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Albania in turmoil as opposition protests and leaves parliament

Thousands of Albanians protested against the Socialist government as the opposition abandoned the parliament demanding Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a transitional government to prepare fair elections.

Tirana, 21 February 2019 (MIA/dpa) – Thousands of Albanians protested against the Socialist government as the opposition abandoned the parliament demanding Prime Minister Edi Rama’s resignation and a transitional government to prepare fair elections.

Demonstrators marched peacefully after a rally, in contrast to the previous protest on Saturday, when police used tear gas, flash grenades and water cannon to prevent groups of demonstrators from breaking into government buildings.

Police in uniforms and some units in riot gear were deployed in front of the institutions on Thursday.

Conservative Democratic Party (DP) leader Llulzim Basha accuses Rama of corruption and links with organized crime. Rama frequently dismisses the opposition, sometimes provoking angry reaction.

“We are not people of violence, but of freedom and democracy, and we will never accept a theft of the people’s votes and tens of hundreds of millions out of the pockets of Albanians,” Basha said.

“And for Edi Rama, resignation will be just the beginning, he will be brought to justice he deserves,” he added.

A week ago, a DP lawmaker sprayed Rama with ink inside the parliament in protest at what he said was premier’s mockery of the opposition.

Hours before the protest on Thursday, the European Union and United States warned Albanian political leaders to avoid violence and provocative rhetoric.

“We reaffirm the right of citizens to engage in peaceful demonstrations … but we strongly denounce any rhetoric by political leaders calling for violence,” EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement.

The US embassy in Tirana urged “all participants in today’s demonstrations to peacefully exercise their right of assembly and reject violence” and called on the government and security forces to practice restraint.

The warning reflected concern over the history of violent protects in Albania dating back to early days of parliamentary democracy, which replaced a harsh Communist regime in 1992.

The worst incident occurred when Basha was interior minister and Rama led protests against the government, alleging electoral fraud and corruption in the government.

During demonstrations in January 2011, police and the army fired deadly shots at the violent crowd.

Seeking to add weight to the claim that Rama has a stranglehold on institutions, six opposition parties stood behind Basha and the DP and relinquished their 65 seats in the parliament.

“The parliament is run counter to the constitution and we have run into a wall, it is no longer a parliament with a government,” Basha said ahead of the protest.

The EU criticized the move, saying it “seriously hinders the functioning of democracy in Albania. The Parliament is the place where reforms and relevant developments should be discussed … not boycotted,” Mogherini and Hahn said.

The decision to boycott is “counterproductive,” they added.

By resigning, the lawmakers from seven opposition parties triggered a complex process which may take months until completion.

With the 74 seats, plus a supporter from another party, Rama’s Socialists will, however, be able to continue governing without the presence of the opposition.

Albania joined NATO in 2009, but the European Union has so far refused to launch membership talks with it, because of shortcomings in the rule of law and the electoral framework.

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