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.

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