Saturday

19th Sep 2020

Albania's bitter political stand-off intensifies

The bitter stand-off between Albania's Socialist opposition leader, Edi Rama, and Prime Minister Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party continues to intensify, with another massive demonstration in Tirana - cast as an "anti-Mubarak-style" action - held on Friday (18 February).

Opposition leaders claimed a turnout of 200,000, while police did not give an estimate. Unlike the violence seen in demonstrations almost a month ago, the rally passed largely peacefully amid a heavy police presence.

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  • Socialist opposition protesters in Tirana (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

With no solution in sight, Albania's aspirations for EU membership have for the moment been thrown into question. The victims of the saga are a people struggling to get by on meagre wages, amid government corruption and a crumbling infrastructure.

Last year, the European Commission opinion on Albania's application for EU membership called upon the country to strengthen rule of law, ensure political dialogue and establish a properly functioning parliament.

But ugly scenes of members of parliament trading blows last Thursday (10 February) have done little to inspire confidence. To compound the misery, Ilir Meta, the now former deputy prime minister and close ally of Prime Minister Berisha, was caught on camera attempting to influence a huge government tender for a hydroelectric power plant. He resigned on 16 January. The corruption case has fuelled resentment.

A few days later on 21 January, Mr Rama, who is also Tirana's mayor, led a massive protest that ended in violence and bloodshed. Four people were shot dead by the Republican Guard in front of the prime minister's office. All were allegedly unarmed and outside the security perimeter.

EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule at the time issued a stark warning. "The tone in Tirana needs to change. The dangerous downward spiral must end. The political crisis must be resolved," he said in a statement delivered at the European Parliament last Tuesday (15 February)

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton sent her special envoy to the western Balkans, Miroslav Lajcak, to mediate, but to little avail. Mr Lajcak asked the leaders to stop the violence and get the political dialogue back on track. He also asked them to implement the 12 priorities outlined in a 2010 commission opinion.

That meeting occurred the evening before thousands of protesters descended upon the city for a second time. Aside from two minor scuffles with the police, no one was hurt. Razor wire, however, and heavily armed guards surrounded the PM's office.

Berisha speaks out

In an interview with EUobserver inside his office that very day (5 February), the prime minister threatened to hunt down anyone attempting to overthrow his government by force. Several protesters on 21 January had tried to breech the barrier separating his office and the street.

"Mr Rama wanted to attack by Kalashnikovs, bazookas and other means," he said, adding that if ever such force is indeed used "they will have a fierce counter-attack ... they will be hunted to their last nest and no more."

Disputed elections

The origin of the escalating controversy is a disputed June 2009 national election. Mr Rama, who lost against Mr Berisha, says it was rigged - a position he has maintained throughout.

A 2009 report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) says the country does not meet international standards for a democratic election. The OSCE recommendations to improve the election process have yet to be implemented. The opposition refuses to recognize any election results so long as proper standards are not in place. Because of this, the upcoming local elections in May are in jeopardy.

Mr Rama is now calling for more protests. He is also insisting for a snap national election - a proposition vehemently opposed by the prime minister.

In downtown Tirana, a pita-shop owner told EUobserver that he saw no future in Albania. Instead, people appear helpless as they witness the rhetoric and the threats of their elected officials aired daily on prime-time television.

Albania, which became a Nato member in 2008, had its visa restrictions to the EU lifted in November 2010.

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