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Western Press Review: The Faces Of Albania's Uprising

  • Don Hill

Prague, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Depending on which Western press commentary you find most persuasive: A. The government of Albanian President Sali Berisha remains that Balkan country's best hope for stability in the face of riots that are more the product of gangsters and diehard communists than an expression of the common people, or ...

B. The people of Albania are in near revolt against a hard-line, authoritarian government that is in danger of over-reacting with repressive tactics like those of any totalitarian regime, or ...

C. Whatever democratic leadership there was in what began as a peoples' protest over investment swindles in which Albanian government figures may have conspired since has been overwhelmed by reactionary and criminal forces.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Berisha has been too weak, not too strong

"Albania's riots aren't what they seem," Oxford University historian Mark Almond contends today in a commentary. Almond writes: "Unfortunately much of the (Western press reporting from Albania) is based on that unreliable hack's standby -- when you arrive late on a story, just pick it up from the loudest mouth on the scene. As Mark Twain said about Pudd'n Head Wilson, it is better to know nothing than to know what he knows.

For contrary to the media's characterization, the people rampaging through Albania's streets, looting shops and proudly displaying captured Kalashnikovs (Russian-style AK47 automatic rifles) are not the people (in the sense of those) who toppled Ferdinand Marcos in Manila 10 years ago or the velvet revolutionaries of Prague in 1989. Rather, they are driven by an unlikely coalition of unreformed communists and the Albanian mafia -- criminal gangs with alleged links to Italian organized crime -- who threaten to plunge the country into civil war. If that happens, failed pyramid schemes will be the least of Albania's worries."

The writer says: "After 1992 any kind of state authority was easily decried as a return to communism; so any kind of state regulation was denounced as retrograde -- even hypocritically by yesterday's communists. But contrary to the claims of Mr. Berisha's left wing critics in the West -- some of whom fawned notoriously on the Albanian Stalinist regime even in its dying days -- his government has been too weak in asserting authority, not too strong."

LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH: Western powers lecture Berisha instead of support him

The paper says today in an editorial: "Angry investors and the political opposition in Albania are heaping blame for the collapse of pyramid finance schemes on President Sali Berisha. He already has been forced to dismiss the government, declare a state of emergency and impose a curfew. Armed demonstrators now are demanding the formation of a non-party administration of technocrats, pending new elections. There is no question that Dr. Berisha is fighting for his political life -- and that the attacks on him are grossly one-sided."

The editorial says: "Having freed Albania from its communist straitjacket, Dr. Berisha now is being cold-shouldered by those countries whose backing he deserves as mob rule looms. Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and the United States decided not to send their ambassadors to his re-election as president by parliament on Monday. Western powers have chosen to lecture Dr. Berisha about the use of force, rather than offer him support as he tries to contain the threat of anarchy."

WASHINGTON POST: The struggle for southern towns has turned into a battle for a democracy's survival

Christine Spolar writes in a news analysis today: "(Southern Albania) has been the scene of the most violent of the nationwide demonstrations over financial losses suffered by thousands of Albanians who invested in pyramid schemes that have collapsed in recent weeks. Demonstrators have blamed the government of President Sali Berisha for not protecting them from financial ruin, and the fiercest clashes have claimed more than a dozen lives since Saturday."

She writes: "The struggle for Vlore and other coastal towns in the south - the area hardest hit by the financial collapses and populated by supporters of Albania's ousted Communist regime -- has turned into a battle for survival by Berisha's wobbly democracy."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Armed anti-government forces defy emergency rule

In an analysis in today's edition, Tracy Wilkinson says: "Tanks and troops streamed into southern Albania yesterday and took position near the rebellious city of Vlore, where armed anti-government forces defied emergency rule and roamed streets that they claimed as their own. Warning of civil war, opponents of President Sali Berisha demanded that he retreat from severe restrictions, including a curfew and crackdown on the press, imposed after the collapse of fraudulent pyramid schemes unleashed the worst violence in Albania since the end of its particularly paranoid form of communism six years ago."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Berisha's task will be more intractable if he uses excessive force

The British newspaper said today in an editorial: "For some time after the collapse of its particularly nasty communist regime, Albania seemed a surprisingly stable spot in a deeply troubled region. The recent violence and political disarray show that the veneer of stability was thin indeed." The editorial goes on: "Clearly order needs to be restored to the streets. But that can be only a first step, and Mr. Berisha's task will be rendered more intractable still if he uses excessive force."

LONDON TIMES: Free voices must be restored to print and the airwaves

The paper editorializes today: "One of the most important indications that Sali Berisha was leading Albania towards a more open and democratic society was his tolerance of a pluralist press. And one of the most depressing aspects of his response to the turmoil now engulfing the country was his immediate censorship of all news media." The Times says: "Former communists, opportunists and criminals have taken advantage of the popular anger, and copycat looting and burning has led quickly to anarchy." It concludes: "Democracy is staggering in Europe's poorest country. If it is not to be stifled altogether, free voices must be restored to print and the airwaves."

LONDON INDEPENDENT: Muzzling the press is an act of a regime ashamed of its repression

The paper says in an editorial today: "President Berisha's attempt to muzzle the press is more than an effort to stop news circulating in Albania. It is the act of a regime ashamed of its repression." The editorial says: "Albania barely has started out on the rocky road towards capitalist democracy. Getting back to the starting point requires even this small Balkan state to learn liberalism. And it starts today with freedom of information."

LONDON GUARDIAN: Berisha has become dangerously unpredictable

Historian Miranda Vickers, author of a 1995 history of Albania, comments today: "The international community should now begin a total reappraisal of its relationship with Albania, support for which was conditioned by the fact that Berisha represented a bastion of stability in an otherwise unstable region. Now, however, he has become a dangerously unpredictable element."