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Disorder in Albania

In response to:

Heart of Darkness from the August 14, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

This year’s violence and disorder in Albania owe less to “the politics of vengeance” than Misha Glenny thinks [“Heart of Darkness,” NYR, August 14]. The gangs and self-styled committees that took control over most of the south of the country following the disturbances prompted by the collapse of pyramid investor-schemes were not out simply to rob and loot—let alone to settle scores in accordance with the atavistic customs of the country’s northern clansmen. On the contrary, they had a clear-cut ideological agenda: to force early elections and to win these for their political sponsors, the Socialist Party, by preventing the ruling Democratic Party from setting foot—still less campaigning—in well over one third of electoral districts.

A case in point is Cerrik itself. Glenny’s description of this small, central Albanian town might be by Steinbeck: browbeaten unemployed rise up against feckless big boss (read Berisha) who has driven them to the brink of poverty. Now Albania is a poor place—though nothing like as destitute today as it was at the end of the Communist era—and the pro-market reforms of the last few years have not been to everyone’s advantage. In his eagerness to enlist our understanding for those in Cerrik who decided to take the law into their own hands, however, Glenny misses what struck me most forcefully on trying to enter the town one day before voting: the Socialist Party flag fluttering above a machine-gun installation on the main through-road. Next to this, someone had put up a poster of Enver Hoxha: the Stalinist dictator who turned Albania into a barbaric satrapy.

I found no one from the Democratic Party represented on the local electoral commission. Moreover, as we talked, one member of this commission kept adding his signature to a pile of papers authorizing local observers to watch over next day’s voting: there must have been forty such permits and all of them were for members of the Socialist Party. Adding this to the climate of fear created by the killing of six policemen who had tried a month earlier to restore rule of law (an incident not mentioned by Glenny), it is clear that the Democratic Party stood not the slightest chance of having their candidate in Cerrik elected. Instead the seat was won for the Socialists by Rexhep Mejdani, who has since become the country’s president.

Such was the pattern throughout most of the south of Albania: gunmen effectively holding the local population hostage, and either standing in the colors of the Socialist Party (and its allies) themselves or backing those from its ranks. In Vlore, for example, where the insurrection broke out back in March, rebel leader Albert Shyti stood in one district, while Sabit Brokaj and Skender Gjinushi (both members of the new government) stood in others. In the north of the country, by contrast, not a single Socialist Party candidate was barred from standing or campaigning.

This balance of power (in Mao’s sense of the term) is reflected in the composition of the new parliament. With no restraining influence, the successors of Hoxha’s old Communist Party have lost little time in effecting the purges—of the army, judiciary, and administration—that come to them as second nature. Still, though, this is not some abstract force called the “politics of vengeance” at work. This is a carefully elaborated and rigorously implemented plan, the aim of which is to reduce the Democratic Party opposition and its followers to a position from which they can pose no danger whatsoever to the lucrative careers in arms and drug smuggling now being resumed in places like Vlore.

Worst of all for the Albanians who have seen the fabric of their society torn apart in just a few months by an ad hoc alliance of former sigurimi (secret police), old nomenklatura, and the mafia is the silence in the West. Though Helsinki Watch issued a statement condemning the shooting of a journalist sympathetic to the Democratic Party, the hunger strike of a sixty-year-old MP from their party (who spent thirty years in prison under communism) protesting against media manipulation went virtually unremarked outside Albania. Under these circumstances, rather than “Heart of Darkness,” perhaps a more fitting Conradesque title for Glenny’s piece might have been “Victory.”

Jonathan Sunley
British Helsinki Human Rights Group
Oxford, England

Misha Glenny replies:

Jonathan Sunley has a historical blind spot which seems to obscure completely a good five years of Albania’s recent past. During Fatos Nano’s first brief administration in 1991, Albanians were not being locked up or thrown out of their jobs because of beliefs they may have held. Journalists of the opposition press and television, which supported the Democratic Party, or the foreign press, were not being beaten up. Politicians of the Greek minority were not being subjected to hideous show trials at which the sentences were concocted by political officials before the judge had heard the evidence. Elections were not being flagrantly rigged. From 1992 until early 1997, during which time the former president Sali Berisha amassed enormous political power, all these things happened, some on a systematic and regular basis.

During much of Berisha’s tenure in power, his daily activities, however ludicrous or insignificant, consumed most of the airtime on state television news. Through smuggling, corruption, appropriation, and legislative diktat, members of Berisha’s entourage accumulated tremendous wealth. Yet nowhere in Mr. Sunley’s observations is there even a hint of recognition that a man who for a long period also enjoyed the uncritical support of the State Department and its officers in Tirana bears any responsibility for the cesspit which Albania became in the first half of this year.

Instead, Mr. Sunley offers a veiled picture of Berisha and his colleagues as selfless fighters for freedom and market reform. Against this he sees ranged an omnipotent leviathan of Stalinist revanchism, determined to resurrect the regime of Enver Hoxha. To judge by the last line of his letter, I am a resolute supporter of this dastardly Communist plot.

I state quite clearly in my article that Fatos Nano is under pressure from a faction within the Socialist Party whose views are inherited from the former regime. But Nano does not share these views. There is not a single shred of evidence that Nano has been planning a return to the old ways during his first hundred days as prime minister. On the contrary, he has taken some important steps to combatting this influence.

Firstly, Nano appointed as minister of interior Neritan Ceka, a non-Communist and co-founder of the first opposition party. Ceka has moved firmly against gangsters in the south who Sunley claims were the armed stooges of the Socialist Party. Most notably, he has arrested “Zani,” the chief gunman in Vlore who was supposedly safe because of his vehement hatred of Berisha and his government.

Two weeks ago, a leading member of Berisha’s party was shot and critically wounded by a Socialist deputy inside the parliament building. Fatos Nano immediately demanded the lifting of his colleague’s parliamentary immunity and that he be charged with attempted murder. Nano is actively supporting the establishment of an independent judiciary, something that Berisha obstructed throughout his period in power despite persistent pressure from international human rights organizations (obviously with the exception of Mr. Sunley’s).

Mr. Sunley raises the case of Pjetor Abnjori, the MP who went on hunger strike “protesting against media manipulation….” This is an astonishing defense of a man who as speaker of parliament under Berisha sanctioned a regime of sustained violations against the most basic press freedoms—Koha Jone, the main independent newspaper, was regularly shut down on the flimsiest of excuses; journalists were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Frequencies were only distributed to radio stations which supported the government. Since Nano has taken over the government, Western governments have applauded his steps to allow Berisha’s Democratic Party regular airtime on state television.

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