By Alice Elizabeth Taylor
The Guide to the Political Crisis and Opposition Protests in Albania

Unless you have been avoiding social media and the news for the last week, you will be aware that on February 16th the Opposition held a large demonstration in Tirana. Since then the media has been alight with conflicting stories, confusing explanations and a lot of propaganda resulting in a situation where many, particularly in the expat or non-Albanian speaking community, do not know what is happening. This is the Exit.al guide to what was behind the protests, what has happened since, and what is likely to happen in the future.

Why did it happen?

There are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the current government is in crisis. The collusion of the government with criminal gangs in buying votes during the 2017 election, recent replacement of half of the cabinet following corruption scandals and student protest, continuing failures in the rule of law, no constitutional court, authoritarian media censorship laws, and increased criminality linked to the government are all reasons why the Opposition are both protesting and calling for an election.

Most importantly, in December it came to light that the Socialist Party had rigged the 2017 general elections in collaboration with organised criminal groups. Votes were bought, voters were threatened, and as a result, it is not possible to say with certainty that the last elections were fair. This information came to light through wiretaps that were investigated by journalist Klodiana Lala of BIRN before being published by the Voice of America.

These are all reasons why an election is necessary.

What happened on the 16th of February?

On the 16th of February, tens of thousands of protestors assembled in the main boulevard of Tirana to protest against Edi Rama. The epicentre of the protest was outside of the Office of the Prime Minister, next to the Rogner Hotel.

The area had been surrounded by lines of police and scaffolding had been erected to protect two artworks installed by Prime Minister Edi Rama. A couple of hours after the protest started, the lines of police allowed protestors to ascend the steps of the office- no attempt was made to stop them. A handful of individuals, out of the maybe 50,000 present, then began to attack the scaffolding and doors, causing minor damage to the glass and frame. After quite some time of allowing this, the police then threw canisters of tear gas into the area, taking out journalists, police and the few vandals that were attacking the building. One American woman, watching from an adjacent building told this paper she had seen the police stash the canisters in bushes, prior to the protest showing that the police were prempting its use.

No effort was made by the police to stop access to the front of the office- they literally moved out of the way to let the protestors past, only throwing the canisters of tear gas, after vandalism had been allowed to occur for many minutes.

The protest began to disperse about four hours after it had started.

That night, the police raided the homes of a number of Opposition protestors- they used excessive force, violence, and threats to extract these individuals- a number of which had already stated they would come in of their own accord. Some of those wanted in connection with “violent acts” were not even involved in violence and were just pictured in the vicinity at the time. Family members of those taken reported violence and harassment from the police and the matter is being investigated by the Ombudsman.

The Head of Government communications Endri Fuga attempted to justify the violence committed during arbitrary arrests for protesting (not sure where to start with the human rights violations included in this) by posting a video of a PD deputy punching a policeman shortly after the arrests were made. Whilst this is by no means acceptable, it is concerning that the government openly advocates for violence and infringement of rights against protestors because of an event that happened after- in other words, they believe that one crime justifies another.

Then what happened?

After the events of the weekend, Basha announced that all of his MPs would resign from parliament. The leader of 43 MPs stated that this was the will of the people as demonstrated by the number of people that attended the protests. He cited capture of state institutions and judiciary, rampant corruption, human rights violations, lack of a functioning constitutional court, and the vote buying scandal as other reasons for the decision.

The MPs handed in their notices in parliament yesterday.

The reaction of embassies and foreign agencies

The day before the first protest, the British Embassy, US Embassy, the EU and OSCE posted messages condemning violence and calling for a respect of the rule of law and democracy. The British Government even updated its travel warnings for Albania, warning against the protest and the violence which was supposed to occur. During the protest, they were quick off the mark to post comments decrying the vandalism that was occurring and to call for the Opposition to back down.

When the news broke of the resignation of all PD members, again these foreign entities were quick to criticise and say that this goes against democracy. All condemned the move, despite it being provided for both in the electoral code and the Constitution. All MPs that resigned were merely exercising their right to do so in the hope that a new, fair election would be triggered- this is the exact definition of democracy.

A source, working within a Western diplomatic entity in Tirana stated that missions were regularly contacted by the government with information, messages, and statements that gave “explanations” about the political developments in the country.

The second protest

Then on Thursday 21st of February, there was a second protest– this time held outside Parliament.

An enormous crowd consisting of thousands of protestors gathered peacefully to again, call for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rami, the installation of a transitional government and free, fair and early elections to take place.

Prior to the protest, the Government published reports that violence was imminent and that the police would respond with tear gas and force. This was designed to try to stop people from attending, as well as to scare the public and try and discredit the protest to foreign media by pushing the story that the Opposition are just violent thugs. Of course, the protest carried on for several hours with no issue whatsoever, rendering the warnings useless.

What will happen now?

No one really knows. Each mandate that has been resigned from will then be offered to the next (unelected) candidate on the PD ticket. Each candidate will then refuse to take the oath in front of parliament and the mandate will go on to the next candidate until all 151 candidates of the PD have been exhausted- something that could take a number of weeks. Once this list is exhausted there will be a situation where Rama has to announce early elections, or go “full-blown autocratic” and fill parliament with members of his own party.

We just have to wait and see.

In a nutshell

Whilst vandalism on public or private property is not acceptable, one must be careful not to dismiss the very valid reasons behind a huge democratic movement, purely because of the misbehaviour of a handful of individuals. Whilst a few bad actors may have made the headlines, the criminality, human rights, and rule of law violations that are occurring in the incumbent government are not compatible with democratic, Western, or European values.

Albania is in the midst of a difficult time and it is clear that the current government should not be allowed to continue unchecked. What is happening now is democratic process and it should be respected as such.