Friday, December 30, 2011

The only demonstration...

As a year of political upheaval and uncertain prospect comes to its close, I find myself remembering the one and only time I have been involved in a demonstration.

This was in no way heroic of me, as it was by accident.

I was in Albania and an election was being held. The then miss-named Democratic Party, then in government (as now), was nakedly cheating. A friend, an election observer, then working for the US-based Democratic Institute, came to a rural polling station just outside Tirana, explained who she was, and was heartily greeted with, 'You Democratic Party, We Democratic Party' whilst the hospitable officials carried on stuffing the ballot box!

The Democratic Party celebrated their victory (one they could probably have won without cheating, Mr Putin take note) in the main square the following day whilst the O.S.C.E. observer mission thought it politic to withdraw to Vienna before releasing its damning report.

The day after victory, the Socialist Party announced a counter-demonstration in the self-same square, which the government hastily banned. People took no notice and massed in the square, chanting for a re-run of the election and denouncing 'the West' for supporting the Democratic Party regime (failing to notice that 'the West' had weighed the election in the balance and found it wanting).

All of this was unfolding and I was in blissful ignorance, going about my business negotiating with the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund, until I walked into the main square.

My unconcerned demeanor rapidly evaporated when I found myself being turned upon by angry men and women, seeing a perfidious 'Westerner', and being pulled and (lightly) shoved as people spat out, 'Pinochet, Pinochet' at me. This was surreal and puzzling until I realized he was then (and now) the archetypal 'Right-wing' dictator to whom people were comparing Sali Berisha (the Democratic Party leader, then as now) and presumably 'my' (the West's) presumed support for him.

It was a striking moment when a group of people begin coalescing into a mob and the person in front of them (over and against them) becomes a representative object of hatred. You could feel your humanity draining from you, and your endangerment rising.

I rapidly began to move towards the square's edge and an exit. Then the police arrived (with dogs) and the crowd was attacked, brutally. People began to disperse in fear, the only engaged intelligence being how to avoid the batons and the dogs.

I found myself suddenly confronted with a baton wielding policeman and without conscious thought drew myself up to my full height and barked out, 'Hey, you cannot do that to me! I am English'! He looked surprised, hesitated, shifted direction slightly and unfortunately struck someone else, as I legged it as quickly as I could, weaving through people, back to the safety of my hotel.

I recall where my subconscious had plucked this absurd (though successful) expression from. A vicar friend in Oxford, encountering an altercation turning violent between a cyclist and a car driver, had run up to them and without thought said, 'You cannot do that! I am the vicar'! They were so surprised that they looked sheepish, apologized to each other, and went on their way! Remembering this in an unconscious instant, I had found my own spontaneous version - and it had worked (for me)!

It is probably an instinctive (and introverted) dislike of crowds (even jovial ones) that has kept me away from demonstrations. The only other near entanglement was exiting the Moscow metro and seeing 3,000 Russian nationalists marching down the hill towards it, chanting 'Foreigners Go Home'. I retreated!

But they have proven their worth this year in registering dissent and levering change (though the jury remains out on whether the change thus wrought will be, in the balance, a beneficial one) and the courage shown in many has been humbling and admirable.

I expect the forthcoming year has many more in store...I will not be there!

P.S. Albania passed through considerable trauma the following year to this flawed election, when the collapse of 'pyramid saving schemes' led to the fall of the Democratic Party government. However, slowly this has played to the good - a reformed system, a more democratic polity, the prospect of EU entrance and Mr Berisha is still a political actor...

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