Albania has been in the grips of a political crisis since 2009 elections, which opposition forces say were fraudulent, and ongoing protests came to a head on 21 January when National Guards opened fire on protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, killing three people and wounding dozens of others.
Edi Rama, leader of the opposition Socialists, accused Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Interior Minister Lulzim Basha of orchestrating the “bloodbath”, and called for their arrest. A preliminary investigation into the incident showed that the bullets that killed the protesters had indeed come from the National Guards. The General Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of six National Guards, but the police refused to honor the request.
On 30 January, police in Tirana said they had arrested three people who allegedly made death threats against Rama.
A parliamentary commission charged with investigating the 21 January violence has reportedly asked mobile companies to provide them with lists of phone conversations involving senior state officials. However, opposition forces have criticized the move, expressing skepticism on how the parliamentary commission will use this power. Rama said such a request was illegal and represented the parliamentary commission’s “plan to implement a system of violence and scare people”. The Socialists purportedly fear that if the commission is granted access to mobile phone records it could abuse this power and use it against opposition figures rather than senior state officials.
The crisis now looks set to intensify, with the Socialists announcing more protests for next week.
Opposition forces, led most notably by Rama and his Socialists, refused to recognize the results of the 2009 elections, saying they had been rigged by Berisha and his Democratic Party, which won the vote by only a narrow margin. Though protests have been ongoing, the 21 protest that resulted in the death of three people was triggered by a separate but related incident. Earlier in January, a corruption scandal involving government officials led opposition supporters to the streets of the capital, Tirana, where they threw rocks at National Guardsmen providing security outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
The crisis threatens to undo the progress made by Albanian in recent years towards EU integration and overall stability. And the violence certainly could have been avoided. The government of Berisha and the Interior Ministry acted carelessly, and the mistake will cost them dearly, lending greater legitimacy to the opposition forces and the protests they have and will continue to organize.
Berisha must step up to the plate to show appropriate political leadership at this time and find a compromise. Now that violence on the part of the state has entered the equation, this will be more challenging. If the Prosecutor General’s Office is not allowed to pursue its investigation, and if its orders for arrests are not heeded, the government will lose credibility and the political crisis will enter an even more violent phase.
There are two things that are clear in this situation: Firstly, the government led by Berisha has made a grave mistake, though it is not yet clear if the violence was sanctioned directly by Berisha or represented a unilateral decision by the interior minister or the careless action of National Guards. Berisha will find it very difficult to recover from this miscalculation, and he is just as likely to resort to further violence to quell increasing protests as he is to find a reasonable compromise that would likely have negative political ramifications for his party and his own standing.
Secondly, the investigation has already confirmed that the bullets that killed three protesters and wounded others came from the National Guards, despite statements initially that the National Guards were fired upon first. This should warrant immediate action on the part of the government, and the arrest of three people who allegedly sent death threats to Rama will not appease the opposition in any way, as this is considered a separate incident.
Berisha is only narrowly hanging on to Western support at this point, and that support has been extended to him only in the name of stability. Should stability show further cracks, he will lose this support, which he cannot afford.
Settling Scores – The Albanian Political Way
Berisha rose to power under dictator Enver Hoxha’s protege and successor, Ramiz Alia. Alia had made the mistake of sending Berisha to mediate among university students who were brave enough to defy the government. Berisha was considered an insider among the defiant Tirana university students and gained their respect for his advocacy of political pluralism. This was Alia’s mistake: Berisha not only mediated among the students but he took them over and together they forced Alia out. Arguably, Berisha has controlled the country ever since.
Berisha, a prominent cardiologist in Albania, became the country’s president in 1992, waving an anti-communist flag, despite his communist past. He cleverly used his about-face to target his former communist colleagues and distract attention from his own, similar past. But the economic difficulties the country faced were too challenging for Berisha, and he final undoing was a his horrendous handling of a massive pyramid investment scheme, and he fell from power in 1997 after a popular armed uprising in which thousands were killed.
New elections saw Fatos Nano come to power in elections that could hardly be called democratic. Nano was Albania’s last communist prime minister and he, like Berisha, was a living legacy of the authoritarianism of Hoxha. Nano set in motion a series of purges, and it was not long before Berisha orchestrated a coup that nearly succeeded. Nano was undoubtedly a corrupt figure who used his position of power for personal enrichment. When he fell from power, however, Berisha, though not unlike Nano, was the only alternative put before the public. He returned to power in 2005, and since has showed no sign of backing down, though the violence that was triggered on 21 January could be the beginning of his second end.
The problem with the Albanian political leadership in general is the undying legacy of Hoxha. All political leaders since then have been of the same ilk: corrupt, self-serving, authoritarian and dangerously set on settling political scores rather than serving the interests of the country. In this atmosphere, dissent, like that on 21 January, is not tolerated, and any opposition is immediately labeled as “terrorist” and “foreign-inspired” (read: Greek or Serb). The bottom line is that Berisha, like Nano, and those before him, are singly-mindedly focused on preserving their own power at the expense of all else.
What, then, about the Socialist leader, Edi Rama? Is he simply another Berisha, another Nano, another Hoxha. Albania’s politicians have a very difficult time shedding the Hoxha mindset, and political parties, regardless of their labels, are most about individual figures as opposed to group principles and ideologies.
Rama, a former artist and mayor of Tirana, has also been accused of corruption on several occasions, though he also has a long record of working towards democracy through his involvement in a number of international groups. In fact, in 2005, he was on the list of 37 “heroes” working to change the world. Perhaps he represents a new generation of Albanian political leaders who have managed to dismiss the powerful Hoxha heritage. It is possible that we will never know, unless Berisha makes more mistakes that could lead to his downfall, and, unfortunately, to more bloodshed.
Copyright 2011, ISA Intel. All rights reserved.