Broken heads follow fury at bank scam

Albanian turmoil: Clashes sparked by catastrophic collapse of phoney saving schemes bring chaos to the capital's streets

Thousands of Albanians who have lost their money in failed "pyramid" saving schemes thronged into the main square of the capital, Tirana, for an anti-government rally yesterday, only to be beaten back by police who lashed out at the crowds with truncheons and smashed up the stage and sound system being used by opposition leaders.

The incident was the culmination of four days of street protests in Tirana and other big cities sparked by the latest banking collapse. It raised the political temperature higher than it has been since opposition leaders were beaten up in the wake of last May's rigged general elections.

Several demonstrators stumbled away from the rally with bloodied faces. People closest to the opposition leaders in the centre of Skanderbeg Square were the most roughly handled, as plainclothes officers swooped in to stop the speeches. The thousands of uniformed riot police who ringed the area were less brutal, partly because many have lost their savings too.

The pyramid schemes, which have thrived over the past four years in the absence of a conventional banking system, offer extraordinarily high rates of interest on hard-currency deposits - more than 10 per cent per month. But they rely on depositors coming forward to keep going. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians have entrusted their last assets to them in the hope of getting rich quick, but without asking themselves how the banks operated and how long they were likely to survive.

President Sali Berisha has taken pains to dissociate himself from the schemes in the past few days, but it is inconceivable that they could have operated without the government's active approval.

In Serbia, where pyramid schemes thrived in 1992-93 before disappearing overnight, they were a perfect vehicle for money- laundering and illegal government manipulation of people's savings.

Like Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, Albania has a heavily clientelistic economy that is strictly controlled by the country's political leadership.

With Serbia's street revolution very much in the news in Albania, many of yesterday's demonstrators used the occasion to vent their fury at the government. "Down with the dictatorship!" was a common cry. "First the government stole our votes, now it is stealing our money," was another.

Albania has in effect been a one-party state since last May's fraudulent elections and the opposition has refused to take up the few seats it was grudgingly offered. The European Union has been reluctant to call President Berisha to order as it feels it needs him to exert a stabilising influence on Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. It also fears a return of the Socialist Party, heirs to Enver Hoxha's Communists.

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