Crisis and Protests in Albania

The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous and have been inspiring a lot of hopes in Albania. Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, at least since last autumn, the prices of alimentary goods and other basic items have been increasing, but the start of the war strongly accelerated this process. In just a few days the price of fuel has increased by 40%, while the price of most alimentary goods has risen from 10% to 20%. The official governmental position is that the prices hike is caused by a global growth of demand after Covid-19 lockdown, and the continuing war in Ukraine. But these are not the only factors impacting this process, because the fuel sector is controlled by a handful of oligarchs, while the same could be said about the import of several alimentary goods. So there is a sense of being the victims of speculation which has triggered a lot of citizens to massively and peacefully protest against the rising prices and the government’s irresponsibility.

The protests started in Tirana on March 9th, after a poster in social media become viral. Initially hundreds of persons were gathered in this spontaneous protest, but each day more and more people were joining. (After some days of protest, a loose and fluid committee of organizers was formed, with a representative of Organizata Politike joining in.) Last Saturday, on March 12th, approximately 10,000 people marched in the main boulevard of Tirana, and chanted in front of the government headquarter. What animated protesters even more was the violent crackdown of peaceful protests during the first days. The police have arrested and detained for 72 hours more than 30 people, allegedly because for several minutes they peacefully and symbolically sat on the crossroads while asking drivers’ solidarity against the rising prices of fuel. During these days there have been other smaller protests in other cities across Albania.

One might ask why the Albanians are among the first people to massively protest against the current socio-economic crisis. There are structural factors to take in consideration. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. More than 10% are officially considered to live below the absolute poverty line, while almost 40% are considered to be relatively poor. The official minimal gross wage in Albania (approx. 240 Euros) is the second-lowest in the Balkans, and the average monthly wage is 450 Euros. The average incomes of Albanians are 7-8 times less than the average income in EU countries, while the level of food prices is 83% of the average prices in EU countries. This means that common people in Albania are basically on the brink of economic disaster.

On the other hand, in Albania the economic crisis is intersecting with the legitimacy crisis of the government and the political system as a whole. In the last municipal elections (March 6th),only 30% of the electorate went to the polls, showing an enormous alienation towards political parties. The latter are overwhelmingly thought as self-serving plutocrats and servers of the economic oligarchs. More interestingly, the profound crisis of the main oppositional party (the centre-right Democratic Party) has paralysed it, while allowing common citizens and other social and political groups to take the initiative. This has pre-empted the hegemonization and usurpation of the protest by the Democratic Party, while pulling thousands of citizens in protest or supporting the protest.

While the protests have the form of a rhizomic multitude, this doesn’t mean that there are not organized groups trying to strengthen it and push forwards their political ideas. Some of these groups belong to the NGO sector employees, whose ideology is a kind of anti-corruption and lower-taxes-for-all approach. Other groups are comprised by football fans organizations, and other cultural or identity groups. There are supporters of the Democratic Party among the protesters, but they are not properly organized.

The left in the protest is represented by the activists of Organizata Politike, which for several years has been on the forefront of organizing and fighting together with miners (strikes of 2019), oil workers (strikes and hunger strike in 2020-2021), textile workers (strike in 2022) and students (a series of protests from 2014 onwards, culminating in the massive demonstrations of December 2018). Each day they organize a closely affiliated but separated march across the main boulevard in Tirana, while attracting hundreds of people along the procession. They sing and chant radical political slogans, touch the economic nerves of the system by not blaming only the government, but also speculators and economic oligarchs. Where the left differentiates itself is also in the demands which push for the serious progressive tax, for the legal approval of the minimum basic income, for the substantial increase of the minimum wage etc. Basically the rich should pay for the crises. Most importantly, the march of OP activists is distinguished by the overwhelming presence and the leading role of women activists. In a country still impacted by patriarchal stereotypes, having young women leading the march and hegemonizing the chants and speeches has a lot of emancipatory potential.

The protesters have put the government in a very difficult position. The contradiction between its two main constituencies (the common people who vote and the oligarchs who enrich their personal accounts) is more exacerbated than ever. During the first days of the crisis the Prime Minister Rama repeated the old dogma of neoliberalism: “The government cannot intervene in a free market economy. The prices are the natural result of the intersection between demand and supply.” But the exacerbation of the economic crisis and the radicalization of the protests have forced the government to concede something. It is trying to do some price controls in the fuel sector and probably even on the alimentary goods market, while planning a modest rise in pensions. But its measures are meagre and are not meeting the basic needs of the overwhelming majority of the society. What is urgently needed is a serious process of price control, the fight of the monopoly power of oligarchs, the proper taxation of the latter, the raise of the minimum wage and, most importantly for an economy where the real rate of unemployment exceeds 20%, the approval of a legal minimum basic income of 145 Euros (as suggested from a study of the Ombudsman). Fearing the continuation and radicalization of protests, the government is using the geopolitical card to shame the protesters. Edi Rama said several times that he feels ashamed that other nations march in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, while in Albania there are economic protests. He even hinted that the protests might be triggered by the Russians, or at least go in favour of the Putin regime. To these accusations a lot of protesters have responded that they could at the same time solidarize with the Ukrainian people, and fight peacefully against corruption, growing inequalities and social injustices in Albania. Following Martin Luther King Jr., we could say: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The struggle seems to go on.

About the Author:  Arlind Qori is an activist with the left-wing Organizata Politike in Albania. He also teaches political philosophy and ideology critique at the University of Tirana.