Thousands of Albanians protested on Tuesday outside parliament in their capital, Tirana, to demand the resignation of prime minister Edi Rama’s government and to call for snap elections.
Some demonstrators threw firecrackers and burned tyres as lines of police guarded the assembly and fired occasional rounds of tear gas, but the protest ended without a repeat of the clashes, injuries and arrests that have marred other recent rallies.
The protests are a culmination of anger and frustration over a host of issues, from corruption and the rising cost of education, to alleged vote buying at 2017 elections and accusations of government links to organised crime.
Mr Rama and his ruling Socialists hope to start accession talks with the European Union in June, but Lulzim Basha, leader of the opposition, centre-right Democrats, told the crowd that the government was destroying Albania's hopes of integration with the West.
"There is no Europe for an Albania. with corruption at the highest level, Europe doesn't open its door to thieves," he said.
“Only free elections can save Albania,” he added, while calling for another protest on March 16th that would be “the decisive act that will open the doors of hope for all Albanians.”
Refused to step down
Mr Rama, whose Socialists hold 74 of the 140 seats in parliament, has refused to step down or consider snap elections.
He insists his government is tackling poverty and corruption and he accuses the opposition of misleading people and exploiting their grievances in a “desperate” bid to seize power, having been well beaten in the 2017 ballot.
Amid allegations of graft and ties between Socialist politicians and drug dealers, Mr Rama sacked seven of his 14 cabinet ministers in December, but that failed to quell widespread discontent among Albania’s 2.8 million people.
Having previously boycotted parliament, opposition deputies last month gave up their mandates completely, prompting sharp criticism from the EU and United States.
"These decisions and acts are counterproductive, go against the democratic choice of Albanian citizens and undermine the progress the country has made on the European Union path," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.
‘Avoid violent acts’
They jointly urged opposition deputies “to continue serving in the parliament, and to take any necessary measure to avoid violent acts and incendiary statements” and urged the government and its critics to hold “constructive discussions” to end the crisis.
The US embassy in Tirana also criticised the opposition’s withdrawal from parliament, saying it would “undermine the basic principles of democracy and subvert the important progress Albania has achieved on rule of law and responsible governance.”
After demonstrators hurled petrol bombs and tried to smash their way into Mr Rama’s office last month, the US called on all Albanian politicians “to reject violence and ensure the demonstrations are conducted peacefully and constructively.”
Major anti-government protests are also taking place in neighbouring Montenegro and in Serbia, fuelling talk of a pro-democracy "Balkan spring", but established politicians are now far more prominent at the Tirana rallies than in Podgorica or Belgrade – to the frustration of many Albanians who reject their entire political elite.