Albania's Troubled Democracy

Critics charge that the ruling Democratic Party is slipping back toward the repressive and arbitrary policies of the former Communist Party leadership that it replaced

ALBANIA'S ruling Democratic Party is turning increasingly authoritarian, diplomats and Albanian critics say.

The criticisms come at a time when the Albanian government is hoping for approval of most-favored-nation trade status from the United States Senate.

Albanians overwhelmingly elected the Democratic Party (DP) last March, sweeping the ex-communist Socialist Party from power. But since then the DP has taken a number of undemocratic steps, critics charge.

* On Aug. 14, the Democrats purged six moderate leaders from their party, calling them "extreme leftists," "deviationists," and "traitors." The party may remove some of the dissidents from their parliamentary seats, although that is not legal under current Albanian law.

* The Socialist Party won a majority of seats in local elections July 26. But local officials have refused to distribute international food aid in some towns where the Socialist Party won, one European diplomat says.

* State enterprises and offices can now fire employees without cause or access to appeal. The government says it must be able to remove communists; opponents call the law arbitrary and undemocratic.

* Police have harassed members of the Socialist Party, arresting and then releasing them a few days later without charge.

Albanian President Sali Berisha strongly denies the charges of authoritarianism. President Berisha, a founder of the DP, says the country has made great strides toward democracy but must be given more time.

Berisha says his critics once "considered dictatorship as democracy," and now confuse democracy with dictatorship.

Albania was ruled for more than 40 years by the repressive regime of Communist Party leader Enver Hoxha. Student demonstrations in December 1990 and growing international pressure forced the Communist government to hold elections and begin the transition to a market economy. The former Communists won the 1991 parliamentary elections, but the political and economic situation deteriorated.

By March of this year, the DP swept 62 percent of the national vote in new parliamentary elections. Many Albanians hoped the DP would stabilize the country politically and revive the failing economy. The DP started companies in an effort to stimulate production.

But many Albanians resented the steep price hikes and voted for the opposition Socialist Party in the July local elections. The Socialists, made up of many former Communists, maintain that they have become a "European social democratic party." The SP got 40 percent of the popular vote, winning a majority of local seats; the DP won 43 percent.

Rocked by such a poor showing after only four months in office, the DP began a sharp internal debate. "The DP is like Poland's Solidarity," says one Western diplomat, "It is a broad coalition with serious differences of opinion on policy."

Left-leaning party intellectuals criticized Berisha and other leaders for "concentrating power in a few hands, nepotism, and sponsoring anti-democratic legislation," says Arben Imami, a member of parliament. Mr. Imami, a founder and former vice chairman of the DP, was purged from the party last week.

Intellectuals charge that the party leadership has moved to the right, and is using red-baiting to justify its own increasing authoritarianism. Imami says that, under the terms of a recently passed law, "the government can fire anyone for being a communist, without stating any reason."

Berisha defends the law, saying it "was aimed at firing communists. And I think we did right."

Imami also complains that DP leaders threatened to remove him from his parliamentary seat. "But I was elected by my constituents and will stay as an independent," he argues.

DP President Eduard Selami admits that, under existing law, the dissidents elected by a constituency cannot be removed from their seats. But he maintains that many voters are complaining because they will no longer be represented by a DP member.

"We may have to change parliamentary law and hold new election," for those seats, says Mr. Selami. He also says those elected from a proportional representation party list could be removed and replaced by another candidate on the list.

The US Embassy has strongly backed the DP, even to the point of having US diplomats appear on rostrums with DP candidates during the local election campaign.

`OUR relations with the US Embassy are very good," Berisha maintains, noting that the US also helped the DP before the spring parliamentary elections. "The US Embassy and institutions assisted us before our victory on March 22, materially and with advice."

"I don't think that's quite proper," says one European diplomat. "Embassies aren't supposed to get involved in the internal affairs of the host country."

The diplomat also expresses concern about the growing undemocratic measures of the DP government. "A slide to undemocratic practices would be a great shame," says the European. "We are all watching it very carefully."

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