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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A Grassroots Report on the Current Protests in Nicaragua

New Orleans   Several years ago the Organizers Forum visited Managua and several other cities in Nicaragua to assess the status of the country and its civil society in the years since the revolution.  Now the government is undergoing fierce street protests led by students.  We received this report forwarded from friends to friends offering a street level view of the protests from the ground up, and I thought it was worth sharing.

Our companero began his email saying, “…the situation [is] changing on a daily basis, and with more time spent in meetings and in the streets and roads than in front of a computer, am just now getting around to send this . . . Since writing on [April] 24th, the death toll (assassinations by the police and paramilitary forces) has risen to more than 60 . . . and rising (lots of “disappeared”) . . . two massive opposition mobilizations (23rd and 28th April), preparations for a national dialogue . . . with the government continuing to put on a public face of “everything is normal” . . . Very similar to the behavior of Somoza in 1978-1979, shortly before he fled the country,. For obvious reasons, I´ve left out many “details” of the uprising.  Just trying to give a general picture of the situation here.

His report followed as an attachment:

For more than a decade Nicaragua has been living in an “Ortega-Murillo Family” dictatorship that centralized all power (and wealth) in the very limited circle that surrounded the presidential couple….Every effort was made to win over youth by downplaying the importance of a good education and offering a steady diet of “bread and circus”.

 

For more than a decade, Nicaraguan youth, in the absence of credible institutional support, have been left, for the most part, to their own resources to grow, mature, and try to take responsibility for their lives.  Many have done this through “social media”, forming circles of friends with whom they can communicate, and become more aware of what is happening.  These “cybernetic relationships” have helped in some way to deal with the alienation, frustration, and isolation they have experienced in a society in which everything is concentrated “above”, with little, if any, space for them.

 

This all changed the night of April 17th of this year.  The previous weekend the presidential couple, with no consultation, announced a series of “reforms” to the Social Security System—a system that has been decimated over the years by governments using the system as a source of petty cash, lending millions to political friends, a bank of “phantom” employees—political party members—who did no work but received a monthly salary (in fact, 14 monthly salaries a year!), and not contributing their share to the ongoing needs of the system.  The imposed reforms raised the monthly quota that workers and employers would have to pay in to the system on a monthly basis, and cut the retirement benefits by 5%.  The reforms basically were an economic blow for just about everybody:  minimum-wage workers, sweatshop workers, teachers, health workers, construction workers, small businesses . . . up to the “big guys”.

 

For 48 hours there were VERBAL protests by business leaders, representatives of retired workers, a few independent unions, and some business representatives.  The night of Tuesday, April 17th, a group of college students gathered in front of the Jesuit university in Managua to protest against the reforms.  Pro-government groups passed by, trying to intimidate the students, but no violence resulted.  The following night, again in front of the Jesuit university, students gathered for another protest.  This time, under cover of darkness, pro-government forces began to attack the students with stones and rocks; result: a few minor injuries and all the glass portion of the entrance to the university destroyed.  Police present did nothing.

 

The following night (Thursday), the student protest moved to the Polytechnic University (UPOLI).  The police attacked the students . . . resulting in three student deaths.  Friday night, there were student mobilizations, marches, and demonstrations around the country.  Police reaction resulted in seven more deaths.  During the weekend, mobilizations increased and became massive.  Police violence also increased.  The death toll rose to 31; that is, in four days, 31 deaths.

 

Monday, April 23, there was an extraordinary mobilization in Managua, in which the business community joined students marching from the center of the city to the gates of Polytechnic University where the police have hundreds of students surrounded within the university.  The estimated number of participants in the mobilization is 500,000 . . . in the history of Nicaragua, only less than the number of participants in the pre-electoral march of February 21, 1990.

 

As a result of the student mobilizations (and the support received by the students from the Catholic hierarchy and business community), Ortega announced Sunday that he was “cancelling” the reforms, and was willing to “dialogue” with the business community.  Instead of offering condolences to the families of the more than thirty students killed, he referred to them as violent law-breakers and students who don’t understand the history of Nicaragua(?) . . . The students, Catholic hierarchy, and business leaders all insist that, in the face of continuing government violence, it is no time for dialogue, and that if there is to be dialogue, it has to be with ALL SECTORS of Nicaragua society, most importantly the students.

 

While this is going on in the cities, Francisca Ramirez, leader of the campesino community organizing against the plans of Ortega to build a canal through the country, is organizing a regional strike throughout the campesino community, in support of the students.

This is one perspective obviously, but what is happening in Nicaragua is worth our attention.  It may be a small country, but it matters.

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