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Tirana: calm before a storm?

On 21 January, three people died when the Republican Guard opened fire on protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s office. This is taking place in Europe
Nikolaj Nielsen
7 February 2011

Thursday, February 3

In Tirana, the atmosphere is calm; pleasant even. The street vendors are out in numbers, children are playing along the Lana river, and the elderly are sitting on the oddly coloured benches. Couples are strolling along the sidewalk. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow, the leader of the opposition Edi Rama, will head perhaps the largest protest yet. On 21 January, three people died when the Republican Guard opened fire on protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s office. Dozens were wounded.  The three who died all had their hands in their pockets when the barrels let loose their savagery.

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Street vendor in central Tirana

Yet, life here seems eerily oblivious to the events currently unfolding behind closed doors. Miroslav Lajcak, the EU’s special envoy and mediator is here to ensure some measure of dialogue between Edi Rama and his nemesis, the current Prime Minister Sali Berisha. Berisha is accusing the opposition of trying to stage a coup. Rama is accusing the Prime Minister of stealing the elections in June 2009. Ever since, Rama and a faction of his socialist party have boycotted the parliament, creating a deadlock and an impasse. They have insisted on a ballot recount. But to no avail. He has found few allies outside the country. And now he’s facing death threats. Rama is calling for an early election -  a proposition Berisha vehemently opposes.

The victims in this enduring saga are the ordinary Albanians attempting to get by on meagre wages amid a crumbling infrastructure. Underlying the crisis is government corruption, high unemployment, and a lack of perspective that seems to have had a particular impact on the nation’s highly educated youth.

Ilir Meta, the former vice-prime minister, was earlier this month caught on camera trying to influence a large government tender for a hydroelectric power plant. He resigned a few days later on January 16. Is Albania spiralling out of control? From the first impressions here on the streets -  not at all but nor is this business as usual. Ernest Bunguri, an Albanian journalist based in Brussels, drew parallels between the protest on January 21 and the events that almost threw the country into civil war in 1997. His impassioned pleas for Europe to heed Albania's struggles are ignored in Brussels.

No, this is definitely not business as usual. The political impasse and tensions among this country’s elite have dwelt in a reality altogether different from the common Albanian – for far too long. The overturned, burnt out police vehicles of the previous protest, are a reminder of the seething tensions among a population ready to manifest their anger. The resentment against the entire political spectrum remains palpable. Fatos Lubonja, an outspoken social critic, writer, and former political dissident, is calling for all Albanians to demonstrate – but not for Rama, nor for Berisha, but against the entire political establishment.

Today, in Tirana’s city centre the police are calmly directing traffic. The buses are shuttling people to their destinations, the taxi drivers are smoking cigarettes on the corner – waiting for the next fare. Tomorrow, however, may force this city’s vibrant residents either back into their homes or onto the streets in protest. Most will be waiting, hoping, for a solution that will bring Albania back into Europe, where they belong and where they deserve to be.

Friday, February 4, 2011, 9:54

Razor barbwire runs around the perimeter of Prime Minister’s Berisha’s office. Heavily armed guards, in black, stand behind the barricades. Next to his office, is the International Cultural Centre, a gutted concrete pyramid building from the time of Envers Hoxha. Standing on the corner, next to a bouquet of red flowers, a university professor of the environment expresses her discontent. Not against Berisha, but against opposition leader Rama. “I used to know Rama when he was an artist,” she says, preferring to remain anonymous. “I voted for him as mayor. But today, he’s mafia, I don’t know what has happened to him,” she says as she motions her hand about her head. “The people here are calm. The people coming to protest are from the villages not from the city” she adds and then leaves in haste.

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Outside the prime minister's office

The protests are scheduled to take place at 14.00, here in front of Berisha’s office (latest update - has now changed to Durres street). It’s now 10.30. The negotiations last night between Rama, Berisha and the EU’s special envoy have failed. Rama has announced that the protests “are going to the next level.” This should not be taken out of context. He is calling for peaceful protests, but not just in Tirana. Four other cities in the country will also be demonstrating against Prime Minister Berisha. Berisha, a product of the old guard and regime, has been in power for some fifteen years. And things are not getting any better. Rather the reverse according to the man in the pita shop:

“I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It has been twenty years of things getting worse and worse. I see no future in Albania. I pay tax. I pay everything. You can go down any street and be stopped by the police at the traffic lights. You will say – “I was going through the lights on green”. They will reply, “No, you were going through a red light. I could fine you 30 euros but if you give me 15, I won’t book you.”

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"I see no future in Albania"

Berisha – who is thought to have been Hoxha’s personal physician (this is disputed) – was instrumental in forging the schemes and encouraging rampant capitalism during the 90s that almost destroyed the country in 1997. At the time, corruption was firmly implanted into his state regime, yet Western diplomats largely remained supportive of his administration – allegedly for the ‘economic miracle’ achieved since 1992. This regardless of a fraudulent election he won in May 1996. Indeed, here was a man who it seems disposed of dissent within his own party and did not hesitate to use the courts and police to imprison political opposition. He even had his own personal army – plucked from loyal Democratic Party thugs and former SHIK (Albanian Intelligence Service) members (ibid). Soon afterward, the World Bank observed in a post-mortem report that “few countries have experienced such a rapid development of pyramid schemes and certainly none have experienced such a catastrophic breakdown in civil order verging on civil war following the demise of these schemes.”

When I first met Edi Rama in his office last year he appeared tired. Spread across his desk were coloured crayons, pencils and markers. He drew as he spoke. “I draw when I have to concentrate.” He then paused and added, “The problem is how to build freedom and democracy and not let the parliament become a theatre; a theatre without a director. The people should have a direct role but if the decisions of the country do not belong to them then it becomes a monopoly of power. Democracy is over,” he said. That was one year ago.

Albanians want their meritocracy – but at what cost? We shall see in a few hours.

Friday, February 4, 2011, 16.35

Two hours was all it took. They came, bussed in from the surrounding villages and towns, to stage a protest against Prime Minister Sali Berisha, against high unemployment, against the deaths of three protesters killed on January 21. Nobody was looking for any more violence. Aside from two scuffles with the police, the protest was peaceful. 

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"Berisha mafia!"

The procession arrived from five different avenues, before converging on Skanderberg Square, where opposition leader Edi Rama joined the ranks and led the masses down Durres Street. Surrounded by several bodyguards, Rama moved slowly, the cameras crowding him, the people behind him shouting slogans against Berisha, accusing the government of murder. The picket signs made it clear. The owners of small shops locked their doors and stared impassively out of the windows. Further along, school children in a courtyard continue to play football, impervious to the thousands just outside the green iron gate.

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Body guards surround Edi Rama [in background]

This, however, was a protest that celebrated Rama. He walked, almost regally, his impressive height adding to his allure in a nation deeply divided along political lines. Before he was whisked away in a black Mercedes, he raised his hands in the air. A few people in the crowd began to chant his name. After he left, the crowd remained, standing in the road, unsure what to do next. It’s unclear what the procession has achieved. Twenty minutes later, Edi Rama was on TV, making his case and vowing to continue the demonstrations every Friday. On May 8, Albanians will go to the polls for local elections. Rama says the elections should not take place unless transparency can be guaranteed.

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Edi Rama leads the protest

“This is a protest against the government, against the murder of the three victims by the Prime Minister,” said one 26 year old protester.

“We don’t have anything from this government. We want this government to go. We want a new election. I don’t have anything, I am 28 years old and I have no job. I am married,” said another protester, a resident in Tirana.

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Edi Rama supporter and protestor

But most Albanians are tired of the political impasse and stalemate. Tired of the endless accusations. And indeed, it seemed as if most residents in this city - stayed at home.

The day after

The terraces of the Regency café in Youth Park are full. Not yet 11:00 in the morning, and Tirana’s residents are sipping on their espressos, the children chasing one another on the grass. Around this time yesterday, shopkeepers were locking up early, worried that the anti-government protesters that would later pour into the city’s centre would collapse into violence and anarchy. The rhetoric, between opposition leader Edi Rama and ruling party leader Prime Minister, had already cost the lives of three people at the previous protest on January 21. The perimeter surrounding the Prime Minister’s office was cordoned off with barbwire and heavily armed guards. It is removed later this afternoon.

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 Edi Rama a day after the protest

But while tensions among the political elite remain high, the people of Tirana seem resigned to continuing their lives, unable to influence a world that plays itself out daily on primetime television in a partisan media – and now on the street. For a nation that has endured 500 years of Ottoman rule and 50 years of Enver Hoxha, Albania – regardless of the current political crisis – remains a story of success and hope. For if recent events have clarified anything, it’s the amazing resilience of the Albanians to push ahead through seemingly insurmountable odds, an obstinate and uncompromising leadership, and the tragic events in 1997 that brought the country to its knees. From that moment onwards, Albania’s economy has grown. It has joined NATO, obtained visa free travel to Europe, and is slowly constructing independent institutions. There is a democracy here. But the desire to implement it has been weakened and offset by the bickering and threats between the leadership. This rhetoric is reaching new heights. Prime Minister Sali Berisha is accusing Edi Rama of plotting a coup d’etat. Rama is accusing Berisha of deliberately killing the protestors on January 21. Yesterday, as Rama marched the crowds through the city, his followers and supporters, many of whom were bussed in from outside Tirana, were shouting “Berisha murderer”. 

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Protestors shout “Berisha murderer”

Nevertheless, there is among the people a harmony that the rest of Europe can take a lesson from. Unlike its neighbours, Albania does not suffer from the social and political grief of a society unwilling to come to terms with its religious minorities. Albania does not suffer from the existential angst over identity of Belgium, nor the clash between ethnicities – unlike its immediate neighbour in Macedonia or further north, in France.

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Berisha has the last word

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