`God save us. God save Albania'

While armed mobs roam the streets of Tirana, uncontrolled even by the insurrection's leaders, confusion and conflict reigns among Western analysts and policy-makers, says Andrew Gumbel

It may yet go down as one of the shortest-lived governments in history. Yesterday at noon, Bashkim Fino was sworn in as Albania's new prime minister at the head of an emergency all-party administration; but even before his team of ministers had officially taken office, their authority had disintegrated into dust.

Outside in the streets of Tirana, gangs of young men were looting army weapons depots and embarking on a rampage of plunder and terror. Automatic gunfire rang out across the city, bringing the armed rebellion that has swept across the country closer to its inexorable conclusion: the overthrow of all remaining state authority and the ousting of President Sali Berisha.

The mob paid no heed to the new government's call to order, no heed to the Albanian intellectuals begging them to lay down their arms, no heed even to their own provisional commanders, who have tried to impose order in the southern strongholds they have seized over the past week. Instead, they pushed Albania further into anarchy. Mr Fino remarked as he took over his meaningless new mantle of power: "God save us. God save Albania."

The events of the past few weeks - from the collapse of Albania's fraudulent "pyramid" investment schemes, to riots, to armed insurrection teetering on the brink of civil war - have come as a shock to an outside world that had given little thought to this most remote and mysterious of European countries. Mostly, Albania had not featured on the radar screens of Western governments; to the extent that it had, it was vaguely assumed to be doing a reasonable job of emerging from 50 years of totalitarian nightmare into the democratic light of day.

A state of political, social and economic collapse is hardly the ideal circumstance for Western policy-makers to play a rapid game of catch-up. Indeed, to match the confusion of the situation in Albania itself, there has been an extraordinary plethora of interpretations in the media, ranging from the cautious to the downright barmy. Perhaps most extraordinary is the highly polarised and personalised ideological battle being waged on the pages of British and American newspapers between rival camps of academic specialists on the Balkans. Reading the competing dispatches in this battle is depressing, partly because it reveals the limited vision of many of the players, but mostly because it makes the job of understanding Albania 10 times harder.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on the origins of the present crisis. The first, mistakenly referred to by its detractors as the "left-wing" view but shared in most particulars by independent analysts, including this newspaper, is that President Berisha hoodwinked the world into believing he was a democrat while evolving into a dangerous despot.

Political repression went hand-in-hand with rampant state corruption and a flourishing of crime rackets that were not only tolerated, but to a large degree also organised by the ruling order. The president tried to buy his people's support with the pyramid investment schemes, which in turn were propped up by the profits from the illegal arms and drugs traffic. When the schemes collapsed, popular anger at the regime knew no bounds, and, in short order, army depots were looted, popular revolutionary councils sprang up and the march on Tirana became unstoppable.

The other view, espoused until recently by Western embassies and still championed by a small group of Thatcherite ideologues and right-wing newspapers, is that Mr Berisha is a much-misunderstood man, a true democrat struggling to pull Albania away from its heritage of Stalinist isolationism but beset by the powerful forces of the past operating through the mafia and the main opposition party, the Socialists. Reports of electoral fraud were exaggerated by Communist propaganda, as were allegations of government collusion in organised crime. The pyramid schemes were an unfortunate side-effect of free-market capitalism, and their existence a sign of the weakness of the government's hold on Albanian society, not its authoritarian strength. The armed insurrection has nothing to do with popular anger but was deliberately stirred up and organised by criminals backed by the Socialist party.

Much of the debate surrounding these diametrically opposed positions has been marred by conspiratorial thinking, the more polarised writers on the left tending to credit President Berisha with an evil omnipotence, and the right doing exactly the same thing with the Socialist-led opposition. Worse still, some British writers have taken to accusing each other of fomenting anarchy in Albania. The Sunday Telegraph ran a headline this week that read: "The media back the Communists - as usual". Two of the Albania specialists specifically attacked in the accompanying piece, James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers, promptly threw a slew of accusations back at the author, Anthony Daniels, some of which found their way into The Guardian on Monday.

Clearly, the debate should be focused on Albania itself, not on the various axes being ground around academic corridors. There was undoubtedly a terrible misreading of Albania by Western governments after the fall of Communism in 1990-91. The World Bank went so far as to characterise Albania as a "small haven of peace and economic growth" - a phrase that must be haunting the authors of the report in which it appeared. President Berisha and his government were showered with development aid as a reward for maintaining stability in their corner of an otherwise turbulent Balkans. And they were widely praised for liberalising the economy at great speed, opening the country to foreign markets, containing inflation and stabilising the currency.

But while the West felt its own interests were being well looked after, the regime was becoming increasingly autocratic, showing ever scanter respect for the institutions of the state, conducting purges of public officials, especially in the judiciary, denying the opposition and the independent press their fundamental rights as guaranteed under the constitution and alienating many of its supporters, who either switched to the opposition or left the country.

Economically, all was not well either. It is true that the country recovered rapidly from the post-Communist collapse of 1991-92, eradicating chronic food shortages with help from the Italian army and opening the Albanian market to a welter of Western consumer goods. It is also true that, with the help of the IMF and other organisations, the lek was stabilised and inflation brought under control.

But the nature of Albania's economic growth was suspect from a very early stage. The bulk of its legitimate income derived not from production, but from remittances sent home by Albanians working abroad (estimated at up to $500m a year) and foreign aid. Serious foreign investment failed to get off the ground because of the clientelistic nature of the government, which appeared reluctant to relinquish control over any area of economic life.

A far greater revenue source, meanwhile, was the black economy, and especially organised crime. Albania is a major conduit for the smuggling of arms and drugs, and during the war in Bosnia it was used for the transit of petrol to Serbia and Montenegro, in contravention of UN sanctions. The port of Vlora has lived handsomely for the past two years on the transport of illegal immigrants from the Balkans and Asia across the Adriatic to Italy. Western intelligence officials believe that this criminal revenue is at the origin of the pyramid investment schemes and helped to keep them going far longer than mathematical logic would dictate.

Foreign governments began to express concern about these issues only in the wake of the May 1996 elections, which were boycotted in midstream by the opposition and denounced as invalid by the Organisation for Co- operation and Security in Europe and others because of widespread vote- rigging and intimidation. Two days after the first round of voting, the diplomatic community and the world's media had ringside seats on the balcony of the Tirana International hotel as police brutally broke up an opposition demonstration just outside in Skanderbeg Square, beating a number of prominent opposition leaders and hauling them off into custody for several hours.

The reaction to such blatantly undemocratic behaviour was hardly instantaneous. Indeed, European countries went ahead and recognised the new parliament, arguing that it was better to exert gentle pressure on Mr Berisha than risk alienating him through noisy protest. As a result, the ruling Democratic Party reckoned it had got away scot-free and felt bold enough to cock a snook at both the US, which called for the elections to be held again, and the IMF, which suspended its credit programme because of the government's refusal to close down the pyramid schemes.

The tragedy that has unfolded since the collapse of the schemes has shown up not only the strength of popular feeling against the government, but also the inability of anybody to control the forces that have been unleashed by the uprising. Anyone who has been to the chaotic south of Albania, where the revolt has been in full swing for more than a week, knows that accusations of Communist-inspired plots to overthrow the state are preposterous, just as anyone currently in Tirana would laugh at the notion that Mr Berisha is some kind of all-powerful evil genius manipulating the whole thing for his own purposes.

And yet these are the sorts of analyses finding their way into serious newspapers. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal published a leading article breathtaking for its sheer ignorance and ideological invective. It asserted there were "no credible claims of ballot-box stuffing" at last May's elections, even though the OSCE report referred to them clearly. And it described Mr Berisha as a medical man, "not a Communist apparatchik", even though he was a secretary of the old Party of Labour for more than 20 years and served as a cardiologist in Enver Hoxha's jealously guarded inner circle.

Admittedly, the Oxford group of Thatcherite academics is rather more intelligent in its analyses. Mark Almond, a lecturer in Balkan history, is no doubt right to argue that the Albanian government has become weaker than the mafia rackets operating in the country, and right to warn of the dangers of a Socialist party takeover without democratic guarantees.

But the ability of Mr Berisha's Western's admirers to absolve their hero of all blame for the Albanian disaster is uncanny. Mr Berisha has been described as "the last Thatcherite" - adored for ideological reasons by a clutch of right-wing thinkers. Unfortunately, much of the adulation heaped upon him has been offered unthinkingly and irresponsibly. It is time for the apologists to swallow their pride and admit they were wrong, for the sake of a clear-eyed understanding of what can be done to help Albania.

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