Since 4 December 2018, thousands of Albanian students have been protesting against the degraded education system, high tuition fees and poor dormitory circumstances in the country. Not only students, but also opposition parties (directed by the centre-right Democratic-Party and its leader Lulzim Basha) gathered last month from across the country to rally against Edi Rama’s Socialist-led government, which is being accused of favouring the rich. These large-scale protests seem to reflect an ongoing tendency among the Balkan countries.
Winds of change
After having been the most isolated country in Europe, Albania transformed and opened up in the early 1990s. In 2018 the European Commission announced the wish to pursue the accession negotiations. Albania’s current Prime Minister Edi Rama, leader of the Socialist Party of Albania (SPA), was perceived as one of the most progressive political leaders in South-East Europe when he became Prime Minister in 2013. In 2019, he also became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Initially Rama was, being a painter, artist, basketball player and 2004 World Mayor of the Year, a highly esteemed guest in the region, Brussels and beyond. He introduced high and strict gender quotas within SPA and the government, while many young people obtained important positions in the public sector.
The transformation Albania has made seems obvious. At the same time critical voices consider – and deeper analysis shows – the country as a democracy without properly functioning rule of law or even as a ‘transitocracy’: transition as a more or less permanent system of functioning. The dwindling popularity of Rama during the past months shows the public’s demand for democracy as the transitocracy steadily continues. In the shape of protests the government is challenged, a phenomenon recently observed in Montenegro and Serbia as well, as a powerful way of opposing the regime. Sources speak of an emerging “Balkan spring”.
Protests and current political atmosphere
Protesters say Rama’s Socialist Party government is too authoritarian and corrupt, with the public demanding Rama to resign and hold early elections, as regular elections are now planned for June 30. They believe the benefits of the economic growth, steered by Rama with an expansion of four percent in 2018, only reach a few. According to the student protestors, they try to show the wider problems that are facing Albania, originating from the totalitarian system where money is given to the private sector and the oligarchs. Many Albanians leave the country in search for jobs. The government is labelled a “narco-government” with a “narco-Prime Minister” by protesters. Basha and his party quit the country’s parliament recently in order to fight Rama’s government, accusing the parliament of being formed “through the votes of the crime and the mafia”. One specific incident that sparked these protests is a scandal surrounding the building of a ring road in Tirana. The government paid 18 million euros to a company that was appointed to build a section of the road, based on false documents. The manager of the company is now a fugitive. The opposition points to this case as evidence of government corruption. The protests turned more violent during the past month, with the police and the opposition clashing. However, this week protests show that non-violence has been chosen over violence by both sides.
Response and future actions
The student protests earlier in December and Janury concerned the high tuition fees and the poor quality of the education system. Rama responded by stating that he is willing to fulfil the students demands, but only through dialogue. But according to Democratic Party leader Basha, the only solution now is Rama’s departure. Rama stated that the hand of co-operation and dialogue is still open to the opposition as well, even now they excluded themselves from parliament.
The statement of the protesters “to bring down the government of thugs” stirred criticism from the European and United States embassies in Tirana, fearing future instability in the country. Also the acts of violence by the Albanian police and the protesters are strongly condemned by the embassies. The EU High Representative Federica Mogherini expressed the citizens’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations, but denounced at the same time rhetoric by political leaders calling for violence.