March 15 marked the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of ties between the United States and Albania.
Commemorating the occasion, U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim noted that Albania, once known as the “North Korea of Europe,” has been transformed into “a steadfast ally, a partner, and a dear friend of the United States.”
Kim further noted that “over the years, we have worked together on a range of many shared goals and priorities, including fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, democratization, European security, and expanding transatlantic ties.”
The United States established diplomatic relations with Albania in 1922, but ties were broken in 1939 due to Albania’s occupation by Italy and Germany during World War II. Following the collapse of communism in 1991, bilateral diplomatic relations were reestablished.
Over the past three decades, Albania has made measurable—though still limited—progress to embrace democracy and modernize its economy with more free market-driven policies. Washington’s foreign policymakers’ interactions with Albania have focused on enhancing the country’s democratic institutions and rule of law while integrating the country into Euro-Atlantic structures.
More recently, Albania has joined with the U.S. in rejecting Chinese investment in things like 5G network development.
Achieving European Union membership has been Albania’s top foreign-policy priority, and a list of prerequisites are already in place, particularly related to tackling crime and corruption, and achieving progress on judicial and electoral reform.
According to The Heritage Foundation’s recently published 2021 Index of Economic Freedom, which measures economic governance and entrepreneurial competitiveness of countries around the globe, Albania’s economic freedom rating is 65.2 out of 100.
That ranks Albania as 66th in the world out of 178 nations rated. Its overall score slightly decreased, by 1.7 points, from the country’s highest-ever economic freedom score last year, primarily due to regression on property rights and judicial effectiveness.
Despite relatively strong economic growth rates over the past two decades prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Albania’s gross domestic product per capita is still well below the EU average and less than half that of the newest EU member states.
From a practical engagement perspective, Washington cannot give Albania the political will needed to further upgrade its economy according to free market principles. It can, however, engage actively to help Albania further integrate into world markets and work with the Albanians on critical issues of common concern.
The western Balkan nation’s upcoming April 25 parliamentary elections will be an important milestone, where the country can opt for a pathway toward greater economic freedom, while reducing corruption and demonstrating to the international community its progress in ensuring election integrity.
While the future success of Albania will rest in large part on the shoulders of Albanians themselves, Washington’s continuing strategic support and encouragement for more decisive reforms remain essential for ensuring the country’s ongoing development as a reliable partner of the U.S. in a critical region of the world.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.