Commentary: Opposition Party Protests in Albania Threaten Democracy

TIRANA, Albania–On June 8, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer implored the leaders of Albania’s two former opposition parties to stop their violent protests against Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Since May 12, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) and the Democratic Party have staged small protests in central Tirana, characterized by vicious attacks on law enforcement officials. Repeated attempts to firebomb Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office have drawn strong condemnation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union.

“Aiming firecrackers and Molotov cocktails at police officers and public buildings are not peaceful acts,” Palmer said. “Those who engage in these violent activities are committing a crime and should be held accountable.”

Just three hours after Palmer’s statement, the streets of Albania’s capital were shrouded in tear gas, and 10 police officers were injured.

While our population is one of Europe’s youngest, there is little doubt that our electorate feels at the least little trust for their public officials, and at worst betrayed by the culture of patronage which permeates public office. Following the riots on June 8, Albania’s President Ilir Meta announced that elections scheduled for June 30 would be postponed, contrary to the Constitution. This was the objective sought by both Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha, and LSI’s leader Monika Kryhemadhi — who also is the president’s wife. The government and parliamentary opposition voted overwhelmingly to block Meta’s decision to give the opposition what it wanted, but our institutions remain too weak to stop the actions of an autocrat unless foreign governments intervene decisively to strengthen our democracy.

Albania’s voters may be enraged by their politicians’ behavior, but they are consistently the most supportive of U.S foreign policy objectives in the region. We hope that our ally will help us to strengthen the pluralist democracy we cherish by taking steps against the individuals who oppose it.

Media are depicting the violent protests as representative of popular dissent among Albania’s electorate, but while ordinary Albanians are indeed profoundly angry, their real gripe is with the partisan politics that has trapped Albania in violent stasis since 2013. The parliamentary boycotts and riots led by Basha and Kryemadhi have not only shown Albania’s former opposition in an unflattering light, but raised doubt about the rule of law in this country.

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Following an investigation in the United States and Great Britain, the protests’ other protagonist, Basha was to face charges in a Tirana court for money laundering and falsifying documents. Those charges included sending payments of more than $600,000 to Republican Party lobbyist Nick Muzin via a shell company called Biniatta Trade — which has been identified via a Mother Jones investigation to have been used as a potential vehicle to influence 2017 elections on behalf of the Russian government. But Basha refused to attend court to address the charges, contending that they were politically motivated.

Hugo F. H. Stride, who advises the government of Albania’s Special Electoral Reform Commission, said Basha’s actions show that Albania’s portrayal as a lawless state that fails to meet EU accession criteria is mistaken.

“The vast majority of Albania’s law-abiding citizens are receiving the blame from European law-makers for the actions of their political elite,” Stride commented by email from Geneva. “Mr. Basha’s stance that these charges are politically motivated is tired, and tenuous, frankly, because this was exactly the same defense used in the 2007 embezzlement case he faced as Transport Minister.”

As Federica M. Mogherini, vice president of the European Commission, wrote in a recent report recommending accession talks begin this summer, the greatest hurdle to Albania reaching this stage has been, “the opposition’s repeated boycott of parliamentary activities (which) has negatively affected the Assembly’s work.”

“The Constitutional Court has been unable to fulfil its mandate over most of the reporting period due to the absence of a quorum,” Mogherini writes. “The court should have nine members, but only one of its nine members is in office.” Such a court clearly lacks the jurisdiction to postpone June elections. But elections will be postponed, unless our international partners intervene against the powerful figures who dominate political and commercial life in our country.

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Gallup’s 2018 Survey suggests that Albania’s population’s desire to migrate is only surpassed globally by Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the country is slowly seeing better representation for women and minorities in government, politics in the country remains dominated by an elite class. While their links to organized crime have been exhaustively documented by the U.S State Department, their attitude to governance reflects the ties to power which predate the fall of communism.

For the first time in Albania’s history, Washington D.C has the ability to replace a political elite that neither favors our peoples’ interests nor are supported by the U.S government. We hope that Palmer will show that the U.S is still committed to Albania’s longevity and democracy, by proving itself to be a reliable partner against autocracy and corruption in this country, and not a paper tiger willing to tolerate flagrant attacks by the powerful on this young democracy.

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