, 2013

Tony Blair ready to answer Albania's call

Socialist frontrunner in weekend election lines up British former PM to advise on modernisation and EU membership 
Tony Blair in Albania
Tony Blair, then prime minister, with his Albanian counterpart, Pandeli Majko, during a visit to Albania in May 1999. His role in protecting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo increased his popularity in the region. Photograph: Reuters Photographer / Reuters/Reuters
Tony Blair is expected to pop up in more unfamiliar territory after this weekend if, as expected, Albania's Socialist party emerges victorious in Sunday's elections.
The Albanian opposition has lined up Blair to offer advice on reshaping the government in the rough and tumble world of Balkans politics.
The Socialist party leader, Edi Rama, met Blair at the former prime minister's office in Mayfair last month. A formal contract has not been drawn up, but Rama expects Blair will advise on modernisation and reform to kickstart the impoverished country's stalled bid for European Union membership. Video footage of the meeting shows a smiling Blair telling Rama: "I will be very happy to help you, I am very interested in your country."
Rama, a former mayor of the capital, Tirana, said: "If we win, we will be very happy to work with [Blair] and to listen to him and to make the best out of his advice on reshaping the government and reshaping politics and policies here in Albania. Our party is very much inspired by and connected to the vision and way of thinking about things of New Labour and Tony Blair."
Blair, whose Government Advisory Practice has similar agreements in Colombia and Brazil, "was very clear in saying he wants to help and I trust him", Rama added.
In a seemingly unconnected move, Blair's former communications director Alastair Campbell has also been in Albania giving advice on election strategy to the Socialist party, which is ahead in opinion polls and is expected to return to power for the first time since 2005. Campbell said he had been to Albania "several times in the last year or so". "I've just been giving some friendly advice," he added.
"Edi [Rama] looks on New Labour as one of the success stories of the centre-left in Europe of our lifetime," Campbell said. "It's interesting how, overseas, New Labour is seen as one of the most successful political projects ever."
Blair remains a very popular figure in the region for his role in protecting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by orchestrating the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
A spokesperson for Blair described his interest in Albania as "genuine". "As was accurately reported on Albanian TV, Mr Rama said that if he became prime minister, he would like Mr Blair's advice on how to modernise government and implement a reform agenda. Mr Blair said that he would be happy to help, as both Albania and the region mean a huge amount to him, with the conflict in Kosovo having been an important period in his premiership," the spokesperson said.
But the impact of Tony Blair and New Labour on outcome of Sunday's vote is likely to be minimal, according to Lutfi Dervishi, executive director of Transparency International Albania.
"Tony Blair is popular down here thanks to the war in Kosovo but I don't think it will make much impact because over our electoral history victories have been decided on the domestic ground, so it is the local dynamic which will be the key factor."
Albania's communist regime fell in 1991. Since then, elections have often been marred by violence, intimidation and vote-rigging. After the last vote, in 2009, the Socialists boycotted parliament for 18 months, accusing Sali Berisha, the prime minister and Democratic party leader and onetime personal physician to the dictator Enver Hoxha, of electoral fraud.
The current campaign has been peaceful so far but reports of vote-buying and irregularities in the registration process appear frequently in the media.
Rama is widely expected to defeat Berisha, who has dominated political life over two decades. A recent poll gave Rama's alliance 50% of the national vote, seven points clear of Berisha's coalition.

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