Albanian Democrats Face Tough Agenda

Desperate economic plight fueled ouster of communists

HUNDREDS of thousands of bunkers scattered all over Albania by former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha to protect his regime against external enemies, today have nothing to defend.

The 46-year communist domination of Albania expired March 22 when the Democratic Party, the main opposition force, triumphed in parliamentary elections with 65 percent of the vote.

The Democrats gathered overwhelming popular support in spite of the propaganda campaign masterminded by the Communists, renamed Socialists, who said that the Democrats would deprive the peasants of their land by returning it to its former owners.

The rural areas contributed significantly to the Democrats' victory. The Socialists got only 22 percent of the vote.

"It's a major and unexpected defeat for us," says Bashkim Zeleli, international secretary of the Socialist Party.

The main reason for the spectacular success of the Democrats is Albanians' desire for change, says Mr. Zeleli, adding that people hold the Socialists responsible for the economic disasters and for the social unrest in the country.

"Now the Democrats have to fulfill their promises. It will be difficult," he says.

Albania, the poorest country in Europe, started its reform toward democracy and the free market economy in December 1990, but the transition from the most brutal of all the communist regimes in Europe resulted in nothing but increasing poverty and social turmoil. Inflation soared to 800 percent. Unemployment, which was unknown under the Communists, is increasing.

Tens of thousands of desperate Albanians fled.

The message the Democrats are sending to their fellow citizens is that to overcome this difficult situation they must work hard to make their dreams come true.

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," the Democrats' charismatic leader Sali Berisha said at a press conference, quoting from the 1961 inauguration speech of United States President Kennedy. Now is the time for Albanians to work for the reconstruction of their country, he said.

Many Albanians agree. "We are convinced that we cannot make it without work," says Adem Sula, a former political prisoner who opened a small cafe in the town of Kruja two months ago.

But 35.4 percent of the citizens who answered a poll published on March 12 in the daily Bashkimi (Union) said they wanted to leave the country and work abroad for a few years.

The Democratic Party is considering emigration as a temporary solution for Albania's economic crisis. "We have applied to some European countries to accept a number of Albanians to work there. It would be a relief for us," says Venc Pollo, a spokesman for the Democrats. "But being realistic, there are not big things to expect from there," he adds.

So far, according to a Romanian diplomat in Tirana, only Germany has agreed to receive about 2,000 workers from Albania. But very few Albanians meet Germany's requirement that they speak German.

Long-term solutions for reviving the economy of this country, deeply impoverished by decades of isolation, are dependent upon Western support. "We need foreign investment in tourism, oil industry, and agriculture to develop our resources," says Pascal Milo, vice president of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Albania needs at least $1.5 million to make its economy work again and to improve the living standard of its 3.3 million inhabitants, estimates Cerciz Mingomataj, spokesman of the Republican Party.

But foreign investors do not rush into a country that is not yet able to ensure the safety of its own citizens. Violent crime has escalated in this country where a gun can be easily bought at a market for $10.

The members of the Socialist Party say they fear that the Democrats might seek revenge after taking office. But Mr. Berisha, who is trying to forge a consensus for proceeding with economic reform, said that this is not likely.

"One thing we do not need and we do not want ... is revenge," Berisha said at a press conference. "Our situation is too desperate. The Democratic Party cannot afford to waste time and energy for vengeance."

Enthusiastic youngsters already acclaim Sali Berisha and call him the George Washington of Albania. Berisha, a cardiologist who used to be the doctor of the Hoxha family, was a member of the ruling Party of Labor (the former Communists), but he has enjoyed a reputation as a democrat. He was among the first intellectuals to join the students' movement for democracy in December 1990 and reckoned among the founders of the Democratic Party. He became the leader of the party in January 1991 two months before the first free parliamentary elections organized in Albania since 1944.

Through a decent and honest opposition, the Socialist Party is also ready to contribute to reforming Albania, Zeleli says. Besides the political disputes, both parties share the burden of eliminating the sad memories of Hoxha's Stalinist dictatorship, including his concrete bunkers that still dot the countryside.

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