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What Albania has in common with Thailand

The Albanian government is at a standstill as the EU tries to mediate between parties.

Tents are seen in front of Prime Minister Sali Berisha's office in Tirana on May 12, 2010. Blocking the main boulevard in front of Berisha's office, 22 lawmakers and about 200 supporters holed up in tents to stage a hunger strike against a vote they say was rigged. (Arben Celi/Reuters)

TIRANA, Albania — Earlier this month, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele canceled a trip to Algeria to dine with Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama at the posh Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg.

But this was no social repast. Fuele hoped to talk down the two Albanian leaders from the war of words that has gridlocked the country since Berisha’s Democratic Party narrowly won parliamentary elections held on June 28, 2009.

Nearly a year after Albanians cast their ballots in the poll — considered a litmus test for the country’s fitness to continue the EU accession process — a wave of recent protests represent the latest escalation of a row that has poisoned the political climate.

The Socialists boycotted parliament when the new session began in September until this Monday, claiming that the government’s alleged fraud was to blame for their electoral loss. For the past month they have held daily rallies in the capital, Tirana, calling for a recount. Some of the protests have drawn tens of thousands of supporters.

The agreement to meet for EU-sponsored talks prompted the Socialist members of parliament and their supporters to end the 19-day hunger strike they conducted from a tent outside of Berisha’s office. As it turned out, however, the appetite of the two leaders for a political compromise remained weak.

As the crisis threatens to destabilize the country’s fragile institutions, bringing up comparisons with the political instability in Thailand, the EU is looking on with growing dismay. The meeting in Strasbourg ended only with an agreement to try to organize a similar meeting two weeks later, when experts from Brussels will present common points that might close the gap between the two Albanian political parties.

Albania became a NATO member state in April 2009 and has submitted its application for EU membership. The European Commission (EC), the EU’s administrative branch, is in the process of preparing its opinion on whether the country is ready to become an EU candidate country. With the country’s main political institution, the parliament, not functioning properly, experts worry Albania might receive a negative evaluation.

“Obviously, the conflict between the two political sides and the failure to find a compromise solution will be an obstacle to Albania’s EU integration and it’s difficult to envisage progress being made while the opposition is boycotting the legislative process in parliament,” said Gabriel Partos, an eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.