How to Help Albania Help Itself

An American congressman reports from the crisis scene

It is easy to forget the monumental changes in Albania before the chaos of the 1997 rebellion. During a half century of Communist rule, Albanians had no freedom of speech or worship and could not engage in commerce. In a sea of totalitarian governments, they were the most closed society in Europe.

But, as in other Central and Eastern European countries, a revolution threw out the Communist regime, culminating in free and fair elections and the creation of a nascent capitalist system. Albania's isolation made its awakening even more striking.

I was very taken with President Sali Berisha when I visited Albania in 1993. He spoke as a believer in democratic principles, and his words matched the changes I saw around me in the capital, Tirana. When I returned in early 1996 as US parliamentary representative to the South Balkans Defense Ministerial meeting, the first signs of a deterioration in the political environment were evident. A year earlier the sedition trial of several Albanians of Greek heritage was handled clumsily, at best, by the Albanian government. Mr. Berisha lost a critical referendum on a new constitution largely because people were irritated by his overzealous television campaign.

The recent riots capped a year of democratic retreat. Berisha's Democratic Party expanded its control of parliament in widely discredited elections in May 1996. Although the international community documented improvements in last fall's local elections, inexperience with democratic processes and distrust between factions kept Albania's leaders from capitalizing on those gains.

Needed: market skills

Years of Communist isolationism afforded citizens few skills for living in an emerging market economy. Albanians invested much of their life savings in get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, which began to collapse earlier this year. These trends, exacerbated by the rebellion, raised largely realized fears, within the Balkan and Adriatic regions, of a large-scale outflow of refugees.

But the situation could present opportunities amid the challenges for Albania, the United States, and the international community.

As the US member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to Albania, I was part of the negotiations on March 8, 1997, that led Berisha to agree to a nine-point program on political reconciliation. His appointment of a Socialist, Bashkim Fino, as prime minister, represented a key step to reach out to other political elements. Berisha finally joined with the opposition in scheduling a new vote for June 29, 1997. Now, with approximately 5,500 troops in Albania, led by Italy, the US and the international community must intensify efforts to help Albania regroup around these gains.

We should:

* Support the new multiparty Albanian government in its efforts to achieve political reconciliation and peacefully end the rebellion.

* Encourage it to implement the nine-point agreement and to do all possible to reinspire the trust of the Albanian people.

* Increase our technical assistance, once a sense of normalcy is restored, to promote tolerance, democracy, and the rule of law; to help Albania achieve a full accounting of the assets and losses of the pyramid schemes; and to teach management of a market-based economy.

* Work with the new Albanian government to ensure that upcoming elections will be free and fair, with large numbers of observers to assure the population of their fairness.

* Call upon those who have taken up arms to let Prime Minister Fino govern by laying down their weapons and demanding changes to the government only through peaceful means, particularly the upcoming elections.

* Convene a meeting of potential donor nations to help Albania recover from its economic crisis. Any assistance should have political conditions such as guarantees of human rights, free and fair elections, and a free press.

* Remain engaged in diplomatic efforts to help Albania out of the crisis. We must support the work of the OSCE and our European allies, but, as in Bosnia, American leadership is critical to creating a unified message.

* Offer logistical and technical support to Italy and other nations that have provided troops for an international police or a stabilization force in Albania. However, given our large commitment in Bosnia, the dangerous environment in Albania, lack of a clear end point, and difficulties in getting congressional approval, the US should not contribute soldiers to Albania for such a mission.

Offered: creative ideas

The following ideas should also be strongly considered:

A weapons buy-back/guns-for-food program. Building on experience acquired through a similar program in Haiti and several US cities, the international community can encourage Albanian citizens to relinquish their weapons by offering cash or food for each gun turned in. Given Albania's poverty, a relatively small amount of money would be required. A second component of the weapons buy-back could be a matching contribution by the international community to a fund to reimburse those who lost their money in the pyramid schemes.

A fact finding/truth commission. For years, Albanians have been unable to trust the information from the government and the press. A commission of domestic academics, jurists, and political leaders could be established to compile an accurate record of the political and financial collapse in Albania. Similar projects have helped El Salvador and South Africa come to grips with their painful national ordeals.

Despite 50 years of unrelenting anti-American propaganda by the Communist regime, Albanians are very fond of America, in particular, and the West, in general. During my stay in Tirana, I experienced this warm feeling. In meetings with Berisha and opposition forces, one can sense a tangible effort to reach out to the United States and the West for help.

We can use that feeling to establish trust in the West's efforts to urge Albanians to resolve their differences.

But, in the end, resolution of the crisis rests squarely in the hands of the Albanian people. They can continue to take up arms, lurching toward anarchy, or they can choose the path of reconciliation by turning their anger into peaceful political action. It is their choice.

* Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D) of New York co-chairs the congressional Albanian Issues Caucus.

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