The 'Mandela' of Albania Sees Freedom as a Gift to Fight For

Writer Fatos Lubonja spent 17 years from 1974 to 1991 in jail for opposing a Communist regime that left Albania Europe's poorest and most isolated nation.

In mid-February, he found himself behind bars again: For three hours, police penned Mr. Lubonja and his colleagues within the iron gates of their Forum for Democracy headquarters.

It was for their "own safety," the police claimed. But Lubonja said it was a thinly veiled attempt to prevent the forum from leading demonstrations against the government of President Sali Berisha. Furious protesters are demanding repayment of hundreds of millions of dollars lost in unregulated pyramid schemes and are calling for Mr. Berisha to resign for failing to protect them from the fraudulent investments.

And the once-imprisoned Lubonja is leading the charge, his tenure in prison giving him credibility akin to that of South Africa's President Nelson Mandela. He bills himself as a force for freedom and change. "This is a dictatorship, not a democracy. Freedom was given to us as a gift in 1991. But now we have to fight for it."

The fighting, however, appears to be escalating. Ten people were killed in a gun battle between residents in Vlora and Albania's Shik secret police on Friday. Although Berisha removed his unpopular prime minister, Aleksander Meksi, Saturday in response to protests, the rule of law has continued to disintegrate in several southern towns.

In Sarand, a coastal town 50 miles southeast of Vlora, angry rioters burned government buildings, seized police weapons, and looted shops and banks on Sunday. "The Army barracks have been abandoned. Every family in Sarand has a Kalashnikov. I fear a civil clash. We have no orders what to do," an Army lieutenant, who gave his first name as Adrian, told Reuters.

Yesterday, an ultimatum issued by the forum to reporters in Vlora demanded the resignation of the government, including Berisha, and the dissolution of parliament. "If the ultimatum is not met, then all Vlora and southern districts will march towards Tirana," stated the ultimatum.

The forum specifically asked Berisha to postpone a vote in parliament, scheduled for today, that would officially approve him as president for a second 5-year term. Parties allied with Berisha and his Democratic Party also called for a postponement. Early general elections are scheduled to be held in a few months.

Berisha and the Democrats rose to power in 1991 amid the euphoria of Albania's first free elections. But today, this long-suffering Balkan country of 3.5 million is experiencing dj vu. After a few years in which Berisha won international praise for liberalizing Albania's society and economy, the former Communist took what the US State Department calls a turn toward authoritarianism.

Berisha's alleged faults include election fraud, media manipulation, police brutality, and violent attempts to muzzle demonstrations. To oppose him, Lubonja and two other former political prisoners in January accepted the lead roles in the forum, a newly formed opposition coalition. It is led by the Socialists, many of whom are former Communists.

The ruling party's warning that the Socialists are a "red threat" hits home for many here. And Berisha and his inner circle bristle at charges that the state has become more authoritarian. "Our democracy is not perfect," says Tritan Shehu, who wears three hats as Democratic Party chairman, deputy prime minister, and foreign minister. "It's only five years old and needs time to mature," he told the Monitor.

But with Berisha's increasingly iron-fisted tendencies, much of the public seems ready for change.

The government insists that the current crisis is strictly economic. Indeed, a majority of protesters simply want their money back from the failed pyramid schemes. But for growing numbers, Berisha is to blame.

The government endorsed the high-risk investments, promising prosperity for all. A majority of Albanians put their life's savings into the schemes, selling farms and houses to raise money to invest.

Many now accuse officials of filling their pockets and party coffers with kickbacks and bribes from the promoters of the now-defunct schemes. Like the recent demonstrators in Serbia and Bulgaria, they want new leaders who will take them forward. "In our history, we've never had a politician ready to sacrifice himself for the country, only the country for himself," Lubonja says.

As president, Berisha first forged ahead with gutsy free-market reforms. He slashed state spending and shuttered the entire industrial sector, which was inefficient and unsustainable. Helped by massive foreign aid, agriculture-based Albania is producing results. Last year, economic growth was a robust 6 percent, inflation hovered at a remarkably low 17 percent, and the per capita gross domestic product climbed to $650, more than double the 1992 figure. But the current crisis has eroded most of the credibility Berisha had built up, both at home and abroad.

In spite of the growing internal unrest, the strongest force in the forum, the Socialists, says no real change will come about without international pressure. And they are gaining credibility as an alternative to Berisha - especially with former political prisoners like Lubonja lending cautious support. "Of course, there's potential danger if the Socialists come to power, but less danger than with Berisha," Lubonja says. "We can't judge people on their past, only on what they do for us now."

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