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The Balkans under a wave of protests: Albanians against the regime of Edi Rama

Over the past several weeks, a series of demonstrations of a bigger and more serious nature hit the Balkan region, specifically Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All these protests included tens of thousands of people on the streets, and all are political and ongoing, directed against the authorities in Tirana, Skopje, Belgrade and Banja Luka. Although they are unrelated to each other, an additional common feature is that demonstrations are taking place in troubled times when the Balkans experts warn that there is a high risk of escalation.
Anti-government protest in Tirana, 16 February 2019 (photo: the AP)

In Tirana, Albanians protested against the Socialist government of Edi Rama on last Saturday and attacked the Prime Minister's office with iron bars and petrol bombs, demanding his resignation over a scandal-plagued plan to build a ring-road around the capital and the planned demolition of homes to make way for it. Saturday's unrest erupted after a group of protesters broke away from a rally by several thousand opposition demonstrators who had gathered earlier in the day to demand Rama step down and call an election. During four hours of unrest, they attacked two large art installations outside the PM office. Several citizens and journalists were hurt as police fired tear gas to push back the protesters. The number of those taking part in the attack was relatively small and police said they had arrested 15 people in connection with the violence. Rama accused opposition leaders of stirring up the unrest because they feared an ongoing overhaul of the judiciary would hold many of them accountable for alleged wrongdoing.

Two days later, as political conflict escalated, opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha quit the country's parliament, saying the party's parliamentary group had decided unanimously to "burn" their mandates as another way of fighting Rama's government. Basha stated he saw no reason to stay in a parliament that he said had had come about "through the votes of the crime and the mafia," but he did not elaborate on how this burning of MPs' mandates would work out in practice. His party holds 43 of the 140 seats in the chamber. Albania's system of closed lists stipulates that if a vacancy occurs in parliament, the mandate goes to the next in line on the respective party list. Opposition parties have used parliamentary boycotts before as a tool of the last resort, but giving up mandates entirely is a new twist in the country's political tradition. The opposition Socialist Movement for Integration, which won 19 seats in the last election, said it supported Basha's words, but has not yet clarified whether it will make the same move.

The opposition held the additional protest on Thursday when parliament was expected to hold a session, however, Parliament Speaker Gramoz Ruçi on Wednesday said he was cancelling the session, apparently to defuse tensions. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party's National Council voted to ratify the decisions of the party leadership to withdraw from parliament and several hundred supporters hailed the decision outside party headquarters. Tirana was on high alert ahead of another demonstration wave, amid fears that it could end in an violent attempt to storm the country's parliament. Police deployed about 1,200 officers in the capital and warned journalists to wear gas masks to avoid tear gas inhalation. "From the information that has been collected by certain services, we know that violence is being incited," the police said. "There is an aim to forcibly occupy parliament by using violence against the personnel in charge of protecting this institution," the statement added. But no violence occurred and opposition supporters created their own cordon to separate the protesters from the police. The protesters finally dispersed peacefully, and announcing more protests, Basha told his supporters: "Today, our journey of hope begins. Today we put a padlock on the parliament of the crime."

The events development obviously frustrated the United States and the European Union who see Edi Rama as a close ally, in other words, the submissive executor of all their directives. Both the US embassy and the EU Delegation in Tirana have condemned unequivocally the opposition parties' decision decision to "burn" the mandates of their MPs. "Threats by the Democratic Party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, and other opposition parties to abandon their mandates in Parliament undermine the basic principles of democracy," the US embassy said. "The United States calls on all MPs to rise above the political fray and reject calls to abandon their mandates," the statement added.

Shortly before the latest protest, the US and the EU issued several statements calling for calm amid tensions. The Embassy of the United States in Tirana said: "The United States urges all participants in today's demonstrations to peacefully exercise their right of assembly and reject violence, and calls on the government and security forces to practice restraint." Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued a joint statement: "In view of the protests in Albania today, we reaffirm the right of citizens to engage in peaceful demonstrations as an essential feature and a core value of democracy, but we strongly denounce any rhetoric by political leaders calling for violence." Furthermore, Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, added: "All parties should refrain from violent rhetoric and violence on the streets."

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.