An anti-government demonstration. Calls for resignation. Bullets and use of tear gas. Three people killed and dozens injured. No, this is not a scene from the riots in Tunisia but a picture from Tirana.
The opposition led by the Socialist Party of Tirana's Mayor Edi Rama organised on January 21st a large-scale rally calling for the resignation of Sali Berisha's cabinet on corruption charges.
The protest was spurred by revelations that one of Berisha's closest associates - Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Ilir Meta was involved in a corruption scandal. A video footage from March 2010, aired by a local TV, showed how Meta was lobbying in favour of a specific company before the then Economy Minister Dritan Prifti. He asks Prifti to interfere over a hydropower plant concession tender to favour a businessman who was offering 700,000 euros for the service.
Meta, who is also the leader of the junior coalition partner (Socialist Movement for Integration) denied any wrongdoing and tendered his resignation to help clearing his name.
The scandal caused uproar within the opposition which had repeatedly accused the government of corruption and bad management. The country is in a political deadlock since the June 2009 parliamentary elections won by a slight margin by Berisha's Democratic Party. The opposition refused to accept the results from the vote and since then had been hampering the parliament's work and the approval of key legislation related to EU integration. This was the reason for the European Commission not to grant Albania an EU candidate status, in contrast to Montenegro.
Last week's violent protests will complicate the situation further. Foreign diplomats in the country, including EU envoy Ettore Sequi, held talks during the weekend with President Bamir Topi to voice their concern and to call for restoration of the dialogue in order to prevent further damages to Albania's aspirations to join the EU and NATO.
Easing the tension between the ruling parties and the opposition would be a difficult task as the two sides keep on trading accusations over the violence. Prime Minister Sali Berisha accused the demonstrators of trying to carry out a coup d'etat and to implement a Tunisia-like scenario. He called on the people to gather next weekend for a demonstration against the violence. Socialist leader Edi Rama in his turn accused the police of provocations against the crowd and vowed to proceed with calls for resignation of the government and early elections. A new demonstration is scheduled for Friday, a week after the blood-marred rally.
It would be difficult to find a solution of the tense situation as the two sides remain at their extreme stances and do not want to step back. A compromise however is needed as the scenes of violence can do nothing else but harm the image of European Albania. On Monday the European Commission warned the country not to rely on Brussels to solve the political crisis and called on political leaders to meet and find a way out of the situation. On the other hand, however, may be it is time in Albania too a new generation of younger and non-burdened by the past politicians to appear. Thus the catharsis will be genuine.