Democracy Makes A U-Turn in Albania, Bringing West's Ire

Europe's poorest nation doesn't seem in a position to alienate its wealthy benefactors in the West, but its leaders are making an apparent effort to do so.

President Sali Berisha confirmed Friday that Albania would not rerun its parliamentary elections, despite the pullout on voting day by the nation's main opposition parties over charges of ballot fraud. His ruling Democratic Party later claimed a sweeping victory, earning 101 of 140 parliamentary seats in the May 26 vote.

But Mr. Berisha's anticommunist government, which has enjoyed widespread Western support since it came to power in 1992, seems to be standing on shakier ground these days when it denies widespread tampering took place. Complaints from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the United States State Department all point to irregularities and ask for at least a partial rerun of the elections.

"Regrettably numerous irregularities marred these elections and represent a significant step backward from the previous parliamentary elections of 1992," a US report reads. "These irregularities cast a shadow on the prospects for democratic progress, which remains the cornerstone of our relationship with Albania."

Although Berisha's government has agreed to repeat voting on June 16 in 17 districts, opposition leaders say that's not enough - they allege irregularities in 107 districts. On Saturday, the leading opposition Socialist Party violated a ban on rallies in Tirana's main Skanderbeg Square to demand a completely fresh vote.

Saturday's protest ended without violence, but opposition leaders' attempts to protest the marred voting have been met with considerable violence and official resistance. Two days after the elections, a protest was brutally broken up as police wielding truncheons beat opposition leaders and their supporters.

The Socialists called off a five-day hunger strike last week after the European Parliament invited four leaders of parties who boycotted the elections, including the Socialists, to "present evidence of the tremendous irregularities of the elections," said Plator Nesturi, spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, one of the four parties invited.

Haggard from the hunger strike and still showing bruises from a rally last week that was broken up by police, Socialist Party leader Namik Dokle said the invitation of the European Parliament represents "a first step."

Mr. Dokle said his party is ready to accept the US State Department's proposal for Albanian political parties to seek international assistance in investigating irregularities. "But as for a partial rerun of the elections, Dokle says, "it wasn't a partial manipulation. Violations were everywhere."

While foreign diplomats and Albanian politicians jockey for a compromise, the heavy police presence in this city seems to be telling people that something in their young democracy has gone astray. "When I ask people how things are going in their area, they seem at a loss and unsure," one Tirana embassy official said. "One woman told me she used to talk freely about politics on the bus. Now she says she talks about the weather."

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