The Albanian Thoreau: civil disobedience and the opposition’s anti-government rally

16 December, 2015

Written by:
  • Lorena Pullumbi
The Albanian Thoreau: civil disobedience and the opposition’s anti-government rally

On the 25th anniversary of the student protests which ignited the fall of the communist regime in Albania, the opposition Democratic Party organized an anti-government rally in Tirana, calling for the resignation of the incumbent centre left coalition led by Albanian PM Edi Rama and the establishment of an interim transitional government to prepare snap elections. Some several thousand opposition supporters gathered in front of the government’s building,- a hub for anti-government rallies-, manifesting minor violent conduct resulting in damage of public property which was widely condemned by domestic and international actors.

Strategies of political symbolism coupled with a general mob effect culminated in a bizarre act of assault of a mock bunker- a provocative art installation which unwittingly turned into the highlight of the purported anti-government rally. The backbone of the calls for the resignation of the government pivot around the perceived rise of authoritarianism, corruption, the heavy-handed approach vis-à-vis tax evaders, and MPs criminal records. They are most likely to continue under the same clear political backing of the opposition parties.

So what is the significance of the rally and what does it tell us about contemporary Albania?

Key in understanding the rationale of the latest party-driven rally, is the political communication strategy opted by the Albanian Democratic Party. Its restored leadership, has recently promulgated in a lively fashion the notion of civil disobedience at the core of its calls for popular upheaval against the allegedly established ‘new tyranny’  of the ruling coalition - a principle originally coined by XIX century American author Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’.

Historical evidence shows that at large, civil disobedience has proven to be a robust mechanism for social change and its most prominent examples vary from the US civil rights movement, the resistance to British rule in India, the South African resistance to apartheid to more contemporary types of social movements in Southeast Europe. Recent protests in Romania causing the resignation of PM Victor Ponta and those against the Macedonian incumbent Nikola Gruevski, to name a few, all share common features: the embeddedness of institutions in the society and the citizens’ grassroots collective action component.

Despite the appealing public calls of the Albanian Democratic Party leadership to civil disobedience and the far reaching visions which contend the  establishment of a new republic and moreover of a new social contract, they arguably carry a significant level of dissonance with societal and political realities on the ground. As a consequence they are doomed to lose traction and fail to achieve the desired impact. There are multiple reasons to believe so.

Firstly, the cumulative effects of misguided and inconsistent neoliberal reforms throughout the country’s democratic transition have contributed to the widening of a pathological gap of mistrust between citizens and the institutions. Low levels of identification of citizens with key democratic institutions have eroded the democratic substance in the country, therefore increasing the propensity of political instrumentalization of societal discontent.

The December 8th rally and near future ones are likely to continue along the lines of a ‘reinvented civil disobedience’- an Albanian Thoreau, where institutions lack societal embeddedness and the grassroots component is overshadowed by political leverage.

Secondly, after the 2013 electoral defeat  the Democratic Party of Albania underwent a process of internal transformation, with its historical leader Sali Berisha stepping down from the party’s leadership and the election of Lulzim Basha. On the one hand, many may argue that calls for civil disobedience turned into a de facto mechanism of political manoeuvring. If that is the case, these calls can be read as a perpetuation of the old wine in new bottles, i.e., political polarization as an obstacle to successful reforms and democratic consolidation.

On the other hand, the centre left government coalition has undertaken an ambitious package of policy measures, with the justice reform (strongly supported by the EU and other international actors in the country) being the epicentre of the latter. The stakes are high for Albania, aspiring the opening of accession negotiations with the EU and the acquisition of a more robust political role in regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.

Assuming the cumbersome nature of such ventures and the almost proverbial reputation of detrimental effects that political polarization has had on democratic consolidation in Albania, calls for civil disobedience in midst of such transformational change could turn into a counterproductive move, the consequences of which shall be bared by the already disenchanted citizenry.

The opposition’s anti-government rally is far from being comparable to the transformative power of the Albanian student movements of 25 years ago. Yet, it is an important symptomatic event which raises concern about collective aspects of political action in Albania and the disoriented public conception of justice.

Written by:
  • Lorena Pullumbi Lorena Pullumbi is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Systems and Institutional Change, affiliated to the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy. Her post-graduate research project deals with the European Union's soft power in post-conflict fragile states and the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy after the Lisbon Treaty. She holds a joint Master Degree in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a cum laude BA in Sociology from the University of Tirana. In the past, she has been Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz and authored the section of political history of the Western Balkans countries with the Italian Encyclopaedia of Science, Letters and Arts.
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