In show of unity, Albanian opposition holds massive anti-government rally as PM’s rule shows cracks

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 22, 2024 13:34

In show of unity, Albanian opposition holds massive anti-government rally as PM’s rule shows cracks

Story Highlights

  • The opposition chose to protest on a symbolic day marking the toppling of the bust of communist dictator 33 years ago. 

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TIRANA, Feb. 22, 2024 - With a sea of people filling Tirana’s main boulevard, Albania’s opposition has held its largest protest rally in months in a show of strength and unity, following the merger of two factions of the main center-right Democratic Party into one. 

DP and allied smaller political forces are seeking an end of the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Edi Rama -- a rule they say is corrupt and authoritarian and which is resulting in a mass exodus from Albania of the young and the educated. 

The opposition chose to protest on a symbolic day for the history of pluralism in Albania, Feb. 20, the date when the bust of communist dictator Enver Hoxha was toppled 33 years ago in Tirana. 

Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha spoke to the crowd via video link from his home. The 79-year-old has made a political comeback to be largely accepted as the leader of the opposition in Albania. He is under house arrest on what the opposition says are trumped-up corruption accusations tied to a decade-old land deal. 

"The opposition will reserve for the second dictatorship … the fate it deserves, the fate we reserved for the communist dictatorship 33 years ago," Berisha said. 

-Opposition shows unity-

The protest was held in a new context of developments within the opposition. The majority faction led by Berisha was recently joined by another faction led by MP Gazmend Bardhi, giving it almost all DP MPs in parliament. 

The move has been hailed as an important step in ending internal strife within the party, which started following its defeat in the April 25, 2021 general elections. 

The uniting of the Berisha and Bardhi factions also leaves the government- and court-recognized DP faction of Lulzim Basha with only a tiny number of votes in parliament. However, it gets all state funding and privileges as if it were representing opposition voters in a move that has weakened the opposition politically and financially.

The two factions that united said they will accept having “unity in diversity” backtracking from some earlier clashes. Berisha also echoed this union in his speech. 

"Today, when Albanians see us together after all the brutality that has been done to us, when Albanians see us together after our internal conflicts, when Albanians see us together in so many numbers, trust is restored in every house, in every neighborhood, on every street, in every village, in every city. The union of DP has introduced Albanian politics into a new era. It is this unity in diversity that the Albanians had not achieved once in 33 years. It is this unity in diversity, the most precious gift of PD to Albanians," Berisha said.

-Opposition vows ‘civil disobedience-

The next steps post the protest are unclear, but Albania's opposition has been protesting in parliament for months, disrupting proceedings for what they say are “anti-democratic maneuvers” by Prime Minister Rama to exclude the largest opposition group from investigative committees and a key electoral reform. 

It has now vowed to bring that disruption to the streets with what Berisha says should be  “civil disobedience against the second dictatorship" of Prime Minister Rama.

The protest was mostly peaceful but there were some incidents of stones and a Molotov cocktail thrown at the government building, which is not unusual for protests of this type in Albania. Police proceeded to arrest several protesters, with two of them suffering physical beatings in custody, according to the country’s ombudsman and opposition sources. 

-Teflon PM’s rule showing cracks-

While Rama’s well-polished international image and willingness to offer Albania to solve other countries' problems has given him an air of legitimacy and popularity abroad, at home he is facing a neverending list of scandals that has seen some of his top lieutenants going to prison or go on the run relating to corruption charges. 

In a recent lengthy television interview from exile, Albania’s former deputy prime minister, Arben Ahmetaj, made startling accusations of massive corruption at the top of the country’s ruling Socialist Party -- including the prime minister -- involving misuse of public funds in waste management and other taxpayer-funded projects.

Unmet expectations of economic growth and lack of hope for a better political future under Rama are also causing a massive emigration from Albania, leaving the country ever weaker, critics argue. 

But scandals tied to Rama were not limited to Albania alone. A U.S. court recently sentenced former FBI official Charles McGonigal to 28 months in prison for "serious breach of public trust" regarding payments he received from an Albanian-American and failure to disclose contacts with officials in Albania, including Rama.

“While Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Tirana praising Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama last week, a disgraced FBI agent with ties to Rama was sentenced to prison on bribery charges,” notes Peter Lucas, a renowned Albanian American journalist, in an analysis for the Boston Herald.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 22, 2024 13:34