Impotent peace-keeping force bemuses Albanians

Despite the mayhem, elections will go ahead, writes Andrew Gumbel

Tirana - A couple of weeks ago, the Albanian health ministry decided to ask the Italian-led peace-keeping force to help with a problem. The ministry had heard of a possible case of polio in the remote mountains of the north-east and was anxious to send a medical expert to investigate.

Since the highlands were subject to attacks from armed gangs, the ministry figured the international troops might be able to offer an escort. The request was duly granted.

Thus it was that a lone doctor made the six-hour car journey from Tirana to Piskopi with two armoured vehicles in front and two behind, his escort totalling an impressive 20 men.

As the journey continued, he grew ever more embarrassed to admit that his only task was to find the suspected polio victim and take a sample from him. The entire military song and dance was mounted in honour of a scraping of human faeces.

The story illustrates much that is wrong with the international community's efforts to stabilise Albania. The multinational force has been in place for more than a month, but most Albanians are at a loss to understand what exactly it is doing. The peace is certainly not being kept, what with shootings, robberies and bomb attacks hitting the headlines daily.

The 6,000-odd soldiers have done nothing to intervene in the violence, and precious little to deter it, since their mandate precludes any police activities. Even the country's roads, which they are supposed to make safe, are being secured with painful slowness.

Elections are due on 29 June, but even here the force's role is painfully unclear. Hamstrung by a grudgingly granted and highly limited mandate, it cannot protect polling stations and will not provide escorts to campaigning candidates. It will be asked to protect international election observers, but such a task carries its own logistical problems. Until a frantic, high-level meeting last week, it seemed observers would not be allowed even to go to the lavatory without the escort of two armed men.

So what purpose, if any, do the soldiers serve? "They came for nothing," said Neritan Ceka, leader of the small Democratic Alliance opposition party, reflecting widespread public opinion in Albania.

"They are costing the international community between two and three million dollars a day, but I can't even go and talk to my constituents because I would need five cars and an arsenal of Kalashnikovs, which I don't have.

"What we need for the election is blanket observation, but now we hear complaints that the international community doesn't have the money to mount such an operation."

The election preparations tell their own tales of woe and organisational mayhem. The international body most closely involved in this is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose special envoy, Franz Vranitzky, spent most of the first half of May trying to negotiate an electoral law acceptable to all sides.

Mr Vranitzky, the former Austrian Chancellor, ended up the victim of various political intrigues, and the electoral law that was passed was steamrollered through parliament by President Sali Berisha to the fury of the opposition.

According to his colleagues, Mr Vranitzky is now afraid to return to Tirana and feels deeply embittered by the whole experience. "He's very nice but the wrong man for the wrong job," reflected one international official in Tirana. "He tried to bring a middle European mentality to a Balkan problem, and he failed."

The OSCE and the Western governments with troops on the ground have all insisted on sticking to the 29 June date, regardless of the difficulties of organising an election in a country where infrastructure has fallen apart, a state of emergency is in place, almost half the country is outside the control of the state and everybody is heavily armed. The motives behind the decision, notably the fear of becoming bogged down in another Balkan quagmire, are understandable but not necessarily conducive to the future of Albanian democracy.

Partly because of the situation on the ground and partly because of the weakness of the transitional Albanian government, deadline after deadline is being missed in the run-up to the election; as a result, the international community is ever more reluctant to commit large resources to an election that looks like being a qualified success at best. Mr Ceka's hopes of blanket monitoring are thus evaporating, and even OSCE officials admit that more remote areas simply won't be observed at all.

Not all the signs are negative, however. Last year's elections were subject to blatant fraud largely because the outside world did not care and because President Berisha, then solidly in power, managed to use the police and secret police to rig every aspect of the vote from registration through to the final results.

This time the world does care, even it is does not always know why, and the presence of the multinational force and other observers will almost certainly have a restraining effect on subversive elements.

Much of the gloom among Albanians is due to the understandably scant faith they have in their own political process and the perception that the international community is not doing enough to take matters into its own hands.

"They want us to take over, but that's not our job. These are Albanian elections after all," said Hans Peter Kleiner, a highly experienced OSCE election observer.

There are signs that the Albanians are now growing more confident about their prospects. All talk of boycotts by the opposition, for example, has ceased.

"What people in Albania have to understand is that there can be no stability without elections, not the other way around," said Gramoz Pashko, a former government minister now in exile in the United States.

"No matter how distorted and unsatisfactory these elections are, they are the only way to get out of the impasse."

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