Leading Article: A small neighbour that we have failed

On a mild Saturday morning in a relatively comfortable, relatively secure Britain, Albania is doubtless far from the minds of most of our readers. It is far from the minds of most people. That is one reason why it has degenerated so rapidly into such a nasty mess.

Albania has, admittedly, been a nasty mess for most of the last 50 years. When its people rose up to throw the Communists out of power, they hoped it could be otherwise. But President Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party, once the bright hopes of south-eastern Europe, have succumbed to the temptations of power.

For a long time, only two things about Albanians were well known in Britain: one, that their election results were implausibly one-sided; two, that Norman Wisdom was a national hero.

Now we need to pay more serious attention. A third fact has come to the nation's attention: the place is run by gangsters. Yesterday and today, we report a fourth important fact: our Government and our governing party have supported these gangsters, long after it should have become obvious to them that they were up to their elbows in corruption.

Along with all the peoples of Eastern Europe, Albanians were made this promise by the West: "Come into the family of democratic nations, and we will help you to obtain the fruits of liberty and capitalism." That promise has been betrayed. In their naivety, Albanians elected a pyramid- seller as president. His slogan was: "Put your investment in the Democratic Party. It can only go higher." It should have been obvious in the west that the interest offered on government-backed accounts was unsustainable and would ultimately damage faith in the free market and democracy.

Now Albania has become a gangster state where democracy is once again a sick joke, the opposition can expect to be beaten up and imprisoned, with an economy based on smuggling, exploitation, drugs and extortion.

There are many reasons why this has been allowed to happen. We are ignorant of countries like Albania, and in the post-Cold War gloaming most of us (and many politicians and public servants) don't really want to bother about what seems a peripheral country. For those who did take an interest, helping the countries of Eastern Europe to move smoothly to democracy was a laudable aim. But politicians have to make a judgement about whom they are helping. And it seems that some of the more zealous on the political right saw Albania in out-of-date terms. Once the Communists were pitched out of power, the right was the only bulwark of democracy and capitalism, in their view. An authoritarian conservative like Sali Berisha seemed preferable to a return to the days of Communism. Now we know that the intelligence agencies have been reporting back to national capitals for some time that the situation in Albania was deplorable. People have not listened.

Others might have worse reasons for turning a blind eye: it seems likely that some people in Europe have found it profitable to let corruption run rife in a small, obscure corner of south-eastern Europe while money is made.

The United States, to give it credit, seems to have realised that things were going wrong. Europe, and especially France and Italy, have been blind; Britain and Germany are dithering. This country is on our doorstep, and we should care more that it is an unjust place. More concretely, drug- smuggling through Albania, political disintegration and money-laundering give us plenty of reasons to do something about it.

Britain is further away, but we have been culpable all the same. The Government went out of its way to be nice to Mr Berisha when the going was good, and it has not done much to change its line now things have gone wrong.

There is no reason to think that British policy has been motivated by a desire to see gangsters in power. But it is clear that a preference for a right-winger has created a blind spot. Britain likes stability in the Mediterranean, and has done for a century; and stability often means injustice. Having a friend in Tirana - a man who professed sympathy with the goals and values of Conservativism, and with Britain, must have seemed attractive.

There is a much broader point here than the direction of British foreign policy in the Balkans. Albania is not the only country drifting back into a nightmare. Throughout the world, many of the states that have emerged blinking into the daylight from the rubble of the Soviet Union and its satellites are now sliding back into the darkness again. In most cases, it is the same combination of indolent ignorance and short-sighted self- interest on the part of the West that is responsible.

A world where gangsters rule will not be a pleasant one. But that is what we face if situations like that in Albania are allowed to flourish. The solution pressed upon us by the professionals - rebuild our defences, throw a few million pounds more at the security services - will not address this problem. Organised crime and its links to politics is one of the biggest problems which we face in the world today, and ministers remind us of that almost daily. If by their failure they have encouraged it, then we want to know.