Archive for the ‘Albania’ Category

My latest article in Good Magazine: Exporting Obama Politics

August 22, 2009

Read on here.

Albania’s young voters try “Yes we can!”—but can’t quite yet.

I was invited to Albania to help the newly formed G99 party fundamentally change the way Albanians thought about and conducted politics. G99—developed out of Albania’s youth-driven democratization movement—began in 2003 in response to rampant government corruption. Inspired by the “yes we can” attitude in America, G99 wanted to try its hand at Obama-style organizing in advance of their June 28 parliamentary elections. Having spent the better part of five years in political organizing on different levels, including for Obama’s Florida campaign in the general election, I came to add perspective and experience to G99’s operation.

I felt proud to aid their mission. After decades of oppression and corruption, cynicism had a stranglehold on the country. G99 understood that they could not achieve a full democracy until the Albanian people saw themselves as agents of change and bearers of responsibility. Organizing strengthens democracy by enabling participation in the political process; it opens avenues for people to hold their elected officials accountable, to dictate the debates, and to confront the immediate needs of the community from the ground up.

But organizing requires volunteers and community building, and “volunteering” had been compulsory during the 45 years of communism. Walking through the trash-ridden streets, by the graffiti-covered public buildings from which the communist regime once presided, one understands why most Albanians feel an absence of responsibility in their communities.

These former political realities very much constrain Albania’s older generations. But they liberate its youth, who empathize with the past but see their country not as it is but as it could be. G99 sought to change all of this. Member after member of G99 told me of how they came to the organization asking the question: Why couldn’t Albania be better?

This was the very mindset of those who helped get President Obama elected, the majority of whom were under the age of 30. The “Millenial generation,” as it has come to be called, made up of those of us born between 1978 and 2000, has been shaped by a democratized access to information and the experience of growing up in a transitional, malleable post-Cold War world. We have a more optimistic, innovative, politically motivated mindset geared towards connecting the world around us. We are post-ideological and pragmatic. What’s more, the under 30 demographic accounts for over 50 percent of the world’s population.

Many Albanians work to leave the country rather than change it. These G99 youth, however, felt a responsibility to make their country better and, with 50 percent of the population under 28, know they are the only ones that can. But knowing that Albania should be better and knowing how to carry out that vision effectively are different things.

We did our best. I helped train volunteers and then watched them go out, elicit support, and empower others with their mission. They worked tirelessly and without precedent, the only motivating example was the vague understanding of the Obama campaign that they had gathered secondhand from my experiences and from newspapers. In the end, G99 came up short of its expectations and goals with less than 1 percent of the vote, gaining no representation in parliament.

I see this shortcoming not as an abject failure in G99’s mission nor in the lack of applicability of Obama’s model beyond the United States. Rather, I see this as an important lesson in democracy-building. Obama’s general model—of creating participatory democracy through community organizing—is replicable but only if adapted in the right ways. The Millennial mindset and energy will prove indispensable as these youth come of age, but only if harnessed and given the direction and tools to succeed.

G99 simply needs more time, more training, an informed strategy, and better resources. Ideally, they could also have a global network of youth leaders who are doing the same work, reaching for the same goals, and building off of each other’s successes—from Albania to Turkey to Vietnam to the United States. Ultimate success will not come in the short span of one campaign, but it can come if they build off of smaller successes. As tools like Facebook continue to give us a common platform, we have to work to create a common language. As the mistakes of our peers and the confines of our past continue to teach us what not to do, we have to work together to effectively learn what to do. These lessons and this language are not inherent even with the noblest of missions and the biggest of ideas.

We stand on the brink of a momentous opportunity to harness the power of a generation to redefine the way we relate to each other and to our governments and, in turn, tackle our most pressing challenges. But this window of opportunity is relatively small. Sure, there will always be youth ripe for empowerment, but the Millennial generation is coming of age now, and, given our sheer numbers, will set the political tone in countries around the world for at least the next forty years. These are the world’s future leaders, and we have to ensure they have the tools to translate “yes we can” into real solutions for today’s toughest challenges.

Erin is a proud member of the Millennial generation, an independent nonprofit and political consultant, and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.


An Official End to Albanian Elections: Scenario 5

July 5, 2009

I will write more on my thoughts of the final results on the Albanian elections, declared yesterday after a full week of counting, re-counting, monitoring and just… waiting, but for now, I will only report that a final result has finally been reached.

The worst-case scenario of results unfolded yesterday: PM Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party made a deal with the usually left-leaning third party, LSI (Socialist Movement for Integration) to form a coalition-government with the majority of seats.  In the past, LSI has usually united with the Left Coalition to form a government and has been the kingmaker.  Yesterday, the proved the kingmaker but in the other direction.  This was certainly unexpected but underlies the concept of power of principle that unfortunately continues to underlie Albanian politics.

Here is more from the New York Times article (original article here):

Governing Party in Albania Seeks to Assemble a Coalition


TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Nearly a week after parliamentary elections, Albania’s governing Democratic Party began to assemble a coalition government on Saturday, even as the opposition Socialists decried the move as premature.

Although the electoral commission is still recounting ballots from some polling places, it declared that Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democrats had won enough seats to form a government.

Election officials said late Friday that the Democrats won 47 percent of the vote, giving them 71 seats in the 140-seat Parliament, just enough to form a government.

The Socialists, led by Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, won 45 percent, or 65 seats. A Socialist splinter party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, came in third, the Central Elections Commission said.

Mr. Berisha, acknowledging that he could at best form a weak government if the results were upheld in the recount, invited the Socialist Movement for Integration to join him in a coalition if the final total confirmed the current count.

The Socialist movement’s leader, former Prime Minister Ilir Meta, accepted the invitation, saying it was “the only one in the country’s interest.”

But the main Socialist Party charged that the Democrats were trying improperly to influence the vote count by declaring victory before all ballots from the election last Sunday were tallied.

The Socialists insisted that the electoral commission, which is recounting ballots from some polling stations after complaints about irregularities, could not declare that the Democrats had won 71 seats while the recounts were pending. They accused Mr. Berisha of trying to sway the electoral commission and threatened to hold street protests.

“I appeal to Berisha to abandon the idea of imposing himself on the Albanian people,” said Gramoz Ruci, a senior Socialist politician, adding, “unless he wants to meet and face the people in the street.”

Albania joined NATO in April and has been under intense international pressure to ensure that the vote was free of the fraud that marred its first six elections held after the Communist government fell in 1990. Both main parties ran on similar platforms, pledging to lift Albania out of poverty and secure its goal of joining the European Union.

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued preliminary findings saying that there were improvements and fewer irregularities in this year’s voting, but that some violations persisted, like late openings of polling places.

Full final results are expected in days, after all disputed ballots are counted.

Based on the partial count, the election commission said half of Albania’s 3.1 million registered voters had cast ballots.

Looks Like Scenario 3: DP Tampering with Elections

June 30, 2009

On Sunday in advance of counting, I wrote my predictions of what is to happen in these elections.  It looks like my scenario 3 is actually closest to what’s happening right now, although there are many x variables happening right now, which have been unexpected.

As of now, both parties are neck-in-neck, though the Socialist Party is far ahead in popular votes than the Democratic Party.  As I alluded to in my post, explaining the new proportional system, sometimes the system makes sense on paper but the math doesn’t do the voting justice.  That is issue #1 right now.  For example, in one province, Fier, the Socialist Party has 12,000 more votes than the Democratic Party and lead by nearly 17%, yet they only lead by 2 parliamentary seats.

The second issue is that the Democratic Party, having full reign over commissioners with the Central Election Commission, have performed many “tricks” to either stop, postpone or slant the vote.  First, they ordered all of the boxes of votes from areas where they knew they had more votes than the SP counted first.  So, as of right now, they are ahead because all of the votes in likely DP areas have been counted.

Second, they have stopped the counting process in 4 of the biggest SP strongholds: Fieri, Vlore, Elbasan and Tirana under the premise that either they are ahead, that the commissioners are tired, etc etc.  Stopping the count gives space for them to either tamper with the uncounted boxes (mind you with more SP votes) and render them damaged and not countable or to stuff the boxes.  A few boxes have already been damaged and declared as such.

In one counting station, the Socialist Party monitors took a break, which is something everyone agrees upon, only to come back to find the Democratic Party monitors having resumed the count.  They have no way of determining which votes were counted prior to this and which were not.

And so the stand-off continues.  We are awaiting the vote counting to resume, but people are in low spirits right now.  Another four years of Sali Berisha could have so many implications…

Confrontation with Police: Fighting for the 1st Amendment

June 30, 2009

On Thursday night, as we ended part 2 of “Riding in Trucks with Albanians,” which I blogged about and posted pictures on, the truck didn’t let us off back at the office as expected.  Instead we were let off at the Boulevard, near the Parliament building and the Pyramid (here’s a picture of it from my blog), the site of Friday’s closing campaign rally for the Socialist Party/Left Coalition.

We were told that despite following protocol and notifying the police over a week ago that we intended to have the rally there and getting their consent, “they” had decided not to let us have the rally there.  They had begun blocking off the street, THE main road in the city, and were intent on not letting us through.  So, we would be staging a stand-off between us (G99 and Socialists) and the police force and would be there all night (it was freezing outside).  I say “they” because Berisha and the Democratic Party essentially command the police force.  Berisha had decided to hold his rally at the same time on the same road, about half a mile away from our intended site.

I had tweeted and told some of you that I had been out “protesting” all night, but this certainly wasn’t a fun, cute little protest that we’re used to in the U.S. This was an act of desperation on both sides.  On the side of the police/Democratic Party in order to a) show who was boss and b) continue to scare citizens into not supporting the Socialist Party, among other reasons, and on our side to protect the supposed inalienable right to protest and the freedom of speech. To most Albanians there, this fight seemed somewhat a given, something they were used to.  For me, it really hit me hard emotionally.  The Police were working for the state, who was working against us, and there was very little we could do but make sure we recorded everything and laid our bodies in front of their trucks and blockades.

Edi Rama, head of the Socialist Party, soon showed up to the scene, followed by Erion, the head of G99, who had just finished the closing rally in Berat, another province in Albania.  The night ensued with many mini-battles with the police. At first, the boulevard was just covered in police, but we were able to travel in and out.  Then, police cars and trucks began to block off the road at either end. Edi and Erion and a crowd of people stood together for a while, discussing strategy.  Edi insisted that the rally be held at this site.  I agreed.  We had followed the law, and it was illegal for police to suddenly reject the right to the 1st Amendment (not sure what amendment/law it is here, but it’s a law here as well).

Eventually, Rama went home, and it was up to Erion to hold down the fort for the night.  He began by confronting the police and asking who was in charge.  The police wouldn’t speak to him.  They remained silent without providing any answers.

Then, G99 started the protest by trying to bring its truck through the police blockade by driving up on the pavement, blaring G99’s campaign song interspersed with that of the Socialist Party.  Immediately, Police swarmed the vehicle yet continued to say nothing.  Our music blared.  A crowd started to swarm the truck.  Journalists mounted the truck to get the shots of the police and the crowd.  The truck remained there the rest of the night, but bigger battles soon ensued.

Soon, huge, flatbed trucks began to replace the police vehicles, stuffed with policemen.  So, we got our flatbed truck. It was quite the scene.  These flatbed trucks started showing up and out in the distance, we could hear “Do Jemi Ne” blaring, then our truck, flew down the other side of the street and soon pulled up right along side the other trucks and blocked them in.  We cheered and blared music.  The scene lulled for a while.  We sat together in a circle, joking around.  I kept making fun of the G99 volunteer’s choice of American music to blare… Nickelback, 3 Doors Down.  I insisted that America had much better music to offer and created an On-the-Go mix of the classics on my iPod.

We played soccer in the blocked off area around dawn.  I was, of course, the only girl to play, which got many stares and whispers.  To be honest, I was a bit nervous to really show them how to play football, and it took me a while to get my rhythm.  I started to find it just about the time that the next saga of the night unfolded.

Two trucks showed up and perpendicularly faced our truck as if they could ram right into it. One truck had a hook on it, meant for heavy lifting.  The other had 3 concrete medians in its bed.  They were going to try to permanently block off the boulevard so that the SP could not get their equipment through later that day.  If they succeeded in laying the concrete, there was little chance of a rally.

So, we began another stand-off, as shown in the pictures. I became the defacto photographer and climbed up on the G99 truck to take the pictures. “Get the faces of the policemen,” people yelled at me.  We were documenting the perpetrators in case we had to use the evidence later. The chief policemen were pushing other policemen into the crowd, but the policemen they pushed had their hands behind their back so that it looked like the crowd was pushing them.  We got pictures of the policemen pushing the other policemen into the crowd.  Yelling, pushing, more pushing ensued.  After what seemed like an hour of heated confrontation, the trucks drove away, only to show up on the other side of the boulevard.

We ran the three blocks to the other side of the blockade and, again, pushing, yelling.  Erion jumped in and started trying to talk to the guy driving the truck, as he lowered the hook onto the truck with the concrete.  Finally, the former Minister of the Interior, before Berisha resumed power, jumped onto the truck with concrete to stop them from laying the concrete.  It worked.  We cheered.  Another lull.

We got some coffee and tried not to fall asleep.

Finally, some members of the Socialist Party woke up and began to show up at the scene to take over what we had started.  We had won some important battles that would ultimately enable them to force the police, and Berisha, to back down and let us have the rally, but not without an even bigger fight.

One of the top aides in the SP pulled me aside and told me to get the number of the U.S. Embassy.  Things were going to get messy.  I had registered with the Embassy on Monday, after initially deciding I wouldn’t.  I had thought through the possibilities of Berisha stealing the election and an ensuing revolution and decided it was a wise idea for my government to know where I was.  I had no idea that this notification of status would be needed in advance of the election.  The woman, Wellsely and Harvard educated, told me that we were going to try to move the truck.  They would need women at the front line and that they would probably hit the women, but we would have to hold our ground.

First, we got a long strip of fabric and wrote what translates as “Sali, Free the Boulevard” and hung it between two of the flatbed trucks.  Then, protesters swarmed one of the trucks and attempted to “move” the truck themselves, almost tipping the truck. In protest, the Chief of Police climbed under the truck and handcuffed himself to the fuel tank in “protest,” trying to make it look like the situation was reversed and he was the victim in this.

News cameras planted themselves outside of Sali Berisha’s office, which looked out onto the scene from Parliament, and sure enough, he peaked through the curtain, clearly showing that he not only knew what was going on but that he was commanding the whole operation.

It’s unclear to me what ultimately called the police off.  Maybe it was Berisha, realizing the scene had gotten out of hand and could ultimately look unfavorably to him.  Maybe it was a visit from the American Ambassador, who came to inspect the scene, forcing Berisha to back down for fear of, again, looking bad.  But, however it ended, it was clear to everyone what was happening and why it was happening.

By 2pm, construction of the stage for the event resumed.  We had won the battle, but the war has yet to be won and will only be won when Berisha is out of office.

The experience, for me, was incredibly powerful and the first time I felt completely helpless, like no matter what, the rule of law and the most basic of civil rights weren’t an entity and didn’t matter.  As cheesy as it sounds, I think I learned more about the pillars of democracy that day than I have in my entire life.

Follow Results of Albanian Election Live with Me on Twitter

June 28, 2009

Since there are no English news sources providing up-to-the-minute results (at least to my knowledge), follow me on Twitter @emazursky . I’ll be tweeting results as they come with hashtag #albanianelection . You can also find a direct link in the blogroll here on the blog or just click here:

Erion Veliaj of G99 Votes

June 28, 2009

I have had so much fun taking pictures for G99 these past couple of weeks, and the past few days, I’ve become the de facto photographer of the party or sorts, and on Friday, for the Socialist Party as well.  (Friday I covered the final campaign rally, which I will blog more about later.)

Today, I covered Erion casting his vote with his mother, accompanied by his girlfriend and other candidates of G99, including Arbi Mazniku, second in command.

Here are some of the pictures.  Others will be posted on Facebook later.

Albania Election Results: Predictions

June 28, 2009

The polls have officially closed.  PM Sali Berisha is addressing the country on national TV. I thought before results begin to pour in, I would give a little bit of my own predictions as to the results.

It is often hard to differentiate between what I hope to happen and what may happen, so let me lay out a few likely scenarios.

Scenario 1: Left Wins, G99 is the Kingmaker

What we are all hoping to happen here at G99 is that the Socialist Party will come out just ahead of the Democratic Party, and G99 will be the “kingmaker” that pushes the Left Coalition over the edge enough to form a solid coalition government without any outside forces.  This means gaining 71 seats (out of 140) all by ourselves.  The polls have not indicated that this is incredibly likely, but the polls also tend to only poll past voters and not new voters or sporadic voters, which is who G99 generally gets its votes from.

Whether or not G99 is the kingmaker (meaning it would come in 3rd behind the SP and DP), I do think that the Socialist Party will edge ahead of the Democratic Party

Scenario 2: Left Wins, LSI is the Kingmaker

The Socialist Party, again, will win over the Democratic Party.  G99 will bring in a decent number of extra votes but ultimately come in fourth with 3 or 4 percent, meaning that the Left Coalition will not have enough of a majority (71 seats) to form a government without the help of a likely third place party: the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI).  LSI is headed by a former Prime Minister Blina Meta. Meta apparently got his taste of power, got very rich while in power, got voted out of power but hasn’t been able to give up the dream of having it back, as he has been described to me.  So, he formed a third party that is neither Left nor Right.  LSI could likely be the “kingmaker” for the Left or the Right.  Meta tends to go Left but could go to either side, depending on whoever gives him the better deal.  If Meta swings the votes left, it will come at a price. Edi Rama, the current head of the Socialist Party slated for the PM slot if the Left wins, will most likely not become Prime Minister.  The slot will probably go to another candidate within the Socialist Party.

Rama has received much criticism from the Right for not resigning from his position as Mayor of Tirana on the campaign trail.  This scenario is the reason why he hasn’t.  If he had resigned, and LSI was made the kingmaker, he’d be left without a position.  Rama has promised to resign if the Left were to win.

Scenario 3: Contested Results = No Results for Sometime

The more I talk to people, the more I, unfortunately, think this may be the most likely of scenarios, although the guarded optimist in me hopes not.

The pulse on the ground seems to think that there will be no results for quite sometime.  They do not trust that Berisha will easily give up power if he loses.  It’s pretty widely believed that the Socialist Party will pull ahead of the Democratic Party, although only slightly.  Once it becomes apparent that this will happen, many think that the Democratic Party will call out the commissioners, in charge of counting, and try to meddle with the results.  Every election where the DP has been the incumbent, this has been the case.  1996 was the most extreme case, where the ballot boxes were 2/3 full before the day even started. The only times Albania has seen a peaceful transition of power were under Socialist majorities.

To these skeptics with this prediction, I’ve asked, “But, tampering with results would jeopardize EU membership,” to which they tell me that ultimately, that matters less to Berisha than staying in power.

Calling the commissioners off will force lawsuits and at least a month of contested results and ultimately a re-election.

We are all hoping that this won’t be the case, that Berisha will put “country first” and allow things to go smoothly.  If this happens, I predict a left victory.  Whether it’s scenario one or two, I don’t feel like I can really say.

Riding in Trucks with Albanians Part 2

June 27, 2009

One Thursday we repeated our Wednesday antics of riding around on a flatbed truck, coated in G99 and blaring the G99 campaign song.  What I thought would be another hour or so venture turned into a 4-hour marathon that then led us to the center of town, where we would remain throughout the night, protesting Berisha’s illegal last minute decision to prevent the Left Coalition’s closing campaign rally.

The second ride in the truck was just invigorating as the first, though exhausting by the end, both literally and figuratively… By the end of it, I was covered in truck exhaust and my lungs were definitely feeling the effects.  We brought the remainder of our literature and rubber bracelets (like every good cause has).  We threw the bracelets to people from the truck who cheered us and just smiled and waved at people who dared to flash us the Democratic Party symbol in support of the opposition.

As I began to discuss in my last truck post, visibility is an odd thing here.  Like most campaigns, it is the focus.  Most election coverage is all about a 5 second clip of the candidate’s latest speech, and the rest of it is all about who had the biggest rally that day.  But, I think this truck idea is slightly different.  Again, I think it helped to show the energy of the country’s youth, their passion for what they were doing and a certain boldness.  The only bumper stickers you see here are from the Democratic Party.  Others are scared to strut their support of anything different.  The G99 truck underlies a certain audacity that I think is important for Albanians to see, supporters or non.  I think it’s just a small reminder that others, too, have a voice and can be fearless.

I promised pictures so here they are:

The truck... a picture speaks 1000 words

The truck... a picture speaks 1000 words

“It Will Be Us”: Imitation is the Best Form of Flattery

June 26, 2009

I’d like to present to you G99’s latest ad.  It’s pretty awesome. Please watch.

G99 – Po Vjen Ndryshimi (Change is Coming)

Translation: Something wonderful is happening in Albania. Change is coming. And this change is coming from youth.  If there is a group, if there is a power who holds in their hands the fate of Albania, this is Albania’s youth. We cannot sleep because Albania is asking us to be awake. This is our moment. This is our time.  Yes we can.

Last week, we were talking about putting together a new ad for G99 for the last few days of the election and throwing some ideas around.  Playing my role as the consultant, I showed the group this ad that gives me chills no matter how many times I watch it.  I used to watch it over and over again in the final weeks of the U.S. general election for inspiration:

One Day to Change the World

Now, it’s Albania’s turn. This Sunday, June 28th will greatly determine the future of this small country.  Throughout my time here, Erion keeps joking with me that it must be strange that so much adeiu is being made about a country the size of Maryland with a population less than the size of Washington, DC.  Stating the obvious, I reply that it may be a small country, but there is so much more at stake for the some three million lives who live here… obviously.

This is Albania’s moment.  Either this youth movement will succeed or it will fail.  Sure, they can keep pushing for another four years, but the levels of cynicism I have seen in this country, the amount of skepticism that exists after so many years of communism and then so many years of corruption indicate that they need this victory.  They need to prove to themselves that the grassroots can rise up and have a voice. The stakes are less about education than they are about people having a reason to hope.  America has seen rich times.  We knew it was possible because we had seen it before or our parents or grandparents had seen it.  We had seen the American dream played out.  Here, they need to see it a little more.

Mind you, imitation is the best form of flattery.

NYT: Albanians, Cut Off, Get Set to Vote

June 25, 2009

FINALLY some legit and good coverage of the elections here.  NYT Reports: