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Press Review: Elections in Albania Draw Suspicion, Criticism

Prague, May 29 (RFE/RL) - Albanian President Sali Berisha has claimed victory in elections held Sunday, but the opposition claimed fraud. On Tuesday the government banned an opposition rally in the capital Tirana. Riot police then beat demonstrators. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) witnessed the police's bloody attack. OSCE observers have not yet issued a formal report, but several said privately that the election results were tainted by irregularities. Press commentary examines the contemporary Albanian brand of democratic politics.

"Albania is a distant country of which most people know little and care less," Britain's Independent says today in an editorial. The Independent says: "That is the attitude of the many governments -- including ours -- that have dabbled in its affairs. The sham of an election conducted over the weekend was the result. The ruling Democratic Party was encouraged by the West that it could do anything to get elected, as long as the Socialists, formerly the Communists, were kept out of power. It has used vote-rigging, intimidation and violence. The country has emerged blinking into the sunlight from decades of repression only to find the cosh (truncheon) coming down once again. This time, we have helped to wield it."

In the same newspaper today, Andrew Gumbel writes from Albania in an analysis: "Any lingering pretense of democracy in Albania came to a brutal end in Tirana's main square yesterday as riot police ploughed into opposition groups protesting at systematic fraud in last Sunday's election. The crackdown was perpetrated by a regime which has received every encouragement from the international community, and the European Union in particular.... It was a show of official repression that outstripped even the strong-arm tactics of the security forces in the dying days of Albania's Stalinist regime six years ago.... (Berisha) has been able to count on foreign backing, selling himself as a safe pair of hands to handle foreign political and investment interests in a country that was once the most closed in the world."

The New York Times' Jane Perlez writes from Tirana today: "Stepping up the repressive tactics that marked parliamentary elections on Sunday, government riot policemen beat and arrested opposition party supporters in the main square here (yesterday).... Many of those who defied the ban, including elderly men and women who were near the square, were beaten with truncheons by riot policemen as horrified election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe looked on from a nearby hotel balcony. Several men stood near the square with blood running down their faces.... The actions by Berisha, who critics fear is assuming the dictatorial mantle of the former Communist leader Enver Hoxha, take on a special significance because the United States and Western Europe have embraced him as their man in a pivotal region of the Balkans.... The unwillingness of Washington and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe officially to criticize the widespread election fraud annoyed many of the international election observers sent here by Western governments."

Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung says today in an editorial: "The OSCE has not yet made its declaration public. There were still no official declarations (yesterday) afternoon.... Whatever the results, one thing is clear. The legitimacy of the future parliament is already questionable and, above all, if the opposition keeps insisting on boycotting the legislative body, an intensification of the struggle for power between the Democrats and the Socialists is to be expected, and the controversy in the streets will widen."

The International Herald Tribune today quotes a statement from Norwegian and British election monitors in Tirana: "The elections did not meet international standards for free and fair elections, and they did not (even) conform with the requirements (of Albanian law).... It is our conclusion that the will of the Albanian people was not expressed in a free manner." The newspaper, published in several European and Asian countries by U.S. owners, said: "The statement threw the political future of Albania, which is struggling to emerge from decades of harsh and isolationist communism, into doubt."

The Daily Telegraph diplomatic editor Christopher Lockwood writes in today's edition of the British newspaper: "President Sali Berisha proclaimed the end of communism from (Skanderbeg) square in 1992, after his Democratic Party toppled Ramiz Alia, the last Stalinist in Europe. Now he, too, stands accused of creating a dictatorship.... Mr. Berisha's increasing autocracy has led a number of those who founded the Democratic Party with him to resign from it and join opposition groups."

Kevin Done and Marianne Sullivan in Tirana write in Britain's Financial Times today: "When a statue of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha was torn down in Albania's Skanderbeg Square six years ago, (the event) heralded the overthrow of the last communist regime in East Europe. The same square was the site of a new chapter of violent confrontation yesterday.... Western ambassadors decided yesterday to delay publication of a report on the election prepared by international observers under the leadership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Fearful of inflaming tensions, the diplomats referred the report to a meeting of the OSCE council in Vienna tomorrow..... Mr. Berisha's government has received significant support from Europe and the United States, which expect that Albania will play an important role in maintaining regional security. But the violence yesterday has complicated those relations."

The British newspaper The Guardian carries today an analysis from Tirana by Helene Smith. Smith writes: "Riot police wielding clubs stained the streets of Albania's capital with blood yesterday.... In scenes reminiscnet of the violence that precipitated the collapse of communism six years ago, police rounded up the protesters while the air resounded with antigovernment slogans and international observers looked on.... As a result of his self-proclaimed 'crushing victory,' President Berisha... is expected to control at least 134 seats in Tirana's 140-member parliament. In an effort to pressure the international community to order a new poll, the opposition has vowed it will boycott the new parliament. Yesterday, several leaders said they also will encourage their supporters to stage other demonstrations around Albania."