February 19, 2020
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The Balkan Curse

The new democracy totters as a financial fraud sparks near-anarchy

The Balkan Curse

ALBANIA, a small Balkan country wedged between the former Yugoslavia and the Adriatic sea, is in the throes of a people's revolt—torn by violent protests, rising death toll and a strong insurrectionist movement. Thousands of enraged Albanians are demanding the resignation and ouster of right-wing democratic President Sali Berisha. "We shall overthrow the government at all costs," shouted protesters in the southern Adriatic city of Vlore where buildings were set on fire and military installations looted for weapons. Several parts of the south are out of government control.

The protests began two months ago against the government's lack of response to the financial crisis that resulted from the loss of lifetime savings that people had placed in bogus investment schemes. Last January two prominent emerging companies, which had lured several thousand Albanians into investing their life savings in schemes that promised high returns with little outlay of cash, suddenly declared bankruptcy. Many ordinary citizens had sold homes, farms and livestock in the belief that they could double their money in two to three months. The schemes had carried a special appeal in Albania which, after 45 years of extreme poverty under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, emerged as the poorest of the new democracies in Eastern Europe. Almost $1 billion was invested in the schemes, say observers.

The lack of a proper banking system allowed the fraudulent schemes to flourish. So, according to the charges, did President Sali Berisha, and his ministers who encouraged the fraudulent investment opportunities as a convenient way to raise campaign funds and line their own pockets. The protest first erupted in the southern cities of Vlore and Sarande where the largest proportion of citizens had invested money in the schemes and where political opposition to Berisha has a strong base. The irony is that, till recently, President Sali Berisha had done much towards ending the poverty that plagued his country for five decades. Since 1992, when Berisha's Democratic Party came to power, more money from the IMF and other international agencies was poured into Albania than into any other emerging democracy. Two years ago, inflation was down to 6 per cent, economic growth was high, and the momentum of privatisation and reform was surging forward.

Yet, some of the recent trouble can be attributed to Berisha's determination to maintain power. Last May, during general elections, Berisha was accused of ballot-rigging and intimidation. In the recently published US human rights report, the 'flawed' elections were described as a "major step backwards for democracy". Berisha did not effectively confront the growing problems of lawlessness and corruption. Drug smuggling and arms trafficking, coupled with a year of rising inflation, low wages, and a general decline in the economy, made the situation ripe for disaster.

Shades of Albania's totalitarian past have risen in the last few weeks of unrest. On March 2, Berisha imposed a state of emergency, calling out the army and summoning his secret police to bring order. Alternately blaming "foreign powers" and "Marxist elements who have always wanted to seize power", Berisha gave an ultimatum that forces would shoot without warning if weapons were not surrendered. So far, some 19 people have been killed and hundreds arrested. Yet, many of the army and police personnel who were themselves affected by the bogus schemes have resisted intervening and have even joined in the protests.

 Determined to be seen as Albania's undisputed leader, Berisha arranged to have himself re-elected in Parliament as president for a second five-year term. There was little parliamentary opposition as his ruling Democratic Party holds 122 of the 140 seats on March 3. In the same week, thugs thought to be members of the secret service beat up foreign journalists. The VOA and BBC had their frequencies jammed and the office of the country's sole independent newspaper, Koha Jone, was burned down.

But the response has remained defiant, particularly in the southern Adriatic towns of Vlore and Sarande. Bands of men, some as young as 11 or 12, are roaming the streets with Kalashnikovs. The recent resignation of the unpopular prime minister, Aleksander Meksi, was widely regarded as a 'cosmetic' solution and violent riots continued. "We're not giving up our weapons until Berisha resigns," said a former police officer and current member of the southern town of Sarande's rebel council. The lack of a cohesive government has deterred IMF officials from a scheduled visit to assist Albania in overcoming the finan-cial crisis. The US, which recently increased aid to Albania to $27 million from $20 million, has urged Berisha to reach a political settlement without force. The fear is that emotions could spill over and incite the neighbouring Albanian-populated province of Kosovo in Serbia to agitate against Belgrade in a bid by the Albanian government to divert attention from issues at home.

In a television session on March 9 with Opposition leaders, Berisha proposed the holding of elections in two months. And spoke of a government of 'reconciliation' which would represent all political parties. He has also appointed a new prime minister who has admitted that the country is on the verge of civil war and sought help from the international community.

The real response to these new measures can still be measured on the streets. "There is no authority here," Perparim Rezeto, a 45-year-old electrician told CNN news. "Everyone is acting on his own." Behind him, cars, trucks and loaded donkeys were leaving the army base in Sarande as people carried away automatic rifles, grenades and uniforms.

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