Albania's quiet miracle confounds doomsayers

New leader will face temptation to behave like Sali Berisha, writes Andrew Gumbel
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Little short of a miracle has occurred in Albania, where three months ago nobody would have taken bets on the prospects of a successful election, much less the peaceful, democratic removal of President Sali Berisha, the man most widely blamed for the rampant anarchy, endemic criminality and economic collapse that brought the country to its knees.

The voting of the past two Sundays has revealed a remarkable sense of civic order, and despite the menace of roving gangs and politically inspired skulduggery, was far freer and fairer than last year's farcical election, in which the president's men overran polling stations and stuffed ballot boxes to bursting-point with votes for the ruling Democratic Party. Mr Berisha's promise to respect the results and resign once a new parliament is convened has surprised even his own followers, who have come to recognise him by his iron fist first, and his democratic rhetoric a distant second.

In one sense, though, the real battle is only just beginning. Fatos Nano, the victorious Socialist Party leader who only three months ago came out of the prison cell Mr Berisha had sent him to, has made all the right noises about restoring the rule of law, strengthening democratic institutions and building up a pro-European market economy. "Our historic destiny is to tell the world this country is no longer run by the mafia," he said at a victory rally.

But is such a programme too much to hope for? Mr Nano may be personable, bright, cultured, gifted for languages and well versed in the art of international diplomacy, but didn't Mr Berisha appear to have exactly the same credentials when he took office five years ago? Is there a danger that Mr Nano, like Mr Berisha and every other Albanian leader this century, will turn into a corrupt, repressive autocrat? The warning signs are there. The Socialist two-thirds majority is roughly the same size as Mr Berisha's in 1992. The system they are inheriting is a presidential republic with almost no division of powers and no independent judiciary.

The country they will rule is so impoverished and anarchy-ridden that the economy cannot function and people cannot earn enough to eat without the help of criminal activities or massive outside intervention - both options fraught with the risk of official corruption.

"Locke said that `a man, in divers times, differs even from himself'. In other words, even the most dedicated democrat will become a dictator if he is inserted into a dictatorial system," said Spartak Ngjela, the outgoing justice minister.

"I'd say the Socialists have three months to introduce a new constitution with a full separation of powers, otherwise they will never be able to change the way this country is run."

As he takes his first key decisions, Mr Nano appears to be going in the right direction. He has opted to become prime minister rather than president, and pushed the man who led the party during his imprisonment, the relatively uncontroversial physicist Rexhep Mejdani, towards the job of head of state. This is an important first step towards establishing an orthodox parliamentary republic, in contrast to Mr Berisha's plebiscitary leadership style.

There has also been a concerted effort to push another senior Socialist, the outgoing prime minister, Bashkim Fino, into the limelight, to suggest the new government will not just be an exclusive Nano show. Mr Fino, who came from almost nowhere to lead an all-party administration in the run- up to the elections, is tipped for the foreign ministry or a similar post.

The first sign that Mr Berisha was turning dictatorial came when he expelled a group of his most talented and popular colleagues within months of taking office; he could not tolerate being anything other than the undisputed number one. The Socialist-led opposition has a tremendous wealth of intellectual and political talent; the world will have to watch to ensure Mr Nano uses it rather than keeping it at a distance.

The other issue to watch is the fate of Mr Berisha and his circle. In Albania's brutal political climate, former leaders have all too often been killed, exiled or jailed. Although there is no lack of serious charges against the Berisha government, the international community, notably Washington, is pushing for an amnesty to defuse the hostility between Albania's main rival parties.

Such an amnesty will be difficult to sell to voters, still furious about the loss of their money to government-sponsored pyramid investment schemes, and risks backfiring if Mr Berisha plays excessively dirty in opposition. But it appears to have the support of at least part of the elite. Mr Berisha's own approach was to leave his predecessor, the twilight Communist leader, Ramiz Alia, in peace for a couple of years and then slap him in jail.

Overall there is a sense that the country has moved on, despite the recent chaos. "Nano cannot be another Berisha, just as Berisha could not be another Enver Hoxha. We have learned something from the past five years; even Berisha has learned, though for him it is now too late," said Fatos Lubonja, one of the country's most respected writers and thinkers and a former political prisoner.

The biggest nightmare will be untangling the mess left by the collapse of the pyramid schemes. Mr Nano rashly promised in the campaign to repay people in full. In practice he will have to rely on foreign credit lines, advocated by the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, but yet to be approved by the rest of the international community, to tide over the worst-affected and hope the economy will build up fast enough to calm the nerves of the men with guns.

One fear is that the pyramid schemes still nominally in operation, Vefa and Kamberri, will blackmail the government into giving them licences for profitable sectors of the economy, such as chrome mining and telecommunications, in exchange for a pledge to reimburse their investors. This would open the whole system up to corruption. Mr Nano's advisers insist they would prefer a more orthodox solution, but concede this is a prospect they may have to face.