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Q&A: Political unrest threatening Albania

TIRANA (Reuters) - An opposition rally is planned for Friday and a government-organized rally for Saturday following an anti-government protest last Friday during which three demonstrators were shot dead.

Here are some questions and answers about the situation:

Q. What is the root of the problem between opposition Socialists and ruling Democrats?

A. The Socialists refuse to accept the results of a 2009 election which gave Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party a second four-year term by the narrowest margin since Albania toppled communism. They accuse his government of corruption and vote fraud.

The Democrats won 70 seats in the 140-seat parliament and allied with the Socialist Integration Movement Party of Ilir Meta, a former Socialist premier, who campaigned against Berisha after falling out with the Socialists.

International observers said the elections marked a step forward but fell short of international standards. The Socialists believe their votes were stolen and have boycotted parliament and had taken to the streets to demand the opening of the ballot boxes to recount the votes. The government burned the ballot papers in January, dashing hopes for a solution. After a video this month showed Meta discussing business favors with the economy minister, a member of his party, the Socialists called for the government to quit.

Q. Will violence get as bad as that in 1997 which led to months of anarchy and left thousands dead?

A. Much depends on whether the Socialists heed warnings from and appeals by the international community and President Bamir Topi, and whether they can control Friday’s demonstration.

Berisha has warned that any attempt at a coup will be crushed and has been meeting police, the national guard, defense officials and army generals.

Albania has come a long way since the 1997 riots when the collapse of pyramid investment schemes sparked months rioting. Albania joined NATO in 2009 and the EU scrapped visa requirements for its citizens in December. But the prolonged political standoff might fuel instability if it continues for many more months.

Q. Many past opposition rallies have been peaceful. Why has the situation grown more tense and led to deadly violence?

A. Friday’s deadly riot followed a ratcheting up of political rhetoric, including personal diatribes in parliament. Berisha blamed Socialist Party leader Edi Rama of staging a coup and directing the violence. Rama denies the charges and blames the police. A group of 200-300 attacked police outside the premier’s office, first with sticks and umbrellas, and later with cobblestones. With the metal gate of the premier’s office opened, television footage shows live shots were fired by guardsmen from the courtyard of the premier’s building.

Q. What is expected to happen in the coming days? Could the situation spiral out of control?

A. Berisha has raised the stakes by approving a parliamentary commission to investigate what he calls Rama’s attempted coup. That commission will also investigate the work of the prosecutor -- whom Berisha accuses of bias in a criminal investigation, and the State Information Service, which he accuses of not relaying information about the riot.

The Socialists in turn accuse Berisha of employing fascist rhetoric. They also complain police are not executing arrest warrants issued by prosecutors for republican guardsmen over the killings. Both sides say they will avoid violence in coming rallies, but the situation remains tense, and many recall the violence in the 1990s. Berisha has warned Rama, who dismissed talk of a repeat of Friday’s violence, that he would prosecute him personally if there is more unrest.

Q. What impact could the turmoil have on Albania’s European Union aspirations?

A. Albania’s politicians’ unwillingness to compromise casts doubt on how soon its legislation will meet EU standards. Most of that legislation needs 84 votes in the 140-seat parliament and the EU is keen that the laws get as much backing as possible before Albania joins the bloc.

Things are moving in the wrong direction because Berisha and Rama refuse to negotiate and there is no high-level contact between the parties, diplomats say.

The EU wants to integrate all of the former Communist Balkan states into the bloc eventually.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Louise Ireland