The Unofficial View of Tirana (86)


Edi Rama’s “Facebook photo of the day,” placing a rose on one of the very tasteful bronze memorials marking the places where the four protesters were shot on January 2, 2011. Note also his initials E.R. on the cuffs of his shirt, peeking out from under his tailor-made suit.

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

Four years ago, on January 21, 2011, I wrote the following on the third post of The Unofficial View:

The socialist opposition had called for the demonstration because of a corruption scandal which had erupted over the weekend, and the alleged election fraud during the previous elections. […]

I left home around 14:30 and arriving behind the PM’s office I met some friends on the street who said that it was a “coup d’état,” “just like in ’97.” We walked to the main boulevard together, but had to return because of the tear gas, which, blown toward us by the wind, burned in our throats and eyes. I climbed onto the Pyramid to have an overview of the situation and within half an hour I could see five cars going up into flames. People on the square in front of the pyramid destroyed the pavement to throw stones at the Military Police guarding the PM’s office. Several explosions could be heard. […]

A few organizers, wielding megaphones tried to calm down the crowd, which seemed impossible. […]

After about an hour of throwing stones and basically destroying the two police vans next to the PM’s office, the protesters launched a full attack on the Military Police around 15:30, forcing them to retreat inside the gates of the PM’s office. The two police vans were set alight. Subsequently the police started shooting, supposedly with rubber bullets, but by then I was forced to leave my position on the Pyramid. As I was walking to meet some friends in a cafe, I could hear (semi-automatic) gun fire coming from the direction of the main boulevard. On the television of the cafe I saw that the protesters had breached one of the gates of the PM’s office.

This is as far as my own record goes of the ill-fated “January 21 protests.” The aftermath was messy, no responsibility was taken by former PM Sali Berisha or former Minister of Interior Affairs Lulzim Basha, the current head of the opposition party, none of the Republican Guards that pulled the trigger were fired, computer servers with security cam footage were wiped clean, and until the parliamentary elections of 2013 nothing substantial happened in the direction of justice. Nor did anything groundbreaking happen afterward, by the way. At this moment the judicial process seems to be stuck somewhere between “doing research” and “keeping silent.” Rama’s photo-op with the victims’ families, including a “photo of the day” felt slightly opportunistic, as was his promise for a “special pension.” One could also call that maliciously a shut-up fee. Ex-PM Berisha was by far the most amusing in his response, calling for “justice” while claiming that the only one to blame for the deaths was former opposition leader Edi Rama himself, who according to Berisha had attempted a coup, and so on… The facts, however, remain. The Albanian justice system is unable – for a variety of well-known and very human reasons – to process the fact that four innocent people were shot in broad daylight by the Republic Guards. Actually, it also failed to process the fact that the entire village of Gërdec got blown up some years before that. But wait, it also utterly fails to prosecute and put anyone in jail for the still rampant corruption, with prosecutor-general Adriatik Llalla somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

So obviously the right thing to do, when you have a completely dysfunctional juridical system, is to give it more work by instituting jail sentences for whatever the current government has high on its priority list, such as restoring the “state of law.” Illegal construction: up to 5 years imprisonment. Stealing energy: up to 5 years imprisonment. Now, apart from a discussion of whether these types of sentences are effective policy, one can only wonder what a government that aims to project such a “sensitive,” rosy-red, French-flag penciled face, aims at with chasing ordinary citizens through a rotten judicial system and to put them in and overpopulated prison system, in a country that already has one of the highest prison population rates in the EU zone of influence (only Poland and Baltic states show higher rates), of which a staggering 52.9% is a pre-trial or remand detainee (Norway has 28.7%, Kosovo 35.5%). So you would think that the government would be smart about this and say: “Let’s wait with imprisoning even more people, especially regular citizens who often out of (perceived) necessity construct (temporary) buildings or tap off power lines, while it is so painfully clear that we are completely unable to jail actual murderers and the people who wrecked our economy for years.” A government that would not think “we can get away with this.”

Well, apparently they can! Not only that, they are planning to make a good buck on top of it, surely through nice, EU-approved, and transparently conducted tenders. Because if the supply of inmates is growing, we might as well create a demand. That’s where the unholy idea of privatizing the Albanian prison system comes in, but, mind you, only for “small crimes” up to five years. Well aren’t these new laws for energy theft and illegal construction conveniently punishing “up to five years.” Voilà the utter cynicism of the current government showing through the cracks of a working visit of the Minister of Justice to the UK. I have written before about the extensive plans for privatization of the Albanian public sector, which would obviously be the “socialist” thing to do (we are ruled a socialist party, are we not?), an this working visit seems to fit into that pattern. But why a working visit? Already a brief internet glance at prison systems with exquisite experience in privatization such as the one in the US, where the prison population is outgrowing the college population, shows that jailing people for profit, i.e. creating an economic demand for prisoners, can only lead to disastrous consequences. To put it more bluntly, the last time I checked, detaining people in order extract labor and services at high profit margins was called slavery.

So this brings us to the question how the Ministry of Justice got the idea to go on this jolly good field trip to inspect the UK prison system, “learn from their experiences,” and to “focus on the possibilities of opening private prisons (for sentences up to five year).” Enter yet again the figure of Tony Blair, the main advisor of Edi Rama, and the main villain in other recent blog posts. During the period his Labour Party was in power, many conservative policies instituted under the Tory government were happily continued in the name of the “Third Way.” These policies included the ongoing privatization of the penitentiary system. So I would not be surprised if Blair Inc. turns out to be able to bring some wonderful “experience” and “expertise” from the UK to Albania to assist with this delicate post-mortem operation on the Albanian zombie-judiciary – free of charge, naturally.

Tony Blair finds a PR opportunity

A recent study by the Corporate Europe Observatory, entitled “Spin doctors to the autocrats: How European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes” offers a wonderful overview of the exploits of our born-again Catholic Englishman. For example, London-based Portland Communications, which employs former spin doctor buddy Alistair Campbell, and Tony Blair Associates are two of the main lobbyists for the authoritarian regime of “lifetime” Kazakh President Nazarbayev: “The Ray of Light’s strategic use of PR and lobbying, particularly via Tony Blair’s network of influence, has to be one of the most successful examples of a dictator whitewashing his image” (39). Tony Blair is Nazarbayev’s “official advisor” (40), lending him a helping hand to get out of messy human rights abuse cases and crank up his international image by writing parts of his speeches. Talline in the report: “Kazakhstan has seen a marked regression in civil liberties since Blair’s hiring.” Just saying…

So this is Tony Blair, yet again. It gives to think, doesn’t it – the same guy that is pro bono official advisor to Kazakhstan’s dictator is also pro bono official advisor of Albania’s Je-suis-Charlie PM. And whereas Portland Communications is one of the cogs in Kazakhstan’s well-oiled pr-machine, its part-time employee Alistair Campbell authored this wonderful article about rebranding Albania: “Plenty other countries have used branding and PR to change their image in a way that benefits their people [does it?]. Albania aims to be next, and I am pleased to be advising it.” And so if all of this hard PR labor is pro bono, in Kazakhstan and in Albania – where does the profit come from? How does Blair put some bread on the table? Well, I suppose that those who steal energy and build illegal fruit stands will soon find out.

About the Author:


Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular blog on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.