Tories move to cut ties with Albanian regime

After years of enthusiastic support, centre-right parties in Western Europe, including the British Conservatives, are rapidly distancing themselves from Albania's ruling Democratic Party because of growing concerns about corruption, police brutality and violations of basic political freedoms.

"In the light of the DP's actions over the last year, we now have to review whether the party is one we would want to do business with," one source inside the Conservative Party said.

Punitive action is expected to come early next month in Paris at a meeting of the European Democratic Union, a club grouping centre-right parties from across the Continent, including the DP and the Conservatives. At the very least, the party is expected to be put "on probation". Most likely, it will have its EDU membership suspended, although outright expulsion is also possible.

Ostensibly, the main cause for concern is the heavy-handed use of uniformed and plainclothes police in quelling recent anti-government riots sparked by the collapse of Albania's get-rich-quick pyramid investment schemes. But given the EDU's reluctance to confront mounting evidence of human- rights abuses over the past three years, the real issue seems to be a desire to disown the party before association turns into scandal.

Close links with the DP were once considered an ideological imperative for EDU member- parties, but have become ever more embarrassing as the Albanian government has come under fire for everything from election-rigging to involvement in arms, drugs and petrol trafficking. In Britain, the Albanian connection has risked turning into an electoral liability for the Tories following reports in The Independent about Albanian government collusion in organised crime and questions asked in the House of Commons by the Labour MP Denis MacShane.

Until last May's rigged general elections, media reports about corruption and political repression in Albania were rare, and European conservatives threw themselves enthusiastically into the pro-Berisha camp.

In Britain, President Berisha's greatest champion has been Sir Geoffrey Pattie, former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party.

Some other Conservatives appear to be equally unwilling to criticise the Democratic Party. The secretary of the Westminster Conservative Associ- ation, Donald Stewart, said he had found the Democratic Party "entirely bona fide" on three visits to Albania in the past 18 months. Conservative officials said that Mr Stewart and others would be asked to modify their views or at least stop espousing them on behalf of the party.

Similar sea-changes in attitude appear to be taking place in the rest of Europe, starting with Leni Fischer, president of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly.

Ms Fischer is regarded in Albania as a Berisha apologist, but at the end of last month her assembly issued the Tirana govern-ment with a list of demands on democratisation, the independence of the judiciary, press freedom and cross-party dialogue. Challenged about her statements apparently supporting Mr Berisha in the past, her office said she had been misquoted and there was evidence of statements being fabricated in Albania to discredit her.