Albania forces Italy to brink

The Albanian crisis dealt another painful blow to the stability of the Italian government yesterday. Opposition parties saw a chance to bring down the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, and threatened to sabotage a government motion on sending an Italian-led intervention force across the Adriatic.

Having started out as an opportunity for Italy to shine on the international stage, Albania is turning into a nightmare for Mr Prodi. First he lost the support of a crucial ally, the far-left party Rifondazione Comunista, thus losing his precarious majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Now he risks losing the opposition as well, which until yesterday had pledged to support the intervention force.

The leader of the opposition, Silvio Berlusconi, laid out a trap for Mr Prodi, announcing that his deputies would vote against the government motion but would present a similarly worded one of their own instead. The Albanian mission is not itself at risk, therefore; the issue is one of political pride. Mr Berlusconi's challenge is as follows: if Mr Prodi wants an intervention force in Albania, he will have to vote for the opposition's motion rather than his own.

The scene is set for a showdown in parliament today, where Mr Prodi's government will have to struggle to survive. Its only hope, barring a change of heart by Mr Berlusconi, is to lure Rifondazione Comunista back into the fold.

Yesterday, the deputy foreign minister, Piero Fassino, tried to do just that by stating in outspoken fashion that the Italian government wants to see President Sali Berisha of Albania go.

Rifondazione, which has argued that the intervention force would only keep President Berisha in power, welcomed his remarks but said they did not go far enough. Mr Prodi, however, disowned his point of view, then Mr Fassino himself did the same, confirming an impression was of government in disarray and panic.

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