Uzbeki beki stan stan

Avoiding a repeat: Prospects for Albanian democracy and political violence in 2012 and beyond

In David Meyer on January 6, 2012 at 8:55 pm

It was almost one year ago that protestors across Albania, principally in Tirana, mobilized against Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party government. The manifestations of public anger had been primarily organized by Albania’s Socialist Party, led by then mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama (Rama lost his reelection bid to Lulzim Basha, the former DP foreign minister in the most hotly contested electoral battle of the May 2011 local elections). These protests, which were a continuation of the political dispute that had gripped Albania since the 2009 parliamentary elections, threatened to throw the country into disarray, not because of the protests themselves, but due to the state reaction. On January 21st, following fringe demonstrators setting fire to cars and hurling rocks and eggs at security forces, the police struck back. Four demonstrators were killed and over 40 people, including police officers, were injured in the ruckus. Seeing images of burning vehicles and running protestors in front of the iconic “Pyramid” in downtown Tirana, formerly Enver Hoxha’s mausoleum, raised the specter of the anarchy that engulfed the country in 1997. Indeed, there is a monument in front of the Pyramid with a bell meant to represent youth voices standing up for peace, legitimacy, and a better future (my rough translation). These clashes represented a direct threat to Albanian democracy; two incredible symbols of Albania’s past of turmoil seemed to be giving birth to the present breakdown.

Following the deadly protests and an outcry against the police violence from the international community, Sali Berisha declared that this had been a coup attempt and attempted to lead a political witch hunt against the Socialists, the Chief Prosecutor Ida Rama (not related to Edi Rama), who had called for a full investigation into security force violence, and even the President, Bamir Topi, a former DP official before taking up the nonpartisan position. Luckily, the international community didn’t bite, despite several lame attempts by non-Balkan watchers to link the violence to the Arab Spring, and swift rebukes were in order, including from Albania’s most treasured ally, the United States. However, as the year progressed (read: after the bitterly contested local elections were sorted out) the tensions began to relax, and last September the infamous parliamentary gridlock, which had prevented the passing of laws that required a 2/3 majority (importantly, laws with E.U. accession implications), was tentatively broken.

So, what does this next year have in store for the Land of Eagles following a 2011 marked by state violence against demonstrators, ridiculous talk of a coup, and now apparent calm? Over at Balkan Insight, Besar Likmeta attempts to strike a balance between being hopeful that a turning point has been reached in the Berisha-Rama battle and the realist viewpoint that this is only a lull in the fighting. Quoted in the article is Lutfi Dervishi, a political commentator who believes that the fragile peace may last through the July presidential elections (which is not a popularly elected position, but rather chosen by a simple parliamentary majority) but then unravel as the 2013 general election preparation kicks into gear. This seems to be the most likely scenario and the selection of the next president could have a crucial role to play in the continued struggle. A candidate with Democratic Party connections could be construed as an attempt to influence the nominally nonpartisan position, especially after Berisha’s attacks on President Topi following the deadly demonstrations as well as a public dispute over the appointments of Supreme Court judges. Since the beginning of the new year, Berisha has brought four government institutions directly under the control of the Prime Minister’s office, removing them from normal government control. Some are already worried that this will undermine the neutrality and independence of government administration.

The Socialists, however, are most concerned with wrestling back control of the parliament, and any kinds of anti-democratic developments might provide them with more ammunition to reignite protests against the current government, perhaps hoping to goad the security forces into another rash move. The chances of renewed violent civil unrest in 2012 look slim, unless President Topi’s successor is seen as politicized. It seems like the best chance for the Socialists will involve focusing on the economy, which has been slowing down over the last year (the National Institute of Statistics is one of the entities Berisha recently brought under the direct control of the Prime Minister’s office…let the conspiracy theories on economic growth numbers commence!). The Socialists may be tempted to take a page out of the U.S. Republican Party’s playbook: sit back, relax, and obstruct reform legislation. Using some of the Berisha regime’s less democratic measures as cover, it might behoove the Socialists to watch the country sink while pressing for a big change in 2013. Of course, the E.U. question looms large over Albanian politics, and is supposedly something all sides agree on as important to Albania’s future. While I don’t believe the current weakening of the E.U. will have much of an impact on Albania’s desire to join the regional bloc, a more complete collapse of E.U. institutions could turn Albanian politics on its head. Without an issue to join hands over, the country could head back to the political doldrums of the past two years.

Albania’s past elections have been marred by murders of candidates, racially tinged protests for and against Greek minority rights, and allegations of voter fraud and corruption. If the presidential election remains non-political and the economy steadies itself (perhaps a tall order) there is a chance that the center of Albanian politics could hold. The longer Albanian political parties cling to this (at least cosmetic) cooperation, the better prepared the country will be to hold more democratic elections in 2013.

-David Meyer

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