Trouble in Tirana
Albania on the brink
May 19th 2011, 15:43 by T.J.
THE great hope was that Albania’s local elections on May 8th would deliver a clear result, in one single bound freeing the country from what Albert Rakipi, head of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, described as the “tyranny of the status quo”. It has turned out to be a forlorn hope. Edi Rama (pictured), head of the opposition Socialist Party, has called for a general revolt against the government of Sali Berisha. Today Albania stands on the brink.
The next few days will tell whether cool heads prevail or if the country slips into serious unrest and, potentially, violence. This morning opposition supporters blocked the main Tirana to Durres highway, while protests broke out in Tirana and several other towns.
Much of the background to the election is in a piece I wrote on the day of the poll. I quoted Mr Rakipi comparing the race to run Tirana to the battle of Stalingrad. This quote is now looking rather prescient.
The immediate problem is that there was no clear victor on May 8th. The Socialists took most of Albania’s major towns, but Tirana is in question. Such is the level of distrust in the system that the election count was televised. In Tirana 249,184 people voted; Mr Rama, who is running for a fourth term as mayor, won by just ten votes.
Yesterday the central election commission said there would be a recount. This has increased the chances of Lulzim Basha, the candidate of Mr Berisha’s ruling party, taking Tirana. The Socialists claim this is a ruse designed to deny them victory.
The confusion arose because in Tirana there were four ballot boxes, covering the mayoral vote as well as municipal councillors. Some ballot papers inevitably found their way into the wrong boxes. The question of whether they should be considered valid is ambiguous; there are strong arguments on both sides. „Nobody has the right to deny the will of the citizens that exercised their right to vote,“ says Mr Basha. It seems a reasonable point. On the other hand the electoral code and precedent seem clear: the votes should not be counted.
Albania has been paralysed since a general election in 2009 that the Socialists say was stolen by Mr Berisha. Unsurprisingly the latest development has triggered fury among their ranks. Mr Rama said: “We should do everything with body and soul to stop the government, and the revolt brewing inside every Albanian should spill into the streets.” Gramoz Ruci, a senior party official, said that the Socialists would lead a “popular revolt”.
I asked Erion Veliaj, Mr Rama’s right-hand man, whether a call for an uprising might not be a big risk. A Socialist-led demonstration in February went seriously wrong when four people were killed by Republican Guards shooting from inside the government building. Mr Veliaj replied: „[After] forging the paperwork live on television [Mr Berisha] is about to now strip our title and declare his guy the winner in an attempt to throw Edi on the street. You tell me what we are supposed to do“.
Huge pressure is being applied to both sides from abroad. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, appealed yesterday for „all political leaders…not to put lives of citizens at risk.” José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has cancelled a planned visit to Tirana on Saturday. He presumably intended to congratulate Albanians on their election and to announce that the country’s stalled EU integration process was now back on track. So much for that. As one European diplomat sighed, “20 years after communism, they seem unable to hold elections which meet basic European criteria.”
This morning Mr Veliaj says that a legal appeal against the planned recount in Tirana will be mounted, but with protests and roadblocks under way, things already look dicey. If Mr Basha is declared the winner he will be hard to dislodge, regardless of any appeal—and the same goes for Mr Rama.
As one source from Tirana wrote to me overnight: “It seems we are entering into a new cycle of political conflict.” What a tragedy for Albanians.
Durres Idiot Mafia Boss: Bizgha in action
10 National streets blocked
ALBANIANS are voting in local elections today. Unless the polls end in violence, this is unlikely to get the pulses of international news editors racing. For Albania, however, this is a big deal. Albert Rakipi, head of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, goes as far as to compare the poll—particularly the fight for Tirana, the capital—to the battle of Stalingrad [paywall]. (Albania-watchers can follow Balkan Insight’s live blogof proceedings today.)
Normal political life in Albania has been on hold for almost two years. In June 2009 Sali Berisha, the leader of the Democratic Party, won a narrow victory in the polls which enabled him to scrape together a governing coalition with his erstwhile foe Ilir Meta, who had broken away from the Socialist Party. However, Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana and leader of the Socialists, claimed that Mr Berisha had stolen the election.
Ever since Albanian politics has rolled from crisis to crisis. The Socialists boycotted parliament for a while, hunger strikers camped outside Mr Berisha’s office and, most dramatically, on January 21st an opposition rally went dramatically wrong. Four people were killed when the Republican Guard, inside a government building, opened fire. The Socialists called murder; Mr Berisha said the protestors had been trying to launch a coup with guns disguised as umbrellas and pens.
In 2009 Albania joined NATO, and in December its citizens became members of the coveted club of people from non-EU countries who can travel inside Europe’s 25-member Schengen zone without a visa. So all this is pretty embarrassing for Albania. The political turmoil has damaged its EU accession process, and Brussels will be closely watching today’s election proceedings.
If the coalition led by Mr Berisha does well, the prime minister may well decide to go for an early general election. That, says Mr Rakipi, would be “a moral and political victory over the opposition’s claims of vote-rigging” in 2009. But if the Socialist-led coalition does well that would bolster it in its own demand for early elections.
The key battleground is Tirana. Here Mr Rama is seeking a fourth term as mayor. He is opposed by one Lulzim Basha, a close aide to Mr Berisha and his family who has held various ministerial posts, including foreign affairs, transport and telecommunications and the interior. In 2007 he was investigated for corruption; the case was dropped in 2009.
According to Mr Rakipi, what Albania needs is a clear-cut victory by one side or the other. Otherwise, he says, “we will continue to live under the tyranny of the status quo that we have seen in the past two years.”
Mr Berisha is more phlegmatic. In an interview (in French) in Le Monde he says victory would be “very good” but defeat would not be fatal. Asked about Albania’s EU accession process, he replies:
The process is unstoppable, but it must be entirely based on merit, not on a climate. Now the climate is not so warm with regard to enlargement, even without any blockage. 86% of Albanians are for integration. I find them very wise. For a small nation like mine, the European Union is almost a heaven on earth. Every step we take favours freedom, living conditions and income. Imagine: Twenty years ago we had 60,000 bunkers in Albania. Now there are 60,000 villas!
On Friday, Mr Rama told an election rally that “Sali [Berisha] is not the prime minister of Albania, but only the representative of a government turned into a regime, who talks about you but only thinks of himself.”
Mr Rakipi is surely right that it is important to end the stalemate. But that may not happen today. Will Albanians believe what they have been promised, by both sides—pledges that include everything from building trams to tax cuts to creating 300,000 new jobs? Probably not, although Albanians, of all the people in the western Balkans, are by far the most optimistic. Let’s hope today’s battle of Stalingrad ends without casualties and breaks the country’s political deadlock.
(Photo credit: Tim Judah)