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Modern AlbaniaFrom Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe$

Fred C. Abrahams

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780814705117

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814705117.001.0001

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A Horrible End

A Horrible End

(p.204) 12 A Horrible End
Modern Albania

Fred C. Abrahams

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the communists’ return to power in Albania following Sali Berisha’s resignation as president. It first considers the establishment of the Government of National Reconciliation and the National Salvation Committee’s call for Berisha’s resignation. It then discusses Italy’s Operation Alba and the Democratic Party’s defeat in the 1997 elections at the hands of the Socialist Party. On July 23, 1997, the new parliament convened and Berisha was replaced by the moderate Socialist Rexhep Meidani. Socialist Party head Fatos Nano became prime minister. The chapter suggests that the crisis that engulfed Albania in 1997 was a revolt sparked by the pyramid schemes and compounded by the arrogance of the nation’s rulers.

Keywords:   communists, Albania, Sali Berisha, Government of National Reconciliation, National Salvation Committee, Democratic Party, elections, Socialist Party, Rexhep Meidani, Fatos Nano

The Rogner Hotel was what one journalist called “virtually Albania’s only functioning institution,” so it was understandable that the new Government of National Reconciliation would work in its restaurant and café.1 The new minister of justice, Spartak Ngjela, took it a step further by moving in. One of his first acts was to amnesty all prisoners. “Albania is a natural state, if you know your Thomas Hobbes,” he explained.2

Across town, the director of Prison 313 strolled through his facility to inspect the cells. In one he was shocked to find Ramiz Alia and Socialist head Fatos Nano with six other inmates dutifully awaiting their official release.

“Do you have any alcohol here?” Nano remembered asking. “Just to have some strength after so many hours.”

“Only soda,” the director replied.

The national prison chief did not answer the phone, so the director got an ambulance and drove the men one by one to their homes, telling them to stay down because of the shooting. “Mr. Nano, I am out of debt with you,” Nano said the director told him before speeding off.

In the south, the situation spun further out of control. On March 11, a horde of men stormed the country’s largest air force base at Kuçova, formerly Stalin City, seizing weapons and ammunition. A green Mercedes towed a Soviet-made MiG-19 jet down the road. “We are not bandits, we are the people,” a man draped in bandoliers told reporters.3 Amazingly, workers protected the arms factories in Poliçan and Gramsh, where the state produced ammunition, hand grenades, and machine guns. In these remote towns, families relied on the factories for work. In other areas, the Salvation Committees (Komiteti Shpetimit in Albanian) lost the little control they had. Albanians referred to them derisively as Kometeti Shperthimit (Explosion Committees).

In Vlora, it felt like war. Armed men fought gun battles for control of neighborhoods. In the first week of March, the hospital treated fifty-five (p.205)

A Horrible End

Socialist Party head Fatos Nano (L), just out of prison, and newly appointed prime minister Bashkim Fino at a press conference in Tirana on March 17, 1997.

© Reuters

people for gunshot wounds and sixteen people died.4 Gangs threatened doctors to save certain patients and to let others die. In the mayhem, humor thrived. Driving south to Vlora, four American journalists were passed and then blocked by a Mercedes full of armed men. “Gazetare Amerikane!” the foreigners yelled in Albanian to indicate they were American journalists. “Gazetare Amerikane?” the men with Kalashnikovs replied. “We’re mafia Albanese.”

In Tirana, DP fanatics threatened to overthrow the reconciliation government. “After March 9, the whole south had weapons,” SHIK deputy head Bujar Rama told me. “Northern militants, when they saw such a situation, went out of control. They decided to take weapons as well.” Then DP head Tritan Shehu agreed. The arming of DP supporters, he said, “started as an isolated incident but it went out of control.”

Rinas Airport cancelled flights and the U.S. government deployed marines to guard the embassy. On March 13, Bashkim Fino and the Reconciliation (p.206) Government were sworn in as gunfire rippled through Tirana. “God save us,” Fino said after taking the oath. “God save Albania.”5

Franz Vranitzky returned the next day. Rinas Airport was closed so Italian prime minister Romano Prodi offered an Italian Air Force plane from Vienna to Brindisi, where a helicopter took Vranitzky to an Italian warship doing figure eights in the Adriatic Sea. On board, the Austrian met Prime Minister Fino and a delegation from the Reconciliation Government. The Albanians requested an international military force to establish order and prepare for elections. Vranitzky was open to the idea. On the ship’s deck, he consulted with U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright via satellite phone. Albright was directly involved, Vranitzky said, and “she grew more anti-Berisha” every day.

The call for a stabilization force at first met a tepid response. Albania was dissolving with myriad players: Berisha, the Socialists, Salvation Committees, the new government, and criminal gangs. No government wanted to send soldiers into that morass.

“What you have in Albania is a state of anarchy—a complete breakdown of government,” U.S. defense secretary William Cohen said at the time. “This is not principally a military issue right now. It’s one of a violent, spasmodic reaction on the part of the people toward their government.”6

As the country absorbing most of the refugees, Italy had a different view. When no other government volunteered, it assembled a “coalition of the willing” called Operation Alba to pacify its neighbor to the east.

Prime Minister Fino returned from the warship meeting with Vranitzky and found a chaotic meeting in his office. Ministers were drafting a statement that offered government employees, including soldiers and police, a salary increase of 300 percent if they returned to work.

Across the capital, foreign embassies began evacuating nonessential staff. At the U.S. housing compound, Marines took positions behind sand bags as Americans boarded helicopters, wearing helmets and orange life vests. British special forces rescued two British citizens running an orphanage in Elbasan, along with twenty-two children and a small staff.7

(p.207) At Durres port, smugglers sold places on boats for $250. The Italian coast guard plucked nine hundred people from a sinking gunboat with a broken rudder and no fuel. The U.S. Navy saved a capsized boat.

“I’m not happy thinking about jumping into a boat or swimming for it,” a six-month pregnant woman told the press. “But this is what the government has done to me.”8

Twenty miles away, at the new Coca-Cola plant outside Tirana, the Italian director stood defiantly as armed guards patrolled the grounds. “Why should I leave?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s not war at the moment, just a problem with people who don’t know the meaning of democracy or law.”9

In the south, the local Salvation Committees merged into the National Salvation Committee, with the main aim of removing Berisha. Pro-Berisha groups reacted by forming the All-National Salvation Committee. Announced on the evening news, still controlled by Berisha, the group said it would fight to defend the president.

On March 17, the southern-based National Salvation Committee demanded Berisha’s resignation within three days or rebels would march to Tirana. The pro-Berisha committee fired back. Calling itself a military organization of “thousands of armed Albanians,” the committee called Berisha “a factor for national, political and social equilibrium.”10

Two politicians from the Social Democratic Party—Paskal Milo and Skënder Gjinushi—traveled south to help avert a clash. When they arrived in Gjirokaster, they found two members of the Democratic Alliance—Arben Imami and Ridvan Peshkepia—who had come one week before from Corfu. Imami and Peshkepia said they had fled Albania to avoid arrest. The DP said they were orchestrating a Greek-inspired plot.

The four politicians met the National Salvation Committee in the former army officers’ club on March 20, and urged restraint. A dozen armed men guarded the building as sheep grazed outside. The committee’s thuggish member from Tepelena, thirty-two-year-old Gjolek Malaj, wearing sweatpants, a black leather coat, and fake-fur vest, pressed an aggressive line. “We will send fifty people to Tirana to put Berisha under arrest,” he thundered. “If he will not resign we will bombard him.”11 (p.208) Other committee members pulled back. “We don’t ask for a military solution, just a political means,” one said.12

In Tirana, Berisha showed no fear. His aide Genc Pollo appeared at the Rogner with Berisha’s son, perhaps to dispel rumors that the president’s family had fled. “We don’t take it very seriously,” Pollo told a journalist in the café, in response to the southern committee’s threats. “They have no army units.”13

The next day calmer heads prevailed. The southern committee reiterated its demand that Berisha resign and promised to support the Reconciliation Government. Five days later, Berisha went on the attack. Although most of Tirana believed that SHIK head Bashkim Gazidede had resigned, he appeared in parliament on March 26. In a rambling presentation broadcast on television, he argued that Albania was victim of a plan called “Lotos,” devised by Greece to annex southern Albania.14 Former top communists were involved, Gazidede said, as was a Greek American activist named Nicholas Gage. Gazidede suggested that the U.S. had hastened the crash of the pyramid schemes to overthrow the government and called the head of the Populli pyramid scheme, Bashkim Driza, a former Sigurimi agent who was working for a foreign agency. (On March 17, the state news agency claimed that Driza left Albania on an American helicopter.) Most dramatically, Gazidede implied that the U.S. government was supporting Greece’s annexation plan. An unnamed Western diplomat had done this by helping the anti-government newspaper Koha Jonë, Gazidede said.

Political observers knew that Gazidede was referring to the head of the U.S. Information Agency in Tirana, Charles Walsh, who was known for his open criticism of Berisha and his relations with opposition politicians and journalists, in contrast to Ambassador Lino and her staff. The pro-Berisha Albania newspaper later made this clear, saying that Gazidede was talking about “the man of the American secret services Charles Walsh.”15

The DP reaction to Gazidede’s speech was mixed. Some members of parliament said Gazidede should not blame others for Albania’s woes. Others endorsed his views. The head of the state auditing service, Blerim Çela, added that President Clinton’s advisors were Greek, apparently meaning former advisor George Stephanopoulos and CIA chief George Tenet. (Tenet’s father had emigrated to the United States from (p.209) northern Greece near Albania and his mother fled what is now southern Albania—both spoke Albanian.)16

The U.S. government never responded publicly to Gazidede’s claims. Then ambassador Lino declined to be interviewed for this book, but a cable she sent to Washington at the time partly explains her view. “After the Gazidede show and tell in the parliament tossing out accusations right and left, I did make a very general statement (also read out on VOA Albanian Service) which did not/not directly respond to Gazidede’s insinuations but focused on the depth and breadth of U.S.-Albanian relations starting with Woodrow Wilson,” she wrote. “In that context I said the U.S. supports the territorial integrity of Albania (Gazidede had implied the U.S. Greek lobby—Greek conspiracy were aiming to split up Albania).”17

Gazidede’s deputy, Bujar Rama, demurred when I asked about his former boss’s claims. “Gazidede had something about an employee of the U.S. who did not work in the embassy,” he explained. “But he did not have all those concerns verified.” Berisha’s then advisor Genc Pollo was equally coy. The government had “heard from various sources” that Walsh was working against Berisha, he said. But it was “not clear if he was acting on his own or on orders.”

Interviewed in 2003, Charles Walsh dismissed the allegations. “There was never any set plan to get rid of him,” he said of Berisha. “We had to deal with him even though, in our eyes, he had trampled the democratic process to stay in power.” Regarding Gazidede’s claims, he stated: “Neither I nor anyone else from the USG ever worked for more than the evolution of democratic standards, a transparent economy resilient with free trade, and the development of a civil society.”

Packed to capacity and beyond, the rusting Albanian ship Kater i Radës slipped out of Vlora towards Italy on Friday, March 28. More than one hundred men, women, and children were trying to escape. Halfway across the Straits of Otranto, an Italian navy vessel blocked their way. Italy was aggressively patrolling its waters after receiving thirteen thousand refugees.

In the choppy waters, around 6:00 p.m., the two ships collided. Old and overloaded, the Albanian ship succumbed. Fifty-seven people (p.210) drowned, aged three months to sixty-nine years. Albanians claimed the Italians purposefully rammed the ship. Italians said the Albanian boat made a hazardous and unexpected turn.

March 31 was a day of mourning in Albania. Flags flew at half-mast and parliament held a minute of silence. Wailing relatives in Vlora threw flowers to the sea. The tragedy also put an Italian-led military operation in doubt. As much as the government needed help, Albanians might not accept Italians on their land.

On April 1, Italian prime minister Prodi called Albanian prime minister Fino with an urgent request to meet. Facing resistance at home, the Italian leader wanted Albania’s full support for the operation.

“I’m not in Tirana, but in the south,” Fino told Prodi.

“No problem,” Prodi replied. “I’ll come to you.”

“I can’t guarantee your security,” Fino said.

“No problem. I’ll take care of it.”

Prodi arrived in Gjirokaster the next day with six military helicopters. They landed at the airport as soldiers secured the perimeter and escorted Prodi to the city hall. The two men spoke as Italian soldiers and an Albanian policeman stood guard. Locals joked that the policeman was well equipped: he had pants, a jacket, and cap.

Fino assured Prodi that the Albanian government would welcome the Italian-led force despite the tragedy. In separate meetings, the Salvation Committee promised the Italian ambassador that Italian soldiers could come.

One week later, the Italian parliament approved Operation Alba, with sixty-five hundred soldiers from nine countries.18 The main purpose, Italy said, was to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid. The unspoken reason was to stem the flow of refugees.

Operation Alba had a difficult task. Albania had no enemy combatants or front lines. The country was lawless and the people were armed, even with tanks. From March to May, the Italians intercepted boat after boat packed with drugs, mostly marijuana grown in the south. “So much marijuana has arrived in Italy in the past few days that the street price has dropped dramatically,” an Italian police spokesman said.19

In Vlora, the Italians faced three well-armed gangs: Zani, Kakami, and Gaxhaj. The most notorious was the gang of Zani, full name Myrteza Çaushi, who fancied himself an Albanian Robin Hood, stealing trucks of (p.211)

A Horrible End

An armed protester watches a Greek naval vessel with humanitarian aid approach Albania on March 19, 1997.

© Reuters

food and distributing the goods in his neighborhood of Çole. Details of Zani’s past remain unclear but most agree that he had recently returned to Albania from Greece, where he had reportedly escaped from prison. For DP conspiracy theorists, his prominent role in Vlora’s anarchy was confirmation of a Greek plot. Zani’s brother was also a neighborhood head of the Socialist Party.

At Vlora’s main hospital, dedicated doctors, nurses, and staff battled to keep the wounded alive. Every day criminals brought their comrades with gunshot wounds, followed by threatening gangs with competing demands on the hospital staff.

“If he dies, you die!” one group said.

“If he lives, you die!” said the next.

One day, armed men killed a patient in the operating room, a doctor recalled.

Vlora’s cemetery tells the story well. Dead gangsters have gaudy monuments with their faces etched in marble above the dates of their lives (p.212) and the phrase “Killed by a faithless hand.” A large memorial stands for those who drowned in the Otranto boat tragedy. White markers dot the ground for each victim beneath a broad marble slab with a poignant line: “You left a horror without end and were taken to a horrible end.”

With Operation Alba in place, the Reconciliation Government turned its attention to the elections—Albania’s fourth since the birth of democracy. The ominous task of supervising the process fell to the OSCE and the irrepressible Franz Vranitzky. The Austrian visited Albania five times over the coming three months to mediate, negotiate, and organize. “Uncle Vrana is coming,” Albanians joked, referring to a general of Skanderbeg named Vrana Konti. The delegation stayed at the Rogner Hotel, where the restaurant orchestra played Strauss’s Radetzky March whenever Vranitzky left the room, much to the Austrian’s dismay.

The experience left Vranitzky tired and frustrated. The Albanian parties fought over every point, first and foremost the election law. Six years into Albania’s democratic experiment, the basic rules were not in place. According to Vranitzky, all sides postured but Berisha actively maneuvered to hinder the elections. “We debated and in the end we seemed to reach an agreement,” the Austrian told me about the many meetings he had with the president. “But I often found out later that even before the meeting he had drafted a press release with a different view.”

Annoyed, Vranitzky called German chancellor Helmut Kohl. “He belongs to the EDU,” Vranitzky said about Berisha, referring to Europe’s conservative European Democratic Union. “Can you influence him? This is not the correct way to run things.”

“I agree,” Kohl replied. “But Sali Berisha cannot be influenced.”

Other diplomats were equally perplexed. “Whatever he had been, by the first time I saw him, he seemed crazy,” said one Western official involved in the process. The person continued: “Was he drunk as some reporters thought? Everyone agreed he did not drink. On drugs? Medication? I came to think this was his problem. He supposedly could hardly sleep. He could not hold to a line of conversation. Any attempts to move forward brought irrelevant outbursts about previous slights and wrongs to him or his family—many dating back a decade.… At the (p.213) same time, his constant maneuvering seemed to show that he was not that crazy!”

On May 9, the political parties finally agreed to an election law for a vote to be held before the end of June. But the DP-dominated parliament passed a different law without the opposition’s consent. The Socialists threatened to boycott the elections unless the OSCE guaranteed they would be fair. Vranitzky said the Albanian parties were responsible for fairness, but the OSCE would provide technical support and a large observer team. The Socialists agreed.

Later that month, a new newspaper called Indipendent, founded by journalists from Koha Jonë, sparked a controversy by printing excerpts from a telephone conversation between DP head, Foreign Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister Tritan Shehu and Italian ambassador Paolo Foresti, who was long considered a Berisha fan. The transcript suggested the two men were trying to stymie Vranitzky and manipulate the elections.

“Forestigate” became the hot topic in Tirana. The Indipendent’s editor, later a top Socialist, refused to tell me who gave him the tape, but the prevailing view was that it came from the Americans, who wanted to see Berisha gone. United States officials denied this, and a Freedom of Information Act request I submitted shed no light, with seventeen State Department documents on Foresti partly censored or not released. Another theory is that Italian intelligence released the tapes, with backing from Prodi, who wanted to remove the influential ambassador. Interviewed in 2003, after his split with Berisha, Tritan Shehu said the published transcript of his conversation was accurate but the newspaper had taken it out of context. He accused Berisha and Gazidede of releasing the tape to deflect criticism of the president onto Shehu and Foresti. At the same time, Shehu criticized Vranitzky for a lack of objectivity, saying the former Austrian chancellor and banker had “a leftist orientation.”

When Vranitzky learned of the taped conversation, he became enraged. He flew to Rome to speak with Prodi and Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini. In addition to the recorded conversation, Vranitzky told me, he had other evidence of Foresti’s obstructionism.

“Prodi was open to my complaints but Dini said, ‘It’s not possible.’” Vranitzky said. Still, Dini recalled Foresti from Tirana, as Prodi had apparently tried to do six weeks before. When Foresti left, Berisha awarded him the Order of Mother Teresa.

(p.214) Given the absence of a state, the election campaign seemed smooth. By any normal standards, it was a disaster. The OSCE assisted at every level, importing ballot boxes from Bosnia, ballot papers from Italy, and ultraviolet lamps, batteries, and indelible ink from Vienna. Foreign troops restored some calm, but killings and other crimes took place daily.

In this atmosphere, Democrats could scarcely travel to the south. When one of them did, a crowd beat him badly. In the north, the Socialists faced harassment but were generally able to campaign. At the same time, the state television and radio remained in Berisha’s hands. According to one survey, political programs on state TV covered the DP 28.5 percent of the time, compared to 10.7 percent for the SP.20

On May 23, special forces arrived in the village of Cerrik in central Albania to secure a visit by President Berisha. The villagers considered it a provocation and opened fire with guns and grenades, leaving six people dead and an armored vehicle smoldering in the square. On June 4, a man threw a grenade at Berisha as he campaigned near Durres. It did not explode and police arrested the man.

On June 10, the top OSCE election official resigned. The OSCE denied that his resignation was due to the inappropriate conditions for elections. “They are absolute and complete lies to say that I resigned for personal reasons,” the departing official said from the airport as he prepared to leave. “It is for deeply professional reasons.”21

Four hundred and seventy-five monitors from thirty-two countries descended on Albania to observe the elections. Vranitzky addressed them the day before the vote. Albanians have lost faith in their democratic institutions, he told them, and elections were the only way to restore trust. He also prepared them for an imperfect process. “Optimism would be a luxury,” he said. “Pessimism is not a good tool, so realism is the only option.”22

Vranitzky and the OSCE knew the elections would be flawed. But they saw them as necessary to rebuild the state. Unless there were egregious violations, the OSCE would give them a passing grade. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, which had been monitoring Albania since 1991, concurred. “In order to hold elections quickly,” the commission reported, (p.215) “the norms for free and fair elections were, in many respects, abandoned.”23

An unspoken goal of Western governments was also to unseat Berisha, their former darling. The OSCE did not want Berisha gone before elections because it would have “damaged the international community’s image of objectivity,” Vranitzky told me. It was better, he and others thought, if the Albanians ridded him through their vote.

I arrived in Tirana a few days before the elections to monitor for Human Rights Watch. Although the police and Operation Alba had largely restored order, pockets of lawlessness remained, especially in the north. Again I watched my step. The Democrats still considered me an enemy, having criticized Berisha abroad. Damaged and demoralized, they still thought they could win. I stayed at the Rogner with a small army from the OSCE. They seemed tired and nervous but Vranitzky looked tan and calm.

As if Albania was not chaotic enough, a new character dashed through the hotel one day as I was drinking coffee. He was impossible to ignore. He stood about six feet, six inches tall and was thin, with a long head, gray hair, and large glasses. He had never spent more than a few days in Albania and spoke the language poorly, but claimed to be king.

King Leka, son of King Zog, was two days old when his father fled Albania after the Italian invasion in 1939. He then lived in Britain, Spain, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and reportedly spent time in a Thai jail for an arms deal gone wrong.24 He first returned to Albania in 1993 and Berisha expelled him after one day. But the madhouse of 1997 offered a chance to return. Disguested by the Democrats and Socialists, Albanians wanted someone to lead them from the abyss.

Leka stood a full head over other politicians, but ideas did not fill that space. Out of Albania for so long, he could not expound on any of the key issues affecting the country. His advisor had spent the Hoxha years as a dentist in the United States. The international community disliked his claim to be “King of the Albanians,” meaning those in Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Greece—promoting the nationalism that the United States and others had labored to avoid. Berisha, however, saw in him a useful tool because monarchist supporters could dilute the opposition vote. Leka’s backers were mostly from the north and fiercely anti-communist. To seduce them, Berisha announced that, on the same (p.216) day as the elections, Albania would hold a referendum on the monarchy. Albanians would vote for members of parliament and the country’s form of government: constitutional monarchy or republic.

On election morning, Vranitzky left the Rogner before breakfast in his TV-blue shirt and cream-colored suit, looking confident and in charge. He inspected a group of monitors and their Alba Force escorts like a general and, with cameras in tow, shook hands down the line. He then returned to the hotel for his notoriously huge breakfast while aides ran outside periodically to make sure the monitors were rolling out.

Before long they did, guarded by Italian soldiers with stylish sunglasses and machine guns mounted on jeeps. They visited polling stations in schools, sports halls and, in one village, the local bar. They encountered no problems directly, but violence did take place. In Fier, gunmen shot and killed a DP election committee chairman. Around the country, men fired automatic guns. Ballot boxes had gaps and broken seals.

Both the DP and SP were sure the other side would steal the vote. “Leftist extreme forces have their armed bands and they will try to influence the elections,” a DP candidate in Kavaja told me when I went to inspect a polling station. “But I believe people will vote against the rebellion.” A portly policeman outside a polling station near Tirana feared intimidation during the count. “If that happens there will be big problems,” he warned, as we watched a Mercedes full of leering men roll by. “Everyone is armed.”

The ubiquity of arms actually secured some peace. In the May 1996 elections, only DP bands and SHIK agents had been armed. Now everyone had guns, and gangs from both side watched to ensure the process was correct.

I observed the counting in Tirana’s Student City, home of the historic demonstrations in Decmeber 1990. As election commissioners opened ballot boxes, the sound of gunshots reverberated off the dormitory walls and cars screeched their tires on a nearby road. The electricity died and the counting proceeded by candlelight: “Socialists … Democrats … Democrats …,” the commission head announced one by one. At that polling station, voter turnout was 12 percent. The Socialists beat the Democrats by a few votes. The monarchy lost to the republic thirty-six to seventy-three.

(p.217) That evening, it first looked like the Democrats had prevailed. But official results soon tilted the other way. State television, still in DP hands, filled airtime with the British comedian Benny Hill and Mickey Mouse cartoons. In the end, Albanians had again voted against. The former communists had little support but the public held Bersha and the Democrats responsible for their lost money and the anarchy that ensued. Their dislikes outweighed their likes. After a second round, the Socialists won a convincing 101 of 155 parliamentary seats. The Democrats won twenty-seven. In the referendum, 67 percent of voters favored a republic over a monarchy.

An OSCE statement used a unique phrase that captured the times. The elections, it said, were “adequate and acceptable.”25 A full report later gave qualified approval with a friendly wink, saying the election “can be deemed as acceptable, given the prevailing circumstances in the country.”26

In Washington, Albania watchers exhaled. Having feared the worst, the acceptable elections set the stage for normalization. The election, one internal State Department analysis said, was “the dog that didn’t bite.”27

In Tirana, foreign journalists and I experienced the anger of DP supporters who blamed us for their loss. An Italian cameraman was beaten outside DP headquarters and a British reporter was shot at by an unknown gunman. As I watched a press conference by DP heads Genc Pollo and Tritan Shehu, a heavy hand slapped the back of my neck. I turned to see a burly man hustling out the door and the chuckles of his friends.

Everyone expected the DP to challenge the results but the gangly King Leka protested first, claiming the monarchy had won the referendum with 54 percent. On July 3, he gathered his supporters in Skanderbeg Square, wearing green camouflage and a beret with a pistol and grenade dangling from his belt, flanked by bodyguards with dark sunglasses and Kalashnikovs. Across the square, children giggled on a bumper-car ride where the Enver Hoxha statue had once stood. Revved up, the monarchists marched down the boulevard to the Palace of Congresses, where the Central Elections Commission was tallying the count. Someone opened fire, forcing commission members to dive for cover. Police responded and, in the melee, one man died and several others were injured. (p.218)

A Horrible End

Albania’s self-appointed King Leka (C) in Skanderbeg Square on July 3, 1997.

© Reuters

Leka denied that he had sparked the attack. “If we were carrying out an armed action, believe me our people would have been better equipped than just with the pistols,” he insisted.28 The police never arrested Leka, but he left Albania two weeks later to avoid the investigation.

Journalists and analysts have struggled to characterize Albania’s tumultuous year. Some said the north and south fought a civil war: the Ghegs of the northern highlands versus the Tosks of the southern plains. A few called it a religious dispute, although it is not clear between whom. Berisha portrayed it as a communist revolt, with help from Greece and the United States.

The chaos of 1997 was not a civil war along geographic, religious, or tribal lines. Berisha enjoyed support in the north, but many northerners opposed his rule, furious at having lost their cash. Likewise, the DP had supporters in the south.

(p.219) At its core, the crisis was a revolt by people who felt economically and politically duped. The pyramid schemes provided the spark, but the arrogance of Albania’s rulers had primed the country to ignite. For five years, Berisha had monopolized power. When faced with protest, he clamped down, promoted loyalists, and pushed through his reelection. He exploited differences between north and south for political gain, stoking tension and then presenting himself as a guarantor of peace. He built a fire he tried to control.

At the same time, the Socialists took advantage. It was clear by early 1997 that the collapse of the pyramid schemes offered them a chance. They stayed in the background at first as the Salvation Committees formed, and then floated to the fore. They plotted how to return, rather than how to help the state.

Another element was organized crime. Gangs from Albania, Italy, and Greece profited from the chaos. Of the more than sixteen hundred people killed between March and May 1997, most died in shootouts between rival groups. On the road to power, the Socialists also made alliances with local criminals, gangsters, and thieves.

Some former government and DP officials also blame the U.S. government, which, they say, destroyed Albania to get Berisha out. I found no evidence to support this claim, but Washington certainly wanted Berisha gone and likely did expedite the inevitable crash.

Beyond Berisha, the opposition, gangs, and more, the revolt was an expression of despair. Unshaven men firing automatic guns with cigarettes dangling from their mouths was a vulgar show of lost hope. I saw it as a primal scream, a release of energy that shrieked anger, betrayal, and powerlessness. Spraying bullets was a testosterone shot to say: I am!

Above all, I viewed 1997 not as a crisis in the country, but a crisis of the country. Albania had an entry in the atlas, a national hymn, and a flag. It sat in the United Nations. But the country lacked a collective identity to hold it together. Politicians on all sides were looking to preserve or get power, rather than protect and promote the common good.

The effect of 1997 is still felt today. Looters took more than six hundred thousand weapons of various types and 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition.29 They destroyed court houses, police stations, and town halls. (p.220)

A Horrible End

Gunman in Vlora, June 1997.

© Reuters

(p.221) More dangerously, Albanians lost faith. They abandoned trust in their leaders and promises of reform.

On July 23, 1997, the new parliament convened and Sali Berisha resigned, as he had promised to do if the DP lost. In a letter to the assembly read on television, he accepted some blame but sniped at the people who had taken his place. “The financial crisis of the pyramid schemes, an undoubtedly negative phenomena of our governing, was exploited as a pretext by the former Albanian communists and their supporters to organize the communist armed rebellion,” he said. The result was “the return to power of the last communist nomenclatura in Albania.”30

Less than six years after losing power, the former communists in Eastern Europe’s most Stalinist state were back. The moderate Socialist Rexhep Meidani replaced Berisha as president and party head Fatos Nano became prime minister. OSCE officials told me they felt sorry for Nano when he emerged from prison looking bedraggled. The next time they saw him he had gold cuff links, a tailored suit, large rings, a heavy watch, and a black limousine with bodyguards. It was a sign of things to come. (p.222)


(1.) “Hobbesian Albania,” by Sylvia Poggioli, New Leader, April 7, 1997.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) “Berisha Loyalists Raise Spectre of North-South War,” by Tom Walker, Times (London), March 12, 1997.

(4.) “Report on the Situation in the Vlora Hospital from March 1, 1997, to March 6, 1997,” Ministry of Health, Republic of Albania, March 6, 1997.

(5.) “‘God Save Us. God Save Albania,’” by Andrew Gumbel, Independent, March 14, 1997.

(6.) News briefing of U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Washington, D.C., March 19, 1997.

(7.) “Secret Operation by Special Forces Rescues Orphans,” by Anthony Loyd, Times (London), March 21, 1997.

(8.) “Child Vandals Join the Destruction at King Zog’s Palace,” by Tom Walker, Times (London), March 17, 1997.

(9.) “Coca-Cola Defenders Give Tirana Gunmen a Taste of the Real Thing,” by Anthony Loyd, Times (London), March 17, 1997.

(10.) “Press Release of the All-National Salvation Committee,” Albanian Telegraphic Agency, March 18, 1997.

(11.) “Albanian Premier’s Hometown Reflects National Unrest,” by Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1997.

(12.) “Albanian Rebel Leaders Huddle On Next Move,” by Elizabeth Neuffer, Boston Globe, March 21, 1997.

(13.) “A Rudderless Ship of State,” by Josh Friedman, Newsday, March 20, 1997.

(14.) Gazidede’s presentation, taken from the parliament’s archive, was published by the newspaper Reportazh on October 2, 9, and 16, 2001.

(15.) “Koha Jonë the Soup of Charles Walsh” (in Albanian), Albania, April 27, 1997.

(16.) Tenet, George, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp 10–11.

(17.) Cable from U.S. Embassy Tirana, Ambassador Marisa Lino, to Secretary of State, “Official Informal No. 24,” April 21, 1997.

(18.) The nine countries were Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey.

(19.) “Nuclear Material ‘Smuggled to Italy in Refugee Exodus,’” by Richard Own, Times (London), March 21, 1997.

(p.316) (20.) “Albanian Human Rights Group Finds Bias in Media Coverage of Elections,” Albanian Human Rights Group, July 8, 1997.

(21.) “Bad Week for Britain as Chief Election Organiser Storms Out,” by Tom Walker, Times (London), June 14, 1997.

(22.) “Albania Simmers on Brink of Poll Violence,” by Andrew Gumbel, Independent, June 28, 1997.

(23.) “Albania’s Parliamentary Elections of 1997,” Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, July 1997.

(24.) “Queen Geraldine of Albania—Central European Consort at the Mercy of the Tides of History,” by Miranda Vickers, Guardian, October 30, 2002, and “Arrested Albanian King to Stay in Hospital, South African Court Rules,” Agence France-Presse, February 10, 1999.

(25.) Preliminary Statement of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, June 30, 1997.

(26.) Albania Parliamentary Elections, June 29, 1997, OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, July 1997.

(27.) Analysis for Secretary of State’s morning summary, “Albania: The Dog that Didn’t Bite,” June 30, 1997.

(28.) “Arms and the ‘Monarch,’” by Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, July 5, 1997.

(29.) United Nations Development Programme, Albanian Human Development Report 1998.

(30.) Albanian Television, July 23, 1997.