Gun Shots and Contested Elections: Divided Albania Threatened with 'Paralyzing' Revolt

By Jan Puhl

Political tensions surrounding recent elections are hurting Albania's chances of joining the EU. The country is divided into two political camps, and angry protesters have taken to the streets promising a revolution.

Photo Gallery: Albania's Divide Photos
REUTERS

In front of the election commission's building in downtown Tirana, demonstrators have hung white sheets bearing a plea for help: "Where is Europe?"

They are supporters of Edi Rama, and they are angry. The local elections took place four weeks ago, but they are still playing out among Albanians. Rama was re-elected mayor of the capital on May 8, but only by a margin of 10 votes. Then the election commission did a recount, and all of a sudden Rama trailed his opponent, the ruling Democratic Party's Lulzim Basha, by 81 votes. Rama took the matter to court, but his appeal was rejected over the weekend. Now his attorneys are preparing for their next lawsuit.

Edi Rama stands about six and a half feet (two meters) tall and has the shadow of a beard. He is the head of the Socialist Party of Albania, the largest opposition party. The mayor's office in Tirana hasn't been enough for him for a long time, and he harbors hopes of becoming prime minister of his country, one of the poorest in Europe. Since the loss of his stronghold could mean the end of his ambitions, he is convinced that his archenemy, Prime Minister Sali Berisha, manipulated the results.

Rama says that Berisha's goal is "the annihilation of the democratic equilibrium in our country," and he predicts a popular revolt that would "paralyze the country."

Berisha should take this threat seriously since Albania is deeply divided into pro-Rama and pro-Berisha camps. In the recent election, members of both parties got into brawls. One candidate from the Democratic Party was shot at, and an explosive device was detonated outside the home of one of the Socialist candidates. Political tensions in Albania recently prompted EU President José Manuel Barroso a planned trip to Tirana.

Quest for EU Membership

Albania is a member of NATO and would like to join the EU, but the questions surrounding the mayoral election in Tirana have reduced the chances that this dream will come true any time soon. Across the Balkans, governments are taking pains to finally be taken seriously as potential members of the EU. Serbia is working toward reconciliation with Kosovo. Macedonia wants to put aside its old feud with neighboring Greece, and Croatia has put its war criminals on trial.

More than 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, only Albania lags far behind. Many observers consider the country to be a fortress of weapons, drugs and traffickers of women and home to a number of blood feuds. What's more, the fight between Rama and Basha has hindered any political progress for two years.

Rama likes to flirt with the idea that he really isn't a politician. He painted his office dark red, and an oil painting of a morbid beauty hangs on one wall. Before he was first elected, in October 2000, he lived as a Bohemian exile in Paris. He was a successful painter, with exhibits in New York, São Paulo and Frankfurt.

Then he set his sights on his shabby, dusty and dangerous hometown and carefully beautified the post-communist jungle. He let his friends paint the bleak cinderblock apartment buildings in bright colors -- orange, red, yellow and blue -- with white polka dots. "The colors were a signal that we wanted to change something," Rama said.

The 'World's Mayor'

For a while, it looked like it was working. Western nations celebrated the eccentric populist with the paint buckets as someone who could realize bold plans. On the Internet, some fans even gave him the title the "World's Mayor." And, in Albania, Rama was considered an outsider who confronted the corruption of the political establishment.

These days, although you can't say that Tirana is beautiful, it is at least lively. The "Block," which was a once closed-off living quarter for the nomenclature, is now a hip area with restaurants and bars. The parks are clean, the main roads are freshly paved, and Skanderbeg Square, Tirana's main plaza, was renovated with funds from Kuwait. Although the capital has grown from a population of 220,000 to 1.5 million in 20 years, it is still considered a safe city.

Much of this can be attributed to Rama, but for some time now, he has had a damaged reputation. His decline started in the election of June 2009. At that time, Berisha's Democratic Party, as part of a coalition with other smaller parties, won 70 of 140 parliamentary seats. The EU did not object to the election, and Rama felt cheated out of his victory. His Socialists boycotted the parliament for months. Every Friday, he marshalled his followers to protest in front of the office of the head of government.

In January 2011, shots rang out when protests against a bribery affair involving the finance minister got heated. The Albanian Republican Guard opened fire on protesters outside Berisha's office, killing four Rama supporters. When the head public prosecutor wanted to arrest six officers, Berisha called her a "steet whore," and the arrest warrants went unenforced for weeks.

Weak Sense of Democracy

The rivalry between the two men highlights Albania's problem. The political elite aren't prepared to accept defeat at the ballot box, and the democratic organs of state lack the necessary authority.

"It's Sali's Fault," was the only slogan the mayor used in his election campaign. Indeed, Rama has no political platform to speak of; all he has is himself and his hatred of Berisha. He has turned into just the kind of politician he used to detest. As his critics see it, he has stamped his authority on the party, stifles debate and only sees things in black and white.

Fatos Lubonja isn't surprised at the artist's mutation into a demagogue. "We were friends," he says, "and I told him even back then that he was dangerous." Lubonja is sipping tea in a café on Skanderberg Square. The author was a dissident during the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who alienated Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and then China before leading Albania into complete isolation in 1978.

The 13 years he spend in a Hoxha labor camp made Lubonja prone to sickness, but they also made him brave. He coughs a lot and gestures wildly. "Rama and Berisha are both backed by cliques of oligarchs," he says, describing them as corrupt businessmen who control the construction industry and the media. "Their fight is a fight over the spoils," he adds. "In the 20 years since the fall of communism, we have swapped one degenerate leadership for the next, except that today's is better dressed."

But why do the Albanians put up with it? One reason could be that, unlike other former communist states, they lack a positive image of the EU. "Our neighbors are the Italians with their corrupt, trashy prime minister and, on the other side, we've got the bankrupt Greeks," Lubonja says. He also thinks Albanians still have an poorly developed democratic mind-set.

Indeed, Albanians have never managed to identify themselves with the state. The Ottomans occupied today's Albania until shortly before World War I. The country was desperately poor, and 90 percent of the population was illiterate until well into the 20th century. National pride was a luxury that only a handful of middle-class intellectuals in Tirana or Shkodra could afford.

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