EU dampens Albanian optimism on accession process

EU dampens Albanian optimism on accession process

Albanian Foreign Minister Edmond Haxhinasto said Tuesday he believes his country can still be named a candidate for European Union accession this year, even as EU officials warned again that the country's political stalemate was threatening the process, reported dpa.

"As positive as I am, I believe that this is going to happen before the end of this year," Haxhinasto told reporters in Brussels following a regular meeting on Albania's progress towards membership.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, however, said he remains concerned about the political situation in the Balkan country, the "urgent" need for reforms and "the missed opportunity to make substantial progress" down the EU path amid a contentious election.

The May local poll saw official results declare Democrat Lulzim Basha the winner in the mayoral race in the capital, Tirana, over incumbent and Socialist opposition leader Edi Rama, with a margin of just 81 votes.

Preliminary results had shown Rama ahead by less than a dozen votes. The election commission then added ballots it had found in boxes gone astray, leading to criticism by officials from the EU and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE, which deployed some 340 observers for the Albanian election, is expected to issue its highly anticipated final report on the poll this month. The EU is then due to consider whether to grant Albania candidate status in October.

Haxhinasto said he reiterated on Tuesday that his government is willing "as it was in the past, as it was before the election, as it is now, to engage in an all-inclusive process for electoral reform."

"The elections are already a closed chapter and we have to draw lessons and improve the legal framework for the future," he added.

But the poll was just the latest development in a deep political crisis that has gripped Albania since Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party won parliamentary elections more than two years ago.

The official result had been delayed for weeks then too, leading to Berisha's declaration of a razor-thin victory and a subsequent boycott of the parliament by the opposition.

The hostility between the authorities and the opposition exploded into riots in January, with four people killed after security forces opened fire on a crowd storming a government building.

An end to the deadlock is not in sight, with - just a day before the Brussels talks - Socialist officials in the Tirana municipal administration resigning in protest at the inauguration of Basha.

Last week, the opposition also rejected a call for "round table" discussions on electoral reform with the Democrats.

"We cannot have dialogue with a government which won elections with stolen votes," Rama had said, triggering an angry response from Berisha, who accused his rival of "blocking reforms."

Fule warned that Albanian politicians have yet to prove that they are ready to "put the country's interest ahead of party agendas" as part of their pursuit of EU membership.

"I don't know of any country since Britain joined in '73 that entered into the EU divided. Please take this lesson very seriously," noted Polish European Affairs Minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

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