Protests are considered part of democracy in every country where the rule of law prevails and the human rights are respected. We notice such a thing in the developed Western world-people protest on various causes, ranging from their economic situation or political issues, to LGBT/ animal rights or recycling. Whatever the purpose, violence is never justified or allowed.
The latest riots in Albania have caused a lot of dismay and doubts. All seemed to start reasonably – people of the northern town, Kukes, decided to riot by blocking the road, against a new tariff set on the Nation’s Road highway. Their demand concerned the fact that the highway is the only road to connect Kukesi inhabitants with the rest of Albania and the tariff of 10 euros would be a real burden for frequent users. A very rational demand.
But the situation deteriorated immediately. The rioters lost the peaceful spirit; they attacked the police, violated the tariff stations, destroyed and burned everything they found inside the kiosks, after having got possession of the money paid previously. Was poverty the only reason of such illogical acts or was it political? The direct scenes on various TV channels caused chaos and disappointment among other Albanians. It reminded everyone of bad times… Is Albania going backwards?
Arrogance seems to be the prevailing quality among Albanians nowadays. The government is arrogant, the opposition is arrogant, so are the people sometimes. In these 27 years of democracy, there have been various cases of the people’s violence…but the arrogance of our politicians is a constant of all times.
The 1997 riots after the collapse of pyramid schemes, which brought about the “civil war”, causing nearly 3000 casualties, was followed by other big demonstrations of 1998 and that of January 2011, in which the socialist opposition rose against the corrupt state, due to a video made about the Deputy Prime-Minister, today’s President of the Republic. The area where the demonstration took part was totally armoured by police and guard troops. The demonstrators were unarmed. It was supposed to be a peaceful protest…but the context proved wrong. Looking at the fully armed police and cannons ready to intervene, the rioters felt unprepared. They started throwing things at the police, then burned a couple of police cars further away. But the state’s response was unpredictable. The guard troops shot and killed 4 protesters. Even today, no one has been found guilty for the death of four innocent unarmed people-a big dismay. The Democratic government’s actions shattered the dreams of most Albanians, who had given to the first pluralist party in the country’s history their faith for a better Albania.
Following these events, there were two other peaceful protests organized by the democratic opposition-the anti-government protest of spring 2017, centered round governmental corruption, the illicit drug situation in Albania and the alleged manipulation of the voting process. The democrats erected a tent in the main boulevard, calling it “the tent of freedom”. They stayed there for a couple of months, until they reached a decision with SP just before the general elections. The next protest of January 2018 demanded the socialist government’s resignation, due to links with organized crime, under the slogan “Rama go!”. Again, a peaceful demonstration. For the first time in our fragile democracy, the majority of Albanians felt proud of the decent behaviour on both parts, protesters and the State. The dark times seemed to have ended. We were beginning to behave as Europeans. The EU accession seemed closer than ever.
Now we come to this week’s riots. Violence is back. Could it have been prevented? Sure. The arrogance of the Prime Minister and his government to set a tariff without prior notification or insufficient clarification on the issue, at a time when his face is on TV every moment, show his lack of farsightedness and immaturity. He excused himself the next day, saying they did not have the right intuition to understand the psychological impact on Kukes’ inhabitants. He organized an open discussion with Kukes representatives, in which he explained that there are still debts to pay by the state, since DP government constructed the road, which in fact cost more than double. The state is forced to give the roads to concession for their maintenance. The PM withdrew from the first decision on the tariff for area inhabitants. They will ponder the issue again, in order to reimpose it, a practical solution that could have spared the destruction. The concern is, such a withdrawal might create a precedent for other issues in the future, as if only violence can solve the problems.
But what about the opposition? Of course, its role is to support and guide their people in their legitimate demands, but never push them towards violence. The Democratic Party and Socialist Movement for Integration leaders politicized the Kukesi protests by enhancing their violent behaviour, even after the riots. Their call to block all the country’s roads and overthrow the government using every means, even fighting, is considered by most people and analysts as a desperate effort to paralyze the country, on the verge of the discussions for EU accession. The vetting process is producing its first effects. Many politicians from both sides, as well as judges and prosecutors, are under investigation. Is the Kukesi protest, a mere economic issue, or an excuse to hinder the process? Many think so…as there are direct accusations directed towards corrupt political leaders.
The sudden visit of Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament Rapporteur on Albania, in which he met position and opposition leaders after the riots, was meant to show that the EU is not indifferent to events here. He assured again that there is a good chance for Albania for opening EU negotiations this June. He also addressed the violence, supporting peaceful protests as a democratic right.
Protests are still going on in Albania, although the number of participants is low. The majority of Albanians are aware that violent consequences serve to their own and their country’s detriment. Politicians promise Heaven, this has been going on for 27 long years…..but now people lend a deaf ear to their words. Poverty is rising with the tax increase, but they are tired of fighting or being used as tools in the hands of corrupt politicians. The need for dialogue in solving common issues is a must in the meantime…
Let us hope there is good will on both sides.