Wednesday, January 26, 2011

‘Shame’ is the word after the Tirana bloodshed

By Gjergj Erebara

“Shame” is the right word to express the feelings of members of Albania’s Facebook community over what happened on Friday in Tirana, when a protest called by the opposition ended in violence in which three people died and dozens of others were wounded.
Facebook surfers recalled poetry about madness. Alongside them were accusations from various politically affiliated participants aimed at the parties’ respective leaders.
Politically affiliated Facebook activists were in a minority and their posts did not attract as many comments as the rest, or perhaps this is what I liked to see.
Some journalists had abandoned their role as neutral reporters in calling for a boycott of those aggressive politicians who were continuing to urge people to protest. It was amusing to see the group of friends of the Mjaft Movement (the so-called young hope), now distributed among different political parties, blaming each other as killers of the three victims and using much the same aggressive language as their beloved leaders.
Some called for the resignation of both Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the opposition leader Edi Rama, saying both were equally responsible for the turmoil, and surely they were right. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that both government and the opposition had sought clashes.
Although the feeling of shame was strong, even stronger was the tone of debate about who bore most responsibility for what had happened. The mainstream media articulated two different views of the event. One group pointed to the fact that the police put there to take on the protesters were just low-paid Albanians who had not chosen to be there and did not deserve to be attacked.
These commentators neglected to mention the fact that three people had died and that it was surely possible to avoid deaths in a protest, which, though violent, was unarmed and did not seriously threaten the police. By contrast, when Berisha’s own supporters had attacked the same government building in 1998, they were well armed but “only” two people died.
Another group expressed horror at the fact that three people had been killed who had posed no real risk to the police.
In the meantime, the wave of information and misinformation about who killed whom remains ongoing.
The speculation started when a medic in the Military Hospital offered an unusually richly detailed report on the deaths only minutes after the event. According to him, two of the victims “were shot by small-calibre guns and at close range”. Prime Minister Berisha had claimed immediately after the protest that a conspiracy had been organized by the opposition, who killed their own protesters to score political points.
Journalists who felt that this version of events insulted their intelligence offered a barrage of filmed footage showing that at least one of the victims was fired on from within Government House and that some of the soldiers had opened fire not just in the air, but also horizontally.
Berisha did not repeat his scenario the next day. But police officials declared that they had arrested one protester who had been holding a pistol. Prosecutors, meanwhile, issued orders to arrest six National Guard officials, suggesting they had authority to open fire only toward people within the perimetre of the building while at least two of the victims were shot well outside the fences of Government House.
On Saturday evening, police ignored the orders issued by the prosecutors to arrest the National Guard officers, further undermining the legitimacy of the government. The police and the National Guard have the same boss, the Minister of Interior.
This was the first violent protest that Tirana had seen in 12 years, if we do not count a short, failed attempt by supporters of the Democratic Party (now in power) in February 2004. This was also the first time in more than a decade that the police had used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters. The government had brought anti-riot equipment back in May 2008. Berisha, it seems, doesn’t feel secure without strong police forces and abundant equipment.
Berisha has a long record of using violence against protesters and often doesn’t discriminate between violent or peaceful ones. The opposition, for its part, is well known for the revolutionary and militant spirit it inherited from their founding fathers in the Second World War.
No one can believe that the protesters in Friday’s clashes were people genuinely offended by the glimpse of corrupt government provided by a recently aired video, which showed former prime minister Ilir Meta discussing two manipulated tenders and three public posts given to his supporters, one of whom had no university degree. They were simply angry that they did not have the same chance to get their hands on corruption as the government.
Both Prime Minister Sali Berisha and the head of Opposition Edi Rama are beloved figures in Kosovo - but Albanians from Kosovo have shown their support for Berisha. My hunch is that the feeling of shame among them over what happened in Tirana is related to the way they have always seen Tirana as a big brother with muscles who can protect his smaller sibling. They don’t like to see weakness in Albania.
It is strange that Albania has no experience of violence from soccer hooligans, or from anarchists and extremists attacking the police. There are rumours of extreme Islamists, but nothing serious has happened yet among them. Albania’s only extremism is in its conventional politics, in politics that doesn’t differ much in terms of a political agenda, or in terms of love of bribes, but which still has the ability to mobilize big crowds to fight.
The current government is largely supported by those who were second-class citizens in the 1980s, some of whom were ousted in power struggles within the Communist government of the time. Others were condemned to remain outside the ruling circle simply because they happened to live outside Tirana and were forbidden to come in under the system of internal passports. Moving from one town to another required special permission. For these people, their fall from power in the 1980s was the equivalent of going from paradise to hell. Their seizure of power meant the end of provincial life and poverty.
The government seems occasionally also to enjoy the passive support of that bulk of Albanians who really suffered under Communism and were officially termed the “overrun classes”. These were the families of old businessmen, landowners or officials from the pre-Communist era. This last group doesn’t benefit so much Albania’s recent power shifts, but they strongly dislike everything linked to the current opposition.
The opposition, for its part, has the support of the old ruling class of the Communist regime. Their bad dream continues to be the period when they first fell from power in 1992. Scores of them suddenly became jobless, and that was a very bad period to be jobless. I would speculate that for all three groups, the nightmare is much the same: poverty related to loss of power.
Naturally, most Albanians don’t belong to any of these categories.
This triangle of “overrun” Communists from the 1980s, ex-provincials and former Communist officials creates the bulk of today’s political class. For all of them, power means money and honour, and opposition means economic stress and humiliation. Together they create the political groups who put their faith in the possibility of getting corrupted, and who have an easygoing attitude towards violence, as we have seen. More often than fighting each other, these groups join forces to create the conditions that forbid the majority of Albanians, who don’t belong to either group, from having any real share in affairs.
From a practical point of view, recent events in Tirana will have an effect that lasts years, in terms of the country’s record of stability. Some, who have opted to build a life in Albania, accepting a bad, corrupt government in the context of a stable and politically nonviolent environment, may now be rethinking.
Albania remains the poorest country in the region with a GDP per capita of just $4,000 a year. It doesn’t offer many people very good life for the moment, but if it remains peaceful, it still offers opportunities and some may hope that things will get better. After Friday’s violence, such hopes have been diminished.

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