Peer-reviewed articles Albanian November, students calling

In the analysis of how self-organized groups work, act, and cooperate in young democracies like Albania, it is shown that different financial, human, technical, and political factors determine to what degree the self-organized groups are dependent on the political opportunity system in order to achieve their goals.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1:2018, pp 25-35
Published on on June 18, 2018

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The analysis presented here aims to establish the role of self-organized groups in the Albanian democratization process, and to understand their implications, based on the concepts of political opportunities and non-conventional forms of participation in decision-making. The relationship between the concept of “self-organized groups” and the political opportunity system will be viewed from two perspectives – the relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system and how non-conventional forms of participation, such as protest, can be part of policy-making. The features of self-organized groups will be treated firstly in this paper followed by focusing on the main question: “Are the self-organized groups helped or not helped by the political opportunity system in the Albanian case?” A comparison with other young democracies of Eastern Europe will cast further light on this analysis. In the analysis of how self-organized groups work, act, and cooperate in young democracies like Albania, it is shown that different financial, human, technical, and political factors determine to what degree the self-organized groups are dependent on the political opportunity system in order to achieve their goals.

Key words: Self-organized groups, decision-making, democracy, protest, Albania.

In this paper we will pay interest to the role and agency for self-organized groups in Albania. The role of self-organized groups is broad. First, self-organized groups can build and develop relief networks across society by identifying social problems, defending human rights, and mobilizing against social injustices. Also, it can be said that self-organized groups can set in motion a process of gradual encroachment into the territory of the state and its eventual enclosure by the “parallel polis” of civil society.1 Self-organized groups can be conceptualized as collections of motivated citizens who work toward a common goal and have the ability and authority to make decisions. Thus, self-organized groups try to influence the decision-making of government on both the local and central levels. The relationship between the state and the self-organized groups depends on the political system of governance, as the state is the main arbiter of rules.

Connections between the state and self-organized groups can take different forms, among which are participation and collaboration in the formation of public policies, building networks between state institutions and citizens, by lobbying, and in some cases even by being part of political participation and electoral campaigns, and non-conventional forms of participating can also be used. Self-organized groups can be understood as interest groups in the sense that interest groups are defined within a relationship to government or to institutional governance.2 The importance of self-organized groups goes beyond the governance system and includes institutional and other authorities, in some cases even producing social movements. In the words of Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly (1999): “Self-organized groups are generally embedded within the political arena and in most of the cases are seen as legitimate actors”. 3 By choosing unconventional forms of participating within the political system or by overlapping with a system of institutional governance that is quite fragile, these groups do not have the same access to opportunities for action and the same access to influence on the decision making process as political parties or other forms of interest groups that have an active and direct part in the decision making. Rather self-organized groups try to act and influence the political parties in their decision making. Interests and questions that are not caught up and voiced by political parties can, in best case in a democracy, thus be raised via self-organized groups although, as described, the outcome will depend on the degree of access to opportunities for action and influence.

This different agency between self-organized groups and other forms of interest groups such as political parties is enough to produce a diverse set of strategies and actions and thus different collective behaviors. These self-organized groups represent important interests within society and different preferences or different purposes.4 In all forms of collective behavior, regardless of whether they overlap or do not overlap, they remain an essential element of mobilization, and the mobilization process can be developed in diverse ways. In an underdeveloped political system such as in Albania, specialized structures do not exist for the mobilization of self-organized groups.

This article has two main objectives:

  1. To evaluate new forms of participation in decision-making in relation to legal measures that guarantee non-conventional forms of participation such as protest, for example, the Constitution of Albania, the Law on Demonstrations No.8773, dated 23.4.2001, and others.
  2. To examine how the concept of “mobilization” is involved during the “democratic transition” and what influence it has on building democratic governance based on case study reports from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and on information from reports and books detailing the implementation of non-conventional forms of participation and the mechanisms guaranteeing the rights for these new forms of participation as well as highlighting the challenges and importance of the new forms of participation during the transition.

This paper is further organized into two main parts. The first part is based on the experience of other young democracies and focuses on the theories behind the key issues that relate government, society, and non-conventional forms of participation in decision making to build democratic governance. The second part examines self-organized groups in the Albanian case and their development during the transition from state socialism, referring to the first part of the discussion, and it draws comparisons with developments in other nations.

This research was conducted predominantly in Tirana, the capital city where protests as a non-conventional form of participation have had an important effect on decision-making.

Opportunity for change

In this paper, Albanian self-organized groups are investigated and framed through the theoretical approach based on the idea of political opportunity. Back in November 1991, students were trying to get the regime’s attention and were criticizing the difficult living conditions in public dormitories. Getting the regime’s attention was just the first step that led to students mobilizing and adding other demands for change from the old political system. By December 1991, self-organized students forced the totalitarian regime to accept democratic pluralism for Albania. Thus, the most important approach, analyzing the political opportunity structure, serves to understand and explain why some cases are successful and some of them fail even to be mobilized.5 For decades, Albania was one of the most isolated countries in Eastern Europe. As long as Enver Hoxha was in charge of the system, radical reforms were impossible. After Hoxha’s death in 1985, Ramiz Ali took power. This change in leadership opened up for some hopes for reforms and modernization of the system. Alia’s policy was to avoid the current developments that were taking place throughout Eastern Europe. First, it seemed as though Albania was immune to the changes that during the 1970s and 1980s had opened the way for credible political alternatives to the communist regimes in other Eastern European countries.6 In this paper we will try to understand how students as a self-organized group in Albania managed to create the opportunity for political action by using non-conventional forms of participation.

Theoretical approach

The ability of self-organized groups to sustain networks and coalitions has increased self-organized groups’ influence over public authorities. Thus, self-organized groups can be conceptualized as sustained and enduring challenges to political decision-makers in order to achieve their goals and even to achieve social change in some cases.7 However, the dynamics of the changing policies in Western Europe during the 1960s brought attention to the self-organized groups as they tried to bring about political change by challenging the political elite,8 but analytical usefulness of the relationships between the “state” and “self-organized groups” was not defined properly. Thus, the process of interaction and fusion between these two groups was observed not only on the level of socio-political rules on a global scale, but also on a societal scale as the primary actors and elements in policymaking. Since the mid-1970s, a number of conservative analyses have described these actions as very dangerous cycles that can lead to the erosion of political authority or even losing the capacity to govern.

Self-organized groups have an important role in supporting the implementation period of democratic laws that have been initiated by collective action. Thus, it may be said that what we understand by self-organized groups is: “a sphere of social interaction between the household and the State, which is manifested in the norms of community cooperatives, structures of voluntary association and networks of public communication”.9 Self-organized groups have been known as the “third” sector of society and are seen as an increasingly important agent for promoting features of good governance. The role of self-organized groups includes identifying unaddressed problems and bringing them to the public’s attention, protecting basic human rights, and giving a voice to a wide range of political, environmental, social, and community interests and concerns.10 In this sense, self-organized groups and the wider “third” sector mostly share common goals.

In some Eastern European countries, self-organized groups were a key factor for the destruction of communist systems, but in other former communist countries self-organized groups played a minimal role. It can be asserted that self-organized groups became essential only after the transition to democratic systems. For example, self-organized groups in Poland in 1980 during the communist system worked alongside the opposition, and in the early transition period they shared common goals and similar values, which led to clear, shared objectives and collaboration with other countries that had shared interests and goals like Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. For example, the Czechoslovak students were very aware of cultural trends that were popular among youth in other Eastern and Western European countries, even if they often knew of these trends only as mediated by their Polish peers.11

Formative stages of self-organized groups and civil society in Poland were important as role models for neighboring countries. The achievements in Poland showed that citizens actively participating in collective action can ultimately create change. The people of Poland were committed to making this change, and, as stated earlier, commitment is the necessary tool to create social and civil change. This process began in Poland with the emergence of Solidarity in 1980, and in Hungary the process (re)gained momentum in the late 1980s. These two societies are now in the process of building new social, political, and economic systems as Janina Zagorska stated in her analysis.12

During the transition phase, three important processes have been occurring in almost all former communist countries.

  1. Social-political pluralism has challenged the old system.
  2. The democratization of the old society has been stimulated by the self-organized groups.
  3. The inclusion of various actors in society has increased the participation of civil society.

Non-conventional forms of participation and collective action

Self-organized groups use persuasion and sometimes even coercion, which are new, dramatic, and legally questionable methods. The formal decision-making process are challenged by different demands on participation in the decision making, both within the parliament by the opposition as well as, sometimes, also by the citizens themselves. Starting from the 1970s, groups representing broader arrays of citizens have added value to the other forms of pressure on governments or have tried to be part of the decision-making process. Since the 1970s, “a new set of political activities is joining the political repertoire of citizens”.13 The political repertoire includes conventional forms of participation such as providing services to a community, developing activities for a party or a candidate, developing networks of obedience in society by directing the allocation of votes/ electoral campaigns, participating in public meetings, and contacting officials, as well as a long list of non-conventional forms of participation such as petitions, authorized participation in events, participation in boycotts, refusal to pay taxes or rents, blocking traffic, and participating in strikes. These new forms seem to be legitimate, and in advanced industrial societies the techniques of direct political action do not bring the stigma of deviance. As Norris concludes, “Non-conventional forms of participation are anti-systemic in their direction”.14 The increase in forms of political participation appears as a peculiarly elongated democratic public opinion. Powering protests is a process with indirect impact through the means of communication, and some groups come equipped with more power. As can be observed from the outside, they should not have power if they want to pass policy in their favor and to mobilize solidarity groups equipped with more power. The most well known non-conventional form of participation is protest.

Protest constituencies are made up of those who are directly interested in public policy, and such constituencies require a leadership that leads protest actions and maintains relationships with the outside political environment. Mass communication is used as a tool to spread messages that are directed, above all, to public decision-makers, who are the real target of the protest. A second important characteristic defines, besides protest in conjunction with other forms of intervention, the so-called decision-makers. As Lipset has observed, protest is a political resource for groups “without power”,15 i.e. those who are free to share resources directly with those who make public decisions. Researchers might agree that protest is a symbolic and/or physical expression of dissent regarding something or somebody.16 In political life, some groups exist for the very purpose of protesting, or they at least use protest as a key mechanism to get their voices heard.17 Yet they may also use protest only occasionally or only as a last resort. Accordingly, the kinds of groups that protest vary greatly, ranging from an informal citizen initiative to a large, hierarchical association, to a radical political party. Even a government may resort to protest, for example, by sending a written critical note to another government. In addition to the different kinds of actors, the content, aims, levels, and forms of political protest also vary greatly. Protest can refer to any political and social issue that is debated and contested, whether it is an utterance of a political leader, an administrative directive, or a political regime.

Protest is seen as the most valid form for mass participation, highlighting the network structure, the emotional motivation of participants, or the political and cultural consequences that follow when the citizens do to not feel that they can influence the decision-making through the democratic system. Non-represented interest groups, individuals, or passive citizens normally feel isolated from the social order because they are powerless to bring about social change on their own,18 and collective action in mass participation leads to a feeling of empowerment because it allows them to reach a collective goal and bring about social change, while at the same time criticizing “crowd psychology” (Gustave Le Bon) for collective action.

Collective action is conventionally analyzed in two main approaches — cultural approaches and political opportunity systems. Cultural approaches argue that collective action is related to a form of strain theory. Social change imposes strains on the function of society, and collective actions are seen not just as a manifestation of those strains, but also as a viable way to arrive at a solution for relieving this kind of social pressure. However, the problem with this approach is that it fails to explain the continuities in various forms of collective action.

The political opportunity system structure approach was developed in the 1970s by Peter Eisinger, Charles Tilly, William Gramson, and others, whose main argument was that the chances for success and mobilization are strongly dependent on the opportunities created and offered by the political system. These opportunities can be institutionalized and formal, but they can also be informal. The political elite can try to facilitate or to repress collective action, which affects the chances for success of such actions. The key recognition in the political opportunity perspective is that activists’ prospects for advancing particular claims, mobilizing supporters, and having influence are context-dependent. Analysts therefore appropriately direct much of their attention to the world outside a collective behavior on the premise that exogenous factors enhance a collective behavior’s prospects for mobilization, for advancing particular claims over others, for cultivating some alliances over others, for employing particular political strategies and tactics over others, and for affecting mainstream institutional politics and policy.19

A short historical trajectory: Eastern Europe

The 1968 World Youth Festival held in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, with the motto “For Solidarity, Peace and Friendship” showed the ideological division between the Left in the East and the West. Signs of discord emerged during the opening ceremony when the West German delegation passed by. Tensions continued to mount when the Bulgarian secret police intervened in a demonstration against the Vietnam War that the West German SDS had called for. The situation escalated a few days later, and delegates from Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands left the scene in protest.

In other countries, the 1960s have by now become part of national cultures of remembrance, with fitting “lieux de memories” like the attack on Rudi Dutchke in Berlin and the occupation of the Sorbonne University in Paris. They range from national myths of rejuvenation, proclaiming the birth of a new society with a more open and democratic political culture and gender equality, to the end of a period of liberalization and the advent of domestic orthodoxy dogma.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic students were often subject to retrospective interpretations through the events of 1968. Students, charismatic leaders of the reforming Czechoslovak Communist Party, and many other social actors, such as writers and intellectuals, occupy the attention with respect to this year. Students, as the future socialist intelligentsia, were to be actors of a universal working class that transcended national boundaries. According to studies, the students’ grievances were orientated in three directions. First was the struggle for the private sphere. In the 1960s, the communist leaders frequently discussed the negative attitudes toward the socialist order generally and of students particularly. The Czechoslovak communists viewed the integration of youth and students into socialist society as insufficient and sought innovative ways to increase such integration. They started to prepare new youth and student policies and decided to integrate youth activities in local government. This support included the establishment of three new higher education committees. The second was the struggle for equality, as the laws of historical materialism predetermined the new socialist order that inherited its legitimacy from the revolution. Furthermore, the socialist way of life was to be practiced through proletarian internationalism and founded on equal rights and transnational class solidarity. Thus, it can be understood in favor of a universal working class at the expense of identification with national communities and as solidarity with movements in Asia, Latin America, and Africa in the late 1950s. The third was the struggle for difference. The language of the students’ demands for difference referred to the one-sided interpretation of achievements within the industrial organized division of labor in the social order. “Work achievements” with specific and valuable use for a socialist society were related to function, age, and class origin. Marxism-Leninism in Czechoslovakia essentially appropriated the highest group status recognition for members of the working class, which especially recognized long-term communist male functionaries. Elaboration of these three main directions led to the “Prague Spring”, and for the future it might be said that these were the first steps through civil action, despite the existing political opportunity system.

The Albanian case

Based on previous studies in Albania, it can be considered that self-organized groups had passed through three different phases. The first phase started at the beginning of the twentieth century and coincided with the end of World War II in 1945. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many groups were created before the self-organized groups, such as foundations, schools, media outlets, religious organizations, etc. Together these organizations involved political and religious leaders and cultural nationalists. Some of them were created and worked outside of Albania’s official borders, especially in the US, Great Britain, and France. All of their work focused on the organization of cultural and political activities, and in some cases they would open language courses and schools as well as produce various newspaper publications. In this way, it can be suggested that the history of the Albanian state is closely related to the existence of self-organized groups that became influential in society. The reason for their survival is due to numerous political crises during the period after independence from Ottoman Empire, in 1912. There was the benefit of their financial and cultural capacity increasing through help from the Albanian diaspora, but the fact that those participating in these activities in many cases took on the role of the state and replaced it with their own institutions with their own motives could lead one to believe that the fact that these non-elected bodies were governing the progression of a newly independent Albania means that the democratization process was stunted from the beginning. Within the official Albanian borders, two “Western” areas existed, Shkodra in the north, which was under the influence of Austrians and Italians, and South Korça. These Western influences played a leading role in the development of these areas and consequently the development of some elements of the Albanian active society.20 These enhanced the development of society over time, and despite authoritarian and non-democratic systems, these Western influences (representing the best examples of liberal democracies) led to the development of some of the elements within society.

The second phase took place during the period of 1945—1990, the communist period, and the third phase coincided with the change of the political system in 1991 and continues today. Elements of the self-organized groups theoretically existed, but in practice there was almost no organization of self-organized groups because they were under the strict political control of the state party, PPSH (Albanian Labor Party). During communism, the party-state was the law and the supreme regulator of the country’s affairs and of the people’s lives. The leadership relied on the “moral code” of the Albanian system to construct and maintain a network of loyal supporters. In such a centralized system, the collective values of fis (kinship) were adapted to the (new) communist priorities, where the party became the sole focus of loyalty in society. The self-organized groups and the third sector were “protected” by the state.21 All members of independent and intellectual organizations that were considered liberal or in opposition were imprisoned or exiled. Social groups and organizations, both intellectual and as representations of society, were allowed to operate only under strict government control. The impact of government control created a “new man” model that meant that criticism of the Communist Party was not permitted; political decisions must be accepted unanimously. It is arguable that this suffocated all social movements and that the lack of freedom of expression prevented the Albanian people from being allowed to create any political and social change. Therefore it can be suggested that a lack of social movements allows a government to centralize their power and become undemocratic. Nevertheless, 1967 marked the peak of control of society by the party-state, meaning that religious institutions were not allowed. Under these conditions, it was difficult to organize and act as self-organized groups. The difference between a dictatorship and a one-party system regime is essential with regards to the social contract between state and society. A one-party state allows a “kind of negotiation” contract between society and the state, whereas a dictatorship does not allow communication via social contract22. During the communist regime, when the participation of citizens in public debate was much weaker, the regime’s intention was not to allow self-organization without party-state control. After all, if people cannot come together, they cannot organize, and if they cannot organize they cannot mobilize and create any change whatsoever.

The third phase coincides with the period after the fall of communism in 1990. The collapse of the communist system in Albania, unlike in other former communist Eastern European countries, did not benefit from a swift and effective democratization process due to a lack of politically active citizens encouraging social change. Unlike other former communist countries that embraced the notion and essence of “self-organized groups”, such notions played little to no role and had little importance in the initial stages of democracy in Albania. First, Albanian opposition engaged mostly with Euro-Atlantic integration, protection of human rights, and economic reform. Only in March 1991 were civil rights thought about and discussed. This is best illustrated by the first elections and electoral campaigns in 1991 where there was difficulty in trying to spread innovative ideas and to encourage people to participate in change. Under these circumstances, where there was no freedom or independence in thought and actions, there was a lack of public debate as previously claimed, ultimately leading to low expectations for changing and building a strong self-organized group.23 However, these minimal changes combined with democratization meant that society headed in a new direction with new social objectives, norms, and values. Developments in Central and Eastern Europe resulted from constant attention and focus being placed on the countries’ leadership, which as a result created social movements against undemocratic governance that brought the governments’ undemocratic methods to an end. The most important consequences and most rapid system change was the creation of a new rapport between the state and the individual. A new era began with the fall of the communist system, and this led to the withdrawal of the state from the lives of individuals and to the public sphere becoming more transparent. Newspapers began to be published before the opposition political parties were formed, and even though they were under the function of the respective parties, the new media can be said to be characterized by unlimited freedom. This change would be a more stressful process for everyone in Albania, more than in other former communist countries, due to the lack of trust, security, and stability in addition to the economic crisis.

Only after 1992 did institutions begin to regain security due to the democratic methods. Confidence and optimism for the future of the state institutions characterized Albania’s years during this part of its democratization timeline, but a lack of knowledge of the new reforms, such as tax reforms, became noticeable and the roles and functions of self-organized groups became the voice of society.24 On the other hand, these self-organized groups would not be able to respond to citizens’ demands and needs. Analyzing the situation of the time, with new developments and economic policies, it can be said that the growth of the social and economic needs of citizens with disabilities created a challenge for the government, and they were arguably forgotten, and people with disabilities were considered a problem of the family not of the state. Under these conditions, the role of self-organized groups and their individual institutions would remain limited. This leads to a situation where the links between the state and self-organized groups are extremely limited and strained due to the lack of care the state gives to its citizens, which can hinder progressive social change. It is arguable that the vulnerable in society have more difficulty in gaining positive social change for their needs. The role of self-organized groups and civil engagement leads to people pursuing their own interests and ignoring the needs of others.

The student movement, November 1990–1991

As in other Eastern European countries where communist regimes were challenged by an opposition that grew up within days into a huge mass movement of the citizens that demanded free elections and democracy,25 scholars agree on explaining these developments as the emergence and influence of civil engagement over time. Opportunities open the way for political actions, but in many cases civil engagement also creates opportunities. From this point of view, students in Albania in November 1990, despite the political and economic conditions, tried to create the opportunities to change the Albanian political conditions at that time.

The political opportunity system approach is focused on four dimensions — discontent and grievances; ideas and beliefs about justice and injustice and about right and wrong; the capacity to act collectively or to mobilize; and political opportunity.26 In order to understand what political opportunity means towards a regime or a state, we need to understand both the domestic and international political environment.27 For Albania, the international environment was Eastern Europe, where the challenges to the system had started earlier. The experience of other former communist countries showed that the best answer against a totalitarian regime is building and strengthening civil courage and social activism. Even Albania had to face this even though the situation in Albania was not the same as in other former communist countries. The first dimension of the political opportunity structure was the most present in Albanian society during the 1990s, including student grievances as explained in the following.

In Albania, political changes and the beginning of democratization started in 1990 as the result of student engagement. In addition to the difficult living, economic, and social conditions, the Albanian people were still under the authoritarian regime during 1990—1991, even though changes in other former communist regimes had begun two years earlier. The students’ reservations towards the one-party state were not only understood, but also actively demonstrated at times. At the beginning of the 1990s, it was advertised that advanced student facilities had been built and that the universities were being regulated in better ways. This propaganda was followed shortly after with some inaugurations of new buildings in what was dubbed “Studenti” (Student) town, built with state funds, but even though these changes eased housing conditions somewhat, they did not affect the opinions held by the students. What was considered a problem by the state and party structures at the time did not include the students’ life problems, but in the lectures of the History of PPSH at the University of Tirana, where students and some professors started to criticize the regime and the economic conditions of society at that time, they understood the consequences of educated people teaching people what to consider the most pressing problems to be. Complete isolation and extreme poverty had extinguished the hope of most Albanians, and this ultimately became the driving force behind the social movement. The people’s dire living situations pushed the people of Albania to react, and this is how the chain of events leading to the democratization of Albania formed a cluster of actions, as stated earlier.

Complicated economic conditions, which were in direct contradiction with the so-called propaganda of a new economic mechanism, including difficult conditions in student dormitories, made the reaction of student protests possible. Repeated calls alerted the state and organizational structures of the University of Tirana (during the regime it was named Enver Hoxha University and the only existing one in Albania), and students were reminded of University regulations and warned of punitive measures for the illegal actions of a few individuals. On December 8, 1990, the prime minister decided to visit and talk to the students. The visit from the prime minister to “Student” town was rare and unexpected by the students, and for the PPSH authorities it expressed their serious concerns about the mobilizing events taking place28. The prime minister held a meeting with a group of students. Allegedly the meeting began with a fearful atmosphere; the outlook was grim and the coldness of the relations between the students and the government and party were visible, and this tense atmosphere encouraged a debate to take place, which was considered a very shocking thing to do in the company of such high-ranking officials. Here we might find the second dimension for analyzing and understanding the reason for why self-organized groups are mobilized, which in the case of Albania has to do with party-state legitimacy. Framing and interpretation are a social process for articulating a variety of private beliefs and preferences as shared meanings and values for joint action. 29 The communist discourse and frame had become empty rhetoric. According to some scholars, legitimacy explains why people conform to and obey the state’s authority. When the state itself lacks legitimacy, however, ineffective performance will threaten the political institutions of the state itself.30At this development stage, the totalitarian Albanian regime appears to have lost it is power in controlling social issues and, moreover, had lost its legitimacy. Some students, for the first time, spoke openly about the unfavorable economic situation of not only students, but also all Albanians, and they expressed their frustration with the state’s use of force and the party leadership. The prime minister’s mission failed to extinguish the students’ dissatisfaction, and this was a warning that other uncomfortable events were yet to come. The number of protesters started to increase, and students from all faculties started to come together and work as one group, which added both determination and enthusiasm to the movement. Many protesters quickly established far-reaching goals and began to express what they wanted from their government. State authorities and the Communist Party believed that the protests had already gone far enough, and threats from the top were immediate. Ramiz Alia promised that he would accept their economic requirements and other requirements, which should be presented in writing, and he also promised that no police violence would be used against the students. In return for his cooperation, he asked the students to stop the protest and return to the university and to their lectures. Amidst both the approving attitude and occasional threats by Alia, a compromise was reached between the government and the students. At the request of the students, they were promised another meeting with Alia to continue further dialogue at an appropriate time in the “Student” town. The students decided to continue with the protest until the next meeting with president Alia, and students were together protesting on the streets of Tirana and now were supported by the citizens. Protesters continued to march in the streets and were separated and surrounded by the police. But this did not stop their efforts to move forward, and it has been said that the protesters were shouting slogans such as “We want Albania like Europe!”, “Do not shoot the students!”, “Freedom, Democracy!”, “No more violence!”, and “Albania is with us!”. At that moment it became apparent that the students’ requests were no longer only relevant to the conditions at the University, and their demands were now supported by intellectuals, students, teachers, youth workers, citizens, etc. In the largest square of the city, later renamed “Democracy Square”, an extraordinary mass of people convened, before whom the petition was read first, which contained mainly political demands, including the adoption of political pluralism as a higher degree of democracy, finding ways to overcome the economic crisis, freedom of the press and of speech without censorship, publication of the UN Charter on Human Rights and the Helsinki Charter, etc. Two days later, on 11 December 1990, the people’s response at the rally was communicated with the Party, and that afternoon Alia met with students in the Palace of Brigades. Three hours later he returned from the delegations, and the students and rally supporters awaited victory — political pluralism in Albania.

For the first time in 45 years, a new opposition party was born — the Democratic Party31. Political commitment for civil society was expressed for the first time in March 1991, and demands for the establishment and strengthening of civil society dominated political discourse and diplomatic meetings between the opposition and the government. There was, however, no clear platform on how this should be achieved. Social crisis became apparent because most of the intellectuals and political dissidents who were involved in the new Albanian politics demonstrated an old political mindset. Another negative effect during this time for Albania was personalization of political forces with the past. Personalization of political parties was a mistake, and it had a negative effect on both the opposition and political institutions. This change in the system during the early 1990s cost too much for Albania. Besides the economic crises, there was also major political loss. Moreover, during the 1990s the Albanian regime had lost even the rhetoric and the symbolic meaning of how the regime’s discourse had been involved in the nation’s collective identity.

In subsequent years, self-organized groups would face a difficult social and political environment. In this insecure situation, the lack of knowledge was also visible in the assessment of the role and function of self-organized groups and other non-governmental groups as essential elements of civil engagement. Uncertainty reached the point where people questioned the usefulness of the existence of self-organized groups and questioned whether they were necessary. Self-organized groups themselves, trade unions, and other organization were not able to respond to the increasing demands of the citizens and other diverse groups. The new political developments came about in the face of the urgent social and economic needs of the nation’s citizens who were still faced with limited opportunity for the state to fulfill these needs. The role of self-organized groups and their institutions remained more limited. The role of self-organized groups and civil engagement was taken by the political parties, especially by the opposition. Throughout the protests, the momentum for change grew, spread, and evolved alongside the needs and demands of the people. Eventually the people decided they needed social change, and this decision effectively created the impetus for Albania to become a democratic nation. From this point of view, the students represented a political challenge by giving voice to those who had been excluded from the political system.

In addition, social norms from the past are strongly present even today. Thus Albanians are more likely to try to have their problems solved through personal networking relationships, which might be family relationships or direct contacts that they might have with politicians, businesspersons, or other elites rather than following other steps. Also, a strong dependence of the economy on state institutions and public administration might be considered an important element that does not help self-organized groups to mobilize, and this gives the idea that the general opinion is that it is almost impossible to influence decision-making processes. The low levels of membership and volunteerism in self-organized groups signal indifference amongst Albanian citizens towards civic engagement in general. Despite this widespread “apathy”, political engagement fares slightly better compared to socially based engagement. The communication sector determines the extent of information exchange and interaction among organizations in the country that work on similar issues. These features of Albanian society might be considered as elements emphasizing a lack of mobilization.

Moreover, these features are reflected even in the people engaged in self-organized groups.32 In summary, public opinion might be shown like this: self-organized groups might be considered a complex term in Albania. It is a questionable term because other civil organizations have proven to be a tool of the political elite throughout these 27 years of democratic transition. As a young activist, I have faced the lack of trust among the people I tried to reach and convince about the University’s33 cause. For this reason, we have distanced ourselves from the “civil society” organizations. However, different self-organized groups are gradually shaping the third sector that has been missing in Albanian society. We find that civil society has to represent a critical point of view in Albanian society, and only by having this critical position can society put pressure on the government for more rights and greater equality. As mentioned earlier, the affiliation with parties has long characterized Albanian civil society. Thus, young activists, although open to dialogue with government representatives, have tried to stay away from closed meeting with selective audiences and have asked for more transparent confrontations with them such as in auditoriums or in televised debates. However, these have rarely taken place as the government representatives have maintained an indifferent attitude towards most public protest. The media has played a negative role in this aspect because the coverage has been very low, and public confrontation with government representatives in TV studios has often been denied to activists. To communicate their revolt, students have been using public spaces in the streets, using symbolic acts such as street graphic art. Student activists distance themselves from opposition parties because they have proven to follow pretty much the same policies when they gain power. Thus, they are not legitimate to defend the students’ cause. Some of the students go even beyond this and see the political parties as organized elite structures, and from their point of view one rarely finds public institutions that are not associated with political parties.


To conclude, it can be understood that self-organized groups can play a significant role in the democratization process. This is due to the notion that creating self-organized groups allows the people to participate directly with the decision-making process, and ultimately political parties that want to remain in power should listen to what their voters want. Evidence that supports this is the fall of communism in Albania, where the people were ignored and their needs and opinions were overlooked, and with time this pushed the citizens to take back their country from the minority in power. Several factors contribute to the need for self-organized groups and their ability to achieve their goals, including political, economic, and cultural conditions. Albania is one example where the lack of transparency in government institutions prevents self-organized groups from taking on their necessary role in the democratization process — the people holding their government accountable for its decisions. Coming to this conclusion involved the analysis of Albania’s progression compared to other formerly communist countries and the activity of self-organized groups throughout Europe. This is shown with the student protests in Albania, which started out as a student protest over university living conditions and led to the fall of the communist regime due to the entire Albanian society supporting the movement. Self-organized groups are set apart from other kinds of transformative processes by the combination of two forces — the need for social change and the force of citizens’ power that ultimately leads to social transformation. This important process of industrialization did not happen in Albania because it was undeveloped in this sector. Based on this, social changes do not occur as a necessity from society, but through politics. This is reflected even nowadays in Albanian society, where self-organized groups in only a few cases have helped bring about social changes. Generally, Albanian citizens display high levels of indifference towards involvement in various social actions, which is a common feature of societies in transition or in the initial stages of post-transition with a relatively unsettled middle class and significant levels of inequality.

The cost and sustainability of human resources is one of the most problematic issues for predominantly project-based self-organized groups in Albania. Having built up the needed infrastructure over the past two decades of generous support from foreign donors, even Albanian NGOs must adapt their strategies to an environment that is experiencing donor withdrawal. Based on an annual progress report by the UN in 2013, in the first two decades of democratic implementation, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth was the largest recipient of technical assistance funded by UN agencies. This reflects the importance the UN is giving to social inclusion and social protection, areas where the Government of Albania has a challenging agenda. Thus, different factors contribute to the need for self-organized groups and their ability to achieve their goals. Albania is one example where the lack of transparency in government institutions prevents self-organized groups from taking on their necessary role in the democratization process — people holding their government to account for its decisions. Coming to this conclusion involved the analysis of Albania’s progression. Self-organized groups have been mostly unsuccessful in achieving their goals, and institutionalized and informal opportunities have failed to facilitate the success of self-organized groups. ≈


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8                          Ibid., 225.

9                          A. Ghaus-Pasha, Public Administration and Democratic Governance: Governments Serving Citizens, A United Nations Publication no. 8 (2006): 213.

10                        Ibid., 214.

11                        M. Klimke; J. Pekelder and J. Scharloth, Between Prague Spring and French May, Opposition and Revolt in Europe 1960-1968, (United States: Berghan Books, 2011).

12                        J. Zagorska, “Civil Society in Poland and Hungary”, Soviet Studies, (1990) vol. 42. no.4; 759-777.

13                        P. Norris, Political activism: New challenges, new opportunities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 7.

14                        Ibid.638.

15                        S. Lipset, Political Man. The Social Bases of Politics, (New York: Anchor Books, 1960): 30.

16                        S.H. Barnes and M. Kaase, Political Action: Mass Participation in Five Nations, (California: Sage Publications, 1979): 65.

17                        R.Dalton, Civil Society and Democratization: The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), 677.

18                        W. Kornhasuser, The Politics of Mass Society, (New Brunswick, Transaction Introduction: I L. Horowitz, 2008): 45.

19                        D. Mayer,“Protests and Political Opportunities”, Annual Review Sociology, 10 February (2004), 125-145.

20                        A. Krasniqi, ShoqëriacivilenëShqipëri, historia e lindjes, krijimitdhezhvillimittëshoqërisëcivile [Civil Society in Albania, Birth and Development history of Civil Society] (Tiranë: Geer, 2004): 66.

21                        G. Prato, “TheCosts of European Citizenship:Governance and Relations of Trust in Albania”. In ed. G. Prato, Citizenship and the Legitimacy of Governance in the Mediterranean Region, (London: Farnham Ashgate, 2010), 133-151.

22                        A. Rakipi, State society relation in post-communist Albania, (Tiranë: Albanian Institute for International studies, 2010): 5.

23                        Krasniqi, 38.

24                        A. Kocani, HulumtimiiSistemittëVleravenëRepublikën e ShqipërisënëPeriudhën Post-komuniste [Values Survey System in the Republic of Albania in the Post-communist Period], (Tirane: Albanian University Press, 2013): 25.

25                        A. Oberschall, Opportunities and framing in the Eastern European revolts of 1989, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1995): 93.

26                        Ibid., 94.

27                        Ibid., 94.

28               last accessed December 2015

29                        D. Snow, B. Rochford, S. Worden and R. Benford, “Frame alignment process, micro mobilization, and movement participation”, American Sociological Review 51 (1986),464—481.

30                        Lipset, 63.

31              , last accessed December 2015.

32                        A few interviews were conducted for this paper via email with representative students from the movements with the following questions: 1. Do you perceive yourself as a representative of the third sector/civil society? What does it mean for you to be part of the third sector/civil society? 2. What do you see as your main role/function in society? 3. How are you interplaying with the state in Albania? 4. In what sense are you able to have a dialogue about power relations, restrictions, space to act for civil society, etc.?

33                        Lëvizjapër Universtetin (Movement for the University) was established in 2008 by a group of students and lecturers mostly from the Faculty of Social Science of the University of Tirana. The initial issue was to improve basic building infrastructure. After a few failed meetings between the Faculty representatives and state institutions, students took the decision to boycott academic life in the Faculty for more than 2 months and started to organize peaceful protests in order to get the necessary attention. A temporary solution was found for the Faculty of Social Science by establishing the students and the lecturers in other faculty buildings, and the lessons were held in the afternoons. Later on, the Albanian government took the decision to reform the higher education system and tried to adapt Western models to the Albanian system. The main reason for students and some professors disagreeing with this process is the financial issue, and it is still unclear how the University of Tirana is going to be supported by the state budget in comparison with other private higher education institutions. Each year fees for the students are increasing, and students are insisting on free public education based on in their low incomes. It must be noted that the University of Tirana is the oldest and largest public university in Albania, but few investments have been made. Meanwhile, other higher education institutions are quickly adapting to government policy, and they are registered as non-profit organizations, which helps them pay less taxes and win grants from the state budget. They also have very high registration fees, which means better infrastructure, better research, and favorable conditions for competition.

  • by Gilda Hoxha

    PhD in political science, University of Tirana. Research interest in social movements and democratic dialogues.

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