World

A nation in chaos

Rebel Albanians seize control in the south to challenge a strongman

STACY SULLIVAN March 17 1997
World

A nation in chaos

Rebel Albanians seize control in the south to challenge a strongman

STACY SULLIVAN March 17 1997

A nation in chaos

World

Rebel Albanians seize control in the south to challenge a strongman

STACY SULLIVAN

Albanian army soldiers manning checkpoints along the route to the southern port city of Vlore looked fearful as they told a group of journalists not to continue through a dangerous inland pass. “Anarchy reigns across those hills,” the soldiers warned. “Everyone has arms.” Beyond a stretch of no man’s land, automatic rifle fire echoed through the valley. Gunmen had taken up positions on the high ground along the road to Vlore, newly dubbed “Rebel City” since armed civilians wrested it from government control just days earlier. The hilltop guards suspiciously eyed the newcomers and the white flag hanging from their vehicle’s window. “Who are you?” they demanded, their guns pointed. “Are you with Berisha?” shouted one. When finally convinced the journalists had no ties to the government £ of President Sali Berisha, the gunmen broke into smiles. “You 3 are welcome,” they said, dropping their automatic rifles to their I sides. “You will have no problems here. We are not crazy “ rebels, we are people fighting together against a dictatorship.” g A week earlier, the gunmen were disgruntled voters demonstrating in the town centre against the Albanian government. But now, the tiny Balkan nation, which emerged from Stalinist isolation at the beginning of the decade, was on the brink of civil war. Seven weeks of protests over the collapse of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes had mushroomed into armed rebellion. The south of the country was in a state of anarchy, its local leadership driven out by armed mobs. By week’s end, more than 20 people had been killed and scores had been injured by stray bullets, police brutality and mob beatings of suspected agents of the SHIK state security force.

Vlore residents first took to the streets in mid-January, along with people throughout poverty-stricken Albania. More than 500,000 among the country’s 3.4 million inhabitants had invested about $2.7 billion in the doomed pyramids. Thousands lost their life savings. Demonstrators were furious that the government had failed to regulate the schemes—and even benefited from them politically. At first, people just wanted their money back. But that changed when the conservative Berisha continued to ignore their grievances, calling the opposition “red terrorists”—meaning Communists left over from the days of Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha—who were exploiting the crisis. When he took office in 1992, Berisha assembled a loyal police guard, mainly men from his northern home town of Tropoja, to wage war against opposition politicians and journalists. The non-uniformed SHIK officers inspire far more fear and anger than does the country’s ragtag army. When Berisha sent SHIK officers to intimidate demonstrators last month, the people began demanding his resignation.

In Vlore, a city that had been a centre for smuggling illegal immi-

grants and drugs to Italy, the crackdown provoked a violent response. Locals fought riot police, set fire to city hall and forced government officials to flee. When a rumor spread that SHIK officers intended to break up a student hunger strike at Vlore’s university, rebels raided the security service’s local headquarters, killing six officers. Others cracked open the nearby military barracks and raided the armory. Nearly everyone, it seemed, was carrying a gun in Vlore last week. By day, residents cowered in their homes. At night, armed gangs roamed the streets as the sky lit up with tracer bullets. There was a constant thunder of machine-gun fire.

The complete collapse of law and order in Vlore and other towns in the south prompted Berisha to declare a state of emergency— which in turn allowed him to legitimize a crackdown against his political opponents. The draconian measure forbids more than four people to walk together and obliges all journalists to submit their articles to government censors before publication. (This report, sent electronically from southern Albania, was not subject to censorship.) The army was given shoot-to-kill orders in the south, while Berisha’s loyal police force stepped up its growing reign of terror. Early on, 20 government agents ransacked the offices of Albania’s largest daily newspaper and set fire to the building, leaving a melted heap of computer equipment donated by billionaire George Soros’s foundation. “I expected I would be harassed. I thought I might be arrested, but I never expected this,” said editor-in-chief Ben Blushi. His staff moved for protection into hotels in the capital, as did foreign wire services. Some activists fled the country. Others appealed to foreign

embassies for asylum or went into hiding. And almost everyone stayed indoors under a 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. curfew. Berisha, meanwhile, had himself re-elected to a second five-year term by his rubber-stamp parliament. He immediately replaced the government, the head of the army and other key figures with his own hard-core loyalists.

Still, Berisha’s crackdown and consolidation of power appeared inadequate to quell the unrest. Instead, his tanks, mostly rickety Chinese relics, took up positions as far south as they could rumble, but did not fire. Two fighter pilots refused an order to attack civilians and flew their MiG-15 to Italy where they requested political asylum.

“Let’s face it,” said a high-ranking Western diplomat in Tirana. “The Albanian army is a bunch of conscripts who get paid $20 a month, eat bad food and live in bad conditions. They are not a loyal fighting force.”

The spectre of civil war and flagrant human rights abuses sparked fear in Washington and European capitals that another Yugoslavia-like catastrophe could be around the corner. The prospect of the unrest spreading to the Albanian minorities in neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia—as well as fears of a refugee exodus to Greece and Italy—prompted feverish diplomacy in Western Europe, seeking a united voice with which to confront Berisha. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana ruled out military intervention from the outset. It was then left largely to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to play mediator, although Berisha said its representative was “not welcome.” He also ignored calls by Western ambassadors in Tirana for him to hold a dialogue on power-sharing with the opposition. Washington expressed “deep concern” over the events but argued against imposing sanctions.

As the armed rebels vowed to press on, Berisha appeared to soften, perhaps realizing that his police tactics were not enough to overcome the crisis. On Thursday, he agreed to suspend military action for 48 hours and grant amnesty to rioters who turned in their „ weapons during that period. But the gestures £ seemed to carry little weight with the rebels. I Armed insurgents outside Vlore said they I would accept nothing less than the strong| man’s resignation. “If Berisha doesn’t resign, « we will form our own government and secede I from Albania,” proclaimed Shahin Cela, a Vlore engineer ensconced in the hills with a newly acquired weapon. “He must go,” said another armed resident of Vlore named Lule. “And if he doesn’t? Well, you see these two bullets: they are reserved for him.” Even if Berisha were to surprise political analysts and resign, many fear the anarchy that has been unleashed in the south would continue unabated. If a new government were to take over—and none is in the wings—it would be unable to give people their money back. And until someone can, the anger that has thrust Albanians into armed rebellion will not be easily soothed.

STACY SULLIVAN in Vlore

Pyramids of doom

S.S.

Albania’s elaborate pyramid schemes, whose collapse has sparked an angry uprising, once looked like a way out of poverty in a country where the average worker makes just $110 a month. The nine major funds, disguised as investment firms or charitable foundations, promised investors astronomical returns of 10 per cent to 60 per cent a month. At first, Albanians, who had been isolated for decades by their hardline Communist rulers, were suspicious. But as tales of instant wealth spread, more and more people succumbed to unfamiliar capitalist ways. “I know it sounds strange,” says Gazmend Haxhia, a 28-year-old Albanian businessman, “but people would hear from their neighbors that they invested $500 and got back $1,000. So they did it, too.”

The funds touted supposed investments in tourism, eggs, salt mines and supermarkets. In reality, financial experts believe, the schemes were exercises in laundering money, and smuggling weapons and fuel across Lake Shkoder to neighboring Yugoslavia during the four years of UN sanctions that ended in 1996. “It was clear,” says Carlos Elbirt, the World Bank’s representative to Albania, “that no legitimate businesses could offer such a high rate of return.” As the funds’ value grew to more than $2 billion, foreign banking officials warned the government that the schemes would collapse when the cash stopped flowing in and investors could no longer be paid off. But with parliamentary elections set for May, authorities apparently feared that taking regulatory action against the funds would be politically dangerous. As it turned out, not taking action was a disaster. S.S.