Uprising in Albania
by Lynn Walsh
Angry demonstrations demanding money back from the pyramids and the resignation of Berisha led to clashes between the protesters and the police. Vicious attacks by the police and Shik thugs led to furious retaliation. The police, especially the Shik, got a taste of their own medicine, and police stations, town halls, and other public buildings were ransacked and burned by the demonstrators. In mid-February there were massive demonstrations in Vlore, Gjirokaster, Tirana and other cities. With clear political direction and a minimum of organisation, this mass movement could clearly have swept the regime away in a few days. Neither the ex-Stalinist Socialist Party nor the liberal-bourgeois opposition parties offered any clear leadership. Using sections of the army, the police, and the secret police, Berisha attempted to intensify the repression against the mass movement, which in response began to escalate into a mass, country-wide insurgency.
Berisha’s attempt to "crush the red rebellion" effectively provoked a mass uprising, which has completely undermined his regime. On 3 March Berisha sacked his Prime Minister, Meksi. Far from being a retreat, this was accompanied by a declaration of a state of emergency, in reality the imposition of draconian martial law. The president ordered the parliament to re-elect him for another five-year term. Berisha purged the tops of the army, police and national guard, and put general Bashkim Gazidede, head of the hated Shik, in charge of all the security forces. For good measure, he tripled army and police pay. Berisha set out to crush mass opposition with tanks and war planes. Peaceful protests against the pyramid swindle were brutally crushed by the Shik. The day after martial law was declared, the offices of the leading opposition newspaper, Koha Jone, were burned out, evidently by thugs working for the Shik. But the armed forces were countered by a rapidly arming people. The uniformed police melted away. Many had lost their own savings in the pyramids’ collapse, and were in no mood to defend Berisha. When military units and the Shik advanced on Southern cities to repress the protests, the people stormed the local military arsenals and defended themselves against the state forces.
The collapse of Berisha’s own power base was shown by the flight from the country of the president’s former defence minister, Safet Zhulali. Moreover, reports that Berisha’s two children and his palace hangers-on had arrived in the Italian port of Bari revealed that Berisha himself was far from confident of surviving in power.
Armed resistance in the South
On 8 March Berisha’s special troops attempted to take control of Gjirokaster, hoping to use it as a base to retake other rebel strongholds, like Delvine and Sarande. The arrival of the special forces at the town’s police station, reported The Times (10 March), "provoked hoards of Albanians to pour into the streets around the building, while other groups surrounded the local barracks, location of the arsenal stock. The situation grew rapidly out of control as it became apparent that President Berisha’s men did not have the support of the police whom they then threatened with automatic weapons."
Nor was the commander of the local garrison prepared to support Berisha’s forces: "His force had been depleted by desertion over the past three weeks from more than a thousand men to about 200. A brief fusillade of shots from the soldiers over the heads of the encircling mass of townsfolk, who grew ever more belligerent to a chorus of ‘Down with the dictator Berisha’, exacerbated the situation. The commander ordered his men to hand their weapons to the people and the crowd flooded in, breaching the arsenal doors and seizing the weapons before rushing back to the police station, together with the defecting soldiers." (The Times, 10 March)
Similar events occurred in towns and villages throughout the south. In Delvine, halfway between Sarande and Gjirokaster, the population mobilised against the government tanks and troops who were sent to crush them. Armed insurgents clashed with Berisha’s forces outside Delvine, while "thousands of women and children armed with Kalashnikovs and chanting slogans against president Berisha demonstrated... [They] were carrying machine guns and machine pistols and shouting ‘We want democracy’ and ‘Down with the dictator Berisha’." (The Times, 6 March)
Throughout the South the military arsenals built up under Hoxha were emptied out, and insurgents seized tanks, heavy artillery, and also took control of military airfields and submarine bases. The whole population appeared to be armed, men and women, old people and young children. "The people are arming themselves out of self-defence," commented one of the opposition party leaders, "because they are afraid of what will happen tomorrow." (The Guardian, 15 March)
People particularly took revenge on the Shik, notorious for their brutal methods. The prisons were emptied, and shops and warehouses were looted for food. Food and guns became the basic necessities. "The government stole from the people," said a school teacher in Durres, "and the people are stealing things back."
Berisha compromises with opposition leaders
On 9 March Berisha had talks with opposition leaders and announced there would be new elections in June. He promised an amnesty for rebels in the south, provided they handed in their arms. But by this time, however, Berisha was virtually powerless to enforce decrees. A spokesman for the opposition Democratic Forum, Blendi Gonxhja, said: "The agreement is very good. Whether it will be respected or not is different. We are very worried about whether this will be accepted in the south." (The Times, 10 March) In Fratar, a village in the south, an armed 14-year-old gave the answer: "Our leaders are academics from the mountains. There are 5,000 of us who will fight here." He told the journalist, "When you write do not say that we are rebels. We are the Albanian people."
The new Prime Minister appointed by Berisha was Bashkim Fino, formerly the Socialist Mayor of Gjirokaster. Fino called for talks with the rebels. He enraged the insurgents by saying that Berisha should remain in power for the time being. A leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Perikli Teta, a former Defence Minister, summed the situation up: "We political parties are making blah, blah, blah, but we are not really representative of the rebels." A young man wearing a balaclava put the peoples’ demands very clearly: "One - Berisha kaput! Two - money back!"
National Salvation Committee
By mid-March most of the South, about a third of the country, was in the hands of the insurgents. In many towns, committees had been set up in an attempt to organise the uprising. Many are reportedly headed by senior army offices, who have either been retired off since Alia’s downfall or have defected from the Berisha’s forces since the rebellion began. Around 11 March eight of the rebel town committees met in Gjirokaster and formed a "National Committee for the Salvation of the People", but the local committees do not appear to be unified bodies with clear aims and organised support. Apart from the universal demand for the removal of Berisha and the return of pyramid money, each town appears to have its own militias and its own agenda. Colonel Jsuf Gepani, a member of the Gjirokaster committee, said: "We are administering the armour under the command of the Gjirokaster committee. What we do with them is down to the people." But the armed struggle is running ahead of political and economic aims. A member of the Serande committee, Professor Ilirian Alikaj, complained that "the gangsters and criminals are taking over". He told reporters that he was not sure how many other people were on the committee, who they were, or what the committee’s policy was.
Some committees have attempted to gain some control over the reckless use of arms (which has reportedly resulted in many accidents and self-inflicted injuries) and the spread of armed crime. But no one is ready to part with their newly-acquired weapons. Most people see them as a defence against the regime or a guarantee of obtaining food in the coming months. There has undoubtedly been a growth of gangsterism, with the emergence of armed gangs and local warlords whose main motive is the rapid acquisition of territorial power and profits.
Events in the North of the country are not so clear. Berisha has undoubtedly been able to draw on some support from the Ghegs, and there have been reports of armed mobilisations to defend the president. But there have also been reports of growing opposition to the regime. Earlier predictions by some Western commentators of a possible North-South, Gheg-Tosk conflict, even an ethnic civil war, have not been borne out.
Ghegs and Tosks, whose regions are traditionally divided by the Shkumbin River, are distinguished by different dialects of the Albanian language. But the source of conflict in the past lay in different social structures, traditions and political loyalties. During the wartime resistance struggle against Nazi occupation and in the period of post-war transformation, the Communist Party drew its main support for the Tosks in the South, predominantly poor peasant farmers and rural labourers on the big estates. Subsequently, Hoxha drew the top personnel of his regime from among the Tosks, undermined the northern elite, and generally favoured the South.
The Gheg region of mountainous Northern Albania - which ethnically extends into Kosova and Western Macedonia - was historically dominated by chieftains who ruled over a clan social structure. During the wartime struggles, these chieftains mainly supported right-wing nationalists and monarchist politicians. Many were hostile to the Stalinist regime, and maintained links with counter-revolutionary émigré politicians. Unlike the former Stalinist leaders, Berisha is a Gheg, and has mainly drawn his praetorian guard and political henchmen from amongst the Gheg clansmen.
There is, however, a large intermediate area between the two regions, which includes the capital, Tirana. The city now accounts for about a quarter of the country’s population, and Kosk-Gheg relations have not previously been an issue.
Distrust of the North amongst southerners is undoubtedly linked to hatred for the Shik, which is largely made up of Berisha’s hand-picked northerners. Yet in the 1994 referendum staged by Berisha to legitimise his new bonapartist constitution, Berisha’s proposals were overwhelmingly defeated throughout the country. In the May 1996 elections, the Democratic Party lost Shkoder, the biggest city in the North. Nevertheless, Berisha probably still has strong points of support among Northerners.
"Once installed as president in 1992," reported The Independent (6 March), Berisha brought thousands of villagers down from the north to take up jobs in ministries and in the security forces, the police and the Shik secret police." For the first time since 1945, Berisha’s regime tipped the balance of the ruling elite back in favour of the Ghegs. Moreover, many the gangster-entrepreneurs who have flourished recently come from the mafioso families of the North.
On 12 March it was reported that "in Tropje, Berisha’s northern home town, insurgents had ransacked a barracks and seized weapons." (The Guardian) The paper speculated, "they could have been government supporters fearing an imminent rebel take-over." On 10 March, however, The Guardian had reported: "Officials in Shkoder, the northern region’s main city, yesterday estimated that the president’s popularity had declined by as much as 80 percent since the countrywide protest against the government-backed investment schemes escalated into violence in the past week. Although most of the northern highlanders were too poor to invest in the fraudulent pyramid schemes, the north is now restive about the regime’s increasingly repressive nature. Mr Berisha’s trebling of the size of the Shik secret police and widespread official corruption are held against him."
On 22 March The Economist reported: "The main town in the north, Shkodra, its local government of monarchists and right wingers who appear to have little of no allegiance to Tirana." The Times (24 March) reported, however, that Berisha has strong support among the northerners now living in the northern suburbs of Tirana. "To us he is a legend," says a retired army officer. "He cut the rope of fifty years of Communism from around our necks." The report continues, "there are 22,000 people in these sprawling suburbs that cloak the northern outskirts of Tirana; people driven out of their homes near the Serbian border by dire poverty and a disastrous reservoir project inspired by Enver Hoxha... President Berisha’s village of Tropje is in their heartland."
On 20 March a shadowy group calling itself the Committee for National Salvation issued a statement declaring that Berisha was "a factor for national, political, and social equilibrium" in the country. According to the Financial Times (21 March), they claimed "thousands of armed members" and would use "all its force to challenge groups paid by the historic enemies of Albania," implying that the southern committees are backed by the Greeks.
Far from achieving "equilibrium", however, Berisha has driven the country into a political gridlock. He managed by about 21 March to re-establish partial control of Tirana. The president is "holed up in his presidential palace, with tanks said to be concealed in dug-outs for its protection. What is left of his power rests on the Shik, his secret police..." (The Economist, 22 March) The security forces have imposed a shoot-on-sight dusk-to-dawn curfew on Tirana. Politically, Berisha is trying maintain his position through a shaky coalition with the opposition, but he reportedly faces opposition from DP rivals who now regard him as a liability. His ultimatum to the rebels in the South expired on 20 March without any response from the rebel committees. Berisha does not have the power to send forces to the South to crush the insurrection. But although they are heavily armed and have the support of ex-Stalinist army officers, the Southern forces do not appear to have the unity or organisation needed to advance on Tirana.
Against Berisha, For ?
The movement in the South has been a spontaneous, mass insurrection against Berisha’s dictatorship and the pyramid swindle. The uprising has lacked any organised form or coherent aims. The opposition parties have appeared irrelevant. "The opposition parties can do whatever they want, but the peoples’ wishes are different," commented Colonel Xhevat Kocin, spokesman for the Sarande committee: "This is not a revolt connected to the opposition parties, it is a popular revolution for reasons different to their political agendas." As the population seized weapons in Elban, an industrial town near Tirana, a worker commented: "I don’t think people here want any political party. We’re against Berisha because he took our money." (The Independent, 14 March) In Bejar, near the Greek bordar, a worker who lost five years’ earnings in the pyramid collapse, said: "Berisha is dead for us... Berisha is connected with the mafia, 100 per cent." Asked who he wanted in power, however, he replied: "I don’t know. I just want a leader with a free mind, not a dictator." (The Observer, 9 March)
The people’s agenda is far from clear. They know what they are against, but are far from clear on an alternative. There is a deep well of bitter grievances, but they are far from being formulated into anything resembling a programme of demands. The party leaders gathered in the Forum for Democracy have offered no direction: "Their leaders in Tirana," commented the Financial Times, "have been careful to distance themselves from the violent uprising in the south of the country." The Forum’s main demand was for an interim caretaker government of neutral technocrats to prepare fresh elections.
When Fatos Nano, the Socialist Party leader, was freed from jail, he was reported to have called for "the unification in peace of all Albanians, the return of weapons stolen in the past ten days, and support for the new government of national reconciliation." (The Times, 18 March) His ‘statesman-like’ speech was clearly aimed at the Western powers rather than the Albanian people.
As one of the prominent leaders of the former Stalinist regime until 1991, Nano no doubt fears the popular uprising as much as Berisha and other elite politicians. Nano will probably be quite willing to collaborate with Western powers in trying to re-establish law and order in Albania, provided Berisha goes and the Socialist Party leaders get a share of power and access to the new bourgeois wealth. Although previously regarded as a Stalinist hard-liner, Nano accepts the abandonment of any lip-service to Marxism and has embraced the market economy. Currently he is barred from office by Berisha’s 1993 "Genocide Law", which bans anybody associated with the Stalinist government before 1991 from running for office until the year 2000. But this could easily be changed.