Tear Gassing Crowds Indiscriminately Is the First Response of the Reformed Albanian Police

During recent anti-government protests, Albanian police have systematically and indiscriminately used tear gas to respond to even the lightest push and scuffles of few protesters.

Albanians have been protesting for more than two months demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama, whom they accuse of corruption, vote buying and ties to criminal organizations.

To handle the large crowds, the government has used regular police in regular police uniforms instead of specialized riot police, equipped with riot gear. The untrained and ill-equipped police has resorted to indiscriminate and unnecessary use of tear gas to disperse crowds. Dozens of people, including children and elderly, as well as journalists covering the protests and police officers themselves, have needed hospital treatment for effects caused from inhaling the gas.

Prime Minister Rama has brandished police reforming as one of his major achievements. Under former Ministers of Interior Saimir Tahiri and Fatmir Xhafaj, the Albanian police underwent two stages of reforms.

The main focus of Tahiri’s reform was the war on drugs. The outcome was a country turned into a massive cannabis plantation. Saimir Tahiri was sacked and mafia-style statements were exchanged between him and Rama. Now Tahiri stands accused of drug trafficking and participation in a criminal group.

Then Minister of Interior Fatmir Xhafaj came along. His reform aimed at undoing Saimir Tahiri’s “achievements” – i.e. reducing government ties with criminal groups, clearing police ranks from Tahiri’s supporters and fighting drug trafficking. Minister Xhafaj resigned following revelations that his brother was wanted in Italy where he had been sentenced for drug trafficking. While Xhafaj was a minister, his brother was allegedly leading a drug trafficking network from his city, Vlora.

Prime Minister Edi Rama assigned his adviser Sander Lleshaj as Minister of Interior to take the police reform to a higher level. Minister Lleshaj’s main focus was the so-called “The Power of Law” – an initiative of former minister Xhafaj aiming at strictly implementing the law in the fight against criminals.

Prime Minister Edi Rama has taken particular care in showcasing achievements of the three ministers implementing his reforms. He defended his two former ministers until the last moment when they could not be saved.

Pompous events where Rama and Tahiri presented the results of the “war on drugs” (Destruction of 99.2 percent of the reported cannabis plantations in Albania), the Police Fair (displaying the latest modern equipment) etc., continued with the latest presentation of Minister Lleshaj’s results in the war on drugs last month.

Under each of the three ministers and in every similar event, reformation of the police has been declared as achieved. Supposedly speaking on behalf of the Albanians, Rama and each minister have claimed the fulfillment of Socialist Party slogan “The Police We Love”.

The events would make one believe that Albanian police is one of the best equipped, best trained and most professional force in Europe.

Indeed, in 2015, while attending the inauguration of the Police Academy building renovations, Prime Minister Rama stated that the essential reform had brought about the “the radical transformation and with no return of the State Police, from a disorganized and disoriented structure [during the previous government] into a structure similar like two drops of water with the police in EU member states.”

However, besides the fact that Albania remains a major drug trafficking country, the failure of police reforms was probably most clearly apparent during latest protests.

The same scene kept repeating as follows. Police stand in single lines in front of tens of thousands of protesters. They wear their everyday uniforms with no special gears to confront huge crowds– no protective equipment: helmets, vests, shields, face visors, gas masks; no alternative weapons: baton, whips, pepper spray, paint weapons, etc. The slightest attempt by a handful of angry protesters to brake the police cordon always succeeds. Police fail to maintain the fragile cordon and disperse disorganized. Then the whole crowd gets hit with tear gas.

Crowd control tactics widely employed by riot police in democratic countries are not practiced: pushing the crowd back, scare tactics, hitting rioters with indelible paint to arrest them later, using irritants in sprays, targeting and arresting aggressive protesters, or even selectively using water cannons as deterrents. No, no tactic of the sort is used to control the few protesters engaged in acts of vandalism.

Tear gas is the first and the only response of the reformed Albanian police, despite millions of euros invested in equipment and training. A riot police force is seldom seen, and only inside or in the vicinity of the government institutions but never in the first line to confront and deter the crowd.

As a result, journalists have suffered the effects of tear gas during their live coverage of protests. One journalist fainted while reporting and several others got treatment in hospitals.

People in their homes and businesses in the area also suffered from the tear gas. Passers-by or people doing their errands in the area were caught amidst its disastrous effects. Children and elderly, as well as all protesters were victims of indiscriminate and unprofessional police tactics to confront a few angry protesters.

The pompous events displaying government’s reforms are debunked by Minister Lleshaj’s indiscriminate tear gassing of crowds. The use of tear gas as a first response shows that the Albanian police is untrained and unequipped. It also puts a question mark on government investments in six years to reform the police.

The tear gassing of crowds is the ultimate revelation that the beautiful façade of a reformed police has just meant to gaslight Albanians.

– Arjan Balla