A powder keg explodes in the heart of Europe

Andrew Gumbel on the world's folly in ignoring the signs of approaching disaster in Albania
Nobody has any control over the President any more. Some say he has gone crazy; others assert he always was. Rusty old tanks rumble down the rutted country tracks that pass for major roads on a mission to break up anti-government roadblocks and intimidate Kalashnikov-toting rebels into giving up their weapons.

A media blackout is imposed on the country, radio stations are pulled off the air, a handful of journalists are beaten up, an independent newspaper is firebombed and a favourite cafe for opposition figures and intellectuals is trashed by unidentified thugs.

The country is crawling with secret policemen, mafiosi, security patrols and army units. The shops are besieged and bread is running short. Only trans-shipments of cocaine and heroin continue as normal. Paranoid rumours of internecine power struggles and outside intervention abound. The government is dismissed but does not go away; the army chief of staff is fired and pursued by the courts for sedition; the head of the secret police is put in charge of running the country.

It's a jungle out there, and ordinary citizens have no choice but to sit at home, knock back alternate cups of coffee and brandy and wait for the craziness to pass. What country could this possibly be? It sounds like the backdrop for a piece of Latin American magic realism, but it isn't. It's happening, right now, and in the heart of Europe.

For two years, Albania has been a powder keg of corruption, organised crime, political repression and financial con-tricks. Somehow the outside world failed to see the disaster coming and insisted that the country was developing as a haven of peace and democracy.

Now the powder keg has exploded, and the fall-out has only begun. Much of Albania's economy has gone belly-up following the collapse of a string of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes linked to organised crime networks that inveigled the entire population. Law and order has collapsed because one half of the police and judiciary has been irredeemably corrupted, while the rest have been run out of the southern half of the country by furious crowds brandishing automatic weapons looted from police and army depots.

President Sali Berisha, meanwhile, persists in exercising his authority through political repression and brute force. In the chaotic aftermath of Albania's emancipation from communism in 1991-2, the United States was instrumental in promoting the virulently anti-communist Mr Berisha to the position he now commands. These days, the US has become increasingly vocal in its criticisms and Mr Berisha, according to political sources, has branded Washington an enemy along with the many others - foreign journalists, opposition leaders and intellectuals pushed into exile.

The deeper the crisis grows, the more Mr Berisha resembles Albania's old Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, as he turns ruthlessly on colleagues he no longer trusts, blames his problems on conspiracies and promotes himself as the only true champion of the people.

Although he hates to be reminded of the fact, Mr Berisha owes many of his deeper political instincts to Hoxha's peculiar brand of Stalinist isolationism. He served as Hoxha's personal heart doctor, giving him privileged access and influence in the years up to the old man's death in 1985, and served as a Communist Party secretary for more than two decades.

He was close to Hoxha's successor, Ramiz Alia, and only joined the anti- communist movement on impulse after Alia had sent him to break up an anti- government demonstration at Tirana University.

Now the students are in ferment again, but this time Mr Berisha is on the other side of the fence. For five years he liked to portray himself as a man of the people, at ease in crowds and charismatic on a speaking podium (an echo, perhaps, of Hoxha's claim to be "knee to knee" with his fellow Albanians).

As the population has turned against him, however, Mr Berisha has been forced to concoct ever more conspiracy theories, blamingthe former Communist secret police, the Socialist opposition, murky terrorist groups and now these supposed "foreign agents".

The state of emergency is a coup in reverse, an attempt to crush the rebellion before it crushes him. The use of force is highly dangerous, not least because of the potential for spill-over into Kosovo, Macedonia and the wider Balkans.

The lawlessness of a Colombia or a Somalia has landed in the middle of our continent. The calamity should have been foreseen, but wasn't. And now we will all have to find a way to deal with it.