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Albania: Order Replaces Violence

Tirana, 17 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When unrest broke out in Tirana last Sunday (Sept. 13), many observers feared that Albania was about to face a repetition of the violence and anarchy that took hold of the country last year after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. But two days later, both major political parties appeared willing to avoid violence.

As in March 1997, civilians seized tanks and roamed the streets, firing into the air with Kalashnikov machine guns and plundering shops. The clashes erupted during the funeral of controversial Democratic Party legislator and former anti-communist student movement leader Azem Hajdari, who was killed on Saturday (Sept. 12) by unidentified gunmen outside the party headquarters in Tirana.

The opposition charged Prime Minister Fatos Nano with having organized the killing, an allegation Nano vehemently denied. Within a few hours, opposition protesters managed to seize the prime minister's offices, the state radio and television building, and the parliament building. At least three people were killed in clashes with police by the end of the day.

But in contrast to last year, special police forces were able to restore order quickly. Most protesters dispersed when police moved in, and only a small group of opposition supporters took shelter at the Democratic Party headquarters. They brought with them two tanks they had captured, and the next morning they entered into a stand-off with police. Elsewhere, normal life had returned to the city and shops opened again.

The riots did not spread throughout the country. The northern city of Shkodra, which is a strong base of support for the Democrats, remained calm.

There had been earlier persistent but unconfirmed rumors from Shkodra suggesting that a shadowy opposition body calling itself the Albanian Liberation Army was allegedly preparing to bring down the current Socialist-dominated government. Such allegations were given credence by an incident in January (20th), when a group of armed men attacked and seized the local police station there. For one day, the group gained control over the city. But, a day later (Jan 21), special police forces entered the city and reestablished order.

The latest Tirana riots did not see the disorder spilling over to areas outside the capital. The only exception was the town of Kavaja--a Democratic Party stronghold near Tirana--where some opposition supporters built barricades on the country's main north-south road and captured the local police station the day after Hajdari's murder.

The short time in which the revolt was brought under control indicates that the government has managed sufficiently to rebuild its police forces since last year's anarchy to cope with major challenges. Still, the security forces are not yet coordinated enough to react quickly enough and to prevent such riots in the first place.

More important, the quick end to the revolt shows that the population as a whole is not willing to support violence by small groups wanting to bring down a democratically elected government.

And even within the Democratic Party--many of whose supporters have yet explicitly to renounce political violence--the tolerance for undemocratic political means seems to be declining. Party leader Sali Berisha used state television after it was captured by his supporters to broadcast a call to all Albanians to refrain from using violence, a move that probably made it easier for police to restore order. The following day, Berisha strongly rejected accusations from Socialist Party and government officials that he had planned to stage a coup d'etat. Instead, he said, he remained committed to force the government to resign by means of peaceful protests. Despite a police ban and high tensions following the previous day's events, the Democrats staged on Tuesday (Sept. 15) a peaceful protest demonstration. The police presence in the city was strong, but remained in the background, apparently trying to avoid an open confrontation.

But the deeply rooted political tensions remain. Nano is unlikely to give into the opposition demand that he steps down, which many would see as a sign of weakness. Indeed, his position has been strengthened by the violent behavior of some opposition protesters. He may nonetheless come under pressure to change some of his government ministers.

Many citizens may have come to perceive the Democrats as being bent on seizing power through violence. Berisha and his colleagues may now try to counteract this image.

As to the government, it will likely seek to follow up its success in maintaining control of Tirana's streets by ensuring that an investigation into the killing of Hajdari is launched and the killers arrested.