The European Commission has recommended opening EU accession talks with Albania.
Here are some facts about the poor Balkan state whose inhabitants are deeply tied to Europe, despite being separated from it for centuries during the Ottoman occupation and later communist dictatorship:
– Mercedes, EU fans –
Whether brand new or dilapidated, Mercedes cars are unquestionably Albania’s national vehicle, accounting for 40 percent of the country’s cars, according to transport officials.
Two flags are omnipresent throughout the country: the national red and black flag of a double-headed eagle, and that of the European Union.
Isolated from the rest of the world during the communist period, “Albanians are obsessed with Europe. Europe is for them a pathological love but also a real model,” said the country’s most famous writer, Ismail Kadare.
– Tourism potential –
With its Adriatic coastline, legendary Accursed Mountains and winding rivers, Albania is rich in natural beauty for visitors, who can also explore ancient archeological sites, Ottoman history and communist bunkers turned into beach cafes.
Culinary highlights range from frogs’ legs to game and seafood, including date mussels that are harvested with dynamite or hammers and, in theory at least, banned from dinner plates.
But Albania’s tourism potential is under-exploited owing to limited accommodation options, poor infrastructure and an insufficient road network in mountainous regions.
The country of 2.9 million people attracted 4.6 million visitors in 2016, according to the tourism ministry. The World Bank supports tourism projects, notably in the south, considered the region with most potential.
– Wave of emigrants –
According to the local Monitor newspaper, Albania has one the highest emigration levels in the world, with a diaspora of around 1.2 million people.
They are propelled to leave by some of the lowest living standards in Europe, an average gross salary of around 355 euros ($440) a month and unemployment affecting almost one in three young people, according to the national Institute of Statistics (INSTAT).
In the early 1990s, Albania was the youngest country in Europe with an average age of 28. It is now 37, INSTAT says.
Along with the huge number of emigrants, a decreasing fertility rate has contributed to the trend.
– Cannabis and corruption –
Albania is the largest exporter of cannabis herb to the EU, notably Italy, according to repeated Europol reports. This trade represents a third of the value of country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to western diplomatic sources. Tirana claims to be winning that battle.
The huge amounts at stake feed corruption. The EU insists that Albania reform its judiciary and penal system: after the introduction of a system to check the past and property of judges, a recent law requires dismissal of all police officers suspected of corruption and links with organised crime.
– Fading customs –
Albania is home to the fading tradition of “blood feuds”, trapping families in the country’s north in a cycle of revenge regulated by a medieval code of honour, the “Kanun” of Lek Dukagjini, a 15th-century nobleman.
Dozens of people are still in hiding in Albania for fear of being targets of a vendetta, but the figure is decreasing.
Another vanishing tradition is that of “sworn virgins”. These are women who, either because their were the only child of their parents or refused to marry, chose to live like men and are treated as such in a very patriarchal society.
Only a handful of them remain today.