Uprising in Albania
by Lynn Walsh
A new dictatorship
In 1994 Berisha put forward a new constitution. Manoeuvring to by-pass parliament, Berisha was proposing the constitutional reincarnation of a one-party state, with himself as executive president, concentrating extraordinary power into his hands. He was demanding the power to dissolve parliament and issue decrees. He proposed to chair the High Council of Justice, and wield authority over the judiciary. When even the DP-dominated parliament opposed this attempted constitutional coup, Berisha turned to the traditional tactic of bonapartists, the plebiscite. He held a referendum in November 1994 aimed at securing popular approval for his constitution. All the opposition parties opposed the referendum. The Socialist Party (with a third of the seats in parliament) and the Greek Minority Party called for a No vote. The Social Democratic Party (7 seats), the Democratic Alliance (6), and the Right-Wing Democratic Party (2) called for a boycott.
Despite the fact that Berisha made full use of Albanian television, manipulated the ballot, and used the secret police to intimidate the opposition, he suffered a humiliating defeat. His constitutional proposal was rejected by 54 per cent to 42 per cent among those who voted, with an estimated 25 per cent of the electorate boycotting the election. This was an overwhelming rejection of any return to a dictatorial regime. The opposition parties called for early elections.
In spite of this set-back, Berisha continued to strengthen his personal power. Early in 1995 he ousted Eduard Selami, the DP chair and purged other party critics. Berisha’s policy was that "anyone who is not for me is against me." Around this time the Democratic Party was hit by a scandal which exposed the involvement of the defence minister, Zhulali, in the sale and shipment of arms to Bosnia or Macedonia, which ended up in the hands of the Serb forces.
Berisha’s purge also extended to the opposition parties. Fatos Nano, the Socialist Party chair, was imprisoned for twelve years on corruption charges. A leader of the Democratic Alliance was shot dead in a public rally by undercover police agents. Judges and prosecutors who stepped out of line were dismissed, while press journalists were sacked, beaten up, or jailed on trumped-up corruption charges. Berisha systematically strengthened the police forces and especially the Shik, the majority of whose personnel were drawn from his own northern region Tropja clan. In reality, Berisha’s policy was a gradual process of introducing martial law.
Opinion polls indicated growing support for the Socialists and the Social Democrats, although a growing section of the electorate expressed hostility to all political parties and their leaders, who had totally failed to provide solutions to the growing problems of water shortages, electricity failures, soaring unemployment, acute food shortages and poverty. Yet in the first round of the new parliamentary elections in May, 1996, the Democratic Party gained a landslide victory. Even as the first-round voting was taking place the opposition parties denounced the election as a fraud and launched a boycott. Western observers, such as the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which had more or less ignored gross ballot-rigging and intimidation in previous elections, were still slow in denouncing the fraudulent character of the elections. Two days after the balloting, however, the police viciously attacked an opposition demonstration in Tirana’s Skanderberg Square, in full view of an array of observers from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament. The Western powers could no longer maintain their ‘blind-eye’ policy. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights soon reported that the government had seriously violated election procedures and that a series of incidents "severely questioned the credibility of the democratic process". The OSCE called for an all-party dialogue to prepare fresh elections.
Berisha brazenly proclaimed a "crushing victory over the Red Front". Under pressure from the western powers, however, Berisha was forced in June to hold a re-run of the ballot in several consituences. The Socialist Party, the Social Democrats, and the Democratic Alliance continued to boycott the electoral farce, and called countrywide rallies against "the restoration of a new dictatorship in Albania". The turnout for the rallies, however, was very low, partly because of intimidation by the security forces but also because of lack of popular confidence in the effectiveness of the opposition parties. With the backing of the European Parliament, the opposition parties called for new elections within 18 months, but Berisha ruled out new elections before the 2000 deadline. The Socialist Party boycotted the reconvened parliament. Brussels put the negotiations for an association agreement between Albania and the EU on hold, while the US government refused to recognise the new parliament.
Berisha was determined to carry on as normal. Despite its criticisms of the electoral procedures, the Council of Europe urged the Socialists and their allies to drop their boycott and participate in the parliament. The Council supported moves by the Socialist Party, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Alliance to establish a round table on electoral reform. The Council appeared to be reassured by Berisha’s appointment of a permanent electoral commission, even though it was chaired by Nestor Teresk, who had presided over the manipulation of the May-June voting. The diplomats of EU states also urged the Socialist Party and the Social Democrats to participate in the local elections, due to be held in mid-October 1996. They still preferred the "stability" of Berisha to the possible return of the ex-Stalinists to power.
The local elections on 20 October actually strengthened the DP’s political grip on the country. The DP won 58 mayoral seats and control of 267 communes (municipal councils), while the Socialist Party won four mayoral seats and 15 communes. The embassies of the major EU states quickly issued statements welcoming the "free and fair" elections. Once again, the West turned a blind eye to a multitude of irregularities, including ballot-rigging and intimidation of opposition candidates. At that time, the biggest opposition party, the Socialists (whose chairman, Fatos Nano, was in prison) were torn by internal crisis, a factional battle between hard-liners and reformers. The second largest opposition party, the Centre Bloc, made up of the Democratic Alliance and the Social Democrats, was completely lacking in resources - or any political alternative. In any case, there were signs that a large section of the population were completely alienated from all the established political parties.
Western powers back Berisha
A major factor in the DP’s decisive victory in the local elections were the pyramid investment schemes. The Democratic Party leaders sponsored the schemes, and their rapid spread and the fabulous rates of interest being paid to investors gave the illusion of economic success. The DP threatened that the pyramid schemes would collapse if they lost the election. Thousands of people had sold everything they owned to invest in one or more of the schemes, and now depended on them for their income. "A vote against the DP was a vote against their own food supply," noted one commentator.
Whatever their misgivings, the western powers were prepared to live with Berisha’s regime, in spite of his corrupt drive to establish a one-party dictatorship. For his part, Berisha extracted the maximum political advantage from the backing provided by Europe. It was only when the disastrous collapse of the pyramids provoked a popular revolt that the western powers changed their tune.
Why did the western powers turn a blind eye for so long, when it had long been clear that Berisha was heading for a deep political and economic crisis? "Mr. Berisha," admitted The Guardian’s editorial (4 March), "has been treated mildly by the European nations and the US... He has been treated indulgently because of his anti-Communist credentials." The right-wing Wall Street Journal’s editor conceded that "Mr. Berisha’s government clearly has its flaws", but "the prospective alternatives look a lot worse." The greatest danger for the Wall Street financiers is not dictatorship and corruption but "that Albanians’ mistaken notion of capitalism, and subsequent disenchantment with the bill of goods they believe to be capitalism, will translate into political gains for the very forces that would lead Albania back down the road of economic depravity... The danger is that we could see a counter-revolution from the Left." (WSJ, 4 March)
The other reason Berisha "escaped censure" is because, once in power, he "avoided inflaming the spirit of pan-Albanian nationalism which might easily cause insurrection in Serbian Kosovo and among the Albanian minority in Macedonia." (Guardian, 4 March) "Diplomats concerned with stability in this volatile Balkan region appreciate what they see as his [Berisha’s] growing understanding of the need for cautious diplomacy." (Financial Times, 21 July 1994)
When he was campaigning for support in the 1992 elections, Berisha proclaimed: "Our brothers, living in their territories in the former Yugoslavia and wherever they are: the DPA will not stop fighting until her great dream of uniting the Albanian nation comes true." During the war in Bosnia, however, the western powers took consolation from the fact that Berisha in power merely engaged in smuggling oil and arms to the Serbs. This was in flagrant breach of UN sanctions, but preferable to Berisha actively supporting the Kosovars. Enjoying all the advantages of western backing, Berisha quickly learned to sing the right tunes: "All we are seeking is a democratic space for Albanians wherever they are. That means democratic institutions and elections. A solution cannot be achieved by forcibly changing borders." (Financial Times, 21 July, 1994)
But the blind-eye policy of the capitalist powers has now rebounded on them. The crisis in Albania threatens to spill over into Greece, Macedonia, and Kosovo - fuelled by the flood of arms seized from Albania’s armouries. Italy, Greece, Germany and other EU states once again face the prospect of the arrival of a mass of starving, destitute Albanians fleeing conflict and suffering at home.