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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower