Albania’s divisive political atmosphere – time for a change

Amidst the threat of further political fragmentation, Albania should launch an independent investigation into the deaths of four protesters and ensure that May’s local elections are both free and fair.

By Bledar Feta and Gerta Lezi

Albania is entering a critical period with both local and internationals powers unable to steer the country away from the dangerous waters of political fragmentation. A further deterioration could have a negative effect in the broader Western Balkans, where regional harmony continues to be undermined by old conflicts.

The arrest of police officers for the deaths of four Albanian protesters on January 21 has done little to improve parliamentary dialogue with local elections approaching. The political parties missed deadlines set by the Central Election Commission, jeopardizing the normal timetable for the May 8th polls.

So fierce is the political rivalry between the government and the opposition that the two sides could not set aside their differences long enough to agree on electoral code changes. In the absence of organizing free and fair elections and with no hint of a resolution to the country’s political deadlock Albania’s democratic credentials are in question while state-institutions remain underdeveloped. Albania’s uncertainty is a bad omen for a country considered a key factor for the stability in the Balkans. A number of Western Balkan countries have ethnic Albanian populations in their territories, which has encouraged speculations about a ‘Greater Albania’ project for their political unification. This is the question that seems to provoke the most fear for Balkan peace and stability because it could alter the existing borders. For the last two decades though, Albania itself has steered clear of such claims.

Albania’s politics have been on edge since the 2009 parliamentary elections, when the opposition Socialist Party (PS) disputed election’s results, accusing the winning Democratic Party (PD) of fraud and vote-rigging. Since then, the country has gone through bouts of instability, including a period when the opposition boycotted parliament, held a hunger strike and mobilized street politics. The current impasse is the longest political crisis the country has seen since the installation of democracy in the 1990s.

At the heart of Albania’s problem is the fact that much of the country’s politics takes place outside parliament. The opposition leader’s Edi Rama decision to play with street politics and mobilize crowds of supporters in the streets of Tirana and elsewhere has been criticized by foreign diplomats who insist on an end to all street actions, calling for constructive dialogue and compromise to resolve political differences. Some analysts argue, however, that the leader of the Socialist Party has little choice but to take the party’s message to the streets as the government has attacked independent state institutions.

The escalation into violence during a January 21st anti-government demonstration, which left four people dead, and the reaction to the tragedy, show the fragility of Albanian democracy and its deficient political culture. Albania’s political scene is in turmoil as the two main political leaders are engaged in a blame game and reciprocal accusations for the death of the demonstrators. Finding out who caused the deaths, and bringing them to justice is a test of Albania’s democratic credentials as an aspiring member of the European Union and a current member of NATO.

Although the international community has urged dialogue the situation has become more polarized than ever, with little hope for reconciliation. Prime Minister Sali Berisha is refusing to meet with those he deems “coup plotters”, while the socialist leader insists that street politics will continue until their goal is reached: sending Sali Berisha home and organizing free democratic elections. Political tensions will probably escalate further if politicians raise the political temperature in their pre-election campaigns.

General-Prosecutor Ina Rama is heading the investigation with strong support from Alexander Arvizu, the U.S. ambassador to Albania. But the government has refused to cooperate in the general-prosecutor’s investigation and decided to create its own parliamentary commission investigating the violent protest, thus undermining the General-Prosecutor’s authority. The commission is composed wholly of lawmakers from the ruling majority and is investigating an alleged opposition coup d’etat but not the four killings. Senior officials have refused to testify before the parliamentary commission overseen by Sali Berisha. The opposition has called the Commission’s request to hand over phone records an illegal move. According to Albanian laws, phone records can only be requested by the general-prosecutor during a criminal investigation.

Though constitutionally independent, the prosecutor-general has come under regular attack from government officials. Sali Berisha accuses Ina Rama of bias and refused to arrest the members of the National Guard who are charged with overstepping their authority during the demonstration. The crisis has demonstrated that Albania’s separation of powers is problematic, a fact that can become a major obstacle to the country’s integration into Europe.

The problem is not new. In its 2010 opinion on Albania, the European Commission criticized the functioning of all state institutions. While Albania suffers from weak administration and widespread corruption, the country’s top political leaders continue their high-stakes political battle. As the deadlock and the inadequate responses to the problems continue the public discontent grows.

The crisis proves Albania to be a country with two faces. The first face is rapid modernization, showing the people’s will to move toward Brussels. The other face is marred by the political and institutional dead-ends and lack of culture of collaboration and consensus that obstruct proper governance and delay accession to the EU. Two decades after the fall of the iron curtain Albania is still struggling to complete its democratic transition.

Albanians want to build their lives on institutions they can trust. Although Albania has weathered the financial crisis better than its neighbors the country of 3.2 million people remains one of Europe’s poorest, with annual salaries a tenth of the European average. Due to the Greek debt crisis, remittances from Greece have dropped sharply. The latest alleged corruption scandal with former Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta and the dysfunctional judiciary system are like sparks around the powder keg of high unemployment and poor living conditions. There are concerns of an explosion of public unrest reminiscent of the aftermath of the ‘pyramid scheme’ collapse in 1997.

Albania’s prolonged political instability added to the political deadlock in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM], Serbia’s recent anti-government demonstration and the difficulties regarding the forming government coalitions in Kosovo and Bosnia have created an explosive cocktail raising fears of the return to serious instability in the Balkans. Now is the time for the international community to prevent a chain reaction of instability in the Balkans that could undermine yet more the ‘weakest links’ in the region, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Prevention could begin in Albania with more pressure for an independent, un-harassed investigation of the protest deaths. Then the crucial test for political stability will be the holding of free and fair elections in May. It is Albania’s choice between being a member of the Democratic West or of a host of countries with weak or failed institutions, a dangerous scenario for the future of the country and the region.

Bledar Feta is junior researcher and Gerta Lezi research assistant at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies.

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