Europe's Youngest Premier In Albania

Ilir Meta, the new premier, takes an impartial line on Kosovo and promises quick results in the battle to restore order and root out corruption.

Europe's Youngest Premier In Albania

Ilir Meta, the new premier, takes an impartial line on Kosovo and promises quick results in the battle to restore order and root out corruption.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Ilir Meta, Albania's new Socialist prime minister, is at 30 Europe's youngest premier. He has promised to follow in his predecessor, Pandeli Majko's footsteps and continue the previous government's programme to create the conditions for integration into the European Union and NATO.

Meta, a founder of the Socialist youth group FRESH, emerged as the new premier following a compromise between the party's old guard and the younger generation, who have pushed for more political control during the last two years.

Majko resigned as prime minister in October following his defeat by Fatos Nano for the leadership of the ruling Socialist Party. Majko had replaced Nano as prime minister the previous year following an attempted coup by the opposition Democratic Party.

Relations between Nano and Majko soured when the latter met Berisha to discuss a student hunger strike and the Kosovo crisis. Nano spent four years in prison during Berisha's presidency and relations between the two men have been bitter ever since adding to the difficulties of a country struggling to make the transition from its communist past.

An economics graduate and amateur weightlifter, Meta has kept almost intact the cabinet he inherited from Majko. Only four ministers have been replaced but history was made with the appointment of a woman, Makbule Ceco, to the post of deputy prime minister.

"This government is not the product of a crisis, but a continuation of Majko's government," Meta said. He added that the government would maintain contacts with the opposition Democratic Party of former President Sali Berisha, who was re-elected as party leader in late September.

Meta, who unlike Nano and Berisha has no links to the old Communist era, has insisted he would "remain open to dialogue" with the opposition Democrats "not because of any personal convictions but because of constitutional obligations".

Fierce political feuds, burgeoning organised crime and an almost total lack of inward investment have plagued Albania since the collapse of the old regime in 1990. An anti-government uprising in 1997 saw the police and army collapse and widespread looting of over a million weapons.

In 1998 the assassination of a leading Democratic Party politician, Azem Hajdari, provoked an attempted coup.

When war broke out in neighbouring Kosovo - a region with a 90 per cent ethnic Albanian population - Majko steered a careful middle course between nationalist demands for Albanian involvement and western demands for Albania to keep out of the conflict.

With the influx of some 500,000 ethnic Albanian refugees, it was Meta who took on the task of administering the government's response to the crisis in Albania.

Unlike his predecessors Meta has avoided favouring any particular political group in Kosovo and is therefore well placed to act as a link between the Albanian and Kosovar Albanian leaders.

Meta has said he expects to develop strong links with all political groups in Kosovo but that "it is up to the Kosovo people to decide in elections who is to govern them". Meta said his government would support efforts to secure the right of the Kosovo Albanian people to self-determination.

Albania desperately needs foreign investment but the country's divisive politics, soaring crime rates and rampant corruption continue to make Albania acutely unstable and unappealing to foreign capital. Western governments have made it clear Albania needs stability and they are keen to see Majko's policies continue.

An IMF mission has called for faster privatisation in banking and other strategic sectors and the implementation of measures to improve efficiency in the civil service, including higher salaries.

Majko, who has described Meta as "the kind of politician who takes the bull by the horns . . . [and] never lets go", failed to tackle corruption and organised smuggling, complaining that political infighting within his own party prevented him from tackling such problems.

Ilir Meta has much in common with his predecessor - they are both young and western-leaning. But foreign observers have welcomed the arrival of a man perceived to be cooler headed and more pragmatic. Meta is, however, more under the sway of Fatos Nano, the ex-communist leader of the ruling ex-communist Socialist Party.

Western governments remain concerned at the profound political divide separating the two party leaders, Nano and Berisha, and fear for the future development of democracy in the country.

Albania's new prime minister has much to do to bridge that divide and hold civil society together. Meta however, appears undaunted and has promised to continue Majko's reform process and pull Albania out of the crises that have engulfed her since the collapse of Communism.

Albania, Kosovo
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