Obituary: Azem Hajdari

Gabriel Partos
Tuesday 22 September 1998 23:02

IN THE volatile and, at times, dangerous world of Albanian politics, there were few, if any, figures with so many personal and political enemies as Azem Hajdari, the 35-year-old opposition politician and former student leader, who died after being gunned down, along with a bodyguard, outside the offices of his Democratic Party (DP) in central Tirana.

The killing of Hajdari, who had played a leading part in the pro-democracy movement against the Communist regime in 1990, came as the culmination of several violent incidents involving him, including attempts on his life. The most spectacular of these had occurred almost exactly a year earlier when he was badly injured in a shooting incident inside the Albanian parliament. His assassination put an end to an eight-year political career which was as dramatic at its beginning as it was at its end.

Hajdari came from a poor family in Albania's mountainous northern region of Tropoja, known for its traditions of bravery, violence and the blood feud, or hakmarrje, as well as for its poverty and reliance on cross-border smuggling into Kosovo. He was nearing the end of a philosophy course, which in those days meant Marxism-Leninism, at Tirana University, when the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe began to shake Albania, Europe's last Stalinist bastion.

The disintegration of the Communist regime began in the summer of 1990 when thousands of desperate Albanians scaled the walls of Tirana's foreign embassies in an ultimately successful attempt to leave the country. But the pressure for change continued to build up and in December students took the initiative by staging protests against their worsening living conditions in the halls of residence.

Almost immediately the students' agenda turned political with demands for political freedom. Bold, uncompromising and with a populist appeal, Hajdari emerged as the natural leader of the students' movement. Within days he became one of the founders of the DP, the first non-Communist party in Albania following the Second World War, and was elected its first chairman.

But Hajdari's stint at the top of the DP proved short-lived. Two months later he was replaced as party chairman by Sali Berisha, the cardiologist who had been sent by President Ramiz Alia, Albania's last Stalinist leader, to negotiate with the students. Thereafter, Hajdari's ambivalent, and periodically uneasy, relationship with Berisha, another native of the Tropoja region, determined much of his political career.

It took another year before the DP won the parliamentary elections and Berisha emerged as President in April 1992. Hajdari received no government job. Instead, he had to settle for the post of chairman of the parliamentary commission on public order and the National Intelligence Service (SHIK) - the newly reconstituted secret police.

In the meantime, Hajdari's influence was rapidly diminishing. Within months of the DP's taking power, Hajdari was in trouble for making critical remarks about the new government in a television interview which was never shown. Hajdari then left for a few months on a scholarship to the United States in a move that appeared designed to get him out of the way.

Hajdari remained a maverick who could never be silenced. In 1993 he was found guilty of assaulting a fellow DP official, though he was let off with a warning. On one occasion he threatened to shoot himself unless police stopped evicting a group of ex-political prisoners of the Communist era from a building where they were staging a hunger strike in support of obtaining better provisions from the state.

For a while Hajdari was tempted to join the Democratic Alliance, the party that had broken away from the DP or even to set up a new organisation along with other disillusioned members of the students' movement. But the prospects elsewhere seemed bleak so he stayed within the DP, the party that remained firmly in power until the collapse of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes at the beginning of 1997.

Regional and personal loyalties, the cement of Albanian politics, kept him within Berisha's orbit even when they were otherwise at odds. One such occasion was Hajdari's unsuccessful attempt in 1996 to take over Albania's main trade union federation, a bid that had been prompted by his frustration with his lack of influence within the DP.

The years of estrangement with Berisha came to an end with the DP's disastrous defeat in the 1997 elections which followed an uprising against the Berisha regime after the pyramid schemes had crashed. Many of Berisha's top officials left politics or failed to get re-elected to parliament. Hajdari, on the other hand, had not been in government and was not held responsible for the disasters of the previous year. He had also retained some of his popularity from the time of the student demonstrations.

Hajdari now emerged as a close associate of Berisha in opposition. But his combative nature had not changed. In September 1997 he got involved in a fight with Gafur Mazreku, an MP of the Prime Minister Fatos Nano's governing Socialist Party, in a dispute over a rise in the rate of value added tax. Two days later Hajdari was seriously injured when Mazreku shot him in parliament several times.

Although the opposition portrayed the shooting as part of a political campaign against the DP, it had every appearance of a revenge attack and Mazreku was sentenced to 11 years' gaol. Within six months Hajdari was again in trouble over bullying. Following an incident in which his bodyguards forced the police chief of the northern town of Shkodra to vacate the VIP box in the local football stadium, police blocked the road to stop his group's fleet of cars returning to Tirana. After a stand-off lasting several hours Hajdari's companions were disarmed.

Hajdari's confrontational attitude made him into something of a battering ram against the Nano government which has been struggling, with only limited success, to restore law and order following last year's uprising.

His death - in a hail of bullets - bore all the hallmarks of a professional killing which the DP has blamed on the government. But, with all the enemies he made in his personal, business as well as political life over the years, it may never become clear for what reason Hajdari was killed.

Hajdari, who leaves a widow, Jeta, and two children, was a larger-than- life character who had led a dangerous existence. For much of the time luck remained on his side; but it finally ran out amidst the kind of violence that has become a recurrent characteristic of post-Communist Albania.

Azem Hajdari, student leader and politician: born Bajram Curri, Albania 11 March 1963; married (one son, one daughter); died Tirana 12 September 1998.

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