Erion Veliaj, a former civil society activist and coordinator of the Albanian opposition parties, discussed the demonstration held on January 21, 2011. The demonstration ended in violence, with four shot and killed by the Republican Guard. Prime Minister Sali Berisha characterized the event as an attempted coup d'état in an attempt to justify the violent response, and said that the demonstrators had been carrying weapons disguised as umbrellas. Veliaj argued at the meeting that these contentions were "ludicrous": according to Veliaj, this was just another in a number of peaceful demonstrations organized by the opposition to protest what they see were unfair elections in 2009. The Albanian government, Veliaj said, was trying to force the population to choose between stability and freedom.
Veliaj described an environment in Albania today in which democratic institutions do not work and in which Berisha's government brazenly disregards the rule of law. "Albania is a culture where no one believes that any race is fair," he said, citing the deep suspicion of corruption in the society. While leading the civil society organization Mjaft (enough), Veliaj tried to change this culture through organized demonstrations and youth engagement. When the opposition realized that they were blocked from exerting influence within political institutions, they mounted regular demonstrations, hunger strikes and boycotted Parliament in order to make their voices heard.
In response to the violence, the Prosecutor's office issued arrest warrants for six of the Republican Guards, but the Prime Minister is determined to protect them from prosecution. Berisha also shut down the Parliament and has threatened journalists, thus obstructing all of the political remedies available to the opposition, Veliaj explained. The international community had responded to the impasse: the OSCE and the EU's special representative to the Western Balkans, Miroslav Lajcak, were currently trying to negotiate between all of the parties, while the FBI has sent an officer to help the Prosecutor's office collect evidence.
The international community has ignored Albania for too long, Veliaj argued. As a result, the country had adopted democratic laws that no one was willing to implement, and the political elite operated in a culture of impunity. In its recent assessment of Albania's democratic development, the EU Commission cited the ineffective judiciary, rampant corruption and electoral irregularities to justify the postponement of awarding candidate status to the country. Veliaj appealed for concrete help from the U.S. and the EU, especially in bringing the electoral practices to European standards before local elections would be held on May 8, 2011.
Drafted by Ozge Sayginer and Elizabeth Zolotukhina
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies