When there are elections in Albania, foreign visitors usually get noticed at first sight. With posters and graffiti, the parties are trying to mobilize their followers. Before the local elections on June 30, it looked different: nowhere election campaigns. Instead, the opposition Democratic Party (PD) tried to prevent the elections while Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling Socialist Party (PS) insisted on holding them.
In February, opposition members resigned their seats in the Albanian parliament. Since then, the PD is trying to force the resignation of the government through major rallies. Since the end of the real socialist dictatorship, the conflict between PS and PD has determined the politics of the Balkans. The fact that the PD has brought the conflict back to the streets ostensibly has something to do with the government’s criminal entanglements. In December, the radio station “Voice of America” made public research by the journalist Klodiana Lala, according to which before the parliamentary elections in 2017, the PS had bought votes and threatened voters in cooperation with organized crime groups. The Albanian police have recorded conversations that prove this.
The fact that there are connections between the government and the gangs, which made Albania the most important European producer of cannabis, is doubted in Tirana by hardly anyone. But in addition to this, the PD has self-serving reasons to question the legitimacy of the government. For seven years, the PS has been governing and expanding its power. In Albanian clientelist politics, where parties gain approval by allowing their followers to benefit, prolonged exclusion from power and access to government resources is dangerous. And there is another reason why the PD was likely to have sought confrontation with the government on the street in February: in the winter of 2018/2019, the biggest student protests since 1991 – when they marked the end of real socialism – shook the country. They were directed, inter alia, against the increase in examination fees. Under pressure from Rama in December 2018, she was forced to exchange eight ministers.
In one of the flat, two-storey garden houses, which shaped the old town of Tirana just ten years ago, but now increasingly have to give way for skyscrapers, runs the small left group Organizata Politike (Political Organization, OP) a social center. The construction boom has forced the group to move twice since 2017. In the courtyard of the center, young leftists rave about demonstrations in the winter. Mirela Ruko, who is a member of the Lëvizja Për Universitetin (LPU), tells how overwhelming the experience had been, suddenly and unexpectedly, to be part of a huge crowd taking to the streets for their own interests – without instrumentalization by one of the major parties. “It was unique to see the movement pushing the government that was helplessly responding to the protests. Many people outside universities have recognized the special nature of this situation, “says Ruko. The bystanders confirm that although most people have remained inactive themselves, they have placed great hopes in the students and delegated the task of political change to them. “Again and again we were approached by people on the street, that we students now have to overcome the political system based on corruption and clientelism,” says one activist.
The widespread frustration over the desolate economic situation of the country and a political leadership that does not even try to distinguish itself from a band of robbers, the PD apparently wanted to harness for themselves. In mid-April, the PD founded an alliance with seven other parties, the most important of which was the Lëvizja Socialiste për Integrim (Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI), a secession of the PS, to which President Ilir Meta belongs. Before elections are not free and fair, these parties do not want to participate in them. According to them, free and fair elections can only be hold under a transitional government without Rama – the local elections on June 30 were therefore boycotted by the Alliance. A social movement was not connected with the founding of this alliance. The addressees of his activities were the US and the EU, which shall withdraw the support of the Rama government.
The situation worsened in early June, after the German tabloid Bild had published footage of phone calls proving PS’s involvement in electoral fraud in 2017. The publications took note of almost all of Albania. On June 8, President Meta issued a decree ordering a postponement of the election. Prime Minister Rama refused to implement the presidential decree and kept the election preparations going. The opposition said it wanted to prevent the elections. There were arson attacks on polling stations. In some communities governed by the PD, clashes occurred between local and central police units.
Five days before the election date at the end of June, around 100 especially young people will meet at the monument to the unknown partisan in the center of Tirana. Many of the participants great each other by the slogan “Tre parti një oligarki!” (“Three Parties – One Oligarchy!”) The members of OP have decided to take the road in face of the tense situation. However, not under the slogan of the opposition, “Rama ik!” (“Rama go!”), but with the slogan “Lufta e bandave partiake nuk është lufta jonë!” (“The fight of the party gangs is not our fight!” ) Many female speakers appear at the rally. The student protests have politicized many young people, the number of members of the OP has tripled. And in particular young women took the streets in winter protesting against tuition fees, university corruption and poor future prospects. “One of the reasons for this is that they are particularly affected by high tuition fees and the associated problems of completing or even studying. For many young women, that still means, they have to get married early and can not have a self-determined life, “says Arlind Qori, one of the oldest members of OP.
The speeches criticize the fact that all political parties over the past three decades have contributed to the fact that a large part of the Albanian population lives in poverty and has to work in wretched circumstances, while elsewhere great wealth has been amassed. Symptomatic of the poor working conditions is the case of Ardit Gjoklaj. The 17-year-old worked in an urban landfill and died in 2016 due to inadequate safety measures. On one of the banners at the rally Erion Veliaj, the mayor of Tirana, is blamed for the death of the teenager.
Veliaj has a career not unusual for Eastern European conditions behind him. After studying in the USA and Great Britain, he founded the civic movement “Mjaft!” (Enough!) In 1993, which campaigned against corruption and backwardness and for a modern civil society. The success of Mjaft opened in 2011 the way to a party career with the then still oppositional socialists. After the election of Rama as prime minister in 2013, Veliaj became Minister of Youth and Social Affairs, in 2015 he moved to the post of mayor of Tirana. Today he is considered the “crown prince” of Rama.
The criticism of the mayor makes the police present nervous. During the rally, they are demanding more and more vehemently, if unsuccessfully, to take off the banner. In the end, a fine is imposed for violating environmental regulations: the twine that secured the banner to the trees would have damaged it. The absurdity of this decision becomes even clearer when you look at the surroundings. Everywhere in Tirana, skyscrapers skyrocket, green areas are being cleared regardless of the environment or the health of the urban population. Activists critical of Tirana’s urban development claim that these construction projects are largely washing profits from cannabis production. What is certain is that the builders maintain very close ties to the mayor and the government.
A few days later, further fines are due. Members of OP were caught by the police as they were posting half of Tirana. On the posters, the group declares mayor Veliaj not only responsible for the death of Gjoklaj, but also criticizes the increase in tariffs for buses and water supplies and the destruction of green spaces and public space in the city. Within a day, the police have removed almost all the posters. The group has to pay a total of 800 euros, which is equivalent to two to three average monthly wages. This is an enormous financial challenge for the organization, which is mainly funded by donations from its members. “This is the repression against the movement,” Qori says. »The state avoids incarcerating activists to prevent occasions for heroic gestures and solidarity effects. Instead, they want to intimidate young people with relatively high fines. “
On the 30th of June it stays peaceful. At a polling station in the Musine Kokalari School in Tirana, few people appear for voting. The mood is relaxed, but the guard in front of the school does not allow any photos. The day before, there was a clash between supporters of the PD and the police in this area. The school is named after the first female Albanian writer, a leftist who had to spend 37 years in prison and exile after a show trial in 1946 until her death, and is located in the legendary district of Kombinat. Built as a planned city for the employees of the textile combine “Josef Stalin”, it was the model and symbol of Albania’s industrialization under Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. The factory halls today are plundered broke.
In another former socialist district of Tirana, a group of men around the 50 years gathered in front of the PD office. “Rama – Communist” and “Rama – criminal” they call. Out of the crowd, a slightly younger man peels, well-dressed and with a concrete side parting. At first glance, he looks like an employee of one of the Western embassies or international institutions present in Tirana. It turns out that he is one of the PD MEPs who resigned in February. “For the first time since the end of the communist dictatorship, there are elections in Albania in which only one party participates,” he says, and that the country’s prime minister turns Albania back into a one-party dictatorship. He hopes for support from the European Conservatives and that there will finally be a constitutional tribunal in the autumn, which would then cancel the elections. But the hopes for anti-communist sentiments among the Western powers are likely to be in vain; in the interests of stability in the Balkans, as the term goes, the EU and the US are supporting the Rama government.
The members of the OP also gathered on election day. Since the early morning hours, they are waiting in the social center. Many of those present are publicly known as left-wing activists since the student protests. “We are afraid that supporters of the major parties are threatening or attacking us, and today we do not want to be alone at home or in the city,” says one of them. Even in the case of an escalation of events, it would be good to be together to discuss how to deal with the situation, adds another. But these fears do not prove true. So they look at the election results together on TV: The PS has won under 23 percent turnout, the PD does not recognize the result. The eternal dispute between the parties is entering a new round.
According to OP members, a way out of this situation is only possible through fundamental social change. In order to make this possible, the young leftists have high hopes for the workers. Supported by OP, the Solidariteti union was founded at the beginning of the year. As the country’s first grassroots trade union, it is trying to organize the approximately 25,000 people who work in call centers in Albania, especially for the Italian market. It is no coincidence that it is precisely the call centers that could become the starting point of a new trade union movement. Although the work in the call centers is well-paid compared to that in the textile industry, which also produces for the Italian market. But the labor pressure is high according to trade unionists and the handling of employees is often characterized by arbitrariness. In addition, many who work there are young and well educated and have lived abroad. Nevertheless, alumni of Albanian universities can rarely expect a better job than in the call center.
The idea of forming a union had already existed before the student protests, but the mood of optimism in the winter has spurred the process on, say members of the union. Although not all the formalities of the official registration of the union have been completed, but the union has already successfully conducted its first disputes. There are also approaches to found new unions in the education sector and in mining. Maybe here begins a change that is more important than the change of governmental parties.
Published in German on Jungle.world. The English version was provided by the author himself.
Imazhi: BILD/Peter Korig
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