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“Stop stealing from us”: Albanians take to the streets to protest skyrocketing gas prices

Pushed to the limit by the highest gas prices in Europe, Albanians are taking to the streets to demand change, and receiving a scolding in response from the government, who blame the war in Ukraine.

Gasoline prices in Albania have skyrocketed, and are now the highest in Europe. Public transportation prices have doubled, while the average citizen lives on 556 lek (approximately $5) per day. Since March, protests have erupted across Albanian cities and towns, but the government under Prime Minister Edi Rama claims that the situation is out of their hands, blaming the war in Ukraine.

“The president of Ukraine gives his people hope, ours says 'grit your teeth to endure the crisis,'” said one protest organizer.

Albanians are increasingly disappointed by their leadership, especially as it compares to Ukraine. Ukraine is another country that was formerly communist, and struggled with corruption. But in this time of crisis, their people are coming together and their president is providing inspiring leadership. 

But in Albania? The leaders make excuses and the people suffer. In 2014, the people of Ukraine decided it was enough and their protests became a revolution. Will economic pressure push Albania towards its own Maidan moment?

"We are drowning"

Everything began on March 9th, when hundreds of Albanians protested the spike in oil and gas prices. The price of oil reached an exceptional 290 lek (€2.5) per liter in some stations across the country. This was the highest peak ever for Albanian citizens and many simply couldn’t afford it. Public transportation was paralyzed.

Compounding rising fuel prices, a February 2022 common report of the Bank of Albania and Albanian State Institute of Statistics (INSTAT) reported that the inflation in the country was also climbing. Compounding the situation was the devaluation of the lek against the euro following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine .

That Wednesday while Albania started its first protest, Prime Minister Rama was in Dubai to participate in Expo Dubai 2022. Protesters in Scanderberg Square, the main square of Albania’s capitol Tirana, held signs with messages like: ‘‘We are drowning, our PM is living in luxury’’; ‘‘Shame on You’’ and more. This was the first of one week of non-stop mass protests.

That day Rama went live on Facebook, saying that he was visiting Dubai because it was Albanian day at the fair and he was meeting an important crown prince for potential investments in Albania. 

‘‘I went to Dubai to talk about Emmar investment. UAE is investing €2 billion in the transformation of the port of Durres. While we should be solidarised with Ukraine now, you make protests, shame on You!’’ Rama told the protesters.

Shortly thereafter, some Albanian media leaked from different government sources that the Rama was in the United Arab Emirates prior to his appearance at the expo. This increased anger and tension. The protests started to spread throughout Albania and protesters in Tirana said they wouldn’t surrender and would stay overnight. They were eventually dispersed by police before midnight.

The protests apparently concerned Rama enough that he flew immediately after the Expo fair from Dubai to Tirana.

“Albanians before overthrew the dictatorship because they were united. While we are protesting here, the leader is in Dubai.  If we all stand up against this, not only we will succeed in lowering taxes, but we may take what is rightfully ours as citizens,” said the actor and comedian Florjan Binaj. His criticism carries an extra sting: Binaj is well know for impersonating the prime minister on Albanian tv. 

"Stop stealing from us"

Albanians are some of the unhappiest people in the world, ranking number 90 out of 146 countries in the annual World Happiness Report, coming in below neighboring countries like North Macedonia and Montenegro. 

"One of the main reasons that the citizens aren't happy is because of our government,’’ says the young activist Sara Bicaku. ‘‘We blame our government for not creating enough opportunities for its young people, for not having meritocracy, and for the lack of a respectful standard of living,’’ she told Unbias the News.

Tirana is also ranked as the capital with the worst quality of life in Europe and among the last in the world. However, it is the European Youth Capital 2022 and the government insists that rising prices and poor living standards are somehow the result of the war in Ukraine.

While protesters stood for hours outside his office, sometimes in the rain,  Rama went live on television and social media to say that prices were entirely out of his hands, and were the effect of war with Ukraine.

"We are the only country in the world who are protesting at this time. We simply cannot interfere and reduce the prizes," said Rama. 

Edi Rama

Still, thousands of people from all over Albania took part in rallies protesting against the rising prices and demanding government action.

 “Stop Stealing From Us” has become one of the main slogans, as protesters carried a large banner with the slogan to Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office during one of the protests.

Protesters in Tirana hold a sign reading "stop stealing from us" in Albanian.
Protesters hold a banner that translates to "Stop stealing from us". Image by Arlis Alikaj.

Following protests, Rama again chided protesters, issuing a statement reiterating that he was “ashamed that a NATO country doesn’t understand the consequences of the war in Ukraine”.

In the meantime, around 200 protesters were arrested for participating in “illegal gatherings,” according to a report by Albania Helsinki Committee.

Some among the Russian elite may be aware that their actions are amping up pressure on European governments. Former president Dmitry Medvedev apparently referred to Albania explicitly in a recent Telegram message

“Wait for the strong gratitude of ordinary Europeans for hyperinflation, which cannot be blamed on bad Russians, the lack of basic goods in stores and the influx of refugees, which will lead to a wave of violent crime worse than Albanian crime."

Dmitry Medvedev

Exploding cost of living

Typically the minimum wage in Albania is 25.000 (around €220) Albania lek. The average wage is also very low 30.000 (around €280) according to the Albanian Statistics Institution. A student in Tirana pays around 20.000 lek for rent (around €18000). What will he do with 10.000 lek left (around €80)? Buy groceries or pay for studies? “Everything has increased and the cost of living has become very expensive,” said Bicaku.

Pranvera Koci is a pensioner from Elbasan, a city close to Tirana. Her pension is around €100 per month. She suffers from asthma, but she won’t buy her inhalers this month because the price of bread in Albania has increased to 120 Albanian lek from the 80 Albanian lek that it was before. The private bakeries in Albania are also blaming the costs of energy and benefiting from the prime minister’s excuses, says Pranvera. 

I usually buy 2 inhalers for a month, now I will buy just one. I am in conditions of survival.

Pranvera Koci, pensioner

Civil society raises its voice

Despite protests, the prime minister, along with the Minister of Infrastructure, Belinda Balluku, continue to warn Albanian citizens to be psychologically prepared for the worst possible scenarios of economic consequences, including dramatic cuts in energy and oil.

But activists expect public anger to increase and add pressure on the government. “We must give voice to all this energy and the popular explosion that is boiling,” said activist Ervin Goci. 

 “Edi Rama has stayed too long without an opposition,” said Adriatik Llapaj, one of the organizers who is a lawyer and works in non-profits. Rama has been serving as prime minister of Albania since 2013. “We must understand that this is like a tree: as long as he stays, so long are the roots of its tree. He is consumed, the people are fed up with him and he will be a dictator if he stays longer.” 

Why are gas prices so high?

Albania has the most expensive diesel in Europe by purchasing power, 17th in the world.

Vesel Koxha, professor in the Faculty of Geology and Mining in Albania, notes that the country is rich with oil and gasfields, but the citizens don’t benefit from this due to extra taxes imposed at the pump. “The price of oil in Albania is significantly higher than in other Western Balkan countries due to numerous taxes imposed by previous governments, including a tax imposed by Rama from 2014 to 2015. Meanwhile, prices on international markets have also increased significantly”, says professor Koxha.

A truck stands in front of a sign "Protest for your bread" in Albania.
"Protest for your bread" reads a sign from the protests. Photo by Arlis Alikaj.

Petrol prices have set another record recently, reaching unprecedented levels of 250-260 lek per liter, or about 2.3-2.4 dollars. Fuel price rises hit those who own cars, but also impact on the prices of commodities that get transported.

Luigj Aliaj, an Albanian expert on the taxation of hydrocarbons, says that these high prices are something that the Albanian government has arranged themselves. 

“The Rama government when they first came in 2013 decided to follow these tax policy issues.  We pay 26% of taxes and this is according to ideology of the party that comes in this case, the Socialist Party.” Albanians pay numerous taxes at the pump that other countries do not have, Aliaj noted.

“Shortly said, scanning, calibrating pumps tax, the ‘marking tax’. After these taxes, citizens also pay VAT, which is 20% of the final price. These taxes are worth nothing to the sector or Albanian public finances because they go to private operators. Northern Macedonia does not have these taxes. No one has these taxes in the world except in some African countries,” said Aliaj.

Under pressure by the sustained protests, the government set up a National Board for Managing Fuels on March 18th, which will oversee the market to prevent abuses over prices.

Rama announced several other measures to tackle the problems, promising the poorest families an additional subsidy of 3,000 lek (24 euros) and increasing the minimum wage to 30,000 lek, about 242 euros a month.

Enxhi Albrahimi, an economist from the Albanian Economic Center for Studies and Implementation says that in marginalized communities such as Elders, Roma, and Egyptians, families with low incomes this is still too much weight on their shoulders. 

Protesting for dignity

It was noticeable that many people with disabilities attended the protests. “This is a protest of dignity. We don’t have enough money to pay for our medicines or to pay more on bills. What the government has done is not sufficient. I come from outside of the capital of Tirana. Rural Albania has a lack of opportunities and we live like in medieval times. The prime minister should get off his comfy armchair and visit us on the ground,” said a woman in a wheelchair with tears in her eyes.

Mereme Cota is a single mother who has to take her son to Tirana to receive kidney dialysis. Dialysis is a periodic service for the loved one that she cannot do in her rural town, Erseka, over 223 kilometres away from the central hospital in Tirana.

“The prices of public transportation have affected my son's illnesses. I cannot afford new ticket prices and take my son regularly to Tirana. I am protesting for my son's life.”

Mereme Cota, mother

Vaibe Bylykbashi, an unemployed mother of three, takes around 50 Euro social assistance for her young children. “With the new abusive prizes, the oil is around 3.7 Euro, and before used to be around 2 Euro. An egg is around 25 cents and has increased about 7 times. I can not buy oil anymore to fry an egg in the morning,” says Vaibe.

Recently reddit.com, in collaboration with ‘DataIsBeautiful’ has published a map that demolishes the Albanian government’s argument that the people are suffering equally throughout Europe because of fuel prices rises in response to war in Ukraine. 

According to the map of an Albanian study, Albania is ranked in the first place for disparity between income and fuel prices. The average Albanian would spend 26.59% of his or her salary for 60 liters of fuel (based on the average net salary).

A map showing price of a full tank of gas as a percentage of average monthly net income.
Source: Dataisbeautiful on reddit.com.

Asylum claims on the rise

Such prices may also contribute to the decision of some Albanians to try their luck elsewhere.

Albanian applications for asylum in EU countries have been on the rise after the pandemic, and the country continues to produce the highest number of asylum seekers in the area.

Albania was among the top 30 countries with first time asylum seekers in 2021, according to Eurostat, one of the only European countries on the list aside from Belarus and Moldova. 

While prices are very high and the cost of living has been very difficult recently, prime minister Rama announced on the 22nd of March that he would no longer respond to comments on social media. He is now doing some visits on the ground in supermarkets, but citizens still complain that the laws are not being respected and implemented regularly. Prices continue to rage. The anger of Albanians continues.

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