Why Albania's refusal to take Syria's WMDs is a sign of democracy

The US asked Albania to take and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Citizens said 'no' – and the Albanian government did something rare: They listened.

By , Correspondent

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    An Albanian student wears a gas mask and holds a sign during a protest against Albania taking Syrian chemical weapons in Tirana, Albania, on Nov. 14. The Albanian government declined the US request to take and destroy the weapons after broad public demonstrations against it.
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Albanians will celebrate their Independence Day on Nov. 28, but some activists in the small Adriatic state are calling for the creation of a new annual holiday to be held on Nov. 15.

But not because it was this day, last Friday, that Albania’s government rejected requests from the United States and allies to host the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Rather, it was because, by rejecting the US request, the government showed something that's been a rarity in Albania: obeying the will of the people.

In a televised speech, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, said it is "impossible for Albania to take part in this operation.” The announcement was greeted by cheers from many of the 2,000 protesters that had waved placards and chanted “no to chemical weapons” outside Mr. Rama's office in the capital city, Tirana.

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“I don’t remember in the past two decades seeing a peaceful protest in Albania where the government listened to the people, [and] afterwards everyone celebrated and then went home. I guess that’s how it should be; it’s what we have been hoping for over the past 20 years,” says Besar Likmeta, a Tirana-based editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

“Rama made good on his promise to actually listen to the people’s voices.”

'Not the trash can of Europe and the US'

The US offered international financial and technical support for Albania to destroy Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons on its soil. Albania recently destroyed its own chemical stockpile but has a patchy safety record: In March 2008, an explosion at a munitions factory just outside Tirana demolished an entire village, killing 26 people and injuring more than 300.

That made many in the Albanian public wary of accepting the US offer.

“The US request provoked people. People felt humiliated that they were being used as a dumping ground, as the trash can of Europe and the US,” says Mr. Likmeta. The public demonstrations effectively forced the hand of Rama and his two-month-old Socialist government.

The scale of the protests – which occurred not only in Tirana, but also in smaller cities and towns across the nation – and their success are unprecedented in a country that has struggled with the transition to democracy since its hard-line Communist regime fell in 1991.

In January 2011, police opened fire on a huge rally of opposition supporters in central Tirana, killing three people. This time around, protesters gathered after news of the US request to Albania broke via Norwegian state television, but instead of clamping down on demonstrations, the security forces allowed people to gather freely and express their stance without intimidation.

Grassroots protest

The protests were organized mainly through social media, initially among the young and urban populations that provided the bedrock of support for Rama and the Socialists.

“Someone put the idea on Facebook to leave school and go to protest,” says Jurgen Pashuku, a rural development student at Tirana University. “We felt free protesting, no one disturbed us. It was like we were making our decisions, it was a great feeling.”

The protests were spontaneous and essentially leaderless. Politicians did try to muscle in, but were discouraged by demonstrators. Sali Berisha, a strongman of Albanian politics for more than two decades before his defeat in elections this summer, found himself booed when he attempted to join protests in Tirana.

“When the students gave [Mr.] Berisha the thumbs down, that is something I never thought I’d see in my life,” says Likmeta. “That speaks a lot about [how] things are changing.”

The hope now is that the success of the protests can spur more organic political action in a country with a patchy democratic record and a history of autocratic regimes.

“This protest will help us to protest for other problems we have, it is like breaking the ice,” says Mr. Pashuku. Issues facing the economy, jobs, and corruption are top of mind for many in Albania.

'Model of democracy?'

Not all of Albania’s youth are so confident about a shift toward more robust democracy. “This was really big, but I think that it's going to take some time for Albanians to stand up for their rights,” says writer Davjola Ndola, who was among the protesters in the capital last week.

The reason the demonstrations were so successful, says Likmeta, is that they combined an issue that people were deeply concerned about – chemical weapons – with a growing frustration with Albania’s perceived acquiescence to US requests.

A NATO member since 2009, Albania supported the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and even provided a home to ethnic Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay when the US could not repatriate them to China. Earlier this year, Albania offered asylum to 210 members of an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, under pressure from the US.

“There was this feeling that we are saying ‘yes’ to everything without knowing why,” says Likmeta.

“But I don’t think this will turn into anti-Americanism. We still look at the US as a model of democracy. That won’t change.”

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