2 Men Jostle for Power in Albania
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
TIRANA — In Albania’s rough and murky politics, the personalities are strong and the public institutions still count for less, 20 years after communism crumbled.
The latest illustration of violent tussle between two opposing camps occurred Friday, when a crowd tried to storm the office of Prime Minister Sali Berisha. The five-hour clash left three protesters dead, about 60 hurt and 113 arrested. Opposition supporters threw sticks and stones at the building, while the police responded with tear gas, water cannons and firearms.
(Photo: Jodi Hilton)
Mr. Berisha said in an interview that watching the crowd made him “sad” for his country. “No one should try to topple a legitimately elected government with 200-300 paid thugs,” he said in the prime minister’s office, which his own supporters tried to storm in 1998 when Fatos Nano held the post and Mr. Berisha was an opposition leader.
“If they use violence, you must react,” said Mr. Berisha, a former president who has been in top office for more than half of Albania’s post-communist history. “The police showed extraordinary professionalism.” He vowed he would not be dislodged from power.
The battle was part of a long and increasingly shrill conflict between Mr. Berisha and Edi Rama, leader of the opposition Socialists. Mr. Rama, mayor of Tirana since 2000, demands Mr. Berisha’s resignation and continues to challenge the results of the elections in 2009 that gave him his second four-year term as prime minister.
Mr. Rama, an artist, has long since traded in casual clothes for a somber politician’s suit and is focused on winning power.
“I’m not a man of violence, but at the same time, I’m not someone who can submit to such a masquerade that’s named democracy,” he said in his spacious, flashy City Hall office. “What we are asking for is not a movement to overthrow a regime, it’s a movement to stand strong against a way of governing which is not acceptable anymore.”
Caught between these two entrenched camps are most of Albania’s three million people, who while experiencing strong economic growth from a dismally low base in the past decade still find life tough. The colorful facades painted on Tirana buildings when Mr. Rama came to power are now faded and dull.
The demonstrations last week were fueled by a video that appears to show the deputy prime minister discussing a bribe for giving permission to build a power plant. Mr. Berisha called the video a forgery.
Albania has gained stability since it was paralyzed by widespread riots, chaos and curfew in 1997 after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. It joined NATO in 2009 and had visa requirements waived last month by the Schengen nations, covering much of Europe. Yet doubts about the rule of law, organized crime and corruption have kept it from gaining full candidate status for the European Union.
These concerns were not eased in recent days, when Mr. Berisha’s office prevented the police from executing a prosecutor’s warrant to arrest six members of the National Guard in connection with allegations of abuse at the demonstrations. Indeed, Mr. Berisha gave bonuses to officers on duty at the protest.
Tensions have continued high this week because the opposition has called another demonstration for Friday. Mr. Berisha said he was canceling his own “rally against violence” on Saturday. “The climate is not right,” he said.
During the communist era, Albania was a hermit within the Eastern bloc. In 1991, it was the last East European country to overthrow communist rule, which in Albania was particularly harsh.
That has impeded the development of democratic give-and-take. To many Albanians, said Lutfi Dervishi, an independent political analyst, the battle between the two important parties just seems a stubborn contest between two men and the interests they represent.
“They are not talking to each other; rather they are in a bunker and shooting at each other,” Mr. Dervishi said. “They pretend to have the support of the people, but they have to bus people in from the countryside for rallies.”
The building facades painted under Mr. Rama serve as another symbol, said Artan Lame, an engineer and deputy mayor for urban planning for the first two years of Mr. Rama’s time in office.
“It was a fusion of his desire to make the changes visible and the people’s desire for change,” Mr. Lame said. “He should have gone a step further, but unfortunately he got stuck just improving the facades.”
Mr. Rama, he implied, tired of the business of governing. “Here we have just an artist and a facade, and no system” for governance, Mr. Lame said.
Gjergji Filipi of the Agenda Institute, a private analytical group in Tirana, said economic growth slowed to 2.8 percent last year after eight years averaging 7.5 percent.
“I think people feel that,” he said. In a poorly administered country whose infrastructure is still basic, a 10 percent flat tax implemented in 2007 turned out to be unsustainable. So, Mr. Filipi said, they began to “cook the books.”
When the global economic downturn hit, the government lost credibility for promoting the notion that Albania was untouched. The country has also suffered from the sharp downturn in neighboring Greece, where many Albanians once found casual work, sending money back home.
Politics in general is overshadowed by lack of openness about the brutality under Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 40 years until his death in 1985.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of his rule now is the bizarre communist-era pyramid in central Tirana next to the prime minister’s office. Opened as a museum-monument to Mr. Hoxha in 1988, the pyramid has since hosted a museum, a cultural center, the Mummy Nightclub, cafes, the offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now a television channel.
Today, it is a decaying eyesore. Children can no longer slide down its steep sides since the marble crumbled off. Protesters broke off pieces last Friday to throw at the prime minister’s office across the street. Most Albanians seem convinced that the truth about that violence — as most other events here — will never emerge.
“Nothing is going to be done,” said Eralda Murataj, 22, who studies finance at Tirana University. “Nothing in this country is done very well. We’re not a full democracy yet.”