Albanian protesters block roads, demanding end to new highway tolls

TIRANA (Reuters) - Protesters burned tyres and blocked four main highways in Albania on Thursday to demand that authorities scrap new toll fees on the main road linking the impoverished Balkan country with Kosovo.

Albania's opposition Democratic Party Leader Lulzim Basha waves during a demonstration in Vora near Tirana, Albania, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Florion Goga

The two-hour protest followed the torching of toll booths on the highway on Saturday by demonstrators angered by the imposition of fees to use the road. Traffic has since resumed, without tolls being paid. Twenty-three people were arrested after clashes with police and will face trial.

Opposition leaders have seized on anger over the road tolls to launch what they call a wave of civil disobedience, asking Albanians to refuse to pay several taxes on the ground, they say, that the government collects them to enrich its cronies.

“We want the release of 11 Kukes residents held in jail unjustly and to scrap the road fee on the ‘Nation’s Road’. This is just the beginning of a popular revolt against your private and criminal regime,” opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha said, addressing Prime Minister Edi Rama.

The government says the tolls are necessary to pay for the modernization, including the widening of two bridges, of the highway winding through difficult mountainous terrain.

The project is an infrastructure priority for Tirana as the highway is the key overland artery between Albania and Kosovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian country. The two states have close cultural, political and commercial ties.

Rama used a video link with town councillors in Kukes, near the border with Kosovo, on Thursday to apologize to residents for a lack of advance information about the tolls and underline that frequent road users would qualify for discounts.

The new tolls are part of a 30-year concession granted by Rama’s government to manage and repair the highway that has cost 1.2 billion euros ($1.47 billion) so far and needs another 300 million euros to be completed.

Albania is also introducing a tax on property based on market value. From this month, 11,500 businesses with an annual turnover of at least 2 million lek ($19,074.87) will start paying 20 percent VAT.

Workers have cleared the debris form Saturday’s violence, and Rama said the upgrading of the highway to Kosovo, as well as construction of an airport in Kukes for low-cost flights, would be completed by the end of this year.

Reporting by Benet Koleka Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich