Police in Albania’s capital Tirana have arrested at least five people who took part in one of the country’s largest opposition protests in recent years.
The protesters called for the resignation of the government, fresh elections and an end to “mafia-style corruption”.
The detentions on Wednesday came a day after protesters took to the streets to accuse the government of launching fresh reforms that they said would take a deeper financial toll on the poor.
The opposition demonstrators said the measures were billowing the pockets of the country’s political and social elites while the Balkan nation already suffers from prevalent poverty.
The last major anti-government demonstration in Tirana occurred in January of 2011, which ended after troops shot dead four protesters.
Redi Muci, a leading activist of the city’s growing university movement which opposes the government, told Al Jazeera that a heavy crackdown on tax evaders and citizens who avoided paying energy bills has “only targeted low-income businesses and individuals, leaving the oligarchs of the country untouched”.
Muci, a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Tirana, also criticised new reforms of the education system – including the plan to fund private universities with public funds – which he said would lead to a major hike in tuition fees.
Dissent has also been fuelled by the fact that Albania’s rate of unemployment, especially among young people, has reached up to 35 percent, in addition to the prevalent view that the country’s healthcare system is one of the worst in the region, he added.
“Discontent with the political elite has forced vast numbers of Albanians to flee the country to seek economic asylum in Germany and elsewhere,” he said, adding that the second largest number of asylum seekers in Germany, after Syrians, are Albanians.
“The people are increasingly expressing their anger and dissatisfaction towards the utterly corrupt and dysfunctional governing institutions of Albania,” he said.
At least 50,000 took part in the protest organised by the opposition Democratic Party (DP) on Tuesday against Prime Minister Edi Rama, Head of Parliament Ilir Meta and Minister of Internal Affairs Saimir Tahiri, for allegedly “forming a mafia gang that holds the country hostage”.
Some protesters hurled stones, eggs and sticks at main government buildings, including the prime minister’s office and ministries of interior and transport.
Protesters also set fire to a newly built structure that represented a bunker from the country’s old communist “dictatorship” era and served as an entrance to a museum for the communist period.
The DP has been fined about $120,000 for the damages by protesters.
Niko Peleshi, the country’s deputy prime minister, told Al Jazeera that the protesters’ allegations were “unfounded” and made by the opposition for “political gains”.
“Albania is a democratic country, a NATO member and candidate for the European Union,” he said.
Taulant Balla, an MP of the ruling Socialist Party and deputy chairman of the Majority Group, adamantly denied the accusations of corruption and condemned the “use of violence” in the demonstration.
“We have been hearing these lies since our coalition won elections in 2013 with a landslide result,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Every Albanian knows that these are lies and the protests are an attempt to strengthen the position of the puppet-leader of the DP. Another hidden reason for these protests is the attempt of DP to shift the attention from judicial reforms,” he said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Tirana, Ralf Gjoni, international secretary of the Socialist Movement for Integration, said: “Albania deserved more political responsibility and much more accountability.”
“This is why the entire Albanian society supported by the US and the EU should step up pressure in order to complete the reform of the justice system by 2016,” Gjoni said.
“It is sad to see that on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime, Albania still does not have a proper democratic opposition, with any credible alternative for the people,” he added.
“Albanians are getting tired of political games where politicians accuse each other of the worst things possible on earth, but where the justice system is unprofessional and not credible to play its role in the society.”
Muci and Ben Andoni, a journalist in Tirana, both criticised the DP’s failure to demonstrate the will to bring about economic and political change.
A substantial number of Albanians are anti-DP because the party has been blamed for many corruption scandals during their on-and-off rule between 1992 and 2013.
“They represent the same old model of political officials who are linked to local oligarchs and mafia groups,” Muci said.
However, Muci noted that the country “lacks any substantial forms or groups of social activism independent from political parties”.
“The only hope outside this frame appears to be the newly organised student movement ‘For the University’ that opposes the political spectrum as a whole.”
Muci and Andoni both accused the DP of trying to take advantage of the growing momentum of public dissent for political gains.
“The Albanians were waiting a long time for this demonstration because they wanted to see if the opposition party evolved after losing the election two years ago,” said Andoni, the vice editor of Java magazine.
“People were very keen to hear the DP’s messages on improving the country, especially the economy, but instead their leaders appeared largely disconnected from the aspirations of the crowd [of protesters],” he added.
It is widely expected that the DP will launch more protests in the coming weeks.
Andoni quoted the front page of the Wednesday edition of the DP’s main newspaper as saying: “The worst has yet to come” as an indication of further demonstrations.