After Albania violence, a fragile calm

Albania was quiet Monday after deadly protests Friday. Prime Minister Sali Berisha last week accused Socialist opposition leader Edvin Rama of attempting a 'Tunisian-style' coup.

Arben Celi/Reuters
Albania's President Bamir Topi (l.) shakes hands with the leader of the opposition Socialist Party Edi Rama during their meeting in Tirana Jan. 24.

International calls for calm and suspension of protest took fragile hold in Albania today – after the latest chapter in an ugly cat fight between Tirana’s two most charismatic political figures put Albania in turmoil after three protesters were shot Friday outside the prime minister’s office.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha last week accused Socialist opposition leader Edvin Rama of attempting a “Tunisian-style” coup by massing protest at his office. Crowds swelled to more than 100,000 before two dozen were injured Jan. 21 in a melée that started with egg- and rock-throwing.

Mr. Rama met today with Albanian President Bamir Topi and Western ambassadors. Mr. Berisha said he will postpone counter-protests until next Saturday.

But a climate of grudges and anger as well as political gridlock has not abated.

Directed by Berisha, the Albanian parliament organized a formal probe into the opposition protest to “reveal the truth about the coup d’état staged Jan. 21 with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional order,” as stated by Jozefina Topalli, the parliament speaker.

Yet few experts see Albania, with its free press and bludgeoning political invective, as anything like the repressive Tunisia of now- ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Rather, the Albanian turmoil follows massive frustration on all sides in a nation whose capital, Tirana, is a cosmopolitan oasis in an otherwise-medieval landscape lacking roads and infrastructure.

Mr. Rama, in his last term as mayor of Tirana, a city he helped transform with paint, rebuilding, and elegant coffee houses, tapped his base to vent popular frustration with corruption after a ruling party minister got caught on tape via YouTube offering a kickback on an energy project.

More deeply, the protest reprises a similar challenge after elections in 2009 that Berisha won by a sliver, amid fraud allegations substantial enough to lead the European Union to reject Albania’s bid for membership.

Rama’s Socialists opted out of government for six months after the election. Berisha accused Rama of concocting the charges of corruption that led to the EU appraisal.

The two have traded angry barbs ever since in a country whose best and brightest are mostly known for trying to leave – making it one of Europe’s leading centers of brain drain as well as poverty.

While Rama has been a different and formidable politician, with a reputation for at least cleaner hands, frustration among the people with corruption nearly matches a general lack of trust. Rama has called for the government to step down for new elections.

“The problem is that Rama’s Socialists come out of corruption dating back years, and Berisha’s party isn’t any less corrupt. Both have tried to use technocrats. But no side is seen by Albanians as having clean hands,” says a Western official who travels to Tirana frequently.

To be sure, Albania has moved well past the isolationist regime of Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania as a totalitarian dictator, making the country a North Korea of Europe until he was tossed out in the political spring-tides following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While Berisha has postponed a planned demonstration of his supporters on Wednesday, Rama has been ambiguous about a planned Friday protest. He would have to back down from earlier statements calling to continue “without violence, peacefully, wisely, with the unstoppable power of the people's resistance."

In the wake of the protests that left the capital ravaged, US Ambassador Alexander Arvizu said there were no winners, “only losers” coming from the mayhem.

Since the overthrow of the Hoxha regime, Albanians have emphasized an enthusiasm for the United States. This stems partly from a robust US-Albanian community and was amplified during the NATO proactive role in Kosovo under the Clinton administration. But the sentiment goes deeper, dating to US Secretary of State James Baker’s visit to Tirana in the early 1990s, and, more recently, a special trip to by former president George W. Bush, when he was lauded and fêted even as the rest of Europe expressed antipathy over the Iraq war.

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