A Nation's Climb From Mob Rule to Ballot Box

European soldiers and observers help keep the peace for Sunday's election

Even 30 minutes before the city's current 10 p.m. curfew, machine-gun fire rattles nearby in the muggy twilight.

Red tracer bullets light up the sky at 10:05 p.m., followed by loud pistol shots. After a brief lull, an automatic weapon burst sounds off, far away.

Sporadic gunfire continues throughout the night.

In the bright daylight the next morning, the night's events seem like a bad dream. Women buy vegetables from well-stocked counters, and children play in the dusty street with simple toys. On a main boulevard, groups of well-dressed teenagers stroll by police armed with AK-47s guarding government buildings.

In the last days before Albania's hurriedly called parliamentary election, scheduled for Sunday, there's an uneasy calm. Multinational forces report violent holdups along roads patrolled by armed gangs in the countryside.

"It's very tense. We have no illusions and no hopes that things will get better," says Mithat Frasholli, a pensioner. "Unless every party gets a seat, the shooting will continue, or get worse."

More than 10 parties have applied to get candidates on the ballots being printed this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will monitor the election. Ballots are also filled by candidates from the opposition Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, headed by President Sali Berisha.

Party candidates receiving more than 2 percent of the vote will win seats in the parliament. An interim coalition government, led by Mr. Berisha and Prime Minister Bashkim Fino, appointed after March's unrest, currently heads the country.

"After the elections, I hope there is a coalition government," says Franka Dorzi, a bakery employee. "There will probably be some clashes after the election, but I'm not scared to vote."

Albanians who lost their life savings when pyramid schemes collapsed in March blame Berisha's Democratic Party for their problems. After the collapse of several popular moneymaking schemes, demonstrators looted government armories, carrying away weapons and ammunition.

Today, angry men stand in front of the heavily guarded Vefa offices near downtown, demanding to talk to pyramid scheme officers. The Vefa conglomerate masterminded the largest collapsed pyramid scheme, according to local newspapers. It also controls grocery stores around the country and other holdings, says Ilir Nishku, an editor at the Albanian Daily News.

"Everyone in the country got along until we lost our money," Mr. Nishku says. "All people want is to get their money back from the pyramid schemes."

Residents also want a return to normalcy. An OSCE election observer tells the story of a neighbor woman who went outside one night last week after curfew to ask an acquaintance to stop shooting his automatic rifle. Her children could not sleep because of the noise.

Armed soldiers will watch over international observers on election day. All told, more than 6,500 European soldiers have come to Albania, a measure that seems to have restored law and order in some areas. In Durres, a coastal resort city less than an hour's drive west of the capital, the situation is relatively calm.

But two days ago, soldiers were called to rescue 11 OSCE workers from a restaurant in Gjirokaster in southern Albania after the group was confronted by an armed gang asking for money. And in Vlora to the south, candidates are sent away from the city, and election officials are rumored to be hesitant to travel to Tirana to pick up voting materials.

At the Italian Embassy in Tirana, hundreds of people wait in line in front of the consular office gate, eager to leave the country. Some talk about keeping their families safe from shooting; others are more interested in economic security.

And across the street at the state television station, a mounted machine gun sits tipped back into a shaded window, just above the roof of the first-floor entrance. Police in the street below direct traffic.

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