Leading Small Countries to Big Futures. Reflections from the edges of Europe.

I have recently returned from visiting two European countries in quick succession. The first, Scotland, is in the far North West of Europe, and has much in common with Norway and Iceland, while the other, Albania, is in the South East of the continent, and has more in common with Greece and Serbia. Two countries in stark contrast to one another in so many ways, but also with many intriguing parallels. Both are proud countries with long and rich histories, of similar relative size and population, both with rich energy reserves not yet fully explored and exploited, and both at a cross-roads in their respective journeys. The contrasts, on the other hand, are stark.

Albania is a country which has remained fiercely independent through turbulent times. When former Yugoslavia tried to annex the country, it formed alliances first with Russia and later with China, but gave up on both of these super-powers to create an isolationist state. Scotland on the other hand gave up its independence in the early 1700s, joining a Union with England, Wales & Northern Ireland to form today’s United Kingdom.

Albania is currently seeking to come in from the cold with a long term plan to join the EU. It has a long way to go to satisfy the many conditions required, even to become a ‘candidate state’. There are massive improvements required on the economy, human rights, open & transparent democratic elections, infrastructure, and more.  Scotland, meanwhile, has a proud and reputable tradition in its standards of education and democracy, as well as in its finance and legal systems. It is currently engaged in a national and UK-wide debate on whether its future is best served as an independent state once again, or to continue as part of a union within the United Kingdom.

What particularly fascinates me about these countries, and the significance of their respective moments in history, is how their Leadership will choose to navigate the challenges that will be thrown at them, and how they will communicate the key messages that they believe will bring people with them.

Albania, since being free of the stranglehold of communism and isolationism, has rapidly become a country of massive contrasts and disparity. Top of the range German and Japanese cars share the (under-developed) roads with donkeys and hand-pulled carts. The gap between rich and poor is enormous and appears to be widening. The ‘ruling class’ is accused of corruption, and that includes the current Leader, Sali Berisha. Trust in leadership is in short supply and yet the people remain optimistic, perhaps still buoyed by the recency of their freedom from the oppressive chains of communism that led to their world isolation. The challenge for the leadership in Albania will be to harness and nurture that optimism, and not exploit it, and to work relentlessly to gain trust and credibility.

Scotland is very different, and its Leadership faces a different type of battle. Scotland has been part of a union for over 300 years. The Scots people have a reputation for being cautious, pragmatic and, some say, dour. Scots do not heap praise on its famous and successful sons and daughters. They like to keep people in their place and ensure they do not get ideas above their station. This is a national characteristic. Alex Salmond, the current leader in the Scottish Parliament, who is keen to persuade the nation of the benefits independence will bring, will need to find ways to energise and mobilise the people, and overcome the culturally entrenched tendency to accept the status quo After all, it’s easier to stay where one is; our brains are wired to resist change. No matter how unsatisfied we may be (short of a life-threatening situation), our brains will do their best to convince us that what got us here is working, so “why change anything”?

What Scotland does have in its favour is its history of egalitarianism. It is a country with a heritage of social justice and fairness, and is coming from a better starting point in terms of the gap between the richest and poorest being relatively narrow, when compared with Albania.

So, why do I stress this particular point? Continue reading

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