1 March 2004, Volume 5, Number 7
IN FOCUSGROWING UNREST IN ALBANIA... Albania, among the poorest nations of Europe, with a population of 3.6 million, has been the scene of mounting protests in recent months organized separately by opposition and nongovernmental groups. They are protesting a host of issues plaguing the Balkan nation, from corruption and blood feuds to price hikes, poverty, and trafficking in migrant laborers.
On 21 February, an estimated 50,000 people organized by a coalition of 10 opposition parties marched in the capital Tirana, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Fatos Nano (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). The protests were the largest in seven years, since the Socialists were brought to power in 1997 on a wave of street demonstrations. Opposition politicians released white doves in the air to illustrate the peaceful nature of their protest. They defied a police order banning them from marching in front of government headquarters, seeurope.net reported 23 February, but were fortunate that police did not react.
Former President Sali Berisha, now the main opposition leader, climbed down from threats to attempt to topple the government, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 13 February. Still, he vowed to continue protests to pressure Nano into resignation, and called for new elections before the end of the year. Danila Buzi, a journalist with Top Channel, a private TV station, reporting for IWPR, said the demonstrators were consciously imitating Georgian opposition rallies that recently sent Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze into retirement.
Organizers of the long-planned rallies in Albania were also said to be aiming at bringing down Nano's Socialist government but pulled back before mass protests last weekend (21-22 February), apparently under pressure from both the West and domestic politics. European leaders moved quickly to suppress the threat of a coup, criticizing what they viewed as an implied threat of force, IWPR reported. The U.S. ambassador in Tirana also declared "support for peaceful protestations but never violent ones." The ruling Socialist Party urged the opposition to stop calling for early elections and instead join efforts to integrate Albania into the European Union and NATO, seeurope.net reported 27 February. The public had readily dismissed facile comparisons between Berisha and Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian opposition leader who succeeded in forcing the resignation of Shevardnadze and then was elected president. A major reason was the abhorrence of violence. On 7 February, protests against utility price hikes turned violent. Demonstrators tried to storm government buildings and police fired their weapons in the air. Helicopters shot at protesters from the air when they began breaking windows with stones. Based on its monitoring of the demonstration, the Albanian Helsinki Committee condemned the violence of protesters while affirming the right of assembly.
The vocal calls against violence at home and abroad were rooted in a perception of past Albanian politics and protests, which have seen force used by both police and demonstrators, notably in 1996-97, a period of enormous public anger at the collapse of various pyramid schemes that had bilked people of their savings.
In contrast, the 21 February protest proceeded peacefully. Western officials praised demonstrators for their restraint. "It was evident that the protest rally was well-organized and that great effort was made to ensure that it remained peaceful," said Ambassador Osmo Lipponen, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Albania, who also praised police for using restraint.
Albanian authorities have stepped up public statements and military preparation about Albania's role in the war on international terrorism. Nano said he would "use every means to fight terrorists who want to destabilize public safety," the IWPR's Buzi reported on 9 February, in an effort to link the suppression of domestic protest to the international cause of combating terrorists.
While the opposition has brought significant numbers of people to the streets, the next moves are uncertain under circumstances where Western leaders are reluctant to support a Georgian scenario. Political sympathies of those who vote in Albania (only about 46 percent of those eligible) are evenly divided, according to seeurope.net. When Albania's Central Election Commission finally published the results of local elections held more than four months ago, they showed that the Socialists won 34.63 percent of the vote and Berisha's party, in coalition with two smaller parties, won 32.42 percent. Both sides are trying to co-opt apathetic nonvoters.
Political wrangling in parliament reached such a pitch before the mass rallies that some civil society representatives felt called upon to comment, and to position themselves among the ostensibly nonaligned wishing more from their political leaders. In a joint open letter issued to parliament speaker Servet Pellumbi and various groups in parliament, NGOs including the Albanian Helsinki Committee, the Albanian Center for Human Rights, the Society for Democratic Culture, the Independent Forum of Albanian Women, the Association of Albanian Constitutionalists, and others carefully praised the "pluralist" parliament for serving as a forum where both the ruling and the opposition parties "play their significant and irreplaceable role in the further intensification of the democratic processes." But they expressed dismay with what they characterized as an "extremely aggravated" atmosphere that has come to prevail in parliament, and charged members of parliament with ignoring the division of powers and the presumption of innocence in their "passionate" discussions. Feeling they were speaking for the "entire society," the organizations expressed their concern "that the ethics and the democratic culture are less than satisfactory" and are part of the failure to solve Albania's problems and integrate it to Europe.
The NGOs blamed the parliament for voter apathy and lack of interest in the televised broadcast of parliamentary debates, accusing members of not engaging ion authentic debate but vilifying opponents. "The language of hatred and the lack of the parliamentary ethics have but left negative impressions also amongst the civil society," which must play a role in a constructive public debate, say the NGOs. Such confrontation has had the effect of both dividing society and undermining public trust in elected representatives.
...AS 'PARTY OF DISSATISFIED' CRY 'ENOUGH.' There are some signs that as in Georgia and Serbia, a new youth movement has emerged that is attempting to attract a broader following around basic civic issues and yet stay removed from discredited party politics.
The Balkans YouthLink and the Albanian National Debate Association launched a campaign last year for public awareness of the need to become involved in civic affairs such as prevention of trafficking, stopping corruption, ending blood feuds and rolling back high electricity costs. Dubbed "Mjaft," Albanian for "Enough" and featuring a red hand held up in a "stop" gesture, the civic campaign has held a series of town meetings and public demonstrations to try to make citizens more active in demanding more from their government. With "significant funding" from the Netherlands, as well as support from the U.S., British, and German embassies, the Open Society Foundation of Albania, and UN programs, according to the website of the OSCE presence in Albania, Mjaft, like other movements of its type in the region, is dependent on Western government and multilateral institutional support and is therefore limited in how radical it can become.
Using a combination of humor and serious passion illustrated with vivid photographs and graphics, the site is designed to appeal to youth and get attention in the region, although only a small percentage of Albanians can access and pay for Internet service. On its website at http://www.mjaft.org the movement carries a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: "This website is suited for active citizens only. We bear no responsibility for any discomfort this may bring to corrupt officials and indifferent citizens. If you think being an active citizen is a burden, try apathy and send us a postcard from the stone ages."
Mjaft has concentrated on taking up some of the most painful issues in Albanian society with a great deal of public resonance. On 10 January, an inflatable speedboat packed with Albanians trying to gain illegal entry to Italy sank amid high waves and winds off Albania's coast near Vlora, AP and other wire services reported on 11 January. Although Albanian police called on NATO and Italian authorities for help in the rescue when they spotted the fragile craft in the rough weather, 21 people died and only 11 survived. Rescued passengers told AP that they made the "crazy trip" because their visas for agricultural work in Italy had expired and the Italian government had refused to renew them. The tragedy was the latest in a string of such drowning of migrants at sea.
In the wake of the Vlora tragedy, in January Mjaft organized what it described as "20,000 candles" in front of the government building for three days, and encouraged people to leave messages of sympathy during the vigil. Their action touched a nerve, and numerous people came to pour out their grief not only about the loss of life from the ship sinking, but all of Albania's chronic, unsolved ills.
Mjaft appears to be a milder version of the famous Serbian youth movement Otpor which first used the slogan "Gotov zhe" (He's finished) to campaign for the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic, and used a black clenched fist as its icon, inspiring youth throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Kmara, the youth movement in Georgia active in the "dump Shevardnadze" campaign also used the local Georgian version of the slogans of "He's through" and "It's enough," and the Belarusian youth campaign Zubr (Bison) has peppered Belarus with signs and graffiti saying "He's finished" about autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Milder, yet like other youth movements in the region channeled into community service at the behest of Western donors, Mjaft could likely turn into something more challenging. OSCE's official website for Albania focuses on Mjaft's community awareness programs; Mjaft's site has articles about vigorous protest in front of the prime minister's office, and calls for his resignation. The group also makes emphatic statements disassociating themselves from the method of violence and keeps its distance from formal political opposition movements. Squaring the circle of launching a mass movement of protest to bring about change, but keeping it apart from politics is in part a bow to donors' wishes, yet is also a sign of disenchantment with the political culture of Albania.
While Berisha used the slogan "Nano ik" (Nano leave) which Western wire services translated as "Nano's finished"), Mjaft leadership evidently opted to stay out of organizing the latest round of mass protests, although some of their followers may have participated and the sentiment of "Enough" was in the air.
"Koha Jone" commented on 13 February that Mjaft had "different objectives from the opposition." The daily noted that Albanian citizens were wondering why Mjaft was not keeping up a protest against price hikes, showing a kind of public expectation for more than just awareness raising from the group. The "Mjaft movement has turned from a group of activists aiming to put an end to the apathy of Albanians into a force which, though not legally, represents morally their interests." (The reference to "not legally" is not a charge of unlawful activity, but rather a comment on the nonparliamentary nature of the movement.) Mjaft leader Erion Veliaj condemned the violence of the 7 February protests, saying, "The Democratic Party does not see protest as a way to improve things but as a means to an end -- the end being Berisha taking over the government." The message recently delivered by international and local human rights groups about continuing violation of civil rights in Georgia by the new government may not have been lost on Albanian civic movements.
When Mjaft protested about the loss of migrants at sea on 16 January, "Albanians saw there is a group of young people who take to [the] street in protests not for political profits but simply because they feel pain in watching their fellow nationals" attempt to escape poverty. "Koha Jone" argued that by not participating in Berisha's protest, rather than keeping silent, Mjaft had "conveyed a clear and strong message" that they are separate from politicians and therefore ostensibly more credible. "Berisha aims [at] power, while Mjaft has as its objective the continuous pressure on government officials (whoever they are) in order that the latter work seriously to improve the life of common citizens."
Thus Mjaft appears to be styling itself as a civic group calling attention to various issues rather than an opposition, and still hopes for dialogue with the government, although not an uncritical one. On 29 January, Mjaft was among civil society groups who met with Nano to raise issues such as the "brain drain" of Albanian students abroad, oneworld.net reported. Veliaj asked to find the "real culprits" for the deaths of migrants on the high seas but also demanded a public apology from Nano for "the irresponsibility and the arrogance shown by the state institutions" regarding the chronic problems of migrants.
The new style of mass movement is "the music of a 'party' growing constantly over these 13 years in Albania, the 'Party of the Dissatisfied,'" "Korrieri" commented on 18 January. The newspaper described crowds of sobbing people lighting candles at the vigil for those lost at sea, "crying out deep from their souls 'Enough!'"
RUSSIAISLAMIC SCHOLARS CONDEMN TERRORISM, WESTERN 'EXCEPTIONAL JUSTICE.' The International Conference of Islam Theologians convened on 23-25 February in Jakarta at the start of the Muslim New Year. The conference was organized by the Indonesian organization Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic association in the world with 40 million members. Indonesia's President Megawati Soekarnoputri opened the session of 300 experts on Islam from 89 countries, condemning what she characterized as Western hypocrisy. For the first time, experts from Russia took part, in keeping with the new involvement of Russia as an observer at the Organization of the Islamic Conference last October. With a Muslim population estimated at 20 million and predominantly Muslim neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia is positioning itself as a player in the world of Islamic politics
In her speech at the conference, Megawati blasted the great powers of the world for "openly threatening Muslim countries, and it is not clear whether they are aware that with such a policy they will ultimately undermine faith in them as 'universal defenders of human rights,'" islam.ru reported, using a Russian translation of her speech and commenting that it was unusually harsh in tone. "The act of violence undertaken unilaterally against the Republic of Iraq by certain countries, which are now finding it difficult to prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction there, as the sole justification to launch the biggest military attack at the beginning of this 21st century, is an evident picture of this injustice," "The Sydney Morning Herald" quoted Megawati as saying on 23 February.
She also condemned the recent French ban on Islamic head scarves in state-sponsored schools as "exceptional injustice" by the West. Megawati contrasted Indonesia's prosecution of individual terrorists who hid behind religious justifications with what she called Western discrimination at home and interference abroad. Local and international human rights groups have been critical of Indonesia's war on terrorism, which they say has violated human rights.
AP reported on 23 February that Megawati, a key supporter of Washington's war against terrorism, only occasionally wears a head scarf and did not wear one during her speech to the scholars. Al-Jazeera ran a photo of Megawati in a head scarf taken on another occasion with a quote from her speech to the scholars on 23 February. AFP ran a photo of a woman in a head scarf praying at a New Year's ceremony. Russia weathered a head-scarf controversy last year by reversing government policy requiring Muslim women to bare their heads when taking passport pictures.
While condemning what she viewed as Western discrimination and unnecessary wars against Islamic countries, Megawati outlined ways that Islam had to change to present "a more peaceful facade." "Islamic scholars need to formulate and develop a socio-religious conception that is more open, more inclusive, which provides space to the pluralism of mankind that is so diverse," "The Sydney Morning Herald" quoted her as saying.
Russian scholars at the conference also picked up the themes of moderation and avoidance of the extremism signified by Wahhabism, but still endorsed the anti-Western message. Farid Salman, deputy supreme mufti of Russia and head of the delegation to the scholars' conference, said his country's participation was important "because from the point of theological view there have been no breakthroughs in Islam in the course of the last two centuries -- it has become somehow stalled in its development," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.
While the conference was nominally about scholarship, Salman made it clear that it was part of an alignment with Southeast Asia, which is seen as a region of "young tigers" poised for rapid economic growth, unlike the countries of the Persian Gulf, said to be fading. Southeast Asia was "characterized by the absence of the so-called pseudo-religious extremism," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying. And "it would have been unwise not to grab at the emerged possibility for the development intergovernmental relations on the whole," he said.
The three-day meeting concluded with a plan to institutionalize the conference and create a joint secretariat in Jakarta, to strengthen Muslims' role in global education and development, "The Jakarta Post" reported on 26 February. The conference plans to convene every two years and Morocco agreed to host the next meeting in 2006. The scholars said that better training and educational materials were needed for Islamic universities to "prepare Muslims for the consequences of globalization." They also suggested applying Islamic principles mandating contribution of tithes, promoting alms giving to the less fortunate, and establishing charities. They also called for the establishment of a modern Islamic electronic network to "contribute to more balanced media coverage, while improving media workers' professional standards and integrity," "The Jakarta Post" reported.
The scholars also said in a joint final declaration that they "strongly condemned acts of terrorism" and "rejected the identification of terrorism with any particular religion." They concluded that the fight against terrorism could only be won "through comprehensive and balanced measures and by addressing its root causes, including poverty, injustice and intolerance," "The Jakarta Post" reported.
RUSSIA AND ISLAM: CO-OPTATION OR COOPERATION? The theme of reform and moderation of Islam -- through the auspices of the state -- is one increasingly articulated by Russian officials, and the Islamic scholars' conference provided a prominent venue for airing the position. Russia appears to see itself as a moderating influence on radical tendencies in Islam, and has taken a number of steps to co-opt -- or cooperate with, depending on the viewer -- the large Muslim population of Russia.
On 20 February, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov received ambassadors from the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and announced that an Islamic university will be opened in Moscow, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Ivanov said that Christianity and Islam had co-existed peacefully in Russia for more than 1,000 years, and therefore was well-suited to promote interreligious accord in Russia and the world. Russia's experience was especially important given "clashes between religions and ethnic entities coming into the foreground among global challenges" which "give food to international terrorism -- that tremendous evil," RIA-Novosti quoted Ivanov as saying. "A dialogue between religions is among the top priorities of Russian domestic and foreign policies alike," RIA-Novosti commented.
An Islamic university founded by the government of Tatarstan and Tatarstan's Muslim Spiritual Directorate has been in operation in Kazan since 1998, and turned out its first 14 graduates two years ago, pravda.ru reported on 7 January 2002. Muslim Spiritual Directorate Chairman Mufti Gosman Iskhakov told pravda.ru at the time, "We are grateful to Russia's president for understanding the problems of Muslim education and thankful to the presidential administration for organization of the university's work." The Kazan university was described as filling the need for better-qualified imams and religious specialists, given the increasing interest in Islam.
The university's dean of curriculum, Abdurashid Zakirov, told pravda.ru that while the school had the authorities' support, official attitudes toward Islam used to be "rather cautious" due to the war in Chechnya, Islamist extremism, and Wahhabism, which he explained were mistakenly associated with Islam. He added that "the University is like an aquarium," under control of the special services with regular "check-ups" to see what was being taught. He claimed lecturers did not resent the intrusion, affirming that they did not teach Wahhabism. The university maintains ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
While Western intellectuals and governments have vigorously debated within and among themselves the rationale for using force against extremist Islamists in the name of stopping terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has questioned its effectiveness and appears to be developing a doctrine of peaceful co-existence -- and co-optation -- with the domestic Muslim population and the greater Islamic world. On the 15th anniversary of the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, Putin commented in an address to Afghan war veterans, "there is a need to accept that war in Afghanistan contributed to the strengthening of international terrorism," ITAR-TASS reported on 19 February. Praising veterans for doing their duty, Putin nevertheless said that the lessons of the Soviet war in Afghanistan proved that "no one has the right to interfere in the life of another country, and neither communism, nor democracy, nor the market can be imposed by solutions of force. It is impossible to introduce them on the barrel of a tank and they cannot be justified by any ideological considerations. This is a serious lesson not only for the superpowers, but for the entire world community."
His comments were echoed by General Boris Gromov, who said, "the invasion was a big mistake that opened the hornets' nest that is terrorism, not only in Afghanistan but in the region as a whole," AFP quoted him as saying on 25 February. Putin and other officials commented that it was not the military that wanted the war, but the Soviet Politburo.
It would be hasty to credit to the Russian leader a durable new doctrine of noninterference. Putin had no comment about Russian tanks in the Transdniester region of Moldova or Abkhazia or elsewhere in the region of Russia's sphere of influence, currently the subject of intense negotiations in the OSCE and elsewhere. Yet he was apologetic about Afghanistan and did have Iraq in mind, as part of a greater effort to improve relations with the Islamic world. In another speech to students in Krasnoyarsk, Putin said the military operation in Iraq "was a mistake, and the subsequent events have confirmed it," AP and Russian wire services quoted him as saying on 27 February. He added that "casualties keep mounting, and terrorists feel increasingly at home" in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein's regime had prevented terrorists from coming to Iraq.
The Muslim community is mindful of the ramifications of Russia's assumption of a role in the world Islamic community and its potential for co-option of state-sponsored religions, a legacy of Soviet rule. "Participation Of Russia In The OIC Must Not Be Turned Against Muslim People," says the headline of an unsigned editorial currently available on the English-language page of islam.ru By attending the OIC meeting as an observer, inviting the OIC ambassadors to Moscow, and referring to Russia as "a Eurasian country" and even a "Muslim country," Putin is positioning Russia as a force in the Islamic world.
At a recent ecumenical meeting in Chavashia attended by Putin and televised by "Vesti," the official national news program, Orthodox, Muslim, and other religious leaders were prominently displayed as an example of interfaith harmony. Yet the unspoken subtext of the meeting is that Chavashia is an example of Turkic peoples who were Muslims converting to Russian Orthodoxy. At the meeting, Putin spoke of a "certain something," without elaborating, that brought together all the peoples of Russia and made a Russian (rossiiskii) nationality distinct from the ethnic Russian (russkii) identity. The idea of "All-Russian patriotism" may become a "long-awaited national concept," islam.ru writes, elaborating on the "something" that will serve as a cohesive for society as well as the state.
Whatever its domestic uses, the inclusion or outright co-optation of the Muslim population in the project of "All-Russian patriotism" also has its foreign-policy uses. Russian cooperation with Arabic and Muslim countries was broken due to the Yeltsin administration's pro-Western policy implemented by Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, islam.ru wrote. By aligning itself with OIC member states, who make up about 40 percent of the world's energy resources, islam.ru writes, Russia will "strengthen its position on the international scene, to enhance its falling prestige among [Central] Asian countries and the Muslim world [as a] whole without any particular expenditure." The editorial writer says that if Russia becomes actively involved in the OIC, it will shore up that body, which has "somewhat lost its prestige and importance" in recent years. The OIC's decisions on members are binding, and if Russia can influence them, it can "expect just decisions over the situation in the Middle East," islam.ru writes.
By supporting Russia's membership in the OIC, Russia's Muslim community stands to gain, islam.ru says. "At least the authorities will have to stop breeding hostility against Muslim people" if Russia is an OIC member, the editors reason. The editorial references lawyer Kamilzhan Kalandarov, who believes that the Chechen situation will be eased because the OIC has great experience in resolving military conflicts, although no concrete example is cited from recent history.
Ultimately, membership in the OIC could be advantageous for the OIC itself, the Muslim population, and the Russian state by enhancing its strength and prestige. Russia "unfortunately does not play a major role in world policy," laments islam.ru. "The country is dependent on the U.S. and Israel in the sense of politics and on Germany in the economic sense." The Iraq crisis made this evident. Westerners hostile to Russia and Islam will try to sabotage Russia's joining of the OIC, reasons islam.ru, and will see it as a "Trojan horse" trying to spy on the Islamic world and limit its independence.
That is all the more reason why the Muslim people of Russia need to support Putin's project of joining the OIC, and in exchange take the president at his word that he will not oppose "the establishment and intense activity of Muslim socio-political organizations in Russia." Ultimately, whatever the risks, Muslims in Russia must support "this gradual trend and aspiration of the authorities for taking into consideration the opinion of 20 million Muslim people" for the sake of "the existence of Islam as part of social life in Russia," the islam.ru editorial concludes.
RECOMMENDED NEWS LINKSALBANIA. Mjaft (Enough). The website of the youth campaign against corruption, blood feuds, trafficking, and other social ills (in Albanian and English). http://www.mjaft.org
The OSCE presence in Albania. Includes sections on democratization and antitrafficking efforts. http://www.osce.org/albania/
Albanian Helsinki Committee (in Albanian and English). http://www.ahc.org.al/
IRAQ. "Kurds Demand Vote on Independence." Kurdish activists have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition demanding a referendum on the future status of northern Iraq's Kurdish region. http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/2/EB53A27A-6229-433B-A32C-0465E5C4B219.html
INTERNATIONAL. World Conference of Islamic Scholars. Papers and background information on the 2003 conference of theologians in Malaysia. http://www.bernama.com/events/ulama/index.php
UZBEKISTAN. "Rumsfeld Says Human Rights Only One Aspect of Relations." http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/2/6E971B73-342C-4831-9063-AAC52A0148C1.html