Albania: First and Last, Always!

Sali Berisha’s move to legalize gay marriage might not be so controversial, after all.

By Gjergj Erebara, Balkaninsight

To many foreigners Albania is still an exotic place, filled with ancient traditions like blood feuds and sworn virgins, which seem to come alive from a Victorian-era travel diary. Its claim to glory also includes having as a leader one of the few former communists still holding power in the Eastern bloc, more than two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and yes, being one of Europe’s roughest corners.

However, despite the unglamorous coverage it gets for being last in many things it is also a country that surprisingly comes first in some others. For example in 1920 it approved women’s suffrage and right to divorce, earlier than its Balkan neighbours. It was also the first country in the world to recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Now it is not the first, but anyway, only the fourth country in Europe to want to give legal status to same-sex couples. Considering that such proposal is being pushed forward by the conservative Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, a former communist turned fervent nationalist, then turned free-market champion, in itself it’s staggering.

In 2005, Berisha returned to power on a liberal platform, after eight tumultuous years in opposition. His government made Albania the first European country to implement a flat tax on personal income.

Now Berisha wants to be champion of something else, gay rights, and not only to fight discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in Albania’s often too “proud and macho heterosexual society”. He goes further in proposing to assign the community marriage rights.

Although Berisha’s move may come as a surprise to many, it should not. The drastic changes in the political orientation of Mr Berisha, are, in fact, based on the lessons drawn from Albania’s long history. A country situated in a border zone between different cultures and empires, it has learned by suffering how to cope with new realities.

In Albanian newspapers the news that the Prime Minister personally supported gay marriage was immediately justified as something the country needed in order to integrate itself into the European Union, a goal that, for the 99 per cent of Albanians that support it, means nothing more than visa liberalization and freedom of movement.

If pro-government newspaper assigned the news second or third place in their front pages, in an attempt to downplay its significance a little, opposition newspapers made every effort to push into the public consciousness headlines in which the words “Berisha” and “homosexuality” were intertwined.

That same Berisha, in an attempt to appeal to conservative family values, had made every effort to present opposition leaders as homosexual deviants during the recent electoral campaign.

So, perhaps Albania will approve gay marriage this year. It will probably easily endorse it as it has endorsed before communism, liberalism, environmentalism, globalism or every other kind of ideology that has come in its path.

But, does this mean the end of the stigma that homosexuality holds in the Albanian society. Most likely not.

So, I am sorry but I can’t see Berisha’s support for gay marriage as a symbol of Albanian openness but rather as a symbol of Albanian national pragmatism, or more exactly, as a sign that the majority of the people in this country have long stopped in believing in anything.


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