Four ministers in the cabinet of Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta resigned last week amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. As Alban Bala reports from Tirana, Albania's ruling Socialist Party is now facing one of the most critical periods in its 60-year history.
Tirana, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Albania's ruling Socialist Party has weathered the immediate threat of a schism.
A three-day marathon meeting last week of the party's general steering committee -- its highest decision-making body -- ended with a vote of confidence preserving the status quo and requiring the divided leadership to work together. However, the meeting failed to respond to allegations made by its chairman, Fatos Nano.
Nano accused three socialist ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ilir Meta of abuse of power in pursuit of personal gain. He alleged that Meta himself bought and sold ballots, and permitted his cabinet ministers to control money-laundering operations and engage in other corrupt dealings.
Nano also alleged that Meta fostered nepotism, gave preferential treatment to certain regions, and cooperated on occasion with organized crime. Nano described the prime minister's methods of governing as "fascist."
During the discussions last week, the three cabinet officials -- Finance Minister Anastas Angjeli, Public Economy and Privatization Minister Mustafa Muci, and Tourism Minister Bashkim Fino -- all resigned.
A fourth official -- Food and Agriculture Minister Agron Duka, a Nano supporter -- also resigned, citing difficulty cooperating with Meta.
Nano declared that the Socialist Party was suffering a moral crisis, and accused the rest of the party leadership of influence-peddling.
The "Shekulli" newspaper -- Albania's largest-circulation daily, which has ties to Nano -- recently published a list of 200 advantageous, long-term, low-interest loans approved by the cabinet. The loans were approved three weeks before Meta was reconfirmed as the Socialist candidate for prime minister prior to parliamentary elections last summer. Nearly all the members of the Socialist Party's steering committee were named on the list published in "Shekulli."
In response, Nano accused the executive branch of attempting to centralize power in the country. Rejecting suggestions that he was trying to provoke early parliamentary elections, Nano threatened to organize a special party congress if the government failed to respond to his accusations.
"This crisis was not created by Fatos Nano, as our prime minister pretends. But it has overwhelmed the basic decision-making mechanisms and our political-governing organization. I proposed reshuffling the government as a way of overcoming the crisis, by dismissing those elements which have lost the confidence at least of the [Socialist Party] and its voters."
Meta, who at 32 is Europe's youngest prime minister, rejected any suggestion that he might resign. Rather, he invited Nano himself to resign -- or as he euphemistically put it, "to redimensionalize his image before the party."
"We are not here to dismiss anyone; to create either victims or heroes of any dictatorship in such a transparent and democratic forum. And I am sure that this meeting, along with the vote of confidence in the steering committee, will reject before the eyes of the public the shameful allegation of dictatorship within the [Socialist Party] -- an idea launched by those who aspire to power but not to the rule of law, by those who implement their negative will to put jobs on hold in Albania and whose aim is to create a coalition of mutes (voiceless people), who should cover-up common interests harmful to the state of law, institutions and Albania's future in Europe."
Both sides have exchanged tough accusations and have threatened to take each other to court. But this is unlikely to happen. Parliament deputy Musa Ulqini, a senior Socialist official and chairman of the party's Tirana branch, said restoring the legitimacy of the party structure was of primary importance.
Former finance minister and the Socialists' parliamentary whip, Arben Malaj, defined the crisis within the Socialist Party as a conflict of different visions of executive authority.
"I reiterate that this is a crisis of mentalities, a crisis of leadership in the perception of democracy and its instruments. We are all guilty of nourishing unlimited powers to such high levels that they risk creating political costs."
Minister of Culture and Sports Luan Rama said the scandal had already deprived the Socialist Party of a significant quality.
"We have lost solidarity. Mutual confidence is gone. Ethics and the spirit of agreement are absent. This is the plain truth, regardless of whether we like it or dislike it, we cannot hide it any further."
Nano gathered 30 Socialist parliament deputies to force his opponents in the party to give up any effort at seizing control of the party structure. Nano is also trying to persuade opposition Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha to abandon his party's boycott of parliament, which began last summer amid accusations of election fraud on the part of the Socialists.
Nano and his party stand accused of having rigged the summer's parliamentary elections in an effort to secure the 84 votes in parliament required to elect a president.
Nano intends to run for president next year, and analysts say he hopes to keep Meta on the sidelines in order to increase his chances.
Doris Pack, a German Christian Democrat who heads the European Parliament's commission for southeastern Europe, has urged the Albanian Socialists not to use their overwhelming majority to elect the president.
Ermelinda Meksi, minister of trade and foreign economic cooperation, said wryly that Nano's allegations of corruption were even harming the opposition.
"For 50 days our top leaders have been suffocating the opposition, wrinkling it by taking away its weapons of opposing the government."
However, Nano responded that his aim was to improve things and not to play into the opposition's hands.
"My responsible criticism of our government at the start of its second mandate -- which means at the right time -- isn't serving Berisha's interests. I am putting Berisha out of a job but not doing his job."
So far, the opposition has taken no action to profit from the current situation. Regular press conferences of firebrand former president Berisha now belong to the past, and the opposition is all but absent in most news media.