How do you stem a popular uprising heading toward your country's capital?
Increasingly, many believe Albania's President Sali Berisha found an answer to that question by engineering a counterinsurgency of his own supporters in Tirana and northern Albania.
Throughout Albania's chaotic insurgency, mobs of civilians had little trouble getting hold of the hundreds of thousands of weapons they raided from military barracks.
Initially, the Army's refusal to engage in any confrontation was seen as the inevitable consequence of years of neglect and underpayment. "These soldiers make two bucks a month. They're not going to be heroes," one Western diplomatic source in the capital, Tirana, pointed out as armed civilians took over the southern town of Gjirokaster.
Profiting from the chaos
But now there are growing signs that the uprising was at least partly engineered in Tirana by the embattled Mr. Berisha.
In the south, Army generals in Saranda and Tepelena apparently received clear instructions to let civilians have access to thousands of Kalashnikovs - most of which are presently stored in homes across the region. "I know that the doors of the barracks here were flung open," says Djevat Koucia, a retired Army general in the southern town of Saranda who organized the early stage of the revolt after civilians looted the warehouses. "I think that part of this was organized. Berisha wanted the people to have arms to provoke chaos and precipitate the situation."
As the rebellion quickly spread toward Tirana, with rebels demanding Berisha's resignation as their one precondition to laying down arms, Berisha may have countered the chaos with some of his own making, using the Shik secret police to maintain his control over the situation.
A week after Saranda slipped out of government control, something of an identical situation occurred in the northern town of Shkoder. Civilians prepared for an all-out assault on the military depot found the site unguarded.
"We were told that the generals had received instructions to leave the deposits open," says James Magan, a British priest with the Roman Catholic Missionaries of Charity in Bushat, five miles south of Shkoder. "What we know for sure," he adds, "is that there was no resistance. People walked right in and took the guns."
In Lezha, some 50 miles south of Shkoder, Mark, a young man who participated in the storming of the military depot in nearby Manatin, says the doors of the depot were open. "There were some soldiers standing around, but they walked away immediately."
The assault in Manatin, Mark adds, was curiously organized. "I pulled up at the gas station at quarter to eight in the evening," he says. "I was told immediately that the storming was scheduled for 8 o'clock and I'd better hurry. I got there, and at 8 sharp we started running toward the barracks. These things don't happen by themselves. We didn't stop to think then, but now we think it was the Shik."
According to some observers, there may have been two distinct phases of Albania's unrest, which has allowed Berisha to assert more authoritarian control and perhaps postpone elections scheduled for June.
"The first phase involved letting a spontaneous civilian uprising run its course by letting all these people get a hold of these guns. There was probably nothing planned at that stage. It was more of an instinctive sense that chaos was good for Berisha," says Ilir Kuracuci, a journalist and commentator for the Albanian service of the BBC. "The second phase was a bit more delicate because it implied finding and arming Berisha supporters."
Arming Berisha's supporters
In Tirana, arms were distributed to Berisha's Democratic Party members and supporters first, then to whomever was willing to pick up a gun. "Guns were handed out at the headquarters of Berisha's Democratic Party," says one Western diplomatic source. "There are also reports that they were being handed out elsewhere in Tirana."
Arben Puto, who heads the Albanian chapter of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, says he was sitting in his office in Tirana two weeks ago when a young man came storming in demanding to speak to whomever was in charge: "He was very upset. I asked him what was wrong and he said that some people, either agents of the Shik or Democratic Party people, had come to his neighborhood in Tirana and were handing out guns. He said we had to do something about it. He refused to tell me his name because he was afraid."
The fact that no government buildings, nor offices or studios of the government-controlled media, were looted or burned reinforces the view among many observers that Berisha is the one in control of the armed civilians patrolling Tirana's streets. And although southern rebels still call for Berisha's resignation, no such demands are being heard from the north.
The chaos seems to have worked at least in part to Berisha's advantage. When the insurgency spread to the outskirts of Tirana, many of those who had previously asked for Berisha's head wondered out loud whether the country could handle the power vacuum. Even the leadership of Berisha's strongest rival, the opposition Socialist Party, said that "Berisha was a necessary evil," says one Western observer.
According to sources in Rome, it is highly unlikely that Berisha managed to mastermind the entire insurgency. "I think there was a gradual deterioration of the situation," says an Italian diplomatic source. But in the end, Berisha is still president, and the interim government headed by Prime Minister Bashkim Fino has yet to demonstrate any significant control over the situation.