Fear and fury after Albania's sham election

Despite the violence, there has been little international protest, Andrew Gumbel reports
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Tirana - A large crowd was jostling and gesticulating in the foyer of the Socialist Party headquarters in Tirana. "Sali Berisha - Saddam," said one man pushing forward for attention. "Berisha, Pinochet!" said another, a little more forcefully, waving newspaper photographs of the injuries police inflicted on anti-government demonstrators in the city's main square on Tuesday. "Berisha, Adolf Hitler!" said a third.

The epithets heaped on the Albanian president may have been exaggerated, but the anger and frustration were genuine. Three days after a general election which Mr Berisha's Democratic Party rigged to give itself a crushing victory, the Socialist Party headquarters has come under virtual siege.

On Tuesday, uniformed police formed a human barricade around the building, letting nobody in - or out - and smashing a large pane of glass in the entrance. Yesterday, the uniforms were gone, but in their place were sinister- looking men with guns eyeing passers-by and occasionally stopping them to search their bags and check documents.

The city as a whole has been gripped by an unnerving sense of calm underscored by the lurking menace of violence. In the early hours of yesterday, a 24-year-old Socialist Party worker called Eduard Kullolli was found shot dead in central Tirana. According to party spokesmen, he was followed home from the headquarters and then shot in the back by a bearded man, speaking with a northern accent.

Other partially confirmed reports speak of at least one other death and several beatings. According to the opposition, thousands of uniformed and plainclothes police - some of them convicted criminals specially released to cause trouble - have been drafted from Mr Berisha's native region in the north and even from Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia.

"Fifty per cent of the police force are ordinary criminals," declared Arta Dade, who was a Socialist candidate in the elections. "At least 200 of our supporters have been arrested in the last two days."

Victims of the violence and their families are afraid to come forward, preferring to treat injuries at home rather than register at a hospital where they can be traced. At least one man was taken into police custody yesterday merely because he took a friend into a state clinic.

Meanwhile, the Socialist party chief for Tirana, Musa Ulcini, was nursing a broken wrist at home. The leader of the Democratic Alliance, Arben Imami, was recovering from a beating that cost him three teeth, broke his jaw and left him with multiple body wounds.

Although the intimidation has spread, the international community has been slow in responding to the widespread vote-rigging denounced by international election observers and the ensuing police brutality against the opposition. Yesterday, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued its much-leaked, critical report on the election, two days later than anticipated and in Vienna, not Tirana.

Some European political parties, notably the senior party in Italy's new centre-left coalition, the PDS, have issued statements condemning the electoral fraud. But European government officials, many of whom have been ardent Berisha supporters up to now, remain cautious. Britain said it "regretted" the withdrawal of the opposition parties and called vaguely for an "accommodation" between the parties.

The opposition says it will hold demonstrations around the country in an attempt to bring disillusioned and cheated voters on to the street. It also wants sworn affidavits from citizens declaring which way they voted in order to challenge the official electoral lists.

"If we can't enter parliament we must establish a parliament of the people elsewhere," said Prec Zogaj, of the Democratic Alliance. He and others also called for new elections in the next few months and appealed to the international community to ensure fair play.

It is by no means certain, however, that the opposition's anger can translate into either broad popular protest or international intervention. Most Albanians, displaying a fatalism borne out of 50 years of Stalinist dictatorship, seem too scared to take part in public rallies. As for the international community, it seems unlikely to press for anything more radical than "cross- party dialogue", in the words of one European diplomat.

Quite what form that dialogue should take, when Albania looks to be headed back towards a one-party system, is something the diplomats have yet to explain.