Albania's democrat turned dictator

A dangerous deadlock may only be broken by Sali Berisha's fall, writes Andrew Gumbel. But he will be hard to remove - and what then?

WHEN Sali Berisha was first elected President of Albania in April 1992, the news was greeted with genuine popular acclaim and the sound of popping champagne corks. Last week, with half the country ready to lynch him, he was re-elected for another five years in a shameless piece of political stage management. This time the accompanying noise was triumphalist gunfire, set off by a group of soldiers swarming around the parliament building where the vote took place.

The contrasting images speak volumes about the dangerous backsliding that Albania has experienced on its uncertain path from Communist totalitarianism to mainstream European democracy. Mr Berisha, once the great hope for reform in this most romantically obscure corner of the Balkans, has come to look increasingly like a tinpot dictator worthy of the most anarchic of Latin American republics.

Confronted with spontaneous armed uprisings in a number of southern towns, the president has imposed a state of emergency, in defiance of the international community. Desperately attempting to contain the damage against his authority, he has sent in his creaky old tanks; he has also used the confusion to crack down on what remains of the political opposition, cow ordinary people into silence through a massive presence of uniformed and plainclothes police, muzzle the media and sit back while soldiers fire randomly on civilians, anonymous thugs beat up dissidents and fire bombs are lobbed into cafes and newspaper offices.

Such behaviour did not, of course, come out of the blue. Western governments may have been chronically slow to realise it, but Mr Berisha has been eroding Albania's fragile democracy almost from the moment it was born. Barely three months after he became president, his Democratic Party went down to a quite unexpected defeat in local elections - a defeat explained largely by the enormous disappointment he generated in his first few weeks.

Soon he began to crack down on press freedom and lean heavily on the judiciary to do his bidding, for example having the leader of the opposition, Fatos Nano, jailed on charges that have been denounced as spurious even by the Supreme Court justice who first prosecuted the case.

The turning point, when Mr Berisha stepped over the line from tarnished democrat to nascent dictator, came in November 1994, when his proposals for a new constitution, notable chiefly for increasing the powers of his own office were rejected in a referendum. Many felt Mr Berisha should have resigned at that point, but he didn't. Instead, he appeared to resolve that, by fair means or foul, he would never lose again.

Sure enough, the general elections of May 1996 were marred by such widespread vote-rigging that initial results suggested the Democratic Party would win every single seat. With a little unmathematical legerdemain that number was eventually whittled down to 122 seats out of 140, but by that stage the opposition had resolved to have nothing to do with the election result and many of their leaders had been beaten up and harassed by the police.

There was more cheating in last October's local elections, again dominated by the Democratic Party, although by this stage there was such a sense of resignation that even the opposition did not complain too much and the Council of Europe watered down the findings of many of its own monitors to produce a relatively upbeat assessment.

Against this background, the collapse of the so-called pyramid schemes - pseudo-banks based on fraud or organised crime that offer astronomical rates of interest - has been no more than a catalyst for a wave of popular anger that has been waiting to explode for some time.

For once, Western diplomats are reasonably willing to admit they have messed up big time, and that many precious opportunities have been lost. "We should have seen which way things were going, but we didn't. We could have exerted a lot more pressure, but now it's a bit too late," was the admission of one senior envoy closely involved in drawing up European policy on the Balkans.

Two broad schools of thought are nonetheless emerging. One, championed by part of the US State Department as well as the Albanian rebels themselves, is that Mr Berisha is the problem, and so he has to go. The snag with this view is how to realise it. Short of invading Albania or encouraging the formation of a lynch mob, neither of which are desirable or even possible under current foreign policy rules, the outside world is not going to be able to prise Mr Berisha off his presidential perch with any ease.

The other position, being adopted by the key players in the European Union, is that keeping Mr Berisha on board will make him more malleable and increase the chances of a peaceful transition towards redemocratisation. "Better someone you know and can control, at least a little, than a total vacuum," the European diplomat said.

The problem with this stance is that until it is shared by the armed rebels in the south, who have so far remained staunchly defiant, there will be no peace in Albania. And it risks giving Mr Berisha the kind of oxygen that has allowed him to get away with so much in the past.

Where all sides agree is on the need for some kind of broad-based transitional government that can draft a new, more democratic constitution and prepare fresh parliamentary elections under proper conditions. Whether such an administration could work in practice, though, is far from assured. So far has the political climate deteriorated that the scope for dialogue between government and opposition is virtually non-existent.

The Democratic Party paints the whole opposition, not just the reformed successor party to Enver Hoxha's Party of Labour, as dangerous communists who will stop at nothing to destabilise Albania and dream of a return to the bad old days of isolationism and paranoia. Such a view is patently absurd, and the language in which it is couched dangerously immoderate. In fact much of the opposition is led by thoughtful, rather soft-spoken academics; ironically it turns out that the leader of the Socialist Party (the reformed communists), a physics professor called Rexhep Mejdani, never joined Hoxha's party, whereas Mr Berisha, the great anti-communist, was a prominent member for more than 20 years.

The opposition in its turn stubbornly refuses to consider the Democratic Party as anything other than a source of corruption, criminality and repression. Granted, it has every reason to think this way, but its recalcitrant stance even in the face of government concessions does not make a political solution any easier to find.

The underlying structure of the state has now become chronically weak, and will remain so, no matter who comes to power. With the mafia the chief economic beneficiary of Albania's recent turbulence and fear the glue holding Albanian society together, it is doubtful if any government will prove strong enough to clear up the mess Mr Berisha has left behind.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Chelsea are interested in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to Everton again next season
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series