Why Albania's Democratic Dream Evaporated

Berisha, having conned right-wing supporters in the West, simply went to work trashing rights and rebuilding dictatorship

Ever since Albania began its failed attempt at democracy six years ago, and especially since the election of Sali Berisha as president in 1992, the Western democracies have paid far too little attention to human rights abuses, which have contributed to the breakdown of the political and security order there. President Berisha, formerly the cardiologist of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, largely succeeded in convincing European and US officials that his control of the news media, manipulation of the courts, and ruthless treatment of political opponents were justified by the persistence of a communist threat in Albania.

It is clear that Albanians have virtually no confidence in Berisha. In fact, the Albanian people show hardly any stronger aptitude for democracy now than they did in 1991, after decades under Hoxha's almost surreal dictatorship.

Has the Berisha regime done anything to build confidence in free elections and democratic institutions? Obviously not. The willingness of so many Albanians to take to the streets with stolen arms shows a shocking disregard for the legitimacy of the state. Still, Berisha and his right-wing supporters in the West blame these events on "the communists" - instead of on Berisha himself, the political backwardness of his clique, and the hypocrisy of his patrons abroad.

Thwarting the courts

The Albanian judiciary has remained deeply politicized. The government routinely fired jurists or demoted them to lower posts after they passed verdicts on politically sensitive cases. And the government allowed people with no legal background to become judges after three- or six-month training sessions, after which they got bogus law degrees from Tirana University.

In 1995, the Berisha regime virtually eviscerated the Court of Cassation, Albania's supreme court. It disregarded several of the court's decisions and proposed a parliamentary vote to remove Chief Judge Zef Brozi after he decided to reopen the case of Fatos Nano, the socialist leader who was convicted and jailed under highly dubious circumstances. Judge Brozi was prevented from entering the court by armed police. He is now in exile in the United States.

The state of emergency instituted on March 3 formally shut down Albania's independent newspapers. The result has been an information vacuum that has made that emergency even worse. The Albanian people are deprived of accurate information on which to base rational political opinions. Instead, rumors, intrigues, and fear lead to impulsive actions. Now, when the people desperately need to know what is going on, the Berisha-controlled parliament has rejected a proposal by the new government to cease censorship.

The Albanian law on the news media is designed to "protect" the citizens from "abuses" by the press - similar to the 1976 code instituted by the Hoxha dictatorship. Articles in the code applying to defamation and libel have been used to intimidate and prosecute numerous journalists. Private radio and television stations are prohibited. At the same time, the state-run news media carry inflammatory language and are notoriously irresponsible.

Nongovernmental human rights and humanitarian organizations daring to espouse independent views have come under pressure. The Albanian Helsinki Committee's telephone lines were disconnected, and the group is often denounced by the state-run news media.

The Berisha government's harassment and prosecution of the independent news media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) increased dramatically before the parliamentary election in May 1996. Preparations for that election began early. Parliament passed a "Law on the Verification of the Moral Character of Officials and Other Persons Connected with the Defense of the Democratic State," which was used to establish a commission to create secret files on who may or may not hold public office or work in the state media. According to Amnesty International and to affiliates of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, virtually all of the more than 200 candidates disqualified by the commission were members of opposition parties.

Massive vote fraud

International election observers brought in by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and by NGOs concluded that Berisha's Democratic Party was responsible for massive vote fraud. Under heavy pressure from abroad, the president agreed to new elections in a number of electoral zones, but they were boycotted by the opposition parties.

Now, anxious to save his political skin, Berisha is willing to hold new elections, but his motives are suspect since he wants the vote to occur as early as June, in an atmosphere of emergency and fear. The misguided soldiers, angry pyramid-scheme losers, and others who demand his resignation begin to make him look good and lend false credence to Western ideologues who insist the mess is a communist plot.

Albania should be seen as a place where the denial of democratic principles and human rights has thwarted any sense of citizenship and statehood. The country needs a new start on the road to democracy. It needs the help of international friends who will take its human rights obligations seriously this time.

* Aaron Rhodes is executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Vienna.

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