Curious Tactics of Anti-Government Protests in Albania

Tirana   You first feel the tear gas in your eyes, but quickly a small cough hacks away, as you put a handkerchief over your nose and mouth to breathe more easily.  Standing back from throng so we could observe clearly, we knew the tear gas was coming even before we felt its effect.  A surge of the crowd to the left of us swept nearby toward a street along side of the Parliament building and across from the Prime Minister’s offices.  Earlier, we had observed the security forces with their cameras from the tops of both buildings monitoring the crowd.  When flares and Molotov cocktails were thrown from the crowd over the police line towards the scaffolding covered in a green shroud in front of the main doors, and the first protestors broke through the thin police line, the security at the top of the Prime Minister’s building seemed to have left their posts.  When they returned, we could see them hoist their tear gas launchers and repeatedly fire straight down at the crowd, setting off sharp explosions and billowing clouds of gas.

Strangely, this seemed the point of the protest itself.  We had watched it gather before the announced time of 11 AM.  The small groups of mostly men had milled around for some time, as we watched the thin police line form along the edge of the streets bordering the building.  I would estimate no more than 500, none with guns or outfitted with riot gear, but all simply uniformed with tear gas masks connected to their belts.  There were no barricades, which would have been a common feature in the US and UK, especially for a protest so well advertised around the country.  The police were the least intimidating I have ever seen.  Fifty kindergarten children running at play would easily have broken through the line at many points.

This was simply a demonstration and a dance that both sides knew would start with the first movements and end with tear gas and tedium.  There was never a chance that protestors would breach the building.  There were no speeches.  There were a few signs and some Albanian, and, even American, flags hoisted by the protestors.  There were perches built for the TV cameras and media aplenty.  There was some momentary excitement as the lead line marched up the street but that stalled once they arrived in front of the building.  With a crowd I would estimate at perhaps 10,000, though some later news reports said it was “tens of thousands,” they then seemed to wait until most had assembled to go through the motions of seeming to assault the building.

The Prime Minister was in the south, though there were rumors he was in the nearby port city and protestors had surrounded him.  This was part of the jab and feint of opposing parties that had been seen in Albania for decades.  The current ruling Socialist Party in several elections, some very controversial, had finally unseated the Democratic Party that had ruled for years since the fall of Communism.  The SP had boycotted Parliament frequently in protest as it increased its numbers behind Edi Rama, who had finally also won election as mayor of Tirana, where more than a third of the country lives.  The Socialist Party became dominate in 2013 and then finally won an outright majority of 75 of the required 70 seats to control Parliament in the 2017 elections.  The next elections are in 2021, but the Democratic Party is unhappy at the current situation and using these protests to demand new elections for parliament now.  There are wide accusations of corruption and connections to drug trafficking, but a quick reading of national press doesn’t seem to raise these concerns past a modest level.  Public employment is huge in Albania, and the “in’s” push away the “outs” without anything resembling civil service protections, so much of this seems to mostly be the “outs” trying to stage a comeback and prove their relevance to the public while gumming up the works with a measure of gridlock in legislation to block reforms protested by Prime Minister Rama and his party in the meantime.

 

We walked past the tear gas into fresh air, spring-like temperatures, and a beautiful sunny day by noon, along with thousands of others, leaving the rest for what reporters wrote ended many hours later until undoubtedly another day.

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Hopelessness and Hope Among Young People in Albania

high school students

Ndroq and Tirana       We drove to Ndroq, a village of about 5000 people, that is part of the municipality of Tirana, Albania, even though it took us almost an hour to get there.  Most of the country we drove through was a mixed industrial area interspersed with some vineyards and truck farms yielding produce.  We were scheduled to visit a high school where Marsela Allmuca, my associate, had done work with women and girls on education and awareness projects focusing on empowerment as a prevention against potential domestic violence and abuse.

Most of the young people we visited with here were the equivalent of sophomores and juniors in US high schools.  Their English was good, and they were at that tipping point where they were still mostly children, even as they looked more like adults, but increasingly trying to sort out a path as adults and all of the craziness that goes with that in knowing both too much and way too little.  The dynamics were such that some of the more confident in speaking English and more accustomed to dominating class discussions held sway in the beginning, but gradually, the more we talked about organizing, the more we broke through.  In the beginning we largely heard what their fathers felt, but later we got closer to what they really thought, but it was a struggle.

The opening tone was one of hopelessness about their community and their country.  On a show of hand, almost all of them wanted out, seeing no hope for change or employment in Albania or this small village.  Surveys indicate that 79% of young Albanians want to emigrate to other countries.  Marsela told me that there were some forecasts that projected the current population of more than two million could be halved to only one-million in coming years given the existing outflow of the young and aging of the general population.  Their fathers’ issues were the conditions of roads, the inability to get paid for work performed, and the ever-present issue of resolving land ownership, which one teen thought required a $2000 fee to process, almost as much as a year’s annual wage at the minimum standard.  Finally, one girl at the back spoke up and with help eventually rallied the majority of the students around the issue of needing a playground or cinema.  The argument bizarrely focused on whether or not that issue was too trivial compared to the so-called “big” issue of better roads.  Eventually, we carried the day on a show of hands about whether we should organize for an immediate win on playgrounds, but given the permeation of hopelessness in the room, it took everything I could muster to convince them that picking issues was not a zero-sum game, but both could be handled, and both were important.

activists and volunteers at Human Rights House

Our next meeting was in Tirana at the Human Rights House with some of their volunteers and several activists.  This smaller group ranged from 21 to 25 years of age with most in universities at some level.  Here, I caught a break.  One Roma activist told the story of how he and his friends supported a community of sixteen families being forcibly relocated from a river bank where they were living.  Launching a determined campaign against the municipal housing agency, they eventually won resettlement and a land grant for the Roma families, so that they could rebuild their homes, which gave me a great community organizing story in order to push them more clearly in the direction of building power and creating change.  Several other activists had long experience in disaster relief after a fatal explosion of an unsafe plant in their area and were now trying to create some of the first social enterprises, or so they claimed, in the country.

well-known graduates of the high school

Perhaps if a young person can make it away from their local village and out of the homes of their families who have suffered through cataclysmic changes in the country throughout their generation, including the fall of Communism and mass deprivation and migration, there’s hope as they hit twenty for both themselves and the country.  It’s a mountain to climb, but some at least seem to be making it, so we’ll have to help them build the bridge for a better Albania.

he school’s namesake in NDROQ which is the name of the village

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