All quiet on the Albanian front, but tensions remain

By bne IntelliNews January 28, 2011

Phil Cain in Graz, Austria -

Decisive Western diplomatic intervention has cooled an overheated political atmosphere in Albania, but doesn't offer a solution to the deep-rooted mistrust underpinning the potentially violent atmosphere.

On January 21, a mob broke away from a demonstration of around 20,000 and attacked the offices of Prime Minister Sali Berisha with sticks, stones and petrol bombs. Three of the protesters were killed, apparently by shots fired by security officers in the building. This prompted fears that a demonstration to honour the dead on Friday, January 28 might lead to further bloodshed, but they proved unfounded - it all went off relatively quietly.

The trigger for the rally on January 21 was video footage of Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta apparently discussing the rigging of a government tender for a hydroelectric power plant and securing a job for a schoolmate. The revelation amplified widespread anger at a worsening economic situation and the rejection of Albania's EU candidacy in November. Meta resigned on January 14, having taken over the role of economy minister from the maker of the video, Dritan Prifti, who left amid corruption allegations in September.

Meta's alleged abuse of office was a blow to the Berisha government, which has made anti-corruption efforts a theme of its agenda. But whatever government holds power has an uphill struggle in this regard. "It would be a complete illusion to say you can root out corruption in Albania. Many people not only think that it is not immoral to favour your friends, but that it is your duty," says analyst Martin Prochazka.

Trading accusations

Exchanges between Berisha's Democrats and the opposition Socialists have reached a new low. According to Berisha, the unrest that led up to the shootings was an attempted "coup d'etat" masterminded by opposition Socialist leader Edi Rama. And the six warrants issued against National Guard officers by state Prosecutor Ina Rama (no relation of Edi's) to try to establish the truth of the event were also, according to Berisha, part of a treasonous back up plan.

Critics claim that Berisha often acts like this, with paranoia and wild accusations, when he finds himself under pressure. "Everyone who is not with him, is the enemy," Prochazka says.

The Socialist party, meanwhile, did its best to fan the flames in the direction of the Democrats, accusing the government of having blood on its hands for shooting at peaceful demonstrators. "Anyone who has seen the footage can see that the demonstration was anything but peaceful," Prochazka says.

The West swiftly stepped in to douse the flames. EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak said on January 26 it was up to Albania's leaders to recognise their "shared responsibility for preventing any further violence and bloodshed" and that "no one is above the state institutions". The US ambassador lent vocal support to prosecutor Ina Rama, prompting a climbdown from Berisha, who also agreed to cancel a pro-Democrat rally scheduled for Saturday. "This intervention is very important. In Albania, there is almost blind admiration for the EU and US. No prime minister can afford to be seen to oppose them," says Prochazka.

Recent history provides good reason for concern about the fragile nature of law, order and democracy in Albania. In 1997, the country exploded into anarchy after a Ponzi investment scheme fell apart. As many as 2,000 people died in the violence and the government and Sali Berisha, then president, were toppled. Order was only restored thanks to the deployment of 7,000 UN troops.

Some argue further diplomatic intervention is needed now. "The two sides can probably only be brought round to a compromise by a strict reaction from the EU, including the announcement of severe sanctions," says Marta Szpala of the Centre for Eastern Studies. Such sanctions could include, Szpala says, the suspension of Albania's EU accession process and the freezing of EU funds, together with direct mediation by EU representatives.

There is much more to be done to calm the situation for the long term. Recent events are only the latest outburst from a poisonous political atmosphere brewing since elections in June 2009, which the Socialists still refuse to accept. Foreign observers criticised the vote counting process, but acknowledged the overall result.

In May, opposition leaders went on hunger strike and tens of thousands protested against their "stolen" election. The stand-off was only ended thanks to the intervention of international mediators, but the opposition maintained its boycott of parliament. Edi Rama promised to resign as Socialist leader if he lost the election. "You always have two truths in Albania: you have the truth of the Democratic Party and you have the truth of the Socialist Party, and these two truths are simply irreconcilable," says Prochazka. "You have no institution or organisation which is regarded by everyone as independent."

Creating democratic institutions is one thing, say analysts, but creating the trust and consensus those institutions need to function is quite another.

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