Bombs and terror help Berisha cling to power in Albania poll poll victory

As election day nears, the country's loathed President is resorting to violence to remain in office. Andrew Gumbel in Tirana reports
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There could have been no clearer indication of how Albania's much-loathed president, Sali Berisha, intends to cling on to power. On Sunday, his most loyal newspaper, Albania, announced that the Cafe Freskia in the centre of Tirana was about to be blown up as an act of revenge against its owner, Lush Perpali, who just happens to be deputy interior minister and a member of Mr Berisha's least favourite political party, the Socialists.

The next day, a bomb duly exploded in an upstairs toilet of the cafe, devastating the prefabricated wooden structure and injuring more than 20 people. The same evening, there was another explosion at Tirana's main bus station, just a few minutes before curfew, injuring another nine.

With less than four weeks to go before general elections that the overwhelming majority of Albanians hope will see off Mr Berisha for good, an unmistakable strategy of terror is being waged, and the President is making little or no effort to cover up the role he is playing in it.

The President's own guardsmen have been caught time and again provoking exchanges of gunfire after dark, deepening the climate of fear gripping the country and providing an excuse to extend the state of emergency that makes normal election campaigning impossible.

The guards have been used, too, for more sinister purposes - attempting to quell an anti-presidential revolt in the town of Cerrik two weeks ago in contravention of their constitutional role, and then bursting into Tirana's main hospital and opening fire in anger because one of their injured men had died there.

Such behaviour has cast a net of deep gloom over the country, with many Albanians convinced that Mr Berisha and his Democratic Party will throw this month's elections just as surely as they cheated their way to victory at the last elections a year ago. "Berisha's mentality won't permit him to admit defeat and go quietly. He would rather destroy the country than relinquish power," said one young Tirana lawyer. As the eccentric ecologist politician Namik Hoti put it: "The only way to get him off his horse is to shoot him off."

At first glance, the fatalism seems amply justified. Since the height of the popular revolt in March, when Mr Berisha was on the verge of fleeing the country, he has clawed his way back to a position of power with considerable ingenuity but scant regard for the democratic renewal that he and the other political leaders are supposed to be working towards.

Forced to accept an all-party government led by a Socialist, Bashkim Fino, Mr Berisha's strategy has been to concentrate as much power in his own hands as possible, taking full advantage of his crushing majority in parliament while it was still sitting, keeping a tight rein on the interior ministry which, under the state of emergency, controls the armed forces as well as the police, and refusing to relinquish his grip on the secret police.

As a result, Mr Fino has failed to impose any real authority and behaves like a man permanently terrified of the spies and secret agents in his midst. "Berisha has deliberately created a parallel authority. Every time the government tries to do something, he blocks it," complained Fatos Nano, leader of the Socialist Party and the man most widely tipped to replace Mr Berisha if the elections run even half-way smoothly.

Mr Berisha's men have even gone so far as to block Mr Fino himself, opening fire on his convoy as he travelled to the northern city of Shkoder a few weeks ago. When the police chief of Shkoder attempted to prosecute the men he was convinced had staged the ambush, he was stripped of his post and is now living in hiding elsewhere in Albania.

Grim though these events are, Mr Berisha does not have as free a hand as many fear. Essentially, he has three options. The first is to support the democratic process, respect the election results which, it is presumed, will heavily sanction him and his party, and then leave the scene. The events of the past few weeks make clear that this option does not interest him.

The second option is to hijack the elections through intimidation, violence and massive vote-rigging. This is what many Albanians fear he will do, remembering last year's debacle and noting with dread how, for example, he has begun to replace local police chiefs with his own appointments. One paragraph in the new election law envisages a complex mechanism of delays in the event of a candidate dying in the last 17 days of the campaign, an open invitation, to some eyes, for Democratic Party loyalists to bump off a few opponents in the closing stages.

But this option, even it were feasible, would be suicidal. Mr Berisha can be sure that if the Democratic Party tries to claim victory in the election, the revolt that almost toppled him in March will resume. Unlike last year, the international community is on its guard and the Albanian people are armed to the teeth.

The smartest thing for Mr Berisha, and the option many commentators believe he favours, is to aim for around 30 per cent of the vote - using intimidation and force as necessary - to ensure that neither he nor the Democratic Party can be quashed by constitutional means. He might even be able to wangle staying on as president, though as an insurance policy he is also standing for parliament.

In some ways this is the most sinister prospect for Albania, because the country, and the new government, might end up every bit as hamstrung by Mr Berisha as it is in the present transitional phase.

The opposition parties can only hope the country won't allow itself to be derailed in this way. "Laurent Kabila said recently he would not permit Zaire to become another Albania," Mr Nano said. "Well, we don't want Albania to become another Zaire."