Tuesday, 4 December was a normal day in Albania. News came that students from the Faculty of Architecture were boycotting their classes to protest a government decision to charge students approximately 30 euro for each postponed exam. The news spread like wildfire across the departments of Tirana’s public universities. On Wednesday, several thousand students gathered in front of the Ministry of Education to call on the government to take back the decision. Encouraged by the burst of enthusiasm, the students called for another protest on Thursday. At least 10,000 people attended. While the government prepared to roll back the new rule on postponed exams, the students began chanting new slogans as the mass of protesters formulated a long list of demands. The most important one was cutting all tuition fees by half. Calls for students’ democratic participation within the universities, the need for serious public investment in higher education, improved living conditions in student dormitories, and the shaming of corrupt professors were quickly becoming the new lingua franca of the protest.
On Thursday the government retreated on the exams rule. Yet rather than weaken the protest, this enflamed it. On Friday at least 15,000 students showed up in front of the Ministry of Education, calling for free public education and other radical ideas concerning the organization of the university and students’ studying and living conditions. By Friday it was already the biggest protest in Albanian history not organized by formal political parties. Prime Minister Edi Rama understood he had lost the battle for public legitimacy against the students. He declared that his government agreed with their demands in principle, but requested a negotiating process with the students’ representatives. On the other hand, he initiated a new strategy by shifting the responsibility onto the corrupt public university bureaucracy and portraying himself as an ally of the protesting students. Nobody fell for this ruse. The students in the streets demanded that the government concede to all their demands.
The government hoped to gain some time. From Saturday to Monday the universities were closed for extended holidays. The number of protesters declined, and conflicts between the more organized groups within the student multitude erupted.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, 11 December, 20–30,000 gathered in front of the Ministry of Education after the larger groups of students returned to Tirana from their hometowns. This gathering was the largest protest in post-1991 Albanian history (when students and workers overthrew the state-socialist regime). Large number of citizens joined the students. People brought food and water to show their support. One could barely move within the crowd. There were scenes of old people crying, watching the students and encouraging them. Popular enthusiasm reached its peak. Yet unfortunately, a strategic disagreement between the students the next day would temporarily weaken the protest.
The Struggle for Hegemony
“Spontaneity” is in many ways the watchword of this ongoing protest movement. Nevertheless, there were three competing and antagonistic groups within the broader student multitude from the beginning. The first two, which worked together, were the student unions controlled by the two main opposition parties: the Democratic Party (PD) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). Standing in their way was the Movement for the University (Lëvizja Për Universitetin, or LPU), an independent student organization which has functioned as the main opposition to the government’s neoliberal higher education reforms.
By using their student unions, PD and LSI tried to divert the movement politically to call for the immediate fall of the government. For the overwhelming majority of students, however, the university issue remained priority and they had no desire to be manipulated. Unable to exploit the protest, the PD and LSI student unions derided LPU activists as Communists and Marxist-Leninists seeking to divide the protest.
For several days a half-secret battle raged inside the movement against the government. There were skirmishes, small incidents of violence, and a lot of threats. At times it felt like a real war of position, with the PD-LSI student unions and LPU activists fighting for each tree, struggling to position themselves better in order to communicate their ideas to the large multitude of students. While the currents were relatively equal in organizational terms, the PD-LSI had an advantage when it came to the use of violence (by employing small gangsters to threaten and punch some activists). LPU activists, on the other hand, had a considerable advantage when it came to delivering speeches and being creative (almost all of the songs chanted by the crowds came from the LPU’s repertoire).
Despite the tensions, the students’ call for unity seems to have compelled the two organized groups to deescalate the conflict.
Edi Rama’s Solitude
Despite the organized groups’ fight to consolidate hegemony over the movement, the main factor in the protests continues to be spontaneity. Nobody can speak as its representative. Terms like “representation” or “negotiations with the government” have become a shibboleth of betrayal. The list of demands has grown long and wide-ranging. The only common denominator among the students is that the government must accept all demands without negotiations. Edi Rama, on the other hand, declares that his government accepts the students’ demands in principle, but will not give in unless they come to the negotiating table. While the students continue their resistance and refuse to negotiate, the government tries to create fake student representatives (like the Socialist Party’s “Forum of Euro-Socialist Youth”). But still, nobody wants to sit at the table with a begging Prime Minister.
This unprecedented resistance and public rejection of government policy has plunged the regime into crisis. Despite the fact that all of the students’ demands have remained “economic” thus far – nobody has called for the overthrow of the regime – the current government is reaching new lows in terms of popular legitimacy in modern Albanian history. Rama’s insistence on meeting the students’ representatives seems more like a desperate move to save what he can and keep the government in power for a few more years.
New Political Momentum
To the casual observer, it is practically unbelievable how fast the hegemonic public discourse in Albania has changed in just a few days. Not only the people in the streets, but almost all TV pundits are calling for solidarity with the students and supporting all kinds of radical ideas – not only in higher education, but also more generally. Direct democracy and social rights, whether traditional or new, are suddenly being supported as mainstream ideas. Everybody is denouncing the corrupt partnership between the political bureaucracy and the economic oligarchy.
Relegated to the periphery of Europe for decades, Albania’s political horizons have historically been quite limited, and migration to Germany and other wealthier countries was generally the only way for young people to change their situation. Now, for the first time in a generation, anything seems possible – not through leaving the country, but by staying here and changing it for the better.
Arlind Qori is an activist with the left-wing Organizata Politike in Albania. He also teaches political philosophy and ideology critique at the University of Tirana. An edited version of this article originally appeared in Bilten, a Serbo-Croat magazine of theory and politics cooperating with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung's Southeast Europe Office.