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Turmoil in Albania Offers Lessons for Mideast

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With the world's eyes on thousands of Tunisians and Egyptians who took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, there is little notice of turmoil in Southeast Europe where demonstrations in Albania have also led to violence. Albania endured a civil war in the late 1990s and offers important lessons for the Mideast when it comes to the issues of corruption and abuse of power where hundreds of thousands on the Mediterranean's southern coast have said: "Enough."

In Albania's case, a video recently surfaced in which the Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta (Socialist Movement for Integration -- SMI) was allegedly instructing a subordinate to give preference for government contracts. As a result of the video, Meta eventually resigned, even though Prime Minister Sali Berisha (Democratic Party -- DP) publicly declared his support for the deputy prime minister.

Berisha's party took power in 2005 on an anti-corruption platform, so it is not surprising that thousands of Albanians took to the streets on January 21st to protest government corruption and lingering questions about ballot rigging in 2009. According to the civil society organization Mjaft!, at least three Albanians were killed when police lashed out at the demonstrators, several hundred were shot and wounded, journalists have been beaten and threatened, and more than 150 individuals have been arrested. The Albanian National Guard is reportedly responsible for the killings, two of which were caught on film and shown on TV.

Prime Minister Berisha ordered the prosecutor general to investigate the deaths. Based on initial findings, the prosecutor general issued a warrant for 6 officials from the National Guard who might be responsible for the murders or, at the very least, who issued orders to fire on civilians. The prime minister, however, prevented the arrests, gave bonuses to National Guard members on duty on January 21, and is calling for a separate investigation by a parliamentary committee which he oversees. The increasing politicization of this issue, in a country sensitive to passions, forebodes greater bloodshed unless the government is forced to take a more objective look not only at the incident, but the allegations of corruption and dirty politics that led to the protests in the first place.

Albania's next door neighbor, the newborn state of Kosovo, is even more fragile and regional instability could undermine it at an early stage. The Balkan wars of the 1990s are not such a distant memory, as Richard Holbrooke who is widely credited with ending the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, was laid to rest just last month. Preventing more violence and instability in this region should be one of the U.S. administration's priorities, but it will have to work closely with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other multi-national players. And it will have to do so quickly, because a constitutional crisis is unfolding in Albania.

Over the past two decades, Albania has -- in parallel with its own turmoil -- developed the basis of an active civil society that engages in public life. This is what happened on the streets of Tirana on January 21 and will continue to happen until its concerns are addressed. Whereas dissent had been routinely stifled in Egypt and Tunisia, a democratic experiment had shown signs of progress in Albania. Albania hit a stumbling block and could be sliding back towards authoritarianism, but the Albanian people are trying to prevent that from occurring.

In order to send a message that street protests do not equate with chaos, and legitimate expression is vital to a stable state, Albania's friends need to take time now to help set the country back on track. Albania still needs assistance and support as it recovers from more than four decades of dictatorship, isolation and a civil war. It needs continued focus on the importance of civil society, democratic structures, and the rule of law and human rights. And right now, it needs to avoid escalating violence that could dampen the last decade of progress. Nascent democratic movements across the Mediterranean also need such beacons right now.

Read the article in Albanian in Gazeta Shqiptare: www.balkanweb.com/gazetav5/artikull.php?id=93165

Matthew Brady is a Program Director at Freedom House.