‘Jasmine’ revolt wave reaches Albania

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A wave of protests apparently inspired by Tunisia's 'Jasmine' revolution, which has already spread to Algeria and Yemen, has now hit EU hopeful and NATO member Albania. The country's prime minister, Sali Berisha, on 22 January slammed the opposition for what he called a "Tunisia-style" revolt.

Berisha accused the socialist opposition of wanting to trigger "a Tunisian-style scenario for Albania" by staging "a coup to seize power by force," AFP reported.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets for an anti-government protest called by the socialist opposition on 21 January. The demonstration ended with violent clashes between protesters and the police, and three people were killed.

Albania's President Bamir Topi and Western envoys urged warring political parties to settle their differences and called on security forces to launch investigations into the three people deaths.

Prosecutors said on Sunday that police had not yet acted on arrest warrants issued for six republican guardsmen suspected of carrying out the shootings in Friday's confrontation.

Berisha and opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama blamed one another for the deaths, with each side promising new rallies in an escalating political row.

"Restoring political dialogue, respect for the institutions of the state and the expression of maturity and balance is of a vital importance for the present and European future of Albania," a statement from President Bamir Topi and US and European Union ambassadors said on Saturday evening.

They said it was "indispensable that law enforcement institutions cooperate with each other to conduct a transparent, professional and unbiased investigation".

The prime minister said he would not allow fresh violence.

"Every attempt from him [Rama] for violence against institutions will have an exemplary punishment," Berisha told a government meeting before his lawmakers approved a parliamentary investigation into the violence. "There will be zero tolerance for those who touch any institution."

Rama told Reuters he was committed to peaceful action.

"The opposition has nothing in common with violence, weapons or internal impulses to take power through the streets. We want to move forward with peaceful resistance and open the way to a new possibility for a democratic Albania," he said.

The opposition Socialists refused to accept the results of 2009 elections which gave Berisha, Albania's dominant post-Communist politician, a second four-year term and accused his government of corruption and vote fraud (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU-Albania relations). Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta resigned this month amid corruption charges.

One of Europe's poorest countries, Albania is part of NATO but the European Union rejected its application last year to become an official candidate for membership of the bloc, urging it to fight corruption and establish a functioning democracy and the rule of law.

In a move to bolster support, Berisha on Saturday gave a bonus of one month's wages to security officials who patrolled the protest on Friday, and four months' wages for police officials who were wounded.

Security officials have placed coils of barbed wire on the ground around government buildings on the capital's main boulevard.

A planned opposition rally on Sunday was delayed pending the completion of the last two of three funerals. One funeral, with Rama in attendance, was broadcast live on Albanian television.

The opposition Socialists scheduled a rally for next Friday at the same location in front of Berisha's office, Reuters reported.

EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle stated on 21 January:

"We strongly regret the loss of human life in the context of today's demonstration in Albania.

"Demonstrations are instruments of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for citizens. We deplore that today's event has spiralled into violence.

"We urgently appeal to all political forces to call for calm and refrain from provocation.

"In order for Albania to progress on its European path, 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."

What Albania desperately needs at this moment is political leadership, US Ambassdor to Tirana Alexander Arvizu said at a press conference on 22 January.

"We have repeatedly urged Albania's political leaders to search for compromise. When one side – or both - insists on maximalist positions that it knows the other side cannot accept, I am sorry, that's not compromise. Resolving political differences through street battles is also not compromise, and does not reflect the democratic aspirations of Albanians," the US ambassador said.

Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, writes in a commentary for CBS that rising food and oil prices leading to riots look like "the perfect set of preconditions for a global tsunami of instability and turmoil". 

"Events in Algeria and Tunisia give us just an inkling of what this maelstrom might look like, but where and how it will next erupt, and in what form, is anyone's guess. A single guarantee: we haven't seen the last of resource revolts which, in the coming years, could reach an intensity we scarcely imagine today," Prof. Klare writes.

German MEP Elmar Brok, spokesman for the European People's Party group on foreign affairs, called on Albanian Socialist leader Edi Rama "to end the political fight on the streets and take it back to the Albanian Parliament".

Prior to the demonstration, Rama had stated that he would have no control over the crowd, rejecting any responsibility for the occurrence of violence.

"Rama should end his destructive role which he displayed with his call for the demonstration last Friday and instead fulfil his task as leader of the opposition in a parliamentary system by controlling the government in a responsible manner," said Brok.

On 14 January, Tunisia experienced its 'Jasmine Revolution', ousting authoritarian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after more than 23 years in power.

A week later, Algerian opposition supporters clashed with police in the country's capital. Several people were injured.

At the same time, hundreds of protesters marched on 23 January through Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, demanding the release of a prominent Yemeni human rights activist.

The country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, asked the Yemeni people to forgive him if he had made mistakes and said he would not allow chaos to destroy Yemen, which he said was not Tunisia.

Some analysts have linked the wave of protests in several countries to soaring food prices.

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