Evading truncheons in Tirana

The sad rioting yesterday in Tirana (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/22/albanian-president-protests-tirana) reminded me of a previous episode in the 90s where the same forces were locked in contesting a disputed election.

That election was undoubtedly fraudulent: a friend was an election observer working for the National Democratic Institute and announcing herself as such in a polling station just outside Tirana was greeted by 'election officials' saying, 'You Democratic party, we Democratic party' as they continued to fill in ballot papers and gleefully stuff them into the awaiting boxes.

The election duly 'won' and the victory rally held, the next day I was innocently walking back to my hotel through the main square only to find myself in the midst of an opposition rally where the Socialist party was contesting the 'result'.

The people were legitimately angry, and some of that anger was directed at 'the West' who were perceived to be supporting the Democratic Party government of the then President, now Prime Minister, Sali Berisha. Some of this anger was turned on me and I found people tugging at my arm and shouting spitting, 'Pinochet, Pinochet' at me! (This was an obvious analogy for 'the left' to use of a 'right' wing, Western backed manipulation of power. Though at the time, in the tension of the moment, when a crowd can seemingly inhabit any behaviour, it was both frightening and surreal)!

In fact the 'West' in the shape of the OSCE (now safely back in Vienna) were denouncing the election in uncharacteristically vibrant terms but no one in the crowd was likely to know this (nor care if they did)!

The government had banned the demonstration and soon the police arrived with batons and dogs and I was caught up in a maelstrom - people running, coagulating into brief groups, then dispersing in all directions as the police waded in brutally.

Suddenly I found myself about to be confronted by a truncheon wielding policeman and in a moment of complete (if on reflection eccentric) lucidity, I drew myself up to my not inconsiderable height and in a very loud voice barked, "You cannot do that to me, I am English"! At which point, startled momentarily, he diverted his attack and I slipped away, shaken but not battered (a fate that sadly befell many that day).

Later, after several pyramid saving schemes collapsed, Mr Berisha was ejected from power amidst much turbulence. I met him in this period in (of all places) the VIP lounge at Rome airport (I cannot recall how I managed to be there). I was on my way to Albania and he was trying, I discovered, to persuade some willing country to transport him to Mother Teresa's funeral in Calcutta! He rather disconcertingly decided to pour upon me his rather embittered recollections of perceived injustice as soon as he gratefully realized that I had recognized him!

Meanwhile, I know exactly where my supposed inspiration in the square had come from. It was a story Brian Mountford, the ever-running vicar of the University Church in Oxford, had told me. One day, walking down the High Street, he found outside his church, a cyclist and a driver involved in an altercation that had descended into a fight. Brian, without thinking, ran up to them, exclaiming, 'You cannot do that I am the Vicar', realizing immediately how apparently ridiculous it sounded! But it worked, startled out of their violence, they stopped, looked sheepish, apologized to each other and to Brian and left!

Sadly you also know that such inspiration works precisely because of its novelty. It is a novelty that cannot simply be repeated with similar effect. A one time only get out clause from a demonstration turning wrong and broken...probably...

Meanwhile, I wonder how the repeating cycle of violence can be broken in Albania where you have two, more or less, evenly sized main political blocks (with significant geographical allegiances) contesting power and dependent on a very fluid (and small) middle ground for leverage one over the other. It is a dynamic that shows no immediate sign of shifting or breaking up onto different grounds.


  1. Crumbs, I had never heard that story from you!
    I'm reliably informed though, that in most parts of the world a safer option would be to yell 'I am Irish!' - a nation that never built an empire but is perceived by many as having been part of one, is still respected as neutral on most international conflicts (if not always gloriously so, nb 1940), but whose denizens are famous for their temper.

    In fact, I think I'll apply for that passport now.....


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