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After We Sacked the Ministers

Last winter, powerful student protests in Albania forced the removal of half the cabinet. Amidst the chaos in the country’s institutions, it’s time to put an end to decades of privatization and rampant speculation.

Students protest in Albania, December 7, 2018. Kristina Millona / Wikimedia

Albania’s democratic history appears as a vast accumulation of political crises. The country’s public life is marked by a constant series of corruption scandals, criminal allegations, and rigged elections. But if in the past solutions seemed always viable, never were Albania’s key institutions so totally engulfed by chaos as they are today. The opposition has renounced its seats in parliament, while those MPs who remain have started proceedings to impeach the president.

This upheaval in the state apparatus may not yet be the “revolution” the opposition has called for. But today, as new actors come to the fore of Albanian public life, and foreign powers directly intervene in its judicial system, the situation seems pregnant with the rise of something new. Albania is today seeing an upheaval in the ways of doing politics that had become established since the transition to capitalism in the early 1990s.

The chaos at the top of Albanian politics is, in part, the result of pressure from below. Over the end of 2018 and the start of 2019 Albania was shaken by a student protest movement unprecedented since the one that helped bring down the Communist regime at the turn of the 1990s.

Animosity had been building up over many years, after an education reform which made the dubious promise of helping universities “survive in the education market.” The measures looked rather more like a death sentence for public education, as they both pushed through a fee hike in public universities and removed students’ right to have a say in electing university personnel.

The students’ demands were not just a matter of reacting against the reform itself. As the movement spread, they raised demands for free public education, inclusion in decision-making, and the expulsion of corrupt professors. Just as student protests had proven so decisive in 1990–1, again this time their demonstrations mounted an unequivocal rebuttal of the political system as a whole, raising wider popular hopes for another epochal change in politics.

Yet there was also a big difference with the movement of three decades hence: the social forces involved. If by the early 1990s the Communist regime was economically and politically on its knees, practically awaiting the final push that would send it tumbling, the current political establishment is strongly supported by economic magnates who would not wish to see them replaced. In the 2019 movement protesters kept politicians of all sides at bay, blocking their usual attempts to blend with the crowd so as to gain political capital. This was crucial in confronting the prime minister with the creative discontent of the country’s educated youth.

By February, the protests had begun to dissipate. But they also had an immediate consequence — the replacement of half of the ministers in government, including the education minister. Never before has the education reform looked more impossible to implement — and the government has been compelled to undertake a nationwide campaign aimed at calming students and keeping any future protests at bay.

After the passing of the storm, the public attention turned once more to the confrontation among political parties, eventually reaching the institutional chaos we see today. This is, most immediately, an effect of the ongoing upheaval in the judicial system. But like the controversy over the education reform, this tumult also has deeper roots, dating back to the end of the Hoxhaist regime and the privatizations which turned public assets into sources of private profits.

Judicial Chaos

Indeed, it’s no surprise that the judicial system is at the center of the current conflict. The three major political parties, PS (Socialist Party, now in government), PD (Democratic Party), and LSI (Socialist Movement for Integration) have all been involved in major corruption scandals and abuses of power in recent years. These parties do refer to different electorates — PS is rooted in the old Hoxhaist party and its intelligentsia, whereas PD is built on the families persecuted by that regime as well as among the largely poor working class from northern Albania; meanwhile, LSI maintains its electorate primarily through rewarding its activists with public sector jobs. But what unites all three is their common entrenchment in right-wing, pro-privatization policies.

Beyond the theatrics of the mutual allegations these parties exchange, they have together contrived to maintain a dysfunctional judicial system that holds no one accountable for even flagrant wrongdoing. In Albania, the legal process is a mere auction for the highest bidder. The power of money in influencing justice is apparent in the spread of property speculation, as public assets are passed into the hands of private “developers.” The status of properties supposedly protected by the state — such as natural reserves, cultural heritage sites, or public buildings like the National Theatre — is illegally changed in order to allow for the construction of private resorts or urban skyscrapers. Moreover, the ambiguous legal status of property owners since the change of regime — for decades, intentionally left unclear and open to speculation — has allowed the current government to undertake megaprojects, for instance the construction of a ring-road in Tirana which would destroy the homes of dozens of families.

Yet the other key factor in the Albanian situation is the influence, and pressure, coming from the outside, in particular the European Union and United States. The constant rhetoric of EU bureaucrats and Western ambassadors has revolved around the idea of Albania passing through a “transition phase” from the planned economy to capitalism — or “democracy” as they like to call it. For three decades, this project of “solid steps towards integration” has served to justify rather more problematic realities, by diverting Albanians’ gaze towards a much-desired future. This has served EU bureaucrats well, legitimizing them in the eyes of Albanians as impartial arbiters of the political game who are striving to democratize the country and push it towards achieving EU standards.

Albanian politicians themselves feed on this rhetoric, recycling it during electoral campaigns (for want of any alternative and coherent political program). They follow a persistent neoliberal agenda of extreme privatizations of public land and public companies, which are passed into the hands of a few speculator-oligarchs. This process has had the benediction of EU bureaucrats and the International Monetary Fund, as in the case of the privatization of the country’s biggest oil reserves. These were handed to Bankers Petroleum, a company whose board of directors includes General Wesley K. Clark — NATO’s supreme commander during the war in Kosovo.

Formalizing Interference

Today’s political crisis and institutional chaos, however, particularly owe to the US Embassy’s initiative to push a reform in the judicial system. They claim this reform is necessary in order to create a business-friendly environment and attract foreign investments, undermined by corruption. Yet this also requires an unprecedented constitutional change, so that investigative and decision-making competences can be handed to a special unit within the Albanian judicial system created and controlled by American and EU officials.

Never before had US officials so openly imposed their will on Albania as when former US ambassador, Donald Lu, called for both party leaders to “not leave the room until they have a solution to the last issue of this reform.” EU bureaucrats have continually pointed at the reform as a crucial step towards integration, while politicians from all sides have repeatedly had their visas for travel to the United States revoked, as a means of putting pressure on them. The opposition parties, PD and LSI, fear that they will be first in the line of fire if this new unit comes into being. Lu, who is responsible for pushing forward this reform, continually spoke of the “big fish” that would sooner or later end up in the net of justice.

The opposition’s strategy has been to try and delegitimize the government of the current PS prime minister Edi Rama by exposing his own party’s corruption scandals. They have handed the German press leaked tapes that implicate PS functionaries in manipulating votes from 2017 general election. Since February, the PD and LSI have renounced their parliamentary mandates and launched a series of large protests demanding that Rama step down.

The PD and LSI refused to take part in the local elections held on June 30 while also trying to force their postponement. Here, they followed a twofold strategy. Firstly, asserting that they refuse the political system and accusing PS of centralizing all power — including the judicial system — preempted a move from the newly formed anti-corruption special unit which will, it seems, soon begin investigating politicians’ wealth. Secondly, the postponement of the elections would prolong the situation of chaos, thus legitimizing these parties’ requests for a new technocratic government and changes in the judicial reform.

The Albanian president — former LSI leader Ilir Meta — joined this strategy by decreeing a new date for the local elections, October 13. Meta labeled the justice reform an initiative by shadowy forces sponsored by Hungarian-Jewish billionaire George Soros, while comparing his own opposition to the stances adopted by various national heroes. The president’s decree, however, was ignored both by PS and Western functionaries, who have shown unprecedented support for Edi Rama’s government in their pursuit of the rapid implementation of the reform.

Meanwhile, the country currently lacks a Constitutional Court. In such a case as this, the court would normally give the final verdict on the constitutionality of the president’s actions. Yet its ranks lie unfilled, due to a vetting process that eliminated eight out of nine judges on grounds of their unjustifiable wealth. Meanwhile, the PS-dominated parliament has formed a committee for the impeachment of the president, based on what they consider unconstitutional actions. President Meta has instead sought to throw Albania’s problems back to the voters, now calling presidential and general elections for the same date he set for the local contests, October 13.

Antibodies in Albanian Society

The reform in the judicial system has real appeal to Albanians, promising to shake a regime of unaccountability that has persisted for some three decades. It provides a sense of vindication, promising to impose justice on the untouchable politicians and their acolytes who have accumulated vast amounts of wealth in what is arguably Europe’s poorest country. The changes in the constitution, however, hand over one of the four pillars of state power to a foreign country, thus paving the path for an explicit subordination of Albania to US interests.

Looking back at the “transition” period, Western influence in Albania has not been oriented toward consolidating institutions like an independent media, but primarily creating a protectorate that obediently followed the recommendations of the “international partners.” Further bad omens come from the experience of EULEX in Kosovo — the European Union’s largest “rule of law” mission abroad — which has been hit by allegations that a chief prosecutor and a judge accepted bribes from Kosovar politicians. And if we consider the United States’ past international role — from backing various dictators in Latin America and the Middle East to toppling democratically elected governments — there is little doubt that Washington’s prerogative is not democracy but maintaining US geopolitical interests and “stability.”

Such a tumultuous situation requires “antibodies” from within Albanian society, prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Sadly, Albania suffers from a complete lack of tradition and experience in the kind of workers’ organizations or social movements that would be able to build “institutions from below.” Having been the periphery of a crumbling Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, Albania passed rapidly through the stages of feudalism, parliamentary republic, and a constitutional monarchy that lasted less than a quarter-century.

In the wake of World War II, Enver Hoxha’s four-decade Stalinist regime did significantly increase the number of urban proletarians working in industry. Yet it completely stifled any hope for independent organizations or social initiatives. Therefore, the trade unions that emerged after the fall of the regime in 1991 were ugly copies of the preexisting bureaucratic organisms. Indeed, their purpose was not to represent workers but rather to privatize the previous state-owned factories and even the workers’ holiday resorts.

Not all is lost. The government has taken only “aesthetic” measures to satisfy student demands, whether offering very small reductions in fees for certain categories of students or issuing discount cards that in fact bear little effect on the cost of student life. This suggests that the dissipation of the student protests will prove ephemeral — indeed, they are expected to pick up again with the start of the new academic year.

At the same time, social movements and young organizers galvanized by the recent student protest are working closely with workers of all ages and professions, emphasizing the need to build new and independent trade unions. Since the beginning of 2019, four new trade unions have been founded in the public university, call centers, and the mining industry — a recent trend that aims at consolidating the power of both intellectual and manual workers.

Afflicted by poor job prospects and large-scale emigration, Albania’s well-educated youth have wholeheartedly rejected the existing political elite. Its powerful protest movements have not yet spread to the wider working population — independent workers’ organizations are yet to become part of the social fabric in any imposing way. This is, however, an imperative step if a leap is to be made toward changes at the political level. And faced with rising protest movements and chaos among political elites, the circumstances for taking this step have never seemed more favorable.