Albania - the Domino That Didn't Quite Fall

THE unstable aftermath of the recent Albania elections demonstrates that democracy does not necessarily arrive with the ballot box. At the end of March, Albania staged its first multiparty elections since the communist takeover at the close of World War II. The result, a clear communist victory, may have stunned the outside world, which has watched consecutive communist dominoes fall in Eastern Europe during the past two years. But it comes as no surprise to many Balkan watchers. Communist control and manipulation in the Balkan states of Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and parts of Yugoslavia has not collapsed overnight, as it did in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. An entrenched party leadership has clung to as many instruments of power as possible, including nationalism, populism, and public anxiety about change.

In Albania a xenophobic leadership has steered the country out of Eastern Europe and placed it somewhere between China and North Korea - ideologically, politically, and for all intents and purposes, geographically. Albania's isolation was reinforced by official paranoia about foreign invasions. This paranoia is still on display in a bizarre network of concrete bunkers that litter the countryside. They were to protect against allegedly imminent attacks by Yugoslavs, Americans, Russians, among others.

The system was petrified by a doctrinaire Stalinism, in which "Little Stalin" Enver Hoxha ruled the country for over 40 years as a virtual labor-camp commandant. Hoxha died in 1985, but the system survived him, and his chosen successor, Ramiz Alia, took the minimal reformist steps necessary to pacify Western public opinion and prevent a bloody revolution. At the end of last year, the Albanian Party of Labor (APL) decided to retain power in the guise of democracy, using every trick in its Leninist arsena l to limit the effectiveness of newly formed opposition groups.

The election campaign in Albania was in many respects more important than the elections themselves. Unfortunately, observers from several West European parliaments issued superficial reports on the polling based on a few days' stay and the appearance of technically correct election procedures in urban districts. They seemed to ignore the APL's overwhelming advantage in terms of funds, staff, assets, and control of the mass media.

The party leadership decided to sacrifice the cities, where the opposition is strong. It focused instead on rural areas, which could return a clear majority to the national assembly and where the opposition had little access to the collectivized peasantry.

The elections therefore created urban islands of democracy in a rural Red Sea. Riots and shootings in Shkoder on the day after the ballot, and warnings of a strike, reflected the frustrations of a city population that wanted to bury communism and rejoin the European order, but saw the opportunity slipping away. The party authorities reacted with violent repression, and blamed the opposition for the unrest.

Albania's immediate future looks chaotic, not only because of the widening gulf between town and country, and the seething public anger with party manipulation, but also because the economy is collapsing. The country's dilapidated infrastructure is crumbling, food output has slumped, and increasing industrial stoppages have contributed to the general malaise in production and distribution.

If the Democratic Party opposition, which won nearly one-third of the vote, is excluded from parliamentary decisionmaking, and if the new government only implements slow and partial reforms, the streets and factories may well decide Albania's future. The Democrats may find themselves in the unenviable position of defending the government from popular discontent, by urging self-restraint on embittered workers and students.

The West is not powerless vis- 136>-vis the Albanian turmoil. Aside from humanitarian assistance, a two-track policy must be undertaken to democratize Albania and improve its people's well-being. Democratic parties (Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Agrarians) must be helped to expand their organizational reach, to educate the public in democratic processes, and guarantee pluralism and open competition for the next elections.

Conversely, communist leaders must be pressed firmly against the wall and told that the free world demands civilized treatment of their citizens, otherwise no major credits will be forthcoming and no international institutions will open their doors to Tirana. The victory signs that greet all foreign visitors to Albania will then symbolize the successful construction of democracy, and not just popular yearnings for freedom.

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