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Violence May Chill Albania's Relations With the West

By Don Hill and Fabian Schmidt

Prague/Tirana, May 30 (RFE/RL) - The thunk of clubs and the splash of blood yesterday in Albania's Skanderbeg Square echo today in Western capitals.

The government of President Sali Berisha announced today that his ruling Democratic Party won almost 68 percent of the vote in last Sunday's election in Albania, taking 95 of the nation's 115 constituencies. The official Central Electoral Commission said the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, comprising ex-communists, prevailed in five constituencies.

But the Socialist Party and other opposition groups say the election was rigged from the outset. They said they will boycott the next round and will not participate in the new Parliament.

International observers support charges of gross election irregularities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement in Vienna yesterday that its monitors documented serious tampering, including cooking voting registers to match ballot totals. Earlier this week, election monitors from Norway and Great Britain published a stronger statement, saying "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."

When the Albanian opposition called a protest demonstration, Berisha's government banned the gathering. When angry Albanians defied the ban Tuesday and assembled in Skanderbeg Square, the main square of the capital Tirana, the Berisha government's security police descended with clubs on the demonstrators and, news reports said, on journalists and passers-by.

At least 10 people were reported injured, including Social Democratic Party leader Skender Gjenushi and the head of the Socialist Party, Servet Pellumbi. Among those beaten and detained by police were two Associated Press Television journalists. Their car and cameras were confiscated. Subsequently police surrounded the Social Democratic party's headquarters where opposition members sought refuge. An Albanian reporter who managed to broach the police line, accompanied by an analyst from the international research organization OMRI, said the place looked like, in his words, "a partisan hospital."

The election tampering and the violence seem likely to chill what up to now have been increasingly warm relations between the Berisha government and Western countries, including European Union members and the United States.

Albania, on the Adriatic Sea south of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and north of Greece, was after World War Two one of the world's most isolationed and xenophobic countries. Ardently Stalinist, it displayed hostility even toward China and post-Stalin Russia.

Even after dissidents forced a multiparty election in 1990, the Communists won, mainly by carrying the rural vote. But continuing instability in the cities, including riots and mass emigrations, forced new elections 11 months later.

Sali Berisha, a prominent and successful physician under the Communists, was credited by observers -- both at home and in the West -- with forcing democratic changes in his country. He founded the Democratic Party and in 1991, when his party won 65 percent of the vote, he ousted the last communist regime in Europe. The new parliament promptly elected him president.

In his first term in office, Berisha won the regard of the West. He preached nonviolence to unhappy ethnic Albanians living under Serbian rule. He limited illegal migration to Italy and Germany. The very name, Democratic Party, sent reassuring signals to countries like the United States and Britain.

Albania remains the poorest country in Europe with a per capita domestic product of less than 300 U.S. dollars a year. But Berisha's government, pressing privatization and overtures to Western investors, had even begun to turn the country's shrinking economy around. It has grown by more than 10 percent a year since 1993.

Signs of trouble began to emerge early this year. Even before he announced the May 26 election date, Berisha said publicly that his party would do everyting in its power to keep ex-communists from returning to power. The results of a poll, conducted by a U.S. firm, suggested that the Democrats would lose their majority control of the Parliament in an election.

But party head Tritan Shehu countered: "There is no doubt we'll win more than 50 percent." Three days later, a government commission barred 50 leading members of the opposition from standing for office on the grounds they had links with the former communist regime. Opposition leaders, pointing out that Berisha did too, appealed unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court.

Western reaction to Albania's troubled election mounted slowly this week. The OSCE met in Vienna today to discuss the matter. The European Union and Italy, which currently holds the EU presidency, expressed concern yesterday. So did Britain. France issued a statement that cautioned Albanian politicans. And a U.S. State Department spokesman expressed misgivings. Press commentary was less restrained. A columnist for the British daily The Independent wrote yesterday: "Any lingering pretense of democracy in Albania came to a brutal end in Tirana's main square yesterday."

The Berisha government denies culpability. The Albanian delegation to the OSCE, labeling the Western election monitors incompetent and anti-Albanian, says it will reject their report. The government issued a statement that Tuesday's violence was caused by demonstrators' attacks on the police.