(en) ++ More News from Albania

Freedom Press (freedom@tao.ca)
Sat, 10 May 1997 21:35:13 +0000

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EXTRACT FROM _FREEDOM_ 10th May 1997 sample edition on request from London (see end of message)



As we approached Saranda, leaving the Drinos Valley and travelling through the Muzina Pass, I scanned the scene for some cheerful signs of life. The vines up there in early April stood out like skeletons across the mountain landscape. I began to wish the Greek police at the frontier had turned me back on some pretext or other, thus barring my entry to this 'Land of the Eagles' or Shqiperia as the Albanians call it.

I did my best to amuse myself by thinking of Yves Montand in the film Wages of Fear, and I repeated to myself the Spanish saying 'Nothing was written about a coward'. It was one of those grim, grey overcast days we get so many of in Lancashire. On days like this positive thinking doesn't come easy.

We followed what looked like a canal before hitting the road-block. After being checked out we dropped down past the 'Welcome to Saranda' sign and the electricity station, and an abandoned army tank, into town. Saranda, with a population of 29,000, is a port and, in better days, a seaside resort.

The town has a long history dating back to ancient Greek times. The modern town behind the harbour is a depressing set of blocks of flats, though the island of Corfu when viewed across the bay at sunset appears to float on the Adriatic.

EXTERMINATING ANGELS The old name for Saranda was Agia Saranda, or 'Forty Saints'. The way it looked when I visited at the beginning of April was as if forty Exterminating Angels had been let loose.

As I made my way through the rubble my driver introduced me to Lucy, a teacher, and I showed them my Freedom Press Card. There was some talk about costs for accommodation and an accompanying guide. I went to pull out - sweetish, of a sherry type. Lucy complained of the disruption and said she needed money to cover her family in these difficult times. She wanted $100 a day to act as my guide in Saranda and introduce me to members of the citizen' s committee. Accommodation costs, with the taxi driver would be another $100 a day including food. Lucy stressed the risks. They would all be risking their lives, she could be shot in the street or they may become targets of robbers by having me on the premises. She told me my dnver was a good man, and I had been lucky to have him. She said with another driver I would certainly have lost my bag.

I was blunt telling them that I didn't know what to expect when I came to Albania, and I had left most of my money in an hotel in Greece. Then, as I didn't work for the BBC or CNN, I didn't have a big expenses allowance. I told her that I was just a tin-pot freelance journalist. I said it wasn't a bundle of fun on the dole in Britain.

She responded that it was better to be in England on the dole than in a situation where one was fearing a bullet in the head at any moment.

She told me she hadn't got a visa and couldn't leave the country. Nor would she take a boat, owing to the actions of the Italian navy in sinking the refugee ships. Her husband turned on the television and we got Television Tirana transmitting Swan Lake at almost 3 o'clock, then the news came on with a view of the Italian parliament in session standing for one minutes silence on behalf of the refugees from Albania drowned off the Italian coast the weekend before.

I asked why the refugees didn't cross into Greece over the land frontier? She said some did, but risked being shot by the Greek soldiers.

Lucy was less than sympathetic towards the European Union. They all claimed Europe had not been much help. Her husband chimed in: "I didn't know Albania was part of Africa". I remarked that I didn' t know how committed Europe will be to solving the Albania problem, not after Bosnia and the experiences in Africa.


Lucy: Europe is to blame for our situation. It didn't do anything to help us originally. Then when the USA became interested in Albania, Europe got jealous and told Berisha [the president] that the pyramid investment schemes must be stopped - producing the present crisis.

B: Yes, but I don't think pyramid investment was a good idea in the first place.

Lucy: Yes, but it was the Italian Mafia who introduced the schemes to trick simple people and rob them, taking their money out of the country to Italy.

B: Doesn't the Albanian government of Berisha have some responsibility here? Surely he should have warned the people.

Lucy: Of course! He used the pyramid schemes to win the general election. But John Major and the British government backed Berisha and applauded his 'achievements'. The British government financed Berisha. There has been a problem with the pyramid schemes, but now it has all gone too far. Now I am just trying to make a living for my family. Every day I am afraid a bullet will go through my brain as I sit here. Every day prices are going up, and we can't work normally.

Lucy's husband: Last week a Dutch joumalist was shot through the stomach.

B: But in the centre of town I have seen people in the street: old men out for a stroll, women cleaning, young men standing around, people sitting in bars. And the background music of automatic fire nobody seems to take any notice of it.

Lucy: Surely you didn't see any women out there. They only go out to do some shopping in the morning. This is bad, but I think you will find Gjitoklastra worse - higher prices, more inflation and more danger of getting shot.

B: What of the citizen committees ?

Lucy: They can do nothing to protect us, they are just puppets.

B: If you can 't take me to the committee perhaps you could point me in the right direction.

Lucy: The committee members will ask for money to do interviews with you. And the committee meets early, at 8am. At this time in the afternoon most people are going home to be with their families.

B: Where are the other journalists? Can you show me where they are?

Lucy: [spitting out the words] They have gone away - they are probably sitting in Tirana.

BB: The Albanian crisis is beginning to disappear from the headlines - perhaps because in England we are in the midst of a general election campaign. Er, if you can't put me up perhaps I can sleep in the streets.

Lucy: You should go back to Ioannina. You will be killed at night and all your things stolen. They will even take the clothes off your back. If you stay you will put us all at risk because people will think you have money and will come for you here.

As I left I asked Lucy how she got on with her neighbours, and she said nobody trusts each other. I wished her all the best.

Lucy: Have a nice day.

B: We don't like that expression - it's American.

Then I thought, but did not say, I have other plans. What followed was a whirlwind tour of the 'revolutionary ruins' of Saranda. Then the haggling broke out with my taxi driver over the fare from Saranda to the Kakavian frontier. The price of the return journey proved more expenslve.



To try to interpret the events in Albania is a daunting task. The media is putting out mixed messages. There is a right-wing view that- President Berisha was an architect of 'heroic materialism' who had the rug pulled out from under him by the European Union and communist malcontents in Albania.

Some on the left have portrayed him as a pyramid salesman and mate of the Mafia. Even The Times in mid-March declared: "the original cause of this crisis, fraudulent pyramid schemes and their aftermath, must be revisited. To outsiders it might seem odd that the Albanian government should suffer for commercial malpractice. Matters are rather more complex. The Democratic Party headed by Mr Berisha was lavishly funded by the directors of these dubious enterprises. It also benefited from the artificial 'feelgood' factor they encouraged."

This situation helped Berisha's Democratic Party win an election last year. In exchange the pyramid companies appear to have operated in a freely unregulated market. Then the bubble burst, and even The Times felt obliged to say that "street violence may be destructive, but it is based on more than unfocused anger".

This year's riots are part of a pattern which has been going on throughout the 1990s. Following the first democratic election in March 1991, at which the partly re-formed Labour Party hung on to power, there was a general strike in May 1991 which forced the resignation-of the new government. In August 1991, there was a mass emigration when over 25,000 seized ships moored in Durres harbour and forced them to sail to Italy. In early 1992 serious rioting occurred in the southern town of Pogradec. Then, following calls for fresh elections, a general election was held leading to the success of the Democratic Party of Dr Sali Berisha. Dr Berisha, former doctor to Enver Hoxha the Communist Party boss until he died in 1985, piloted the new government into the 'free market' economy with a bout of privatisations.

SOUTHERN ALBANIA One fascinating account promoted in the US press is that the Albanian government released the arms in a desperate attempt to keep power. Last month The Washington Post argued: "The Berisha government, to save itself from popular outrage over the pyramid scheme disaster, in effect gave away the order keeping powers of the state to local ofticials and bandits. Hence Albania faces, not only a north-south split, but the dispersal of arms and authority to local warlords."

So there we have it, first the Berisha government is undermined by the forces of the unbridled free market it had itself promoted, then it dishes out arms to save itself. If this is true it has backfired in the south of the country because there at least the liberal distribution of weapons among the people led to the ejection of the police and army. Consequently Dr Berisha has no authority there, in March the Albanian army seemed to refuse to march on the southern rebels. Why they did this is conjecture: indifference, fear or humanitarian reasons. But anarchists would probably point to the existence of a people armed to the teeth as being something of a deterrent.

The indication that the south is free and independent came last week when President Berisha condemned the southern salvation comrnittees. Berisha called upon the socialists to put an end to the committees. He declared "We are waiting for the Socialists: it is one thing not recognising them [the committees], but they are not dissolving them".

The socialists are members of the provisional coalition government in Tirana, appointed by Berisha during the height of the crisis. Baskin Fino, the prime minister, is from Gjirokastra, and was there on the day I was in Saranda. Mr Fino is a socialist, as is Fatos Nano, also from Gjirokastra.

I doubt that the socialists can enforce disarmament in the south, or close down the cornmittees. Berisha has talked of using force to overthrow the committees, but nobody who has been in the south can believe that the central government in Tirana has the bottle or capacity to take on the committees.

My suspicion is, after talking to the Albanian consul, that the authorities in Tirana were hoping that the presence of the international protection force might help the regime. The relief agencies can't understand why the six thousand foreign troops are necessary. According to the Red Cross and the World Food Program, there are few hungry people and no one is starving.

Mr Boucher, the World Food Program manager for the Balkans, said last week: "Despite the chaos in the government, the market are open, food is being imported through regular commercial channels. We have a real problem for some people who were very poor before the chaos and who now need some help in the short term."

Readers of recent issues of Freedom will not be surprised to know that the Albanians think the foreign troops are there because the Italian and Greek governments want to stop the overflow of refugees into their countries.

THE HUMAN SPIRIT Let's try to consider the developments from what might be an anarchist perspective. Food is available, if the relief agencies are to be believed. It may be, as Lucy claimed in my interview in Saranda, that prices are rising. Despite the difficulties, the economy in the south is functioning without a central government.

There is banditry, there is crime, just as crime exists in societies with a standing police force and army. I can't say there is more crime in the south than there is in the north where they are supposed to have abolished the secret police force (the Shik) last month.

In the realm of hospital treatment and medicine there is a bad problem. For several days last month I had to watch ambulances ferrying the wounded and sick to hospitals in Greece over the Kakavia bridge. An ambulanceman told me that problelns crop up when a family has five kalashnikovs in the same house. A gun is like any other tool: people who are not experienced are like apprentices learning a trade and they have mishaps until they get used to handling the tackle.

There are some bad things going on in the south: the corrosive pursuit of dollars; the reckless use of arms; the fear engendered among older people and women, as indicated in the Lucy interview; the accidental injuries, some of which I witnessed at the Kakavia crossing point, are a depressing scar, but proportionally I wonder if it would amount to more than the 35 people killed and 373 injured in traffic accidents during the Greek Orthodox Easter holiday this year. But one thing is abundantly clear, people didn't fly at each other's throats with the disappearance of the forces of law and order. Indeed, my observations inside the country were of a triumph of the human spirit.

LIONS AND FOXES Anarchists are not by law, or any other rule, card-carrying paid-up pacifists. Our squeamishness about automatic weapons ought not to blind us to what may be their historic significance. Let me quote George Orwell:

"It is commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder alld the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally to be true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon- so long as there is no answer to it-gives claws to the weak."

It is significant that the Italian command of the international protection force Operation Alba has already, to the annoyance of President Berisha, been negotiating with the Vlore salvation committee. An incentive for the Italians to deal with the citizen committee will have been their knowledge of the widespread possession of automatic weapons and hand-grenades among the public at large. And the awareness that only the salvation committees have any influence over that public.

In this context I think the 'Lucy' interview can be instructive. We must not dismiss her as a whining, wonky woman. Her view represents an attitude of mind during social disruption: it is a feminine perspective and a largely middle-class position.

The southern Albanian situation has skewed power relationships in the country. Many members of the middle class have lost their dominant position and have yielded power to the young men with guns. These men are peasants and workers. If you like, the lions have taken over from the foxes, at least temporarily.

Nor should we be surprised at the anger of the lions: the destruction of police stations, customs posts, army barracks, pyramid company offices, the looting of banks. Albania was a dramatic example of what Lord Clark called "heroic materialism". It was a form of what Max Weber described at "booty capitalism", like the slave trade or piracy, in which the stakes are huge and the risks enormous. It was Thatcherism taken to a lunatic conclusion. It was a regime run by foxes.


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