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1997 In Review: From Anarchy To An Uncertain Stability In Albania

Prague, 19 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - Albania descended into anarchy in February, after five years of relative stability. The turmoil that followed the collapse of pyramid schemes, in which hundreds of thousands had invested their savings, made it obvious that Albania's post-Communist economic and political progress was far short of what the governing Democratic Party had claimed.

Much of the prosperity that Albania had seen since the end of Communist rule in 1991 did not, in fact, derive from its own economic strength. Albania imported large amounts of goods, but domestic production was diminishing, despite large-scale privatization. Cash remittances from Albanians living abroad and earnings derived from the smuggling of oil and arms to former Yugoslavia compensated for a huge trade deficit. During the wars of the Yugoslav succession between 1991 and 1995, the pyramid schemes served to launder money from these activities.

But the revolt this year was more than a reaction to an economic collapse; it was a protest against a government that was becoming increasingly authoritarian. After fraudulent elections in 1996, the collapse of the pyramids was the straw that broke the camel's back, because it drove many people into poverty. The results were perhaps more dramatic than anyone could have foreseen.

People looted arms depots throughout Albania. The army and public order collapsed, and the country appeared to be only a step away from civil war. At the same time, criminal gangs used the opportunity to expand their activities ranging from robbery to smuggling. Over 2,000 people were killed throughout the country, most by accident. As happened with the fall of Communism in 1991, tens of thousands fled by boat to Italy or by various means to Greece. In the most dramatic incident, over 80 people died in the Adriatic after a refugee boat collided with an Italian coast guard vessel on 28 March.

By that time, OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) envoy Franz Vranitzky had successfully mediated an agreement between President Sali Berisha and the opposition. Both sides agreed to a government of national reconciliation under Socialist Prime Minister Bashkim Fino, and to early elections. The Albanian authorities asked the international community to send in a multi-national stabilization force. The WEU and NATO declined to take full responsibility. Instead, it was left to Italy to assemble the force for Operation Alba after receiving a United Nations mandate. Various other European countries -- including France, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Romania, Austria and Denmark -- participated in the contingent, which arrived without incident on 15 April.

The parliamentary elections on 29 June and 6 July proceeded without major violence, even though the Albanian government, assisted by the OSCE, had hardly two months to prepare. Despite much fear that they would be a failure, the elections were a success, and, by and large, contributed to the stabilization of the country.

In August, a new Socialist-led coalition government took office under Prime Minister Fatos Nano, the former Socialist Party leader imprisoned under the previous government.

The Socialists had gained over two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. Berisha resigned the presidency, and parliament elected in his place Rexhep Meidani, a physicist who has played a largely ceremonial role aimed at promoting national reconciliation. His predecessor had, by contrast, used a strong French-type presidency to carry out the policies of his Democratic Party.

But half a year after the new government took office, the future of Albania is still uncertain. While the government has successfully managed to crack down on crime and re-established freedom of movement throughout much of the country, it now faces the challenge of putting its economy back on track and reduce its budget deficit. Success or failure will depend on its ability to create new jobs; to collect taxes and customs duties; and to restructure its inefficient and often corrupt administration, while avoiding political purges.

The presence of open conflicts between the parliament, the president and the judiciary suggest that the division of power functions better than before. The bulk of the work, however, is still ahead, including the drafting of a new constitution next year.

Whether the government can avoid the mistakes of its predecessors and function on the basis of duty to the state, rather than of partisanship, remains to be seen. Sharp polemics between the Democrats and the Socialists indicate that much of the country remains polarized.