Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Public Unrest Boils Over in Albania

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jan 27 2011 (IPS) - The Albanian opposition is set to hold another mass rally on Friday, even though three people were killed during an anti-government demonstration last week, allegedly by armed forces of the Ministry of Interior.

On Jan. 21, over 20,000 people demonstrated in capital Tirana against the conservative government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha (opposition estimates go as high as 200,000). Three people were shot dead after hundreds of demonstrators attempted to escalate the police barricade protecting the prime minister’s office.

Following the broadcasting of footage showing a National Guard (army forces under the Ministry of Interior in charge of guarding institutions) officer shooting an automatic rifle at the unarmed demonstrators, the Albanian state prosecutor issued arrest warrants for six commanders of the National Guard.

The warrant has thus far not been carried out. The governing Democratic Party has declared that the arrest warrants are a part of an opposition “well- structured attempt of a coup d’etat”.

Both government and opposition had scheduled rallies for this weekend.

“We will continue our protests, our demonstrations, without violence, with the solid power of people’s resistance,” declared Socialist Edi Rama, leader of the opposition, calling for a rally this Friday to commemorate one week since the three deaths.

In spite of such insistence on peaceful action, Rama is thought to be playing a risky game: even among the opposition, some argue the leader could have avoided the three deaths as he should have anticipated the demonstrators would be met with violent repression by the government.

Meanwhile, Berisha called off the scheduled pro-government counter- demonstration, following an intervention of EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak this week. Lajcak asked for “an end of violence” and warned that “the European future of Albania depends very much on whether the political leaders choose to do what we’ve asked them to do and do that now.”

Opposition leaders are arguing that Berisha is using the pretence of protecting the rule of law and the safety of citizens in order to preserve his power position.

Albania, with a population of 3.2 million and one of Europe’s poorest countries, has been caught in a political deadlock ever since the June 2009 general elections narrowly won by Berisha’s party, which the opposition claimed were rigged.

In May last year, opposition members and their allies went on hunger strike supported by demonstrations in the tens of thousands, to ask for a recount of the vote. Mediation from international bodies led the opposition to stop their protests. Now, the opposition claims the government failed to keep their promise to the international community, to allow for the investigation of the elections.

While still enjoying considerable support, Prime Minister Berisha is broadly seen as a corrupted politician. Berisha was president of Albania between 1992 and 1997, ending his mandate during a civil war following the collapse of pyramidal (ponzi) schemes that cost Albanians close to a billion euros in lifetime savings.

On Jan. 14, Berisha’s ally in government, Minister of Economy and Trade Ilir Meta (the maverick head of the smaller Socialist Movement for Integration) was forced to resign after a popular TV channel broadcast footage that purportedly showed him trying to influence a government tender. Meta became a minister of economy last year, replacing Dritan Prifti, who was himself caught up in a corruption scandal at the time.

“Meta’s resignation was merely formal, as the coalition with Berisha continues to exist and Meta’s position as Minister of Economy, Trade and Energy was simply transferred to one of his trusted people,” Erion Veliaj from the small opposition party G99 told IPS.

“The public opinion and most media outlets were furious with the blatant denial of the facts displayed in the video scandal, as Berisha and Meta continued to attack Rama as the ‘fabricator’ of the video (despite the fact that the video was filmed and distributed by Dritan Prifti).”

This anger added to the existing public frustration with the government and led to Friday’s massive presence in the demonstration called by the opposition. According to Veliaj, public anger was further amplified by “a government struggling with economic problems, increasing taxes and having difficulties in paying public administration salaries, along with the rejection of Albania’s application for EU candidacy in November 2010.”

While the EU and the U.S. (highly revered in Albania) are insisting on an end to all street actions which may lead to violence, some Albanian commentators argue the opposition has no choice but to continue the demonstrations.

Even though the European Union is now advising the opposition to be tempered, in its own 2010 evaluation of Albania, the EU has criticized the Tirana government for failing to complete the political and economic reforms needed for EU accession. Albania’s application to join the EU was rejected by the union in November last year.

At the same time, while corruption allegations surround several figures in the current government, none of the investigations conducted by the authorities have yielded concrete results. This, the opposition argues, gives the government a sense of impunity.

For Albanians, the current deadlock between Berisha’s government and the opposition recalls the 1997 ponzi scheme conflict. At the time, Berisha similarly refused to negotiate with the opposition and used military force against opposition demonstrators. Some in the country fear that, with Berisha using similar tactics this time around, a more violent confrontation between opposition and government forces is still possible.

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