Albania heads back to chaos

PM calls for help as electoral clash threatens new violence, writes Andrew Gumbel

Albania was teetering on the edge of another political explosion yesterday as the country's bitterly feuding parties failed to agree on a mutually acceptable electoral law. The Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino, issued a last-minute cry for help from the international community, warning that renewed chaos was just around the corner.

The country has been convulsed over the past week by a stand-off between President Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party, who have steamrollered their own electoral law through parliament and are now actively campaigning for a poll called for 29 June, and the rest of the political spectrum, which feels affronted, upstaged and cheated.

In theory, parliament was supposed to approve an electoral law only after Mr Fino's government of national reconciliation had negotiated a consensus decision on it. But President Berisha has deliberately ignored his own commitment to all-party rule, resorting instead to his familiar sledgehammer tactics and thus imperilling his country's future.

"The failure of the debate on the electoral law has brought Albania to the brink of an even deeper crisis, with unforeseeable consequences," a statement from Mr Fino's office read.

"At this point the government is completely divorced from the election process. The law as it stands does not provide the framework necessary to ensure that the vote leads to political and social stability in the country. It is no longer a technical problem, the key issue is restoring the country's faith in a free vote."

The international community has a peace-keeping force of several thousand men in Albania, but is effectively powerless to act. Not only does the force's mandate preclude it from intervening in the present crisis, but it has tied its fortunes entirely to Mr Fino's government. Since Mr Fino is by his own admission now powerless, the force has effectively lost what little role it ever had.

Yesterday, the Italian Defence Minister, Benjamino Andreatta, acknowledged that the next few hours would be crucial. The Greek Defence Minister, Akis Tsohatzopoulos, warned that the force might be forced to withdraw if an agreement on the elections could not be found. The international community looks uncertain, however, what to do next except keep pressing for dialogue between the parties.

President Berisha was in no mood for conciliation, choosing instead to make a provocative trip to the southern town of Fier, one of the most virulent centres of revolt against his rule, to boast that the Democratic Party was going to win 75 per cent of the vote on 29 June.

Since the president is without doubt the most hated man in Albania, his words could only be interpreted as a threat that the Democratic Party intended to hold on to absolute power by whatever means it took.

There are signs that the relative calm that Albania has enjoyed since Mr Fino's government was sworn in in March is beginning to break. Gangland shootings and random violence are on the increase, while in the capital, Tirana, the presidential guard has imposed a climate of fear by firing its weapons every night at the start of curfew - thus triggering an inevitable response from the city's gun-crazy teenagers and keeping the city hospitals busy with a stream of gunshot wounds.

UK fears Bosnia withdrawal

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, met the commander of the Nato-led Stabilisation Force (S-For) in Bosnia yesterday among signs of disagreement between Britain and the US about the feasibility of withdrawing the force on schedule by July next year, writes Christopher Bellamy. Mr Robertson's visit coincided with growing frustration about the attitude of the local Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb factions which have failed to reunify the country as the Dayton peace treaty demanded.

Mr Robertson met US General William Crouch, S-For's commander, in Sarajevo, to discuss efforts to build a lasting peace. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, warned on Monday that the failure of the local parties to fulfil the Dayton accord may mean the Nato-led presence has to be extended beyond July 1998 to prevent a return to civil war. US officials have insisted the deadline cannot be moved. Mr Robertson met Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic at Banja Luka and saw members of the Bosnian "collective presidency" - Muslim, Croat and Serb - in Sarajevo.

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