Albania's harsh regime given EU support

Albania's President Sali Berisha may not be popular with international human rights groups, who have condemned his repressive attacks on the opposition, the judiciary and the independent press; and he is certainly mistrusted by many Albanians who feel he has turned the country into a giant clientelistic structure at the service of his Democratic Party.

But in the run-up to this month's general elections he has enjoyed almost unqualified support from European Union countries, who have swept away scruples about interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and, in some cases, campaigned openly for the Demo- cratic Party's return to office.

According to the diplomatic community in Tirana, Germany and Italy have been particularly assiduous in their support. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is linked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's CDU, has given direct logistical advice to the Democratic Party and other centre-right groupings, and held seminars in which President Berisha has been offered tips for his electoral strategy. Nothing similar has been offered by other foundations to the Socialist-led opposition.

A month ago, two senior politicians representing European conservatives, Alois Mock of the European Democratic Union and Klaus Welle of the European Christian Democrats, turned up at the Democratic Party's pre-electoral convention and praised Mr Berisha for keeping the peace in the southern Balkans. A few days later, Pierre Lellouche, an adviser to the French President, Jacques Chirac, was photographed hugging Mr Berisha and calling him the great hope for "democracy, freedom and tomorrow's prosperity".

The President of the Council of the European Parliament, Leni Fischer, even went so far as to praise a much-contested law banning former collaborators with the communist-era secret service in Albania from seeking public office. The law has been widely criticised because it effectively gives the Democratic Party the power to ostracise its opponents without due judicial process, but Ms Fischer said flatteringly that she would be happy to see it in operation in her native Germany.

Such remarks have been a major morale-boost for Mr Berisha, who has spent much of the election campaign painting himself as the man to take Albania into the European mainstream while denouncing his opponents, the Socialists, as unrepentant Communists planning to turn the clock back. What's more, Albanians depend on vast infusions of foreign aid and may be inclined to vote for the Democratic Party against their instincts if they feel that they will receive bigger handouts that way.

Some of the interventions have raised serious ethical questions, and not just because of Mr Berisha's human rights record which most visitors have overlooked. The most recent visitor, the floor leader of President Chirac's RPR in the French Senate, Michel Pericard, actually broke Albanian law by supporting the Democratic Party once the official campaign had begun. Article 56 of the electoral law drawn up by President Berisha's government states that "election campaigning is prohibited by persons who are not Albanian citizens". Mr Pericard dismissed a challenge on this point as "amusing".

Europe's support for Mr Berisha appears to be something of an unholy compromise. They are prepared to overlook his repressive tendencies (arguing that the Socialists may be no better once in power) and instead reward him for staying out of the Yugoslav wars and for keeping a lid on ethnic tensions involving Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Furthermore, although there is tacit recognition that his economic policies are more clientelistic than genuinely free-market, the feeling is that Mr Berisha understands western interests in Albania and - after four years of halting starts and frustration - is beginning to open up the country to foreign investors.

The problem with the Socialists is not so much that they would make life harder for foreign banks and businesses - although some embassies in Tirana feel they would - but that they might question the legality of projects now being initiated and provoke delays by replacing every last ministry official.

Agencies providing billions of dollars in foreign aid feel the same way. "We have spent a long time trying to get things going and forming personal relationships with key people. This would be absolutely the worst time for a change of government, as we would have to start over from scratch," said one Italian worker on an EU project scheme.

Such calculations are infuriating the opposition, which claims to be just as responsible on Balkan issues, just as open to Europe if not more so, and says it would do everything it could for a smooth transition after the elections. "It is a big mistake for foreign powers to judge us from the point of view of their interests. The real interest is the future of our democracy, which they should seek to develop, not destroy with their interference," said Paskal Milo of the centre-left Social Democrats.

The United States, which provided overt financial and political support for Mr Berisha at the last elections in 1992, has been slightly more even- handed this time. Washington believes the Socialists are indeed committed to peace in the Balkans, but may scare off foreign investors. It sees Mr Berisha as having greater influence over Albanians in Kosovo, but does not entirely trust him to keep control of his nationalistic sentiments about Greater Albania.

But European and US diplomats all seem to be remarkably indulgent of Mr Berisha's leadership style, variously describing the disqualification of scores of opposition politicians hoping to run for office as "a human rights problem, not an electoral problem" and criticising some of his blocking tactics merely for being "crude and overt".

"One wonders if they would speak the same language if the Socialists were in power," remarked one foreign non- diplomatic official in Tirana. "Somehow, I doubt it."