Albania's plight: A people robbed of dignity while corrupt leaders prosper

Details are emerging of Britain's murky ties to the Berisha regime
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The Independent Online
In the early summer of 1992, a meeting was held in the Dajti Hotel in Tirana that included a Foreign and Commonwealth Office employee visiting from London and a British adviser to the Albanian presidency called William Bennett. The man from the FCO came with a number of heavy cardboard packing cases sealed with plastic ribbon.

"These are the things you have been expecting," he told Mr Bennett. "Just make sure nobody knows where they came from."

The scene was witnessed by Alex Standish, a freelance business consultant and journalist. He watched one of the boxes being opened and saw it was full of stickers advertising Albania's ruling Democratic Party. According to Mr Standish, the stickers had been produced in Britain for the local elections of June 1992 and were brought out under diplomatic cover.

That raises the possibility of two breaches of law. First, a violation of the Vienna Conventions on the use of diplomatic bags, and secondly the illegal participation of foreigners in an Albanian election campaign.

The episode is one of several murky links between Britain and the government of Albania now emerging following the collapse of several pyramid investment schemes believed to be connected to both organised crime rackets and the ruling order in Tirana.

Mr Bennett, who now works as a barrister in London, was the first of two British nationals who gained unparalleled access as advisers to President Sali Berisha in the first two years of his tenure of office in 1992-93.

Both Mr Bennett and his successor Guy Roberts were promoted by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a right-wing organisation active in emerging free societies that has close ties to the Conservative Party. At the time, Mr Bennett was the only foreigner allowed into the President's inner circle - an arrangement that was looked on with disapproval by a number of Western diplomatic missions.

Mr Bennett's position underscored the cosy relations being developed directly between the Conservatives and the Democratic Party - relations that appear to have had a significant bearing on British policy as the Albanian government became more autocratic and corrupt over the following years.

Foreign Office officials subsequently posted to Tirana have - in common with their counterparts from other European Union countries - told visiting journalists until very recently that the country was progressing nicely on the path to democracy and a free-market economy, that the Democratic Party was popular, and that any corruption was merely a hiccup on the road to prosperity after half a century of brutal communist isolationism.

The fact that this line was peddled even by diplomats known privately to have quite different views on the corrupt, criminal mess that Albania was turning into, suggests there was a specific policy to paint the Berisha government in the best possible light.

Foreign Office statements in the past year have protested at the more blatant violations of political and personal freedoms, and Britain has been less gung-ho in its pro-government sympathies than some of its European partners, but the overall sense of sympathy for the regime has remained intact.

With Albania beset by street violence and political repression in the wake of the collapse of shady pyramid investment schemes, the policy followed by Britain and the rest of the EU has visibly crumbled.

Yesterday, in response to The Independent's assertions that the West largely ignored warnings of collusion between the Albanian government and organised crime, the Foreign Office appeared keen to be on the side of the angels. It said it "refuted the suggestion of unconditional support for the Albanian government" and acknowledged Tirana's "far from perfect record on democracy and human rights" - something its officials in the field have not chosen to dwell on in the past.

Diplomatic sources have acknowledged a lack of political reporting from the Tirana embassy. British officials have asked questions recently about the status of the ambassador, Andrew Tesoriere, who has been in place for a year and is at present on an extended mid-tour leave of absence.

Opposition figures and intellectuals in Albania have complained that the British mission has paid them and their views scant attention in recent months, preferring to keep close to the government and develop the potential for commercial opportunities first and foremost.

It is not clear if Mr Tesoriere's superiors have been dissatisfied with him, or if he has been doing their bidding all along but policy priorities are now undergoing rapid changes.

Britain's mission in Albania is tiny, especially by comparison with those of Italy and the United States, the two biggest foreign players whose own record has been far from unblemished.