Tensions rise as Albania approaches elections

Issue 

Student demonstrations, a military clampdown and an emigre exodus have marked the lead-up to Albania's first multiparty elections, scheduled for March 31. From Prague, Green Left correspondent PETER ANNEAR reports.

The exodus of 20,000 Albanians reflects worsening conditions in what was already Europe's poorest country. The possible political consequences were indicated by the Financial Times' London-based Eastern European correspondent, Judy Dempsey, who speculated on March 8, "The prospect of thousands being forcibly returned to Albania ... will deprive the authorities of a safety valve to dilute growing discontent".

Following the 1985 death of Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944, the Alia regime embarked on a cautious path of economic and political reform. Constitutional changes initiated last November pledged a free press, freedom of worship, the freedom to travel and multiparty elections.

But the government never fully broke with the Hoxha legacy. Symbolically, statues of the former leader were left in place.

The toppling of the 12-metre bronze statue of Hoxha at a large demonstration on Skanderberg Square in the centre of Tirana on February 20 was the climax to a two-week strike by the city's 12,000 university students, who were demanding the removal of Hoxha's name from the university. One hundred thousand people rallied on Tirana campuses, and thousands moved to the city square, where they were joined by striking factory workers. Reportedly, some police and soldiers went over to the side of the demonstrators.

According to the London Guardian's Ian Traynor, opposition and diplomatic sources have attributed some of the shooting in Tirana to clashes between rival factions within the army or police. One hundred and twenty officers were reportedly on hunger strike protesting against the use of violence against the students.

The Enver Hoxha Museum, the Enver Hoxha Military Academy, bookshops containing his works, the Defence Ministry and the compound of high-ranking party officials were all the focus of protests. Similar events occurred in the Adriatic port of Durres and in the south-eastern town of Korca. The government accused the independent Miners' Trade Union, formed only on February 19, and student leaders of instigating violence.

On February 21 the regime sent tanks against the demonstrators while the ruling Party of Labour met in emergency session. It agreed to remove Hoxha's name immediately from the university. In the following days, however, Alia stridently defended the Hoxha legacy, warning of a split in the party, and raising suspicion about a possible military coup led by hard-line Hoxha followers.

Groups of Hoxha loyalists opposed to the Alia reforms have been forming in regional centres such as Berat, where the loyalists claim a membership of 5000, in Gjirokastra, Hoxha's birthplace, and inside the military academy.

Ironically, the student protests are a product of the economic and social development instituted by the Hoxha regime. Hoxha transformed Albania from a "disease-ridden, semi-feudal cesspit into an orderly society comparable with modestly prosperous Third World countries", wrote BBC Central Europe correspondent Misha Glenny in the November 10 London Guardian.

"... Now every year 70,000 school and university leavers in a population of 3.5 million try to find work in a rickety, Stalinist economy on the brink of collapse."

About half the population is under the age of 23. Foreign television has added the lure of the West to the desires of thousands of educated and self-confident young people whose intellectual interests have long outgrown party dogmas.

The opposition Democratic Party was established in December. Its election manifesto demands a "share-owning democracy", the end of centralised Communist Party control and the distribution of land to the peasants working it. Two-thirds of Albania's 3.2 million population live on the land.

But the measures are largely demagogic, and it is doubtful they would improve the economy. More significantly, the party's first step was to call for closer ties with the United States.

Following an emergency meeting of the council of ministers early in March, the Alia government reportedly accused "international and external enemies ... of exploiting the economic difficulties through which we are passing".

Yugoslav authorities have told Albanians they are prepared to take in the country's Serb and Montenegrin minorities. Yugoslavia and Albania are in dispute over the plight of the Albanian majority in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.

The Party of Labour electoral program promises human rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and integration into the wider world. It proposes the introduction of market mechanisms, including small-scale private enterprise, while remaining committed to large-scale nationalised industry and the state-controlled cooperative agricultural system.