The Under-construction Democracy of Albania

Albania, a former Communist nation, abandoned Communism in the 1990s but the path to democracy has been quite a bumpy one. Past elections have been criticized for not being...
Albania, a former Communist nation, abandoned Communism in the 1990s but the path to democracy has been quite a bumpy one. Past elections have been criticized for not being free and fair. About 300 international observers were on hand for the recent election to test whether Albania is ready to join the European Union.

by Vedat Xhymshiti for Balkan Press Agency / Tirana, ALBANIA – Tuesday, May 22, 2011

Albania has been gripped by a political crisis for almost two years. It took a serious turn at the beginning of this year when a video was made public which allegedly showed the Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta, asking the then Economic Minister, Dritan Prifti to intervene in a tender for a hydro-electric plant, involving a $700,000 bribe. The opposition accused the governing Democrats of corruption and rigging the national elections held in June 2009. Four opposition supporters were shot dead in clashes with police in January this year when the opposition demanded Prime Minister Sali Berisha to tender his resignation.

Following the latest political developments in Albania amid deepening political instability, Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta of the Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) announced his resignation through a press conference on January 14, 2011. He is facing severe corruption charges.

“I am here to declare my resignation from the government to start fighting against the phenomenon of threat to the institutions and future of Albania” Meta declared at a press conference back then.

Meta submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Sali Berisha. “This is my personal decision, and it’s irreversible,” Meta added. “The law must triumph in Albania.”

Berisha named the new economy minister on Monday, January 17, 2011 as his deputy and Albanian President Bamir Topi approved it. Nasip Naco comes from Meta’s party and is playing a vital role in keeping the coalition intact, something Berisha badly needs in order to maintain the majority in the parliament. Meta awaits an investigation ordered by the European Union into the alleged corruption charges on misuse and manipulation of taxes.

Back in January, just days before the ‘Bloody Friday’ in Tirana, Albanian PM Sali Berisha, reiterated in a speech while addressing the parliament that he is going to remain the head of government until he dies. His pledge was received in a very hostile manner by the members of the opposition who tried to beat him up in the parliament.

Democrats have a majority in the Albanian parliament where banalities and skirmishes between the ruling party and Socialist deputies, initiated mostly by democrats, including current PM Berisha, have become a normal occurrence.

A demonstration held under the auspices of the Socialist opposition leader Edi Rama called for the overthrow of the Berisha government as the corruption scandal raged following the resignation of his minister.

Opposition protests spread on Thursday to several other Albanian towns and cities and more demonstrations are set to take place in coming days.

The streets of Tirana turned into a battlefield on Thursday when a Socialist rally violently clashed with the police. At least four people were killed by gunshots while dozens were reported injured including 17 policemen.

On 8 May, Albania went to the polls, this time for the municipal elections. The greatest prize at stake was obviously the mayorship of the capital, Tirana. The contest was between Edi Rama of the Socialist party and Lulzim Basha of the Democrats.

Hundreds of Albanian opposition supporters demonstrated in central Tirana for fourth day Sturday over a decision to include votes cast in the wrong ballot box during recent local elections in the final tally for mayor of the capital Tirana. Initially, after a seven day count, it appeared Edi Rama had held on by 10 votes. However the Central election Committee intervened, and started a recount, with all votes cast in the wrong ballot papers to be counted.

Rama has threatened that his party will not recognize the final result – or the government. Berisha, in return, has warned Rama against inciting violence.

The European Union and United States have repeatedly called for calm.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon urged Albanian politicians to “focus on constructive engagement actions befitting a future member of the European Union and not on negative rhetoric or actions, which serve only to denigrate the process”. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called off a trip to Tirana scheduled for 20th May because of the tense situation in the Balkan republic. The aim of this trip, was discussing ways towards Albanian membership of the EU, its integration and implementation of the 12 key recommendations presented by the Commission on the Progress Report for 2010.

But heightening tensions due to the vote count would damage the talks of President Barroso with the political leaders. “This meeting would not bring productive results,” a European Commission official confirmed in a statement.

However, high-ranking Commission officials told BPA that they were losing patience with Albania and that the country was gambling with its historic chance to chart a course towards EU membership. Natasha Butler, spokeswoman for Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, admitted that a “lack of political maturity” had characterised recent developments in the Western Balkans, citing Albania but also Kosovo and Macedonia. In Kosovo, several officials have openly voiced anti-European messages, in particular against EU law enforcement mission EULEX. In Macedonia, Albanian parties recently questioned the Ohrid Agreement, on the basis of which the international community saved the small landlocked country from violence and chaos in 2001.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday urged politicians in Albania to remain calm and warned them “not to put lives at risk”. After opposition party called for an uprising amid an election row, Ashton said that e narrow poll result in mayoral elections in the capital, Tirana, meant “both sides to reach out, overcome differences and find solutions”. “Developments today have shown the fragility of the political situation,” she added in a statement.

The President of the Albanian Republic, Prof. Dr. Bamir Topi, declared that the postponement of European Commission President’s visit to Albania is an unpleasant event and has delayed the chances of joining the EU. The Head of the State appealed “for the return of democratic normality; for the public interest to prevail above party interests; for maturity and responsibility; and for showing leading abilities in finding legal and democratic ways for solving the created problems”.

Democracy is less than 20 years old in Albania, which is a former a Stalinist state. It descended into chaos in 1997, when thousands of people died in rioting after pyramid schemes collapsed, wiping out people’s savings.

An initial tally of a quarter of a million votes cast in Tirana found Rama had won by just 10 votes, but counting of “misplaced and stray” votes – still under way – has so far given his opponent Lulzim Basha a lead of 70 votes.

The Socialist Party has won 70% of local elections, winning seats in other Albanian towns and cities. But Tirana remained in contention after a month-long campaign leading up to the vote,  which was marred by violence, including explosions, stabbings, beatings and death threats.

Although the opposition Socialist Party swept most of Albania’s major cities in the May 8 poll, the Socialists and the ruling Democratic Party have each claimed razor-thin victories in the mayoral race in the capital Tirana.

The recent clashes and back-and-forth allegations stem from a longstanding political stalemate following a disputed June 2009 election, one that international diplomats are pushing hard for Albanian leaders to resolve peacefully, the latest polls look set to polarize the country still further.

The country’s Supreme Court, however, declared that those elections – which returned Berisha to power – were valid, and the ballot papers have been burnt by the Central Election Commission. Since then, tension has mounted between the government and its political rivals.

Vudi Xhymshiti; is an independent journalist, editor and photographer. He is focusing on the issues of the domestic politics of Kosovo, Foreign Policy of the United States, the Russian Federation, the European Union and the Middle East. Xhymshiti is also focused on the issues of the politics of race, gender, identity, migration as well as displacement of people due to climate change and armed conflicts. He has been published in various media including Der Spiegel, NY Times, TIME, Paris Match, Le Monde etc. Xhymshiti is also a print media critic and founder of THE Frontliner.

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