Prague, 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Troops from at least six countries are expected to begin Operation Alba tomorrow to secure delivery of humanitarian aid in lawless Albania. Many observers feel, however, that it might be endangered from the start.
Last week the first Italian troops arrived at Durres as an advance party for the mission. Soon up to 6,000 soldiers from Italy, France, Romania, Greece, Turkey and Spain will join them, and Austrian and Danish contingents may come in later. Their aim will be to hold the ports of Durres and Vlora, together with Tirana's Rinas airport, for aid deliveries.
The move comes in response to the armed anarchy that has gripped Europe's poorest country for over a month. First, a series of pyramid schemes collapsed, wiping out the investments of a considerable part of the population in the process. Then came mass protests against the government of President Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party (PD), whom the demonstrators blamed for their losses. Finally, rebel committees took over villages and towns in the south.
All semblance of order or authority evaporated and people seized weapons from police stations and army bases. In central Tirana and in the pro-Berisha north, officials handed out guns to PD backers. Across the country armed gangs robbed at will, while crowds pillaged shops, homes and institutions. To date, at least 200 people have died and hundreds more were wounded in the armed anarchy.
In early March, Berisha reluctantly agreed to an interim coalition government headed by the Socialist Bashkim Fino. Its job is to restore calm and prepare for early elections in June.
The rebels, for their part, refuse to give up their guns until Berisha resigns. But the president says he will not do this unless he is voted out of office. A catch-22 situation has thus emerged. As Fino himself put it: "If we say that the elections cannot be held because the population is armed, we must also look at the other side of the issue which is that the weapons will not be surrendered until elections are held."
Operation Alba thus enters a politically unstable country in which all order has broken down and weapons abound. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government nonetheless came up with the idea of intervening in hopes of calming the situation in Albania and thereby stemming the flow of refugees across the Adriatic into Italy. Officials in Rome also said it would be the first time postwar Italy had the opportunity to take the lead in organizing a European intervention force.
Politicians and pundits across the continent argued, moreover, that Albania has now given Europe as a whole the chance to show it has learned from its mistakes in the Yugoslav wars and can now set things right in a turbulent Balkan country.
But that may be easier said than done. Some observers, including some aid workers already in Albania, say that the mission is flawed from the start. They argue that Albania needs order, not supplies. The aid workers say the country may be short on medicines and that some of the poor and elderly could use help, but that there is no hunger or misery. What they argue for is controlling the bandits and restoring state structures. As one aid worker put it: "You don't fight anarchy with flour bags."
This point seems to have prompted at least one country, Portugal, to scuttle plans to participate in Operation Alba. As Defense Minister Antonio Vitorino put it in Lisbon last week: "The involvement of forces should require a set of military and political conditions. We [the government] believe that the political conditions have not been satisfied. This is essentially an internal, civil, guerrilla-style conflict... I believe it is a highly risky mission, and I have doubts it can reach its military objective."
And part of the problem is that Operation Alba has, in fact, no real military objective. Its members may fire back if fired upon, but the troops have no mandate to disarm or control the gangs and bandits.
This recalls some earlier adventures of foreign troops in the former Yugoslavia, namely the hapless UNPROFOR in Croatia and Bosnia. They, too, had no mandate to make peace. The result was that, at best, they joined the locals in developing a flourishing black market. And at worst, local thugs shot at them or took them hostage. That's how things work in a part of the world where only toughness commands respect.