Albania’s deadly riots: The latest development in a political tragedy

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There is no end in sight to Albania's political crisis and January's fatal demonstrations have shaken what little faith remained among EU leaders and institutions, write Bledar Feta and Dr. Ioannis Armakolas from the 'Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans' at the Hellenic Centre for European Studies (EKEM).

This commentary was sent to EURACTIV by the Hellenic Centre for European Studies (EKEM).

''As American and European Union officials scramble to make sense of the 'Jasmine Revolution' sweeping the Middle East, there is another unstable political crisis in Europe's backyard.

Albania's crisis has entered its second year with no end in sight for the impasse that arose from the disputed 2009 parliamentary elections. The country's progress toward European integration is blocked and the absence of political dialogue threatens the country's stability. The political stand-off has coincided with high-level corruption scandals and, according to government estimates, approximately 14 percent unemployment sending Albanians to the streets out of desperation and pessimism about the country's domestic situation.

This discontent turned violent on 21 January when officers of the National Guard shot and killed three people protesting against Sali Berisha's government, leaving a fourth in critical condition. The details of what happened are heavily disputed. Over 130 people, police and demonstrators included, were injured. Protests are commonplace in Albania but this 20,000 person outburst marked the most violent clash since the 1997 Pyramid Crisis, when thousands of Albanians were left penniless by a stock market bubble.

The political situation is extremely tense, with the conservative government and the socialist opposition embroiled in a blame game over the deaths of the three demonstrators. Prime Minister Berisha blamed the deaths on Socialist leader Edi Rama and his allies, accusing him of trying to turn Albania on the Tunisian model by overthrowing his government.

Despite appeals for calm by the president and international officials, both the ruling party and the opposition continue their inflammatory rhetoric. Both sides ignore the importance of taking responsibility and settling a serious domestic political problem, which has had tremendous effects on a series of policy fields, with unpredictable consequences.

The response of the state mechanism following the shooting epitomises the criticism of the international community. Prosecutor-General Ina Rama has launched an investigation and issued warrants, earning accusations of a coup d'état from Berisha's camp. The police have refused to enforce the warrants, in violation of the Albanian constitution, allegedly due to Berisha's interference.

The United States has pressured both sides to tone down their protests. Through a joint statement issued by the Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, the EU made it clear that these events jeopardsze Albania's European course: 'We once again urge Albanian politicians to engage in a constructive political dialogue to resolve without any further delay the long-standing political stalemate and to mobilise the country's energies to this end.'

The international community at large has called on the Albanian government to obey its own laws, so far in vain.

The root of the crisis

At the heart of Albania's troubles are the still unresolved 2009 parliamentary elections, locking the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Socialist Party (PS) in a power struggle. The opposition disputes the election results, accusing Berisha of fraud and vote-rigging. Since then, the opposition has continued its anti-government campaign employing a variety of tactics, such as a parliament boycott, hunger strikes and criticising the government for failing to fight endemic corruption.

The ruling majority rejects the accusations and maintains that the polls were the best the country has ever held. The two main political parties already had a long history of mutual animosity, especially following elections. It is difficult for the party elites to find common ground and work for the good of the country as a whole.

PS leader Edi Rama is adamant in his demand for early elections due to a recent corruption scandal. Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta, a key ally of the prime minister, resigned over alleged bribery in connection to a power plant tender. Meta's party, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), is the minority coalition partner in Prime Minister Sali Berisha's government. 

The Democratic Party (PD) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) have been governing together since the 2009 parliamentary elections. Their coalition holds just 74 of the parliament's 140 seats, short of the three-fifths majority required to pass major constitutional reform.

The prime minister has been at pains to support his coalition partner because Meta's support enables Berisha to cling to power, providing the extra votes to maintain a majority in parliament. Despite the scandal, Berisha is unlikely to agree to new polls.

Meta resigned his posts in the current cabinet and gave up his immunity from prosecution to allow an investigation into bribery of officials and abuse of office as a private citizen and not as an official with government duties. Meta's decision to resign is not considered as a victory for the rule of law, but instead a calculated political decision connected to the next local elections, while his decision to give up immunity has not convinced the public opinion. Meta has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, even accusing the opposition of falsifying video evidence against him.

Corruption flourishes, Albania flops

Political corruption has flourished in Albania since the collapse of communism, slowing the country's progress toward eventual European Union membership even though it has been spared much of the turmoil that affected its former Yugoslav neighbors. Berisha came into power in 2005 on an anti-corruption ticket. Despite anti-corruption measures and strong statements, corruption is far from having been stamped out. Transparency International's corruption ranking for Albania of 87 was among the lowest in Europe.

Corruption prospers in the country's moribund judiciary. Two former ministers have been indicted since 2008 for abusing their power for political gain. Both cases fizzled out without convictions and both men again hold government posts. Albanian prosecutors have a relatively low conviction rate for high-level corruption issues since courts are independent on paper but heavily influenced by politics in practice. Politicians have turned playing the well-crafted, but poorly-executed system into a science.

There is a common pattern in Albania's high-level corruption scandals. First, the scandal is made public, and then the minister or the government official resign but never accept any wrongdoing. The prime minister accepts the resignation as an act of responsibility. An investigation begins but is never completed. The minister in question then becomes a minister again, enjoying the immunity their position offers to them. Such developments lead to a reduction of public trust in Albania's judicial system.

An ever-longer road to Europe

Albania has been a full member of NATO since April 2009. The next step is the EU, and more specifically, attaining formal candidate status. The European Commission rejected Tirana's application last year to become a formal candidate for European Union membership, on grounds of democratic weakness, a poorly performing judiciary and problems with high-level corruption and organised crime.

The 2010 progress report released in November highlights the poor functioning of the justice system thanks to shortcomings in its independence, accountability and transparency, while the stability of democratic institutions is not sufficiently achieved. The domestic problems and the internal strife in the country continue to pose an important obstacle to the reform process.

These evaluations have made the road to candidate status – once considered a given – more complex. Indeed, based on the new expectations laid out for Albania, it is hard to imagine the country passing the EU threshold in the foreseeable future. The political crisis and January's fatal demonstration has generated an augmented critique and shaken what little faith remained among EU institutions and leaders.

Almost all international institutions agree that a serious problem exists, focusing on the lack of dialogue between the government and the opposition, which have both opted for confrontation, instead of cooperation and healthy competition. Older Albanian politicians, intellectuals and state authorities echo the calls of their international counterparts. A European envoy has begun meetings with Albanian leaders in an effort to ease tensions.

Albania is caught in a vicious circle: the country seeks EU membership only to be dragged down by political chaos and high-level corruption. Any attempt to change the situation seems to be ineffective. In the absence of both solutions and dialogue, all actors are increasingly using inflammatory rhetoric that could further destabilise the country and cost it important gains, such as visa-free access to the EU.

It is likely that Western mediators actively wielding carrots and sticks are the only hedge against prolonged instability.''

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