Albania's Past Reignites Cycle Of Revenge

BRINGING former Communist oppressors to justice is proving brutal in Albania, where almost no one has been left untouched by more than 40 years of dictatorship.

Last week, police arrested for the second time in three years the country's last Communist leader, Ramiz Alia, who was also its first democratically elected president.

He is the 32nd of Albania's former leaders to be imprisoned since the government began to prosecute the crimes of former Communists last October. Albania's so-called genocide law speeds up the process of prosecuting crimes and bars former Communist officials and collaborators with the secret security service from running for office until 2002.

Many in this tiny, long-isolated Balkan country say that the ruling Democratic Party's methods are sparking vengeance rather than justice, and parliamentary elections expected in July deepen political feuding. ''In this heightened tension of the electoral atmosphere, it is difficult to think fairly now,'' said Arben Puto, a member of the Albanian Helsinki Committee.

Critics add that the waves of arrests sparked by the ''genocide law'' are part of a campaign by Albanian President Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party to eliminate opponents before elections. ''Berisha and the Democratic Party are aiming to institutionalize political revenge,'' Mr. Alia charged.

Yet Tomor Dosti, vice chairman of the Democratic Party who was exiled for 44 years under the Communists, says the crackdown is an act of morality. ''All those people who created, formulated, and executed the laws of the time don't have the moral right to enter into politics,'' he said.

Some worry that in Albania, a country where many still identify with clans, the law could inspire the outbreak of blood feud, a practice of vengeance killing codified in a 15th-century civil code. The blood feud has already been revived in northern Albania. ''Revenge, which is closely linked with defending one's honor and that of one's clan, is at the essence of Albanian mentality,'' said human rights activist and 17-year political prisoner, Fatos Lubonja.

''On the political scene, this defense of one's honor has led to the creation of polemics from which today's leaders never turn back,'' he added.

The Socialists, members of the old Communist Party, see themselves as the target of the polemics. Berisha's party voted overwhelmingly for the passage of laws against former Communist officials. ''This is our genocide,'' Democratic Party General Secretary Tritan Shehu told Socialists during the parliamentary debate. ''Compare it with yours.''

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