This report is based on a one-week presence in Albania (mainly in Tirana, with travels to Durres, Kruja, Vlore) June 15-22, 1997 by a political analyst from the Sarajevo ICG team who have made several previous visits to Albania starting in 1992. Interviews were conducted with OSCE, MPF, NDI, UNDP, ICRC, Italian Media Observatorio, and foreign diplomats, representatives of Albanian Human Rights Committee, Albanian Media Center, Albanian Committee for Conflict Resolution, Soros Foundation, local journalists, intellectuals and politicians. "It is a pity that Albania cannot be put in receivership" commented one foreign diplomat ten days before the parliamentary elections in Albania. The diplomat said it in jest, but Albanians and foreigners trying to help them are getting increasingly frustrated with the anarchy that reigns in most of the country.

Lack of a state

Basic tasks of what is usually understood as "the state" do not function in great parts of Albania. There is no tax collection anywhere, no police in many regions (especially, but not exclusively in the South), an emergency law is operating, with curfew from 10 pm to 5 am . Shots are heard in Tirana every day after curfew. Wild checkpoints have been set up on many roads, cars are ambushed (the BBC reporter just had her car taken away), some regions are out of limits even for local population. It is estimated that some 1500 inmates, of which 700 convicted of murder, are roaming around loose after the prisons have been opened, and the estimate of guns in the hands of the population goes from half a million to a million. Criminal gangs are for example in total control of the southern town of Vlora, where gangster "Zani" is facing gangster "Kakami". The ICG mission went to Vlora to assess the situation. At the entrance to the town a heavy machine gun is placed on every tall building, aimed at the road. Every day at 10 am inhabitants of Vlore gather in thousands on a square to listen to the "Salvation Committee" announcements and then they disperse. At 1 pm the streets of Vlora are deserted. Every few days the criminal gangs have regular gun battles resulting in high numbers being killed or wounded (Albanian press quotes the number of over 2000 mortal victims nation-wide since the unrest started in the beginning of the year). In Tirana every morning the CIMIC Center of the Multinational Protection Force (MPF) has a briefing for humanitarian organisations and other NGOs to make the security forecast. Convoys are announced offering possible escort availability. Except for the ICRC all agencies move with escorts provided by the MPF. Journalists take their chances but it is not easy to find drivers ready to go outside the main roads.

The origin of the current unrest

The rebellion started in Vlora, because this town was the headquarters for many of the money pyramid schemes that collapsed. Some schemes were pure fictions, others were semi-normal real estate agencies, insurance companies, etc. A few still operate. It is widely believed that many if not all were doing money laundering. The collapse of the pyramids was the direct reason for the unrest, but the long-term reason was the growing discontent with the undemocratic and autthoritarian rule by president Sali Berisha. Over the last four years his popularity has plummeted. To eliminate dissidence, he clamped down on media and independent judiciary, he relied more and more on repression, only increasing the vicious circle. In the first days of March, Berisha passed an emergency law and had the Parliament controlled by his Democratic Party, re-elect him for another 5 years term (until 2002). These moves, plus the way he dealt with the rebellion in the south (sending police and army) had led to a nadir of his popularity. But the opposition (whose members now claim that they acted under pressure from international community) instead of seizing the opportunity to force Berisha out of office, concluded a pact with him (on March 9), thus giving him another chance.

Current political situation

There is a rather generalised feeling that Sali Berisha personifies all that is wrong in Albania and that he should go. Outside his close circle of allies (a little more than bodyguards, family, high Democratic Party officials) it is difficult to find anyone who would defend him or recommend that he stay in office. Many Albanians feel that the country needs a Democratic Party and that therefore the sooner the DP gets rid of Berisha, the better, because otherwise it may be irrevocably damaged. Berisha promised that if his party loses he will deposit his mandate (he is running in the parliamentary election, which may suggest that he contemplates such a possibility since he cannot hold the two positions). But many here repeat a saying about mountaineers from the North, like Berisha: "The only way to get the man off his horse is to shoot him down".

Parliamentary elections

The March 9 pact included the call for anticipated parliamentary elections to be held before the end of June. Three main blocs compete for the June 29 balloting comprising some 12 parties of any significance. These blocks are led by the ruling Democratic Party of Sali Berisha, the Socialist Party of Fatos Nano (for four years a political prisoner under the regime of Berisha) and the United Albanian Right. Of these, only DP and SP draw large crowds to their rallies. The ICG mission witnessed a rally for Fatos Nano which had some 30 persons demonstrating very vigorously their support for Nano in the town Fush Kruje, while perhaps two thousand people watched the rally without showing any feelings; after some 20 minutes the 30 "enthusiasts" boarded a truck, sped to the town of Kruje and the situation was repeated, with the two thousand of Kruje inhabitants being as passive as their peers in Fush Kruje. Journalists from foreign press agencies told ICG that the scenario is identical for the raliies of Sali Berisha. Rallies however are important because the candidates rely mostly on this form of campaigning; TV spots are rare and have hardly any impact, posters are quickly torn down. The DP candidates have problems campaigning in the south of the country where opposition to Berisha is the strongest; SP candidates have been attacked or prevented from travelling in some parts of the north. The election preparations are behind the schedule. Almost every deadline set by the electoral law has been missed by the Central Election commission or Zone Election commissions. Ultimatums issued by the OSCE were also largely ignored. With one week to go, there is still no agreement on the distribution of 40 seats that were to be given to smaller parties on a proportional basis (115 other mandates are attributed by simple majority) neither is there an agreement to close the polling stations at 6pm (after 12 hours of voting) as OSCE demands, concerned for the security of its observers. Fatos Nano suggested in a one-hour interview with ICG that perhaps since the President is the only one authorised to change the voting closure hour, the Prime Minister Bashkim Fino who is a socialist could declare Albania in another time zone for the evening of June 29, thus making 9 pm equal to 6 pm.

The role of the international community

Parallels drawn between Albania and Bosnia and Hercegovina seem too simplistic. There is no Dayton Agreement to go by in Albania (which in BIH set many other goals to be met) and the "good will" pact to be signed in Rome by different political personalities will not have any enforcement measures. The MPF is no IFOR or SFOR, it's mandate is uniquely to assist humanitarian efforts. It was originally planned until June 28, but was recently extended. At the request of OSCE, the MPF will help it with the assistance to and observation of the elections. The "assistance only" role of OSCE leads sometimes to paradoxical situations. For instance the ballots are being printed in Italy (for security reasons) then brought to the Tirana airport under foreign military escort and there ends the protection: the ballots are being picked up by delegations of Zone Electoral commissions and taken (without escort) to the Zones. The Albanian side has not asked for the escort, but OSCE will have no knowledge (given the total lawlessness) of how many ballots actually made it to the Zones. The OSCE is going to have some 450 observers, i.e. roughly 220 teams of which 85, escorted by the MPF, will go outside the Tirana-Durres area which is considered relatively safe. The force protection requirements limit the number of escorts that MPF is offering, thus the limitation on observation teams' number (this has been insufficiently explained to Albanians who consider MPF as tourists and would like to see more monitoring of the vote). Armed gangs have held OSCE long-term observers hostage in Girokaster (Romanian troops of MPF rescued them) , other gangs have openly confronted the Greek troops in Elbasan and the Italian troops near Fier. These incidents ended without the MPF suffering any damage, but they show how daring are the criminal gangs. Given the lawlessness reigning in part of Albania, observation can only be spot-checking in areas outside Tirana and Durres. It can provide enough evidence to disqualify the voting but there is no guarantee that in the polling stations out of sight of the observers guns and physical abuse will not be used, and there is strong possibility that it will. Somewhat ironically, the polarization of the Albanian population will prevent one side from hijacking the elections, and the final result may reflect the balance of power in the country, which is not to say voters' preferences. The final report will be released by the Special Co-ordinator for Certification, Ms Catherine Lalumiere. It will be based on the cumulative findings of long-term and short-term observers, including parliamentarians and other organisations. If the past and the general atmosphere in the country are any indication there is high possibility that all hell will brake loose after the results are announced. Some political leaders (especially of the opposition) are sending their family members abroad. The ICG mission will be in Albania for three days after the election to assess the situation.

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