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Albania: The Country In Rebellious Crisis

Prague, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Albania is in crisis. President Sali Berisha is fighting for his political life. The army, ordered to put down an armed insurrection and contain anarchy, is disintegrating. Armed mobs threaten to take over in parts of the country.

The state-run news media report a semblance of order has been restored in the towns of Fier and Gjirokaster. But fighting between the military and the insurrectionists is said to continue on the outskirts of Sarande and Vlore.

The revolt may at the first glance be reminiscent of unrest in 1991. But the disturbances are more serious now because the military and police have failed to ensure order. They even have been incapable of defending themselves from mob attacks. Soldiers are reported deserting, leaving military bases unguarded and undefended. A key international border crossing with Greece has been unguarded for several days.

The revolt was prompted by the collapse of several fraudulent pyramid investment schemes. This has been followed by weeks of mass protest demonstrations in cities around the country. These have become increasingly politicized, turning against Berisha and his government. The political establishment was seen by the public as responsible for the failure to warn the public of the inherent danger of the pyramid schemes. The post-Communist Socialist party is reported to have organized many of the protests and ensured their political, anti-government content.

Two days ago Berisha met with three Socialist party leaders and accused them of organizing the armed rebellion. He was reported to have charged that the rebellion was designed to suppress the constitutional order and Albanian democracy".

Berisha said that while he supports a dialog between political parties, this must take place in accordance to the constitution. But he also said that he opposes a coalition of Democrats and Socialists. Instead, Berisha called on the Socialist leadership to appeal to the rebels to hand over their weapons.

Organized crime appears to be a major element of the unrest. Two of the centers of unrest, the southern Adriatic ports of Vlora and Sarande, have traditionally been regarded as transit centers for smuggled goods. It is through these ports that drugs are said to be brought to Western Europe from Asia, that cigarettes are smuggled to Italy and stolen vehicles are shipped from across Western Europe for destination in the Balkans. In the final years of communist rule, there were recurrent reports of ties between the communist authorities and smugglers.

News reports from Sarande and Vlora as well as from two villages near the Greek border, Jorgucat and Vrisera, suggest that criminal elements are now playing a key role in the rebellion. Some 300 prisoners from the Sarande jail are said to have escaped or been freed.

The legacy of nearly half a century of Communist rule still lingers. This makes it difficult for the current Albanian leadership to sit down with the post-communist Socialists and solve the crisis together. They are separated by a rivalry over a vision, both of the past and the future. But the formerly communist Socialist Party still can count on support from voters in many rural areas, particularly in the South of the country.

Berisha's task of restoring order is further complicated by lingering public anger at the manner in which his Democratic Party manipulated parliamentary and local elections last year to ensure victory. The Socialists responded to the alleged election manipulations by boycotting parliament.

Poverty-stricken Albania is Europe's poorest and most backward country. It will remain so for many years to come. Decades of communist rule smothered the spirit and national identity of its people. The landscape has been scarred by Chinese-style terracing, panel housing that in many cases is unfit for human habitation and ubiquitous concrete domed bunkers built under Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Those bunkers are now reportedly being used in the fight for Vlora and Saranda.

Many Albanians distrust Berisha's Democratic Party. They tend to see it as an association of opportunists and victims of Communist rule intent on settling old scores and regaining their property confiscated by the Communists. That distrust only strengthened as a result of alleged election manipulations last year.

Berisha needs the West to survive. But he also needs to introduce effective methods of reconciliation between various groups to insure that his government policies are accepted by the public. In the current situation of massive unrest and growing anarchy this is indeed a difficult task.