The protests were spontaneous and essentially leaderless. Politicians did try to muscle in, but were discouraged by demonstrators. Sali Berisha, a strongman of Albanian politics for more than two decades before his defeat in elections this summer, found himself booed when he attempted to join protests in Tirana.
“When the students gave [Mr.] Berisha the thumbs down, that is something I never thought I’d see in my life,” says Likmeta. “That speaks a lot about [how] things are changing.”
The hope now is that the success of the protests can spur more organic political action in a country with a patchy democratic record and a history of autocratic regimes.
“This protest will help us to protest for other problems we have, it is like breaking the ice,” says Mr. Pashuku. Issues facing the economy, jobs, and corruption are top of mind for many in Albania.
‘MODEL OF DEMOCRACY?’
Not all of Albania’s youth are so confident about a shift toward more robust democracy. “This was really big, but I think that it’s going to take some time for Albanians to stand up for their rights,” says writer Davjola Ndola, who was among the protesters in the capital last week.
The reason the demonstrations were so successful, says Likmeta, is that they combined an issue that people were deeply concerned about – chemical weapons – with a growing frustration with Albania’s perceived acquiescence to US requests.
A NATO member since 2009, Albania supported the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and even provided a home to ethnic Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay when the US could not repatriate them to China. Earlier this year, Albania offered asylum to 210 members of an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, under pressure from the US.
“There was this feeling that we are saying ‘yes’ to everything without knowing why,” says Likmeta.
“But I don’t think this will turn into anti-Americanism. We still look at the US as a model of democracy. That won’t change.”