Albania's Cappuccino Coup

Albania's Cappuccino Coup

Mini Teaser: The Albanian ex-communists' victory represents a startling success for a coalition of interests that is sure to gain strength and momentum. Today, Albania; tomorrow, other European countries sleepwalking their way to self-destruction.

by Author(s): Jonathan Sunley

'Oh, I know all about the Albanians', cried a lady; 'they are those
funny people with pink eyes and white hair.' But the Albanian is not
so quickly explainable; and of all the Balkan peoples he is least
known to the English.

--Edith Durham in The Burden of the Balkans

To people only glancingly familiar with it, Albania is the country
that put the a's into Ruritania. With its all-too-familiar
pretensions to antiquity, a language that appears to have remembered
its p's and q's but not many other letters, and an interwar
ruler--King Zog--who can be considered the last word in eccentric,
self-styled (and in his case self-appointed) Balkan monarchs, it is
perhaps understandable that even educated audiences tend to think of
Albanians in terms of the outlandishly dressed impostors in Mozart's
Cosi fan Tutte.

Having to live down such a reputation has not helped Albania to be
taken seriously during the political crisis that has swept over it
this past year. Most reports have stuck to variations on the
following formula: impoverished people (divided into two main
irreconcilable tribes) become even more impoverished as a result of
ruler's fecklessness, and revert to ancient custom of shooting wildly
at anything that moves until both tribes are pacified by an outside
force as bewildered as everyone else. Throw in a few references to
the country's bizarre communist-era dictator, Enver Hoxha, its half
million concrete bunkers that look like a set from a 1950s science
fiction film, plus (as a particularly exotic touch) a group of
lifelong virgins in the north who dress and behave like men, and you
have the makings of a hilarious 5-minute or 500-word "Letter from

Unfortunately for Western interests in this region, not to mention
those of the Albanians themselves, some rather more serious-minded
people have taken advantage of this approach to advance an agenda
that is far from amusing. The Albanian ex-communists' victory in the
June 1997 election, applauded by their fellow-traveling friends in
the West on the one hand and actively assisted by their not-so-naive
in-country allies on the other, represents a startling success for a
coalition of interests that is sure to gain strength and momentum
from this coup. Today, Albania; tomorrow, other European countries
sleepwalking their way to self-destruction.

Democracy Derailed?

The story starts in May 1996. Visiting the country for the first time
in five years, there was little doubt in my mind that the Democratic
Party (DP), the anti-communist movement that had taken office in 1992
following the final collapse of the one-party system, would be
returned to power in that month's elections. The reason was general

Back in 1991, Albania looked like a land suffering the effects of a
nuclear winter. People wearing charity handouts stood around
abjectly, waiting for something to do. A shop was an iron grill in a
wall, through which something might occasionally be shoved, and
utilities barely functioned. By the spring of 1996, by contrast,
Albania had the appearance of an energetically developing country
trying to yank itself out of poverty and desperation by its own
bootstraps: on the make, yes, but still definitely on the up. The
capital, Tirana, was a chaotic, round-the-clock building site,
choking with traffic. Businesses, shops, hotels, and cafés had sprung
up, and there was no mistaking the restored dignity and morale in a
people whose existence under communism had been close to serfdom.

Though the DP could not take all the credit for this transformation,
it had certainly done more for the country than the opposition
Socialist Party (SP), the leader of which--Fatos Nano--was still in
prison, having been convicted of misappropriating aid from Italy
during a spell as premier in the twilight years of the communist
system. Polls showed the Democrats headed for victory and this was
obviously also the assumption of the Socialists, who responded to
early returns on election day that confirmed their unpopularity by
walking out of polling stations and refusing to recognizethe result.

The Socialist Party's allegations of intimidation and fraud were
vague and not very convincing to observers of other elections in the
former Eastern Bloc who had witnessed genuine examples of
multiple-voting and count-rigging. They were enough, however, for the
body charged with verifying the outcome, the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (giving the horrendous acronym
OSCE-ODIHR). Its debriefing session the next day was dominated by a
sequence of earnest Scandinavians taking the floor to remonstrate
about the "atmosphere of coercion" they claimed to have sensed. One
British observer (now a Liberal Democrat MP) went further, telling
the Daily Telegraph, "In no other country have I seen the ruling
party using the machinery of state and police like I saw here."

While such a statement probably says more about this individual's
limited experience (and grammar) than anything else, there was a less
innocent explanation for the vehement protestations of other
OSCE-accredited observers. A letter sent before the election by the
Norwegian Labor Party's youth organization, on behalf of nine of
these election-watchers, asked the Socialists for assistance in the
form of transport and interpreters for "the comrades who are coming."
This request gave the SP a perfect opportunity to organize for the
sake of their impressionable young Scandinavian friends the kinds of
violent incidents mysteriously unrecorded by anyone else. Once picked
up and recycled by the international media, reports of these staged
clashes then provided the SP with the excuse they needed for pulling
out of the election and rejecting the legitimacy of the newly elected

In fact, the DP won a modest 56 percent of the vote, down from their
62 percent four years earlier. The Albanian electoral system being
predominantly first-past-the-post, this gave them 87 percent of seats
in parliament--a figure deliberately confused with the party's share
of the vote by commentators keen to assert a blatant cooking of the
books (for example, Alex Standish's "Albanian Adventures" in the
Summer issue of The Salisbury Review).

The DP's real misjudgment at this stage came when the interior
minister banned the Socialists from holding a protest rally in
Tirana's main square. In full view of the Western journalists and
observers gathered for their usual pre-lunch drinks on the terrace of
the Tirana International Hotel, police dispersed a few hundred
demonstrators using batons and tear gas. More than the appalling
brutality of the communist system itself, more than its legacy of
deprivation and fear, this turned the stomach of an "international
community" worried about missing their flights home, and thus
destroyed the DP's reputation in their eyes once and for all.

A Dutch observer caught in the melee (who had obviously lived a
sheltered existence in his own country) told the New York Times, "I
have never seen the totalitarian face like this, people being beaten,
cameras taken." "Democracy Betrayed in Albania", shrilled the
headline in the next day's issue of London's Independent, while the
Guardian expostulated, "Albania Faces New Tyranny." Increasingly,
these media attacks concentrated on the country's president, Sali
Berisha, the tone being set by an article in that week's Observer,
titled "Dictator's Shadow Stalks Albania", which made one of the
first direct comparisons between him and the late and unlamented
Enver Hoxha. Sabit Brokaj, for example, who one year later was to
turn up as the main coordinator of anti-DP rebel activity in the
south of the country, confided to the Observer, "Berisha was a
fanatical Communist who was very close to the Hoxha family. Like
Enver, he is a true dictator."

As one of the country's foremost cardiologists, Berisha had indeed
been a member of the communist Albania Party of Labor. But no
evidence has surfaced (say, in the form of rousing speeches to, or
strong denunciations of, fellow doctors) that he saw this as more
than a means to practicing his profession. Hoxha's widow continues to
deny that Berisha treated her husband more than a couple of times.
Her contempt for Berisha is even more revealing when set beside her
admiration for his main political opponent and now usurper, Fatos
Nano. The latter was one of her favorites at the Marxist-Leninist
Institute in Tirana, from where even in the late 1980s he was
criticizing Mikhail Gorbachev for "negative deviationism."

While it would be unreasonable to expect every stringer in search of
a Tirana dateline to have an exhaustive knowledge of the communist
period in Albania, the lamentable ignorance of nearly all journalists
who have covered this crisis made them easy game for local
"intellectuals" bent on manipulating them for their own ends. Take
Fatos Lubonja, for example. Lubonja's punchy sound-bytes condemning
Berisha have been a staple of Western media reports, and his
Trotskyite explanation of recent events, entitled "Pyramids of
Slime", can be found in the June issue of Transitions (published in
Prague by the Open Media Research Institute). From the perspective of
his Western interlocutors, what gives Lubonja his authority--apart
from his excellent English and agreeably disheveled appearance--is
the fact that he spent seventeen years in communist prisons. But what
these reporters fail to mention is the reason for the punishment
meted out to his family: namely, his father's prominent position for
many years in the communist hierarchy as general director of Albanian
Radio and Television. Unlike those jailed or murdered for resisting
communism, the Lubonja family (like many others) fell victim to one
of Hoxha's periodic intra-party purges.

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