By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - The European Union urged Albania on Tuesday to restore the trust of its people in an election in June, after the government shrugged off warnings from the West and reshuffled the state electoral body.
Albania, a member of NATO, has yet to hold an election deemed free and fair by international monitors in more than two decades since its transition to democracy from the Stalinist rule of late dictator Enver Hoxha.
The EU, which Albania wants to join, and the United States voiced fresh concerns on Monday when Prime Minister Sali Berisha's government replaced a member of the Central Election Commission after the member's party quit the ruling coalition and joined an opposition bloc ahead of the June 23 parliamentary election.
"The European Union considers it of crucial importance that the 2013 parliamentary elections are in line with international and European standards," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters on the second leg of a tour of the Western Balkans.
"This will be a test of the smooth functioning of the country's democratic institutions and progress on the European Union path," she said.
Political polarization, concerns over Albanian democracy and the slow pace of reform have stalled Albania's bid to join the EU. The young democracy is still prone to violence and instability.
Unlike much of the region, popular support in Albania for EU accession remains high, despite the economic woes of neighboring Greece and Italy, where some one million Albanian migrants work to send money home.
Remittances have dropped, halving economic growth rates.
"We need to see a solid track record of reform, especially in tackling corruption and organized crime, as stated repeatedly," Ashton said.
She echoed calls from the United States and Germany earlier in the year for Albania to avoid the "use of nationalistic rhetoric", which the West fears could whip up passions in the volatile Balkans, especially among ethnic Albanian minorities in Serbia and Macedonia.
"Albania needs to continue its traditional role of honest and constructive regional player," Ashton said. "We need your support in our continuing efforts to stabilize the region and help it move forward." she added.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka, Editing by Matt Robinson and Michael Roddy)