For Albania's disaffected youth, political feud illustrates why they flee

Antigovernment demonstrators returned to the street in Albania Friday, a week after three activists were killed outside Prime Minister Sali Berisha's office.

Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo
Albanian opposition leader Edi Rama, in front holding roses, leads his supporters in a march in front of the Prime Minister's office in the capital, Tirana, as they pay homage on Friday, Jan. 28 to three protesters killed last week during an opposition protest.

An ugly side-effect of ongoing feuds in Albania between its two charismatic leaders is the effect on the next generation. Young Albanians are so tired of conflict and corruption at home that nearly anyone with talent heads for the door. Some recent college grads say they don’t have any friends not trying to get out – to schools or jobs in Europe and America.

They loathe the often self-destructive behavior playing out in Tirana between Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama that last week led to three deaths, but feel helpless to change it.

The pyrotechnic name-calling among Albania's political class also bothers the kids who don't hear such levels of invective in European capitals. At least publicly. After the shooting last week Rama described interior minister Lulzim Basha of being "this socially dangerous worm." Berisha for his part said Rama orchestrated a protest of "Bandits, criminals and terrorists."

Despite Albania’s progress emerging from nearly cultic isolation under strongman Enver Hoxha, the nation continues to reel from a history of guns, grudges, and corruption so thick one needs wings to fly above it.

Last Friday things went sideways after a Socialist-led protest massed outside Mr. Berisha’s Tirana office. Berisha accused Mr. Rama of attempting a coup. Guards shot and killed three protestors and dozens were wounded.

Berisha has called off a protest of his own Saturday. But despite EU and US pleas for calm, Rama, the mayor of Tirana, held another protest today.

Rama is known as a doer. He has transformed Tirana’s image. He wants to claim a nonviolent higher ground for his protest. He’s got video of a senior Albanian minister promoting a kickback that has incensed a public already epically frustrated. He wants a Tunisia-style revolution – but his party has a legacy of corruption, too.

Meanwhile, Albania’s youth diaspora watches intently from perches in Europe. Their intensity is fueled not by fascination but out of political and family necessity. One can’t be uninvolved. There’s despair over a gap between the modern European norms they desire and inertia and cronyism at home, where there are no good alternatives.

Some insight by Albania’s best and brightest abroad got captured in a Skype conversation between a British author and a graduate student in the Netherlands this week. We’ll call her Zana. She’s from a Tirana family and agreed to have her thoughts shared.

There are those who have always been against Berisha, since the beginning. But I think there was some acceptance of the status-quo because the majority of people did not want to think of the past. They were looking forward to the future and to being able to move freely [with new EU visas] and I guess somehow everyone thought … it will all work out. They accepted that this would be the system, not a perfect system, but a system that is moving forward. I guess this is why people were not really behind Rama in his idiotic hunger strikes in the city – because people did not think it spoke to their issues and thought it was more for his personal gain.

Zana goes on:

Public opinion in Albania is divided – not for and against Berisha ... generally everyone agrees he is corrupt and he needs either to prosecute corrupt officials or just go himself.

But what people disagree on is whether violence is necessary in demonstrations. There are those who think the police were provoked by the protestors and even though it was not right for the police to kill those people, the violence could have definitely been avoided and those lives spared with some leadership from the Socialist Party.

Others say the Socialists could not have done anything … the confrontations started … before the Socialists could [act]. This group says that people were justifiably angry following the shameless denial of the deputy MP of the authenticity of the video where he was trying to bribe the minister of economy, and [after] a violent and degrading parliamentary session a few days earlier where Sali Berisha addressed Socialist Party members in a terribly disrespectful and arrogant manner – he was really [obnoxious].

[Berisha] did not realize he was not only addressing the Socialists like that, I think people felt he was addressing all the country like that. He wanted to make fools of all those who had eyes and ears to see the video of the deputy PM and he was basically legitimizing theft and corruption in his government, and nobody could do anything about it.

I don't think anyone is particularly enthusiastic about the Socialists. The main thing people are saying is we don't want either but there is no alternative. New elections are seen as a good option… and this is what the protestors called for.

Zana ends with a pox on both houses:

Berisha is [now] calling the Republican Guard [who fired the shots] “heroes.” … He said that it is normal for people to die in a coup d'etat, and not just three but even 30 or 300 ... and he is making sure that the guards who were injured during the protest are medically treated from inside the PM's building ... he's not taking them to the hospital because they could be then called by the prosecution or some of them even arrested. On the other hand Rama is calling for more protests.

I saw some interviews of Tunisian protesters. They had clear demands, concrete demands. If you interview Albanians they don't know what to say, they are just angry ... I am not sure what Rama promises if there are elections and he wins, he never made the time to make a concrete agenda since his loss of the 2009 elections.

Albania has European and EU aspirations. It is a NATO member. It has played an effective role in keeping regional peace via smart diplomacy with Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia – all possible Balkan ethnic tinderboxes.

But the current standoff in Tirana threatens progress. Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations implied today that more escalation may not bring the intended result. Berisha and Rama are jointly “sawing through the country’s institutions,” he writes. The impact if it doesn’t stop “will be felt beyond the borders of Albania.”

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