Albanian have-nots rail against leader's gravy train

As opposition grows to the President's high-handed ways and to signs of corruption, the revamped Communist party looks set to reap the benefits, writes Andrew Gumbel in Tirana
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Albania's President, Sali Berisha, is on the television news going walkabout in Durres, the country's biggest port. Beaming with confidence, the shirt-sleeved President clasps the hands of dockworkers and talks of a bright future.

Sitting in their living room in the capital, Tirana, Seva and Llaqi are not impressed. "Look at him, following Enver Hoxha's old propaganda line of about being 'knee to knee with the people'," said Seva, with disgust.

The news ends and a documentary about Albania's notorious prisons begins. Viewers see spotless corridors and spacious cells, double beds for "special visits" by prisoners' wives once a month and a sign exhorting inmates to brush their teeth twice a day. One prisoner says: "Don't tell the viewers how good things are here, or they will all want to come."

"How do they expect us to believe this rubbish?" says Llaqi, from his prone position on the living-room couch.

The problem for Dr Berisha is that many Albanians do not believe it any more. Seva and Llaqi voted for Dr Berisha's Democratic Party three years ago. They do not intend to again.

"He makes the same speech over and over. First he attacks his political rivals, which in any case is not what a president is supposed to do. Then he lists his achievements and shouts about the onward march to victory. That is exactly what Hoxha's speeches were like," Seva said.

Nobody seriously suggests that Dr Berisha is following in the footsteps of the Stalinist dictator who cut Albania off from the outside world during the Cold War. But the fact that people draw parallels is indicative of the concerns raised about his leadership and his attitude towards the institutions of Albania's young democracy.

Widely accused of being at the head of a client-based system that is cashing in on the country's growing economy, Dr Berisha is under attack from all quarters.

The ousted chairman of his own Democratic Party, Eduard Selami, has turned against him, saying he has abused the powers of his office. Another former party member, the head of the Supreme Court, Zef Brozi, has accused the government of exerting undue pressure on the judiciary. The Albanian Hel- sinki Committee for Human Rights believes the opposition Socialist Party, whose leader has been in jail for the last two years, may be the victim of a political witch-hunt.

Most serious is the erosion of popular support for Dr Berisha. The Democratic Party and its close allies won 62 per cent of the vote in March 1992 and an outright majority in parliament. Now even the most optimistic observers do not believe the DP's support is higher than 35 per cent.

Following the pattern set in the rest of Eastern Europe, the Socialists appear certain to win next spring's general elections. The only question is whether they will win alone or in coalition with one or more of the centre parties.

The turning-point in Dr Berisha's political fortunes came last November, when he tried but failed to push through a new draft constitution which would have greatly increased the powers of the presidency. Despite an energetic nation-wide campaign, his constitution was rejected following a vote in parliament.

"Since November 1994, real politics have been dead in this country, and Berisha is suffering because he did not have the courage to call early elections after his defeat," said Prec Zogaj, a political commentator. "The government is now conducting a perverse kind of politics which does not address the real issues."

Among those feeling the heat are the independent and almost entirely anti-government newspapers, which complain of growing restrictions on their activities and threats of fines that they cannot afford to pay, and the Socialist Party.

Seven Socialist Party members were put under house arrest last month in connection with a financial scandal that human rights activists believe has been blown out of all proportion by prosecutors close to the ruling party.

"The government is provoking scandals in our party while covering up its own. Berisha talks about stopping corruption but lets it go on. What we need is laws to clean up public life, not just speeches," said Ilir Meta, the Socialist Party's deputy chairman.

In some ways, the Democratic Party is a victim of circumstances. At first, Albania needed to liberalise prices, import many products it did not have and close down redundant industries. All these things Dr Berisha achieved at the start of his mandate.

Now, however, the country is caught up in a consumerist frenzy, in which no scam is too unacceptable, no business scheme too unethical, and no kickback too immoral. Albanians unable to live on the state sector's puny salaries are trading in stolen cars, contraband cigarettes, unlicensed construction projects and more besides. The government is being accused of siphoning off a cut without providing basic services such as smooth roads, reliable running water and decent rubbish collection.

Whatever the misdemeanours of the Democratic Party, the government is to some extent helpless, because it lacks the funds to address the basic problems of Albania's infrastructure.

The Socialist Party holds two trump cards. The party has had a long period in opposition. It has reorganised without having to face the responsibilities of power, and has built up a solid structure that is attracting new members. At the same time, it is throwing out dead wood.

The Socialists now advocate continuation of the privatisation programme and an end to the systematic corruption it condemns. In the Wild West phase that Albania is going through, however, change may be hard for any party to bring about.