Tense times are back once again in Albania

Political tension is threatening to destabilize Albania once again, just as that beleaguered country has been trying to get into step with the European Union. Last week, thousands of supporters of the opposition Democratic Party demonstrated against the government in Tirana, calling for the resignation of the Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano and for early elections. Some of the protesters tried to storm the prime minister’s headquarters, taking their cue from the recent events in Georgia that led to the resignation of its president, Eduard Shevardnadze. They were fought back by guards who fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd. Opposition leader Sali Berisha has called for more demonstrations this Saturday, the anniversary of the day in 1991 when thousands of angry Albanians knocked down the statue of Communist-era dictator Enver Hoxha in Tirana’s central square, leading to the fall of the regime. Western observers in Tirana have expressed fears of a possible provocation which could spark chaos, given that political passions still simmering in Albania are ready to explode at the first opportunity. Washington and Brussels have issued harsh warnings via their embassies in Tirana that they will not allow political violence to spoil Albania’s chances of eventually joining the European Union. The center-right opposition decided to send its supporters out into the streets to exploit people’s general feeling of dissatisfaction with the Socialist government (and with Prime Minister Fatos Nano himself), seen as plagued by corruption and unable to deal with the rampant poverty and increasing unemployment. The prime minister in particular has been accused of arrogance, even by his own party cadres, and of indifference to the country’s problems. He is also seen as having a fondness for a luxurious lifestyle while the majority of his fellow-countrymen live in poverty and misery. Despite the tentative steps toward economic reform and modernization of the state apparatus, Albania is still a long way from the starting gate in the race to join the European Union, a situation for which the political leadership bears a major responsibility. Vendetta Political life since the fall of the Hoxha regime has been characterized by the relentless conflict between Fatos Nano and Sali Berisha, a conflict that has assumed the character of a vendetta. The two leaders, both with a charismatic appeal for their people (Berisha was Hoxha’s physician, Nano was president of the Communist Youth movement) have had a monopoly on power for the past 12 years, each using it for the political – and not only, as they have each alleged – annihilation of the other. The kanun, the law of vengeance dating from the Middle Ages that still prevails in many parts of Albania, has its own particular application to the Nano-Berisha conflict. When Berisha won the first truly democratic elections held in post-Hoxha Albania in 1993, the first thing he did was to imprison Fatos Nano, until then the elected prime minister, allegedly for embezzling humanitarian aid from abroad, yet no one in the West believed this was anything but an act of revenge. In the spring of 1997, Nano’s Socialists led the armed uprising against Berisha over the collapse of the pyramid investment scheme, besieging their hated rival in the presidential palace, which was guarded by faithful supporters from Berisha’s hometown of Tropoja. Bloodshed was averted thanks to Western intervention, but Sali Berisha never forgot his enemy who, amid the general chaos, escaped from his prison in Tepelene and returned to Tirana. On September 14, 1998, Berisha sought his revenge by inciting thousands of armed supporters at a rally in Skanderbeg Square to take over the state television headquarters and then set fire to the prime minister’s headquarters. Prime Minister Nano, warned by his secret services of a plot to kill him, had fled to Skopje, returning later to set in motion the prosecution of Berisha. Pressure from abroad prevented the arrest and trial of the Democratic Party leader, which might have set off a civil war, but outbursts in Parliament and the media, peppered with insults such as «murderer» and «thief,» have continued to be a feature of the two leaders’ interchanges. Under conditions of such extreme polarization, the two men have remained all-powerful within their own parties, in which not only have they not «let a hundred flowers bloom» but have nipped any other views or attempts at reform in the bud. Fatos Nano’s Socialists, in power since 1997, do not appear to be endangered by Berisha’s demonstrations despite people’s dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption and poverty. Not because the people do not trust them, but because the electorate is not convinced that Berisha and his excesses are a credible alternative. Tirana’s diplomatic and press circles say that as long as Berisha remains president of the Democratic Party, Nano can be sure of retaining his seat, and as long as Nano leads the ruling party, Berisha will not abandon his position as leader of the opposition. Unfortunately, the major victim of this conflict is Albania’s future in Europe.