By Stefan J. Bos
With smoke from tear gas and flares still clouding the streets of the capital Tirana, political tensions remain high in Albania.
In a statement, Albanian President Ilir Meta said he canceled upcoming municipal elections as in his words "the actual circumstances do not provide necessary conditions for true, democratic, representative and all-inclusive elections" at the end of the month.
Thousands of Albanian protesters who support the political opposition welcomed the move. But their protest on Saturday was overshadowed by more violence.
Security forces deployed water cannons and teargassed protesters who had gathered in front of the Albanian Parliament in Tirana. They rallied against the prime minister for the eighth consecutive week.
The Albanian opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, accuses the left-wing government of links to organized crime and vote rigging.
Prime Minister denies wrongdoing
But Prime Minister Rama has denied the accusations. He said the president's decision to cancel local elections planned for June 30 was wrong.
He insisted the local votes would be held as scheduled to prevent what he called political "blackmail" from being used to force the calling of early parliamentary elections.
But protesters made clear they will not end the protests till he steps down. "It is proved that he was not elected by the people. It is proved, legally proved and proclaimed that he was elected by criminals," said Bilbil Hoxha, a teacher participating in the rally.
However, the government fears the opposition rallies launched in February and in which many were injured, hurt the country's image at an awkward moment: The European Union is set to decide this month whether to start negotiations to include Albania as a member.
Both the E.U. and the United States have urged the opposition disavow violence and start talks with government representatives to overcome Albania's worst political crisis in years.
And in remarks to Albanian television, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Palmer warned opposition political leaders that "if there are acts of violence in future protests, the U.S. would consider them responsible."