A Vote Is Not Just a Vote In Albania. It's a Victory.

West's stake in Sunday's election is both humanitarian and strategic, aiming to stabilize Europe's south

These are certainly trying times for people like Vladimir Vata, a true democrat of post-communist Albania.

As national coordinator for the nonprofit Society for Democratic Culture (SDC), Mr. Vata was only slightly cheered to report that Sunday's parliamentary elections were marked more by the inadequate training and sheer incompetence of local electoral commissioners than by flagrant vote tampering.

For anarchic Albania - where failed pyramid schemes and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Sali Berisha recently brought this Balkan backwater to the brink of civil war - that meant a tiny step forward.

"Normally, democracy is built like a building. First, a strong foundation, then building upward," says the soft-spoken Vata. "With a poor foundation you may build the first floor and then the second, but then it collapses. Then you have to start over again."

So that's where Albania finds itself, in rebuilding mode. But there's one glaring difference from 1991, when Albania held its first post-communist elections. The democracy -building that broke ground in 1991 rode a wave of euphoria and hope among Albanians, Europe's poorest and most isolated citizens. But when a slew of state-endorsed pyramid investment schemes snookered them out of nearly $2 billion in savings earlier this year, most Albanians exchanged their idealism for a Kalashnikov rifle. Close to 1,500 Albanians have since died.

Frazzled, Albanians on Sunday heaved from power Mr. Berisha's Democratic Party. In doing so, they handed over roughly 55 percent of parliament's seats to the once-unpalatable Socialists, heirs of the former Communist Party. (Runoffs in 21 of Albania's 115 districts will be held Sunday.)

Yet the Socialists, say some observers, won convincingly only because of a lofty promise to return at least part of the lost investments.

With gun-toting Albanians - and Berisha himself, as a self-appointed watchdog - keeping a vigilant eye, the Socialists must perform great feats quickly.

The Socialists will also have to make a decisive break with the past. "Whenever Albanians have been given a chance to emerge from despotism, the new political forces have reimposed the old style of rule," recently wrote a former political prisoner here, Fatos Lubonja, in the Prague-based magazine Transitions.

Meanwhile, Vata and his SDC colleagues look at the big picture: whether Albanians can get the hang of democracy. Partially funded by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, the SDC has monitored eight elections in Albania since 1992 and enjoyed only limited success in educating the public and government officials in civic responsibilities and voting rights.

For a people continuously under the yoke of a foreign occupier or home-grown despot since the Romans conquered the region, the concept of real democracy is so alien, SDC officials say, that even relatively basic tenets, such as free and fair elections, become impossible to abide by without the assistance of the West.

In May 1996 parliamentary elections, Berisha's government was widely criticized for voter fraud, media manipulation, and the beating of opposition leaders and sympathizers. In hopes of reestablishing government credibility - and prodded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the lead advisers and election monitors - Albania forged ahead with last Sunday's vote.

With the conflict in neighboring former Yugoslavia far from resolved, the European powers in the OSCE (of which the US is a member) are keen to avert further upheaval in Albania, say foreign observers. Many Albanians themselves saw Sunday's vote as their last chance to not only save themselves but hold Western interest in their welfare.

"We've tried everything: foreign occupation, a king, communism, and democracy," says Anton Benusi, president of the SDC chapter here in the northern Albanian city of Shkoder. "If we fail this time, we should just go back to the caves."

Vata spent Sunday monitoring the elections in Shkoder, normally a Berisha stronghold, but now a hotbed of support for the country's exiled King Leke, who resides in South Africa. The polls were open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and surprisingly peaceful. Then came the tough part, at least for one eight-member electoral commission composed of representatives of the competing parties.

In their decrepit, airless polling station, several members exchanged insults and nearly came to blows when, after three hours, they could not get some 800 valid, invalid, and unused ballots to add up. Vata, ostensibly a neutral observer, offered to step in and referee, his election guidebook in tow. "I felt pity for them," he says. "They could have been there all night."

Commissioners then vented their rage at the "college-educated" Vata and waved him off. But after reconsidering his offer, one member politely asked for his suggestions. Within half an hour, the counting was done. Yet to firmly establish democratic reform throughout Albania, Vata says, the country needs the West's ideas, guidance, and political pressure, not to mention massive amounts of foreign aid and investment.

The vast majority of Albanians indeed do look to the West, particularly the United States, for support. Some say it boils down to a moral obligation - and a recognition of Albania's geostrategic importance on the Balkan peninsula. "If you are humane and you see someone has fallen down in the middle of the road and is hurt, you must help them," says Zamira Poda, a high school science teacher in Shkoder.

But Vata's optimism, Sunday's elections notwithstanding, is flagging. He says he is torn between a sense of duty to his country and to his wife, Ollga, and three-year-old son, Genci. That's why he has applied for a green card to live in the US. If his number comes up, Vata, like most other Albanians, would leave in a heartbeat.

"Knowing this situation, I'd rather make my contribution to another country," he says. "We have a saying here: You can't break down the wall by beating your head up against it."

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