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.