On January 21, 2011, Albanians in Albania and across the globe were shocked when a protest in the capital of Tirana turned violent, leaving three dead and thirty-nine wounded. The Socialist Party, chaired by Edi Rama, had conducted a door-to-door campaign to drive people into the streets after Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta of the ruling Democratic Party was caught on tape trying to fix a public tender for a hydropower plant granted to one of his friends. But the public reaction went far beyond two decades of stark division between the country’s reigning political camps.
By the time the violence was quelled, it was clear that the crowd of more than 20,000 represented a citizenry filled with pent-up anger about uninvestigated and unpunished corruption among the political elite and an ever worsening economic downward spiral for the majority of Albanians. Last year the European Union rejected Albania’s application to become a member state, insisting that the country had to bring an end to corruption and establish rule of law and a viable democracy. With the January 21st uprising, EU acceptance is unfortunately now more elusive than ever before.
The unresolved matter of the March 2008 ammunitions factory explosion in Gerdec, in particular, has been a festering wound for Albanians of all political persuasions, because it demonstrated that oligarchs in politics and business are exempt from the rule of law. Twenty-six workers died and 309 were injured at the Gerdec plant, where they were prying open thousands of artillery shells with metal rods and bare hands on a daily basis as part of a national program to dismantle ammunition and sell their components. It was later revealed that the explosions began when workers were moving old cartridges from China and Russia, amassed by the Communist-era dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, and that these stocks were being repackaged and sold to the Afghan Army and police forces.
To make matters worse, the money from this enterprise was being diverted to Albanian officials, including the son of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, according to an investigative report conducted by The New York Times. Although former Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu resigned, neither he nor any other government or company officials were charged with wrongdoing. Instead, after the national elections on June 29, 2009, Mediu was reinstated in the government as the Minister of the Environment, a position that gives him immunity from criminal prosecution.
And so, even though the Socialist Party initiated the demonstration on January 21, they tapped into the sense of helplessness and hopelessness engulfing Albanians of all political persuasions in the face of endemic corruption on the part of the elite, lack of rule of law, and the failure of both Socialist and Democratic Party leaders to bring the nation out of poverty.
Ending Communism and Corruption in Albania
Twenty years after the fall of communism, Albania is still run by former Communist officials. Their patronage and control of both business and media sectors makes it very difficult for newcomers to enter politics. Although more than 30,000 Albanian youth have graduated from universities in the West, most of them are either reluctant to return to Albania or are disappointed when they do. Those who have tried to enter the political elite often end up turning into money-driven clones of older leaders in the Democratic and Socialist parties. Tragically, they continue the pattern of confrontational politics, void of principles and values, which has thwarted national unity and progress ever since the Communist dictatorship fell in 1991.
The deadly riots of January 21 illustrate the degree to which the country is in the grip of two major parties locked in a bitter rivalry and a siege mentality that crowds out rational voices and squelches the idealism of young professionals who would like to make a difference. This time, however, the Albanian electorate is unlikely to respond to the oligarchs, including both Prime Minister Berisha and Socialist Party Chairman Rama. Instead, the growing frustration with the abuse of power by the self-serving elites will undoubtedly propel the Albanian people to return to the streets, hopefully without escalating into more violence.
The call for early elections will come soon, but unless conditions are created for new political leaders and new political parties that are not tainted by the last twenty years of embezzlement and hidden political party collaboration, it is hard to imagine a way forward. It is essential that today’s corrupt politicians are replaced by a new political block rallied around democratic values and prepared to lead Albania into a productive future with the rest of Europe. And the Western officials currently en route to Tirana should do more than try to broker stability; they should support the Albanian population’s yearning for genuine democracy and economic viability.
Kosova and the Marty Report
Meanwhile, Kosova, which has been marred by political instability since the fall of 2010, was recently brought to its knees when Swiss diplomat Dick Marty issued a 27-page report to the Council of Europe alleging that the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) harvested organs from Serbs and Albanian collaborators during the war in 1999 and that Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was directly involved—assertions that were first made by UN Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte in her book in 2008. Marty also made sweeping generalizations, calling Kosova a clan-based society engaged in smuggling drugs and other activities of organized crime. Moreover, he suggested that authorities in Albania collaborated in the harvesting and trafficking of organs and later hindered proper investigation of Marty’s allegations.
Dick Marty would have us believe that NATO, the UN Mission in Kosova, EULEX (the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Albania, and the entire international community, with the exception of Belgrade and Moscow, have waged a campaign for more than a decade to hide organ harvesting by Kosovars from Marty, Del Ponte, and Serbian President Boris Tadic. Fortunately, even though the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe approved Marty’s report on January 25, 2011, it called on local and international authorities to launch investigations into Marty’s “suspicions of inhumane treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo.” On the same day, several members of the European Parliament stressed that Marty had yet to produce evidence to support his charges and that EULEX had asked him to do so for some time.
The charge of organ harvesting is an especially “lethal” attack on Kosovars and on all Albanians because organ harvesting is reminiscent of Nazi war crimes against Jews. Nevertheless, it is simply the latest development in an orchestrated campaign on the part of Belgrade and its supporters in Europe to discredit Albanians, criminalize the KLA, and create a false parity between the perpetrators and the victims of the Balkans wars of the 1990s, in which 200,000 were murdered and more than 4 million displaced by the Serbian military and paramilitary troops.
Serbia knows that the responsibility for the crimes that its massive army perpetrated against defenseless citizens in Kosova can never be washed away. Therefore, it is using the charge of organ harvesting to morally weaken the just Albanian cause for an independent Kosova and to raise doubts in the international community about its support for Kosova’s struggle to defeat the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen. Serbia’s ultimate goal is to position itself for reopening negotiations about the status of Kosova with the aim of annexing northern Kosova. This is why the Prishtina government should refuse to enter into new talks with Belgrade until Serbia apologizes to Kosova for Milosevic’s genocidal war against Albanians and recognizes Kosova’s independence, which was legitimized by the International Court of Justice last July.
Dick Marty also alleged in his report that Kosova’s Prime Minister Thaci is involved in the heroin trade. Although there is not a shred of evidence to support this charge, there is plenty of evidence that Albanian political leaders have been enriching themselves at the expense of the people and allowing organized crime and corruption to flourish relentlessly. Shamelessly officials have dipped into tenders for highways and other infrastructure projects, while two thousand Albanians are still missing since Kosova’s conflict, 45 percent are unemployed, and too many Albanians live in abject poverty.
There is also ample evidence that the Albanian political leadership has consistently taken a passive role, instead of a proactive one, in the face of Serbian attempts to discredit Albanians since war’s end. For example, it was well known that Dick Marty began his investigation in the summer of 2008, and yet there was no attempt on the part of Albanian leaders in Prishtina and Tirana to anticipate and counter his false conclusions.
Albanians in Tirana and Prishtina are now at a perilous crossroads, and it is time to recognize that the blame lies not just with Serbia and the West, but with the Albanian political leaders, who have enriched themselves beyond measure, while failing to properly govern and meet the needs of the poorest citizens in Europe. If the current leadership is unwilling to bring an end to corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of government, then they must be asked to step down so that a new generation of professionally able and idealistic men and women can steer Albanians out of the economic and political morass in which they have lived for too long.
(Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League. The article was originally published in Illyria, a New York-based Albanian-American newspaper.)