Protests Against Road Toll Turn Violent in Albania

Prime Minister Edi Rama faces calls for resignation while opposition urges civil disobedience after a protest against the imposition of a toll on the highway to Kosovo ended in violence and arrests.
The protests turned violent on March 31. Photo: BIRN/Bashkim Shala.

Albania’s Socialist government faces more protests on Tuesday after dozens of people arrested following a violent protest on Saturday are expected to appear in court accused of violence and arson.

The protest started after the government started implementing a concessionary agreement that includes 2.5-22 euros charge for use of the main road linking Albania to Kosovo.

After the municipal council of Kukes, in northern Albania, called for protests last week, several thousand people appeared on the road on Saturday and clashed with police and burned the booths and offices of the toll road company.

Protesters call the toll on the road unjust, and the practice of Public Private Partnership “theft” in general.

Over the past two nights, police arrested dozens of people and detained some in Kukes and some others in Tirana. Dozens of people organized a protest in Tirana where citizens and civil society activists joined family members in calling for the release of those arrested.

Politicians, journalists, business leaders and citizens have joined a debate over whether the protesters were right in their requests and whether the violence was justified.

Prime Minister Edi Rama reacted first by threatening the protesters, later by promising negotiations and a discount for “frequent users” of the road.

“The barbarian violence against public property and the violent reaction against public order officers in Kukes will receive the deserved answer with the full force of the law,” Rama said immediately after protesters overcome police resistance and burned the booths.

Later, he claimed the money paid by the road users was needed for road maintenance, but that he was ready to negotiate over a discount.

However, many Albanians seem unconvinced. Concessionary agreements are often followed by corruption allegations. Some analysts have called the agreement “a theft” and the owners of the concessionary company “oligarchs”.

Fatos Lubonja, a former political prisoner during communism and an outspoken critic of this and the previous government, called for a boycott of Kastrati company, the fuel retail business that co-owns the road concessionary company.

Protesters claim the toll effectively isolates them since they are unable to pay the five-euros charge for small cars, and there is no effective alternative road.
Artists protesting against another government plan for a concessionary agreement over the National Theatre appeared to support those protesting against the toll road.

“All Albanians have a problem today; they have an irresponsible state and an irresponsible Prime Minister,” Arben Derhemi, an actor, said.

In the first year of his second mandate, Rama is facing perhaps his worst moment, having beaten the opposition in the last elections. The Democratic Party claims it lost the elections thanks to drug money poured into the Rama campaign.

However, the opposition parties are not the only opponents of the road toll. Socialist members of Kukes Municipal Council were also among those protesting against the toll. Rama has said he will expel them from his “political family”.

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