Democracy betrayed by Europe

Andrew Gumbel in Albania sees the slide towards one-party state as riot police crush a protest against election fraud
Click to follow
Any lingering pretence of democracy in Albania came to a brutal end in Tirana's main square yesterday as riot police ploughed into opposition groups protesting at systematic fraud in last Sunday's election.

The crackdown was perpetrated by a regime which has received every encouragement from the international community, and the European Union in particular. EU governments have given President Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party their unquestioning support, despite a growing list of human rights abuses and strong indications that he would try to rig the election, because of the West's preference for stability in the small Balkan country.

Europe's reaction to the vote-rigging and the violence will be crucial. Refusal to recognise the vote could force Mr Berisha into holding a new election. Recognition - or no reaction at all - would effectively sanction the creation of a one-party state and a return to dictatorship in a country that for 50 years suffered extreme isolation and Stalinist repression.

Yesterday the opposition was already paying the price for Western indifference. Police wielding rubber batons knocked over old people, kicked and beat women with young children and injured a number of leading politicians and foreign journalists. Hundreds of other people were blocked off in side streets and prevented from joining the demonstration.

Servet Pellumbi, acting leader of the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, was in custody last night. The leader of the centre-right Democratic Alliance, Arben Imami, was recovering from severe head and body injuries inflicted both during the demonstration and later in police custody.

Several domestic and foreign journalists were left bruised and bleeding on the ground and their equipment damaged. Most were unable to send their material because the government switched off Albania's satellite transmitter shortly after the event. It was a show of official repression that outstripped even the strong-arm tactics of the security forces in the dying days of Albania's Stalinist regime six years ago.

"The brutality used was totally excessive," commented Paul Keetch, a British observer who came to Albania to monitor the election. Mr Keetch has been one of the few foreign officials to raise his voice against what he called the "arrogant and illegitimate" practices of President Berisha, who claimed a clean sweep of seats for his party and accused the opposition of behaving like bad losers for refusing to recognise the results.

Mr Berisha wields near total control, not only over his party, the government and parliament, but also over the courts, the country's key economic interests and the broadcast media, which pumps out propaganda on his behalf.

In the four years since taking power at the head of a popular anti-communist front, he has alienated scores of former colleagues, who have set up political parties of their own, and disillusioned most of the electorate offended by his clientalistic style of government.

Yet he has been able to count on foreign backing, selling himself as a safe pair of hands to handle foreign political and investment interests in a country that was once the most closed in the world. Yesterday - belatedly - ambassadors from the EU were meeting to count the cost of its misguided policy of promoting "stability" in this potentially explosive corner of the Balkans. According to a statement issued earlier by Mr Keetch and 10 colleagues from Britain and Norway, Sunday's election was marred by widespread vote-stuffing, illegal invalidation of ballot papers, intimidation and violence. "We must not give any form of legitimacy to these elections," Mr Keetch urged.

"It was totally blatant," reported another observer who did not wish to be named. "Even when observers entered polling stations, people were openly going through piles of opposition ballot papers and spoiling them."

Many polling stations opened late - in some cases with the ballot boxes already stuffed with fraudulent votes. Others closed early, claiming a 100 per cent turnout as early as noon. By mid-afternoon, volunteers - many of them offered money - were arriving at marginal constituencies en masse to fill out multiple ballot papers with votes for the Democratic Party.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which co-ordinated several hundred observers, was supposed to issue a report on the election by yesterday, but was stopped from doing so, according to some of its members, by European diplomats. "They told us they didn't want any inflammatory statements at this stage and suggested we issue the report in Vienna on Thursday," one OSCE official said.

Leading article, page 13