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Albania: New Prime Minister Faces Referendum On Draft Constitution

Berlin, 12 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Following last week's approval by the parliament of his cabinet, new Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko faces many domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Domestic problems include the passage of a new constitution, improvement of public order, and the fight against corruption. In the foreign-policy sphere, it is likely Majko will try to maintain Albania's moderate Kosovo policy. That will require withstanding pressure from the opposition, which frequently uses nationalist rhetoric to embarrass the governing coalition.

Majko's government is the third to take office since the Socialist Party won a two-thirds majority in parliament in 1997 general elections, which followed widespread unrest earlier in the year.

Against the background of these frequent changes of government, the Socialist Party will need to maintain a broad support base in order to lead the country out of the current turmoil. Majko will be able to withstand calls from opposition Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha for early elections only if he enjoys support that extends far beyond his own party.

A key test for Majko and his coalition will be a referendum next month on a new constitution. The drafting of the constitution has been a major issue for Albanian governments for years. In 1994, then-president Berisha failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority in the parliament for the passage of his own constitution. When he tried to have it approved by referendum, the electorate voted no, in what many observers saw as a turning point in his political career.

The Democrats have attempted to frustrate the Socialists' attempts to draft a new constitution by boycotting the parliament, questioning the legitimacy of the government, and demanding new elections. The parliamentary commission working on the draft not only includes members of the governing coalition, but is headed by center-right opposition Republican Party legislator Sabri Godo. Godo has repeatedly complained about the Democrats' boycott of the drafting process.

Furthermore, the Democrat-led unrest that broke out in early September following the murder of Democratic legislator Azem Hajdari backfired for the Democrats and showed that the government's political position is strong. The armed revolt in Tirana was over within less than two days. Prosecutors investigating the events now claim to have gathered evidence that unspecified Democratic Party members planned the riots well in advance.

Majko will need to promote reconciliation with the opposition while not giving into their demand for new elections. He is in a strong position to do so. The 30-year-old leader of the student revolt that ended communist rule in Albania, Majko is Europe's youngest prime minister and was never a member of the Communist Party of Labor of Albania. He became a member of the Socialists after the party's internal reform in 1991 and has since developed the profile of a reformer promoting a Social Democratic image for the party.

Majko commands more respect from the opposition than did his predecessor Fatos Nano, a former communist and bitter rival of Berisha. But if Berisha is charged with staging a coup in connection with the September riots, Majko would find it difficult to end the polarization that has characterized Albanian politics for some years. He will also need to convince critics that his government, which is almost identical in composition to Nano's, signifies a break with the Nano administration. Besides reaching an understanding with the opposition, Majko's toughest challenges remain a thorough reform of the administration, the implementation of anti-corruption measures, improving the living standards of the population, developing the country's infrastructure, and strengthening the rule of law.

Most media and the opposition had repeatedly accused Nano's previous Socialist government of corruption and inefficiency. Majko has drawn up an ambitious reform program that would create 85,000 new jobs and would promote the reform of the country's police and judiciary.

Albania's previous government held to a moderate Kosovo policy, which aimed at promoting a peaceful solution within the existing borders of federal Yugoslavia. The new government is under pressure from the international community to maintain that. But that may be difficult because of the opposition's constant attempts to exploit the Kosovo conflict for its own political ends. The Democrats demand the recognition of the Serbian province as an independent state and Albanian assistance for the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

The international community's effort to force Belgrade to cease military operations in Kosovo and take part in internationally mediated talks on the future of the province will have repercussions in Albania. Ultimately, the credibility of the new Albanian government's foreign policy and its ability to move on with its domestic agenda will depend on the success of international mediation in Kosovo.

(The author is a Berlin-based analyst of Balkan affairs.)