Albanian prime minister says Brussels oppose Putin-favouring cost of living protests

“There is no intimidation of media in Albania, nor obstruction of journalists’ freedom. In fact, in Albania, more and more people fall victims to slander, lies and fake news! There is talk of trials against journalists, when in fact there are none! There is talk of anti-defamation law when in fact it does not exist!”, Rama tweeted. [Malton Dibra/EPA/EFE]

As the sixth consecutive day of nationwide non-partisan protests against high taxes and government corruption took place in Tirana, Prime Minister Edi Rama has said an official in Brussels told him these protests are in favour of Russia.

The protests are the largest non-partisan protests in Albania’s recent history and have taken place in numerous cities across the country. Citizens call for lower taxes for the poor, higher taxes for oligarchs, an end to the state they say is captured by the business elite, and a fair standard of living.

Rama has tried to frame the protests as being against the consequences of the war in Ukraine and has repeatedly told protestors to be ashamed of themselves. While the protests were sparked by the rise in fuel and foodstuffs prices, Albanians remain pro Ukraine but demand state intervention to protect them.

Yesterday, following the sixth protest outside his office, he claimed that an official in Brussels contacted him and said, “I read a message that came to me two days ago from Brussels where he says ‘do you know who is behind those protests in Tirana?…Russia has high hopes for economic protests.”

He then continued that those protesting risked becoming a tool of another interest, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some of those involved in the protest told Exit that they are absolutely against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but that as one of Europe’s poorest countries, the government must shield them from price increases and market manipulation. They also criticise the government for living in villas, driving expensive cars and dressing in designer clothes with Rolexes despite having official salaries that could not fund that standard of living.

In recent days, a disinformation campaign against the protests has taken place with some pro-government media saying they are organised with the help of Russian influence to “destabilise the country”. The rhetoric of Russian spies and influence has often been used against those critical of the government, dating back to when Albania cut ties with the Soviet Union during communism.

While Rama has announced a package of measures to support families, protestors say it is not enough. Furthermore, he has failed to address the accusation that his government continues getting richer while people struggle, that oligarchs wield undue influence on the cabinet and policy and that corruption is causing the bankrupting of the country.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe with a minimum wage of just €240 a month and where a third of the population live below the poverty line. Unemployment is high, and record numbers of Albanians emigrate and even seek asylum in the UK and EU every year, citing low salaries, corruption and a difficult standard of living.

Despite this, Rama has continued to say that protestors should be ashamed of themselves while accusing them of propaganda.

“The government has placed financial shields since the first moment of the crisis. We are the opposite of the parable they try to paint with unbridled propaganda against the facts. I repeat the protest is a national shame. Albania has not had a more attentive government to protests in eight years.”

Despite claims of “propaganda”, this is one of the largest civic movements in recent times. Even Gramsh in Central Albania, which has not had any protests since the fall of communism 30 years ago, saw citizens come out in force.

Another bone of contention is the detention of 34 protestors, who were finally released after as many as four days in custody. Amongst them were activists, women, youths, and a disabled individual who, according to his lawyer, has a condition preventing him from speaking.

Despite presenting the police with his medical card issued by the state, his lawyer claims the police refused to acknowledge it and kept him without food or water for four days.

Other protestors said they were peacefully protesting and standing watching the demonstration when plain-clothed police aggressively seized them. Officers in uniform had removed identification tags, activists reported and Exit confirmed on site.

The country’s ombudsman called for police calm as protestors claimed the arrests were designed to intimidate them and wield political pressure on the cause.

The claims from citizens come amid a long line of documented cases of police aggression against protestors and journalists in the EU member hopeful.

Citizens have announced their intention to continue protesting until comprehensive relief and assistance is provided, as it has been by many other European governments.

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