Dissidents flee as Albania's pyramids start to crumble

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If it weren't for the fact that he is 6ft 6ins tall and sturdily built, Edi Rama probably wouldn't be in a position to recount how two thugs approached him outside his house in Tirana a week ago and attacked him with knuckledusters and batons. As it is, he is lying in bed at his parents' house, recovering from a badly concussed head and broken nose and denouncing, as he has done tirelessly for the past four years, the illegality and corruption of Sali Berisha's Albania.

A painter by profession, Rama also writes acerbic articles against the president in the independent press. In the past his verbal attacks have been ignored but now, with the country's pyramid investment schemes crumbling and the political authority of Mr Berisha growing more uncertain, life has become distinctly precarious for dissidents like him.

Not that you'd know it to meet him. "The authorities have gone crazy and Berisha is running a fascist party," he whispers from behind a wall of bandages. Others have not been as bold or lucky as him. A few days after he was attacked, the former Socialist Party deputy Ndre Legisi was pulled from his car and beaten to within an inch of his life.

Fear has gripped Albania's intellectual community ever since. People no longer walk home at night or open their doors to strangers. Their sleep is interrupted by nightmares, filled with screams and beatings. Some are even staying at friends' houses for fear of going home. All of a sudden everybody is talking about leaving the country.

"Throughout all the troubles I never doubted that my place was here. I am an Albanian and this is where I want to build my future. But for the first time I feel like I have to get out of here," said a member of Rama's entourage who did not wish to be named.

Students all vie for scholarships to go abroad, and those who have won them aren't counting on coming back. A brain-drain could easily precede a general stampede in boats across the Adriatic similar to the mass exodus of 1991; the Italian authorities, who found themselves overwhelmed by the crisis last time, are already getting worried.

In intellectual circles, the feeling is that Albanians have been bankrupted not only materially, through the pyramid schemes, but also morally and spiritually. "The real damage Berisha has done is to persuade people that they can become rich without being free," Rama said.

Many of Albania's best and brightest have gone already. The novelist Ismael Kadare (whose brother was beaten in Tirana last week) left the country for France in 1990. Gramoz Pashko, the economist who helped Mr Berisha to set up the first democratic government in Albania before walking out in disgust at his authoritarian methods, is in the United States, as is Zef Brozi, the former head of the Supreme Court, stripped of his post for political reasons, and Eduard Selami, the former leader of Mr Berisha's Democratic Party.

Opposition figures who happened to be abroad when the pyramid crisis began, such as the historian Paskal Milo, have been in no hurry to come back. "Why should people return when there's a chance they'll get killed?" said Skender Gjinushi, leader of Mr Milo's Social Democrat party. Mr Gjinushi, the epitome of the Albanian intellectual-turned-politician, cuts a typically sad figure: he lost his parliamentary seat in last May's fraudulent general election, he lost the right to stand for parliament under an absurd law supposedly aimed at weeding out former members of the Communist secret police, and he lost his job as a maths professor at the University of Tirana.

In theory, the opposition still has the right to organise demonstrations, as guaranteed under the constitution, but its efforts in the past few days have been thwarted by riot police and secret service agents. Opposition leaders have been harassed, attacked, charged with a variety of criminal offences and - in the wake of last Sunday's riots across the country - rounded up, arrested and beaten en masse. The Interior Ministry has acknowledged some 250 arrests in recent days, but the true figure is almost certainly much higher.

It could be the last spasm of a desperate ruling class, or the latest stage in Albania's passage from tentative democracy to outright dictatorship. The evidence of the waste and corruption of the past five years are all around: the wild construction that has choked out Tirana's parks and wrecked the coast near the port of Durres, the public money thrown away on four- wheel drives and Mercedes with yellow government plates, the people loafing around the streets for lack of work in a country of remarkable skills and the potential for creative enthusiasm.

The pyramid schemes and their failure epitomise this tragic waste, first giving people the excuse to do nothing for their future and then pulling the carpet out from under their feet. Perhaps the gravest damage of the whole sorry episode has been to destroy any sense of community or civic responsibility, making ordinary Albanians as selfish, envious and grasping after money as the government they despise.

"People spent all their money on coffee, whisky and Mercedes; now they have nothing," said a prominent Tirana lawyer. "The future is going to hell; they think only of themselves."