NEW YORK, JANUARY 24, 2011 – Lonely Planet, a renowned travel guide, recently listed Albania first on its top-10 list of countries to visit in 2011. Its latest edition of Best in Travel, states that not so long ago, when the Balkans was considered a travel destination “only for the brave,” only the bravest of the brave trickled into Albania.
Since backpackers started coming to this elusive country in the 1990s, tales have been told of Albania’s azure beaches, excellent cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures, and the possibility of old-style, unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travelers are still a novelty. The jig is almost up—Albania won’t be off the beaten path for much longer, claims this report. While some Albanians may be a bit surprised to find their country listed as the number-one recommended destination, they know that they are endowed with a beautiful country, and its hardworking people have done a lot over the past 20 years to advance it.
News about Albanians’ achievements is not rare anymore; just a couple of days ago in Washington, the Albanian-America Enterprise Fund (AAEF), unlike some other funds in undeveloped nations, returned $15 million to American taxpayers. This is not a typo—on Wednesday, January 19, the fund’s Board of Directors presented a ceremonial check for $15 million to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to be returned to the U.S. Treasury. In addition to achieving exceptional developmental impact in Albania, AAEF also achieved extraordinary financial return on their investments in Albania and now was ready to repay with much gratitude 50 percent of the original grant back to the U.S. The remainder, together with all the earnings, will be transferred to the Albanian-American Development Foundation (AADF), a newly created legacy organization. Kudos to Albania for being such a good partner of the Fund and to the USAID and the American people for making it possible.
News such as the aforementioned examples makes every Albanian proud and provides an incentive for them to work hard to make
Albania the rose garden of the Balkans. However, the spirits of all Albanians were dampened and their friends around the world were disappointed last week, when they heard the news of violent demonstrations out in front of the offices of Albanian Prime Minister Mr. Sali Berisha. On Friday, January 21, antigovernment demonstrators clashed with police and the National Guard in front of the Prime Minister’s office. The confrontation turned violent; three protesters were killed and a dozen more were injured, mostly police. The international community and the Albanian Diaspora strongly denounced the violence that occurred and offered their condolences to the families of the victims who needlessly lost their lives.
The rally was organized by the government’s main opponent, the Socialist Party (SP), and its leader Edi Rama. Rallies and protests by the SP are nothing new; the SP has been staging them ever since the party was defeated in Albania’s 2009 national elections and also lost the opportunity to take part in its coalition government. The SP was outperformed and outmaneuvered by a smaller rival, the Socialist Movement for Integration Party (SMI), which joined the Democratic Party (DP) to form a coalition government. Feeling left out, Edi Rama, the head of the SP and Mayor of Tirana, challenged the election results by alleging electoral fraud and called for officials to open up ballot boxes, even though the results had already been certified by an election committee and international observers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) described these elections as progress over past elections and found that the elections met most OSCE standards. Failing to accomplish his objective—primarily because he insisted on doing it his own way and not the normal way through proper channels and responsible institutions—Rama abandoned calling for the boxes to be opened; instead he is now calling for new elections over what the SP sees as election fraud and widespread government corruption.
Apparently this was the theme of the January 21 rally, but there is now a widespread belief that the actual intent of last Friday’s demonstrations was to overthrow the government. The rally turned violent when hundreds of protesters began assaulting riot police with stones, sticks, and Molotov bombs. Smoke rose from burning cars and police vehicles. Police responded with tear gas, water guns, and stun grenades; gun fire was heard when some protesters tried to storm the government building.
Similar events are not rare around the world; they happen often in democratically run governments. Perhaps this news would not have received much attention in countries with strong democratic institutions because those institutions have the strength and know-how to deal with these types of situations swiftly and effectively. Not too long ago, there was a disturbance among students in England over proposed increases to university tuition fees. In London approximately 50,000 students attended demonstrations where violent riots broke out around Conservative Party offices in Millbank Tower. Over one million pounds worth of damages was sustained while students wrecked havoc upon the party offices. Before the riots, the media and England’s older generation were, on the whole, sympathetic to the students. But this violent behavior changed all that. A most important lesson learned from this event was that this demonstration—which was intended to be peaceful—was hijacked by only a small group of troublemakers. The president of the National Union of Students later said he was “disgusted that the actions of the minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest”.
Peaceful protesting can engender change. But violence can cause a shift in attitudes, away from compassion for and toward the condemnation of a demonstrating group. I am sure that most Albanian citizens who belong to the SP did not attend last week’s rally with intentions of overthrowing their government. It was only a group of hooligans who, on their own accord or acting in concert with internal or external factors tried to undermine the Albanian government and decided to wreak havoc. Citizens of Albania, regardless of their political affiliations, should unanimously condemn the violence that occurred and be disgusted with the unlawful actions committed by a small group whose character is inconsistent with that of this great nation.
A similar event happened here in the United States in September 2008 during the last presidential election. At least 250 people were arrested outside the Republican National Convention as police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse rioters who were attacking property and blocking roads in protest of the war in Iraq. Rioters came by the thousands—grandmothers, veterans, young families, even disgruntled Republicans bearing banners and peace flags to demand an end to the five-year conflict. For the most part, the demonstrations were peaceful. But once the main antiwar march had finished, splinter groups embarked on a violent rampage, smashing windows, slashing car tires, throwing bottles, and even attacking Republican delegates attending the convention at The Xcel Center nearby.
Many of those involved in the riot identified themselves to reporters as anarchists. These protesters, some clad in black, wreaked havoc by damaging property and starting at least one fire. The Minnesota National Guard sent 150 soldiers to help police quash the riots, which flared as delegates were assembling in St. Paul for the four-day meeting. Many were arrested and at least 119 faced possible felony charges. At least four journalists were among those detained, including an Associated Press photographer. The antiwar march was organized by a group called the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, the leaders of which said they hoped for a peaceful, family-friendly event. But police were on high alert after months of preparations by a self-described anarchist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee, which was not among the organizers of the march. Security was tight in St. Paul in order to avoid a repeat of the chaotic scenes seen at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, where more than 1,800 people were arrested. This time snipers looked on from nearby buildings and a helicopter hovered overhead as some 10,000 surged through the streets during St. Paul’s main march. Countries with strong democratic institutions like the United States have the means and know-how to deal with troublemakers.
Similar events occur in the U.S. and around the globe; however the two examples mentioned above should suffice in highlighting some important lessons about peaceful demonstrators. First and foremost, organizers should be very careful not to cross the line and become violent; otherwise, their demonstration will no longer be considered an exercise of their freedom of expression, but rather a violation of civil laws subject to swift justice and punishment. Second, organizers should not have a hidden agenda or undertake actions which are contrary to those of their democratically organized society. The government, through its specifically established institutions concerned with the enforcement of law and order, has the responsibility to protect its citizens, including the demonstrators. Equally so, the government has the responsibility to protect the property of the state, as such property does not belong to any one political party but rather to all citizens of that country. To quote Earnest Gellner, the famous philosopher and social anthropologist, “The state exists where specialized order-enforcing agencies, such as police forces and courts, have separated from the rest of the social life”.
Max Weber, a principal architect of modern social science and arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century, defines a state as “that agency within the society which possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence.” The idea behind this is simple: in well-ordered societies that most of us either live in or aspire to live in, private or sectional violence is illegitimate. Conflict as such is actually legitimate, but it cannot rightfully be resolved by private or sectional violence. Violence may be applied only by the central political authority and its agencies established for maintaining law and order. Among the various sanctions of the maintenance of order, the ultimate sanction—force—may be applied only by a clearly identified, well centralized, and disciplined agency within a given society. That agency (or group of agencies) is the government or the state. Most members of modern societies agree with the theory enshrined in here: that only governments should exercise force.
The purpose of highlighting this important distinction between authorized and unauthorized force is to differentiate between the actions taken by the Albanian police and the National Guard vis-à-vis the violence perpetrated by the demonstrators that led to the death of three people and injuries sustained by more than two dozen people, mostly police. Yet most of the statements issued by foreign embassies and other international agencies with branches in Tirana fail to make this clarification with respect to violence.
Essentially, most foreign embassies and agencies said something similar to: “Violence and excessive use of force cannot be justified and should be avoided.” On the surface, this statement seems acceptable; however, when taking into consideration the evolution of this conflict and the violence displayed by the demonstrators, such a statement is ambiguous at best and in essence troublesome. There is a distinction between the warranted actions of the police and the illegal and threatening actions of the demonstrators. While the police were trying to protect all citizens and the government, the hooligans were trying to overthrow the government. What kind of democratic government would Albania’s be if it was taken by force? The history of the world is full of such examples and none of them are pretty. I am wondering how many of these diplomats can offer the same advice to their respective governments. Perhaps it is this kind of ambiguity that contributed to the escalation of this problem dating back two years to Albania’s last national election.
There is nothing wrong with contesting election results, especially if there are observable violations. Filing a complaint is well within the purview of law; but then you have to allow the legal system to resolve the issue once and for all. Who can forget the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election in the United States? In Bush v. Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the system devised by the Florida Supreme Court to recount the votes cast in the state during that election violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Because there was no time to create a system that was fair to both candidates, the Supreme Court effectively stopped the recount in its tracks, allowing George W. Bush of Texas to become the 43rd president of the United States. Bush v. Gore was a 36-day drama of the highest order, captivating the world’s attention as the U.S. judicial system was ensnared in a whirlwind of power politics.
The Republican presidential candidate clinging to a slim lead that seemed to dwindle by the day, if not by the hour, while the Democratic candidate kept forging ahead, trying to build momentum to eclipse his rival. At the same time, the nation witnessed two legal teams doing whatever they could to secure what their respective candidates felt they rightly deserved. Having lost the nation’s popular vote by approximately 500,000 votes, Bush still managed to defeat Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes and capture that state’s 25 electoral votes, enough to win the Electoral College and the presidency. Once the ruling was issued, Gore accepted defeat and pursued other interests, accepting Bush as the nation’s president and as his president. The outcome of this election, including the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, may not have been fair to Gore, but the Supreme Court has the final say in any contested issue in this country; once the ruling is made, the case is closed.
The standoff has caused Albania a lot of damage, hampered economic development, and underscored its democratic credentials.
The European Union rejected Albania’s application to become an official candidate to join the organization, saying that Albania should first establish a functioning democracy and fight corruption. Yes, there is corruption in Albania and a lot more needs to be done to rid it of this infectious disease. But Albania is not more corrupt than some other countries in the Balkans—or in Eastern Europe, for that matter—that have already become EU members or whose applications have been conditionally accepted.
It is beyond doubt that the standoff between Prime Minister Berisha and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama—which has become a personal vendetta rather than a political issue—has caused the European Union to reject Albania’s application to join. No one can blame the EU for this action; the blame rests with the two main thespians in this ugly and sad saga. Some blame rests also with the Parliament and all the political parties that have become unable to rule the country and have degraded its civility institutions in which they serve by allowing a vocabulary of hooligans, inflammatory language, and disrespect for each other as elected officials, colleagues and human beings. Albanians are decent people, proud of their heritage and culture, proud of how they were able to govern themselves back when there was no written law or organized institutions, just an unwritten tribal law called Kanuni. Albanians are smart and hardworking, worthy of their country and worthy of acceptance into the European Union. Unfortunately, some of Albania’s elected officials are not worthy of their offices.
The freedom to express one’s opinion is a fundamental principle within a democratic system. Without it, the public would not be able to voice its opinions and hold its government and public officials accountable for their actions. However, even in developed democracies, including the United States, there are limits as to how far one can go in exercising this freedom. Acting in the name of a suspicion or belief, an idea or cause does not allow a person to attack the freedoms of others and the state institutions that belong to all. The events that took place in Tirana in front of the Prime Minister’s offices are a brutal reminder of the distinction between participating in a demonstration and participating in a riot.
The freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are enshrined as fundamental rights in the Albanian Constitution; but I wonder how many people comprehend the true meaning of these words and the true meaning of democracy in general. While democracy may be the most just form of the government it does not always guaranty justice. We have all heard Winston Churchill’s famous quipped about democracy “the worse form of government, except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time”. That is why framers of modern constitutions usually put checks and balances on majority rule. In any democracy worthy of its name, the minority or the opposition will always see things differently and claim injustice; however, the question is whether law-breaking is an appropriate response to perceived injustice.
As I read statements and press releases regarding the situation in Albania, it was such a pleasure to read the transcript of the press conference held by the U.S. Ambassador to Albania, Mr. Alexander Arvizu. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Ambassador Arvizu and form an opinion about him, but I found his comments to be well balanced, thoughtful and considerate. I found his message to be unambiguous and direct, something that Albanians have not recently seen coming from the U.S. Embassy. Albanians consider the United States to be their greatest ally and rightfully welcomed this change. In this spirit, a visit to Albania by a senior official from the Obama administration would certainly help calm down the situation. Albanians have high admiration for the United States, and at this time of crisis words of advice from Washington would be welcomed and deeply appreciated by the government and the people of Albania.
Here is a statement from Ambassador Arvizu’s statements: “Yesterday [January 21, 2011] was a terrible day for Albania. I know Albanians across the country are very troubled by the day’s events. The same holds true for people in the United States and elsewhere who only want the best for Albania and its hardworking people who have done so much to advance this country over the past 20 years. As we have said many times, the right to free assembly comes with an obligation to do everything possible to ensure that it is peaceful. The violence that we witnessed was not necessary. Nor was it inevitable. It could have been avoided. It must be prevented from happening again, for the sake of all Albanians. It is important to remember that Albania is a democratic country and a member of the NATO alliance. Albania has come a long way. Albania has democratic institutions in place. They may not be perfect, in fact, and there are some areas for improvement. But, there are democratic structures in place and they need to be given a chance to perform and to function. In my statement earlier, I went into a bit more detail than we usually do as to what we mean by compromise. Compromise and negotiation means you have to give something up, even if it is something that you believe is right. You have to obviously stick to your principles, what we call a bottom line, which is difficult to negotiate. But that does not mean taking maximalist positions and not budging from it. That is what I mean by trying to find some common ground.”
We in the Diaspora, and, I believe, that Albanian people in general, agree wholeheartedly with Ambassador Arvizu. The challenge is now to have Albania’s political elite hold their breath and heed the wise words of Arvizu and other diplomats and friends around the world. We would simply like to say this to Albania’s elected officials: The Albanian people have put their trust and their country in your hands. Please stop this nonsense and don’t break that trust. If you do, history will judge you harshly.
Here are some suggestions that can help bring this saga to an end, allowing Albania to heal itself and start anew for the sake of good order and of the Albanian people:
1. Effective immediately, cease and desist from making any accusation or derogatory remark, or from using inflammatory language.
2. Until further notice, stop issuing permits for rallies, peaceful or otherwise. If necessary, Parliament should enact a law or the appropriate authority should issue a restraining order to the issuing authority. Albania must first heal from the wounds of so-called peaceful demonstrations before it is safe for citizens to exercise their rights to hold rallies and practice free self-expression.
3. The media and everyone else should respect the judicial process based on the democratic values principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. To avoid affecting public opinion in regard to such cases, neither the media nor anyone else should speculate about state evidence against those accused of crimes until prosecutors and other relevant institutions have had the opportunity to gather all the evidence necessary and the trial has begun.
4. Neither political parties nor anyone else should tamper with evidence or obstruct prosecutors’ and other agencies’ efforts to gather evidence and complete the investigation related to the riots in Tirana. Those responsible should be held fully accountable for what transpired on January 21, and those who broke the law should face justice..
5. All political parties should make an effort to help strengthen Albania’s fledging democratic institutions; they don’t belong just to the parties in the government but to all the parties and the people of Albania. Most importantly, they should be given a chance to perform their duties and to function as democratic institutions.
6. The political parties and the people of Albania should focus more on the upcoming national elections of 2013, which are a lot more important than Albania’s last elections. Many changes can be made on that day, but only the voters should decide what changes they want to bring about. That is also the rightful and legal way for the opposition to try to unseat the current government, not through violence in the streets.
7. Political parties and the people of Albania should pay special attention to pervasive corruption that has infected the whole country. Fighting against corruption does not start by pointing fingers at each other or making accusations, regardless of whether they are true or not; nor does it start by organizing street demonstrations that ironically are most likely funded through corruption. Albanians and their political parties should adopt a universal zero-tolerance policy against corruption and free the economy from its corrosive effects. Only by strengthening the rule of law and allowing prosecutors and other institutions to do their jobs will the country will rid itself of corruption.
8. Now is the right time for all political party members and those who serve other government functions to reassess their conduct and rededicate themselves to the service of their country and the interests of the Albanian people. Anyone who does not share in these objectives, or is more interested in life’s material aspects, should get out of politics and pursue those other interests. The voters should pay special attention and evaluate the performance of their elected officials. The voters are the most powerful force in Albania; their vote is the judge and the jury, and if they vote consciously and objectively during the next election, they can replace all the undesirable officials. Voters should start organizing now; they have two years to go through their evaluation process before they make their final decisions.
9. Now is also the right time for the intellectual elite of Albania to get more proactively involved in Albanian affairs for the good of the country and not for the sake of comradeship with the political elite. Perhaps the events that took place on that dreadful Friday should serve as a wake-up call. Albania has a lot of smart people, but they are either silenced or playing whatever tunes the media wants them to in order to keep their own faces in the public spotlight. It is time for those independent Albanian thinkers and scholars to pay greater attention to the Albanian cause than to collecting prizes and accolades. There is no greater or nobler prize than helping your nation.
10. It is time for Albanian politicians, governmental institutions, and the Albanian citizenry as a whole to get rid of the vulgar vocabulary that has evolved in recent years. Albanians are proud of their structured heritage and high family and moral values. Vulgarity and indecent language does not belong in Albania: not in its families, not in its governmental institutions, and not in its society—let’s get rid of it. The Parliament should enact a law requiring every governmental institution to prepare and implement a Code of Conduct, outlining what is acceptable conduct and what is not.
11. It is also time for Albanians from all walks of life to address the environmental issue and keep Albania clean and beautiful. God has endowed this country with much natural beauty. And as mentioned at the beginning of this article, Albania ranks as the number one country to visit in 2011. It would be immoral and a shame to ruin this beautiful country. Either the citizenry or the government should lead an initiative to formulate a policy concerning the environment and ecological systems, providing for sustainable development and ecotourism. But most important, keep the environment clean and healthy for your sake, the sake of your children, and generations to come.
12. Lastly, the Albanian people should not allow recent events or any other unpleasant event shake its confidence, self-respect, or ability to self-govern. It’s been said that the 21st century in the Balkans belongs to the Albanians, just like the 20th century belonged to the Slavs. Despite the growing pains and small obstacles along the way, Albanians will indeed play a leading role in the geopolitics and economic development of the region. Albanians deserve this honor not because of any specific or genetic abilities to lead, but because throughout their history, they never occupied or threatened another nation. To the contrary, Albanians are peaceful, loving, generous, and caring people, always putting others’ interests before their own. It is debatable whether this is a good or smart trait to possess, but it is true. Perhaps because not all their neighbors share these values, Albanians should be vigilant toward those who may want to directly or indirectly weaken the Albanian nation. Notwithstanding the facts that Albanians are spread across six Balkan countries, there is only one Albanian nation—and it is over 7 million strong.
May God bless Albania, and Albanians wherever they are.
*Cafo Boga is a renowned activist of the Albanian community in the United States.