HAJMEL, Albania — Wine production has a long history in the northern region of Zadrima: The first recorded planting of its signature grape Kallmet took place in 1555.
Today, rows of well-tended vines filling the neat fields around this small village bask under a hot sun. It feels as if nothing has changed for centuries.
But appearances are deceptive.
Under the old hard-line Communist regime, the authorities ordered these lush vineyards 45 miles from the capital Tirana be ripped up for planting tobacco and wheat.
After the Communists were toppled in 1991, huge collective farms were split into hundreds of thousands of tiny individual holdings. But they have struggled under Albania’s ineffective, corruption-addled politics.
Last week, however, Albania’s Socialist opposition led by the colorful former Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, ousting the government of Prime Minister Berisha, who had dominated politics for two decades.
That gave people here high hopes that one of Europe’s poorest countries may finally change its ways and put itself on a path toward coveted European Union membership.
Among them is Zef Pashuku. A farmer under dictator Enver Hoxha, he emigrated to Greece before returning in 2000 to take over the family farm.
He quickly realized its success would depend on something that still makes Albanians wary these two decades since the communist collapse: going into business with his neighbors.
The farms are too small to make it on their own, but “if we join together, we can compete,” he says. That led Pashuku to establish Albania’s first post-communist cooperative farm in 2005, with the help from the British charity Oxfam.
Now he hopes Tirana’s new government and the promise of kick-starting a stalled drive toward EU accession will be a boon for his and other fledgling cooperatives.
With a membership of around 60 farmers across three villages, the Zadrima collective specializes in wine and oil olive sold locally and internationally.
Sharing equipment enables farms to maximize productivity, Pashuku says, liberally topping up his interviewer’s glass of 2011 vintage Kallmet, which retails at around $4 a bottle.
Although cooperatives make sense here, where the average income is the equivalent of $330 a month, convincing people of their value has been difficult.
“A few years ago, people used to say that sounds like communism,” says Pashuku’s son Jurgen, who is studying agricultural economics at Tirana University and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps. That’s now changing, he adds.
Agriculture is important here.
It contributes a quarter of GDP to Albania’s struggling economy, according to official statistics. And with almost 50 percent of the population of 2.8 million living in rural areas, encouraging small-scale farmers to form cooperatives is vital, says Geron Kamberi of Quodev, a social enterprise program in Tirana that’s the successor to Oxfam’s mission in Albania.
“Working together as a single unit is really important,” he says.
However, changing mindsets will be only part of the task if new ways of cooperation are to flourish. The government, which passed a new law on cooperatives only recently, has been slow to encourage collaboration.
Last week’s elections made news when a political activist was shot dead in Lac, near Zadrima, as polls opened. Still, the vote was by far the most peaceful since Albania emerged from Communism.
Conceding defeat on Wednesday, Prime Minister Berisha stepped down as leader of the Democratic Party — the first smooth change of power in the divisive, often violent world of Albanian politics.
Although the country has been a NATO member since 2009, political strife following the previous elections the same year has suspended EU hopes. Last year, the European Commission said fair and democratic elections this time around were a sine qua non for granting the country candidate status.
The EC could now recommend Albania for candidate status as early as December, which would bring significant funds, and, many believe, impetus for reform.
There’s much to be done. Endemic corruption has hollowed out institutions. Bribes are common, particularly in higher education. Few believe that the legal system is fair and transparent. And jobs are nearly impossible to find without money and connections.
“Joining the European Union is our last hope,” Jurgen Pashuku says, taking time out from tending vineyards at the farm at Hajmel. “Even if we know it’s a risk.”
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Paradoxically, the ongoing euro zone crisis has helped Albanian farmers. Many of those who emigrated to nearby Greece and Italy are now coming home, bringing new expertise. Cooperatives have recently opened in Saranda in the south, and near the northern city of Shkodra.
For Zef Pashuku, the contrast with life under Communism already couldn’t be starker. “Before I didn’t have a shirt to wear and this field was abandoned,” he says. “Now everything is changing.”