Gathered on the main boulevard of the Albanian capital, a group of young people stand with Ukrainian flags draped around their shoulders. Banners and flowers are hung above their heads to mark the national holiday at the start of summer, but the group is not there to celebrate.
For seven days and more, Albanian citizens have been protesting against rising food, fuel and energy prices. The government, however, called them a national disgrace and blamed them for their protests in the service of Russia and the Kremlin.
Following Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, prices for fuel, energy and basic foodstuffs have risen significantly and globally. Albania has not escaped this, but for its citizens, a third of whom live below the poverty line, it is proving too much to bear.
The national statistics institution, INSTAT, found that the cost of 30 essential food items had increased by 40% compared to January 2022, including meat, dairy products, cooking oils and fruits and vegetables. The cost of fuel has increased by 40% and some are struggling to pay increased energy bills.
All we want is help
One of the organizers, scholar, journalist and activist Rezearta Caushaj told Exit: “The government ridiculed the protests, tried to downplay their significance and tried to shame us for protesting in times of war. Yet what we are asking for is nothing more than what our neighbors are getting: help for consumers and businesses to stay afloat with the current crisis.
She explained that the recent tax cuts announced by the government are not enough and that the burden will ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.
“It will have an even worse impact on our economy, which is already savaged by corruption and controlled by a few oligarchs friendly to the government, – as is the case with the fuel trade, dominated by Kastrati, who are the only ones to benefit. “, she added. noted.
Caushaj added that most Albanians live off their month-to-month wages and that it is “immoral for our government to benefit from a higher influx of taxes at a time when ordinary citizens are struggling”.
She further pointed out that this problem was present long before the war. “Our income is worth less than a week ago and is worth less tomorrow. With the meager level of wages, people are starting to panic.
Protests across the country have brought together students, farmers, tourism stakeholders, activists and ordinary citizens in some of the largest nonpartisan demonstrations in recent years.
Protesters say the rising cost of food as well as fuel and electricity is too high for one of Europe’s poorest countries where the minimum wage is just 240 euros.
While the government has taken some steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, protesters say cost increases are so high that even those previously not at risk of poverty now face decisions such as feeding their family or keep their home warm.
United against Russia
But Prime Minister Edi Rama has fueled the rhetoric that protesters are demonstrating against the consequences of the war in Ukraine. This then morphed into claims that protesters are paid to protest, are activists and “serve Putin”.
Caushaj was firm in his denials: “I am in no way supported, influenced or related to Russia or anyone related to Russia. I do not support the Russian invasion, nor the invasion of any other country.
Martin Gjonaj, a representative of the country’s tourism sector also explained his motivations.
“What worries me is the well-being of my family directly affected by the price hikes, and the complete lack of government accountability and response.”
It is also clear that he does not support Russia and is “totally against the Russian attack on Ukraine, which is an attack on an independent and democratic country, and I condemn in my strongest terms this fascist aggression typical of Putin against the Ukrainian people.”
Exit also approached Organizata Politike, a left-wing civil society movement involved in organizing the protests. On Russian influence or sympathy for Moscow, they said: “We categorically condemn the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and we stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people who are fighting for their freedom”.
As for their motivation, they explained that they thought the most obvious way to express their discontent and fight against repression was to demonstrate.
“It is the only hope of challenging the consolidated ruling elite in cahoots with a few oligarchs,” they said.
Regarding the price increase, they said that a 40% increase in fuel prices equivalent to 20% of an Albanian’s daily income is unacceptable.
“This is a speculative maneuver by Edi Rama and the oligarchs who control the fuel industry in Albania. This has caused a general increase in the prices of the basket of goods, which we consider criminal in a country where 1/3 of the population lives below the poverty line, with the lowest minimum wage in the region,” a spokesperson explained.
Endemic State Capture
Protesters believe government diversion deliberate to distract from their other complaints; Albanian politicians allow market manipulation at the behest of powerful oligarchs and are involved in corruption and financial crimes.
In effect, according to to several different reports, including International TransparencyAlbania is considered to be at significant risk of state capture and the undue influence of business elite.
Organizata Politike criticized the government for its continued “inadequate response” to the 2019 earthquake that killed 51 people, the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of war.
“The general feeling of frustration in Albania stems from many years of dispossession of public resources for the benefit of a few individuals, as well as the government’s general incompetence in crisis management. Finally, people are responding,” they added.
Caushaj also noted that the government has repeatedly used “rhetoric of warfor the pandemic and other crises, but failed to adequately help citizens.
Asked about his grievances with the government, Gjonaj lists corruption, poor governance, abuse of power, promotion of monopolies and oligopolies – which he says become even more apparent in times of crisis.
“I see the need for a civic response to this situation, so I joined tens of thousands of activists and citizens in recent protests,” he said.
All I want is democracy and freedom
Exit also reached out to Arben Kola, a tour guide and activist who was recently detained for three days for protesting.
“I protest for democracy, freedom, peace, prosperity and punishment for those who stole Albanian public money, land and destroyed everything from heavy industry to beautiful rivers and national parks.”
Kola, who spends her weekends organizing public cleanups of rivers and lakes across the country, also wants real electoral reform that includes the diaspora.
“We want to avoid another dictatorship or someone like Putin in power,” he said, winking at Albania’s 50-year communist past.
Asked about the allegations of Russian influence on the protest, he simply replied: “Rama is the one who indirectly supports Russia through Open Balkan and his relationship with Vucic.”
He refers to the Open Balkan initiative comprising Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia which provides for free trade and travel to the countries concerned.
His faction of protesters believe that Albanian society and its members need the maximum support from the government and that their failure to do so leads to increased poverty and high emigration rates.
Various factions of protesters have made requests to the government and given as a deadline of Saturday 19 March. If not met, the protesters will gather again in the center of the city, to march on Rama’s office, demanding social and economic security.
As the war in Ukraine continues to rage, for thousands of Albanians it is an ongoing battle to feed their families and pay their bills. Their protests do not come from a place of non-compassion, but rather from an overriding need to survive.