Great Power politics has isolated ordinary citizens in Albania. Mass protests pushing the government to refuse Syrian chemical weapons have so far gained little attention. Sashenka Lleshaj comments on this new phenomenon.
After Bashar al-Assad decided to ratify the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequent Security Council resolution 2118, which set 30 July 2014 as the deadline for Syria to destroy its chemical arsenal, Albania emerged alongside Belgium and France as a potential host of the dismantling operation. Although it was reported that these countries were the only ones to not say ‘No’, a potential ‘Yes’ from the Albanian government was enough to cause thousands of people to take to the streets of major Albanian major cities (especially the capital, Tirana) since Thursday 7 November.
While the protest is still active, there are at least three elements that distinguish it from previous movements. First, this protest is preventive rather than reactive. Despite several declarations by the Albanian PM Edi Rama and the Parliament Chairman Ilir Meta that we “are not at the point when we need to take a decision, and we might not get there,” and that “no decision will be taken against your will”, the fear of a decision that ignores the protest is still present. Although Albania successfully destroyed its own Communist-era chemical arsenal in 2007, citizens are concerned of the country’s limited capacity to deal with the amount of the Syrian chemical weapons. Furthermore, memories of the 2008 Gërdec tragedy where 28 people died and many others were injured in a weapon demolition factory are still fresh.
Albanians’ common distrust of their own government this time was accompanied by a new feature which brings to the second characteristic of this protest: scepticism towards the US for using its little ally for dirty jobs. This time the many ‘favours’ to the US were counted such as: Albania’s readiness to send soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq; its readiness to host the Guantanamo Bay Uighurs and the Iranian opposition exiles. For the first time in the Post-Communist history of Albania, protests were held in front of the American Embassy in Tirana.
A final characteristic of the protest was its non-affiliation with a political party. This time students, environmentalists, political activists and citizens not only didn’t hold a party flag, they also refused to accept in the gathering any party leader. At the peak of the protests on Thursday 14 November, opposition leaders joined the protesters to be expelled shortly after by a crowd that feared the instrumentalisation of the protest by the opposition against the government.
On Friday 15 November, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to take a decision on the plan for the demolition of the Syrian chemical weapons which could include Albania. At this point the Albanian government and parliament will have to take a truly difficult decision that pits its citizens against its biggest ally in what seems like a zero sum game. However, the massive protest of these last days was a victory in itself. This may be the “miracle of freedom” that former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha misperceived with Albania’s entry into NATO.