Prime Minister Edi Rama’s first reaction to the political crisis, following the Democratic Party (PD) MPs’ decision to resign from their mandates, was his attempt to influence and manipulate the international public and foreign diplomats in Albania. The goal was twofold: first, getting the foreign diplomats to support him while the information and their understanding of the situation was still not clear; and second, using their support to instil in the domestic opinion the idea that not only he enjoyed international support, but foreign diplomats were even against the opposition.
This action was of strategic importance, considering that Albanians overestimate foreign diplomats and often and in indirect ways judge internal political events based on their opinion and attitude. In his political career, Rama has shown tremendous abilities in such actions, which have bestowed him with vital political benefits. The results of the ongoing justice reform are among the most prominent benefits– Rama had internationals invest themselves in a reform that he skillfully controlled and manipulated from the beginning, right until this moment. Now that the reform has failed and he has captured the justice system, they have to keep endorsing the reform and Rama stubbornly, refusing to admit that they were wrong.
Using the same model, in the recent weeks Rama has been implementing a vigorous propaganda operation to manipulate foreign public opinion. He is using all communication channels at his disposal to diffuse his agitation– official contacts with foreigners; foreign media, local correspondents in particular; the Albanian media, an overview of which is usually read by all embassies in Tirana; as well as the Albanian embassies and representatives around the world.
A source working within a Western diplomatic entity in Tirana told Exit.al that the government had bombarded the Western diplomatic missions with messages, statements and requests. Among other things, the source shared with Exit.al a memo sent to all foreign contacts in which the government gave all its “explanations” about the political developments in the country.
The government propaganda is focused on three main objectives.
The first objective is to instil the idea that the opposition wants to take power by force. The government has tried to imprint this idea by distorting the nature of protests called by the opposition.
Prior to the first protest on 16 February, the police and top government officials propagated that former convicts would commit violent acts in the protest.
During and after the protest, the government and its proxies flooded the public opinion with statements about the alleged violence during the protest. The images of a few people vandalizing the door of the building were distributed everywhere, with messages that amplified this act as a violent attack on the Prime Minister’s Office.
The propaganda was successful and managed to push some diplomatic missions in Tirana make repeated statements against violence, both before and during the protest.
In fact, the protest was peaceful. The only “violence” in it was the vandalizing of the “Triple Giant Mushroom” artwork in the nearby garden of the Prime Minister’s building. This work had become a symbol of Edi Rama’s breakaway with reality and use of power to fulfill his private interests and caprices. Nothing more than that. Even Mayor Erion Veliaj, in a ridiculous attempt to reveal the violence during the protest, managed to show only the grass on which protestors had stepped on and a broken sapling in the garden.
In the absence of violence, government propaganda quickly channeled the concern over the damage to public and private property, and embassies also followed by calling against and later by condemning the damaging of public property.
The same scenario was brought in for the second protest which took place on February 21st. The government again emphasized the threat of violence in all its communication with foreign diplomats, media and other actors. The mentioned diplomatic source told Exit.al that the government barraged foreign representatives with statements that there would be violence and insisted that they should make public statements against violence and even threaten (which is scandalous for a diplomatic mission) that the opposition would be responsible for the violence.
Before the protest Edi Rama also played with visual elements to create the atmosphere of a state of emergency. He suspended traffic in a large area of Tirana, surrounded the parliament building with barbed wire, mobilized a large number of policemen (again without proper equipment for effective crowd policing) to surround the same building, distributed gas masks to reporters, cut cell phone coverage in the protest area, which by law can only be done in case of a threat to public order.
Diplomatic missions again issued public statements against violence, some with almost threatening undertones directed towards the opposition.
Thursday’s protest took place peacefully without the slightest violation of public order. However the image of violence was apparently already embedded in foreigners’ minds– in the evening a State Department representative suddenly criticized the opposition’s violence on that day.
Edi Rama’s propaganda triumph at its peak: diplomatic missions– which have never talked against the staggering government scandals, including the theft of public money by the tens of millions of euros– now strongly condemned the inexistent violence of the opposition and the damaging of public property that never happened.
The second objective of government propaganda is to portray the opposition actions as an attempt to take power arbitrarily, as the opposition is incapable of coming to power through elections given that it lacks the people’s support. The memo that the government sent to the targeted foreigners emphasized this claim over and over, while also arguing that resigning from parliamentary mandates and demanding the removal of Edi Rama was an act of a “terrorist who threatens to blow up the system if his demands are not met”.
Prime Minister Rama expressed the same claim two days ago in an interview for Italian media Il Messaggero and Rai. The same claim is articulated by all government representatives in their communications with foreigners and in public statements.
The government supports the claim saying that the opposition tried to create a similar crisis two years ago, and it was given power in the technical government, but it still lost the election and now is demanding the same thing in a capricious manner.
The purpose of this allegation is to cover all the inherent reasons that have led the opposition MPs to the extreme action of vacating their seats in parliament, including the socialist majority collusion with criminal gangs in the latest election.
The third objective of government propaganda is to focus on Sali Berisha’s role as the creator and the true leader of all the actions of the opposition. Rama expressed this claim in the interview with Il Messaggero, and it’s been repeated in op-eds of media close to the prime minister.
Bringing Berisha to the forefront aims first and foremost to reinforce the idea that the opposition engages in violence. The mentioning of Berisha links the current protests to the violence of September 1998 and January 21, 2011, regarding which foreigners are particularly sensitive. One of the tools to achieve this goal has been a video with English subtitles that the government has edited and distributed to diplomatic missions. The edited video shows a series of cherry-picked harsh statements against the government made by Berisha over the last few years, but in the video the dates of the statements were changed to recent weeks or months.
In addition to reinforcing the idea a of violent opposition, focusing on Berisha also aims at undermining Lulzim Basha’s authority in the eyes of the diplomatic missions and foreign governments by portraying him as an irrelevant politician who cannot guarantee a political solution to the crisis. In this way, Edi Rama tries to influence in particular those foreign diplomats who are critical of his government, and push them towards the attitude: “Okay, Rama is problematic, but he is the only one you can deal with.”
Rama’s propaganda seems to have been successful in this regard as well. At least for the time being.