Flat Earth: Publicity shot

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The Independent Online
Most politicians whose popularity is slipping go on a speaking tour, or try to condemn something which is annoying the public, such as dog poo. But in the Balkans, it seems, it is de rigeur to organise an assassination attempt.

Albania's beleaguered president, Sali Berisha, managed to add this to his CV last week. Police pounced on a man at an election rally, and the state television news claimed he was about to hurl a grenade at the great leader. There seems to be some doubt about the authenticity of the event - some suspect Berisha was looking for new excuses to intimidate voters and crack down on the opposition - but it sounds a lot more plausible than some of the wilder urban legends circulating in Tirana these days.

The most engaging story stems from a genuine exchange of gunfire outside the presidential palace back in March. This has been blown up, in certain political circles, into a full-scale commando assault launched with the help of a treacherous member of the presidential staff and leading to a full-scale gun battle in the corridors of the palace. Berisha himself is said to have repulsed the intruders, wielding a formidable assault weapon while still in his pyjamas.

An added twist, provided by a deputy for Berisha's Democratic Party, has the assailants driving away in their unmarked car but losing petrol all the way because of a bullet hole in their fuel tank. The next morning, the presidential guard follows the gasoline stains on the road into town and discovers they lead straight to the gates of the US embassy.

You don't believe it? You don't understand Albania, then. In most countries, politicians prefer to avoid assassination attempts altogether, but in this benighted corner of the Balkans they lend a certain style to a man.

The King and I

Bill Clinton has been going on to watchers of a cable music channel about the special kinship he feels with Elvis Presley, because "he was from Mississippi, he was a poor white kid, he sang with a lot of soul. He was sort of my roots." Not to mention their mutual addiction to junk food.

Since this interview took place while Clinton's lawyers were arguing (unsuccessfully) that the President was too busy with important matters to devote time to defending Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against him, he came in for a certain amount of ridicule. She says that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas six years ago, had one of his security detail bring her up to his hotel room, where he made unwanted advances and, when these were rebuffed, exposed himself and demanded oral sex.

Given this, there is a certain poignancy to the Elvis tunes that Bill mentioned as striking a chord with him: "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel".

Five to one

The last commander of British forces in Hong Kong, Major-General Bryan Dutton, will be sailing away on the Britannia at the end of this month with the Prince of Wales and the Governor, Chris Patten. Even though the People's Liberation Army garrison in the territory will be almost the same as British strength at its height - about 10,000 troops - Gen Dutton will be replaced by no fewer than five Chinese generals. The outgoing chief says he pointed out to his counterparts that this might not look good "since it implied that it took five Chinese generals to do what it took one British general to do. They looked at me very quizzically and then said, 'Yes, but five Chinese generals come much cheaper than one British general.'"

British major-generals get about pounds 60,000 annually. That implies that their PLA equivalents are earning no more than pounds 12,000, which is what the lowest-paid of our squaddies in Hong Kong receives. But there is no need to feel sorry for the Chinese brass: the lowest-paid of the men under their command will be on less than pounds 40 - yes, a year.