Albania emerges from isolation and poverty

Georgie Anne Geyer

June 25, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

TIRANA, ALBANIA — Tirana, Albania

IN A country of people gnarled by their tortured history, Sali Berisha is tall, broad-shouldered and handsome. In a land doomed for 500 years to live under one bizarre dictator after another, he is one of the Balkans' few genuine democrats.

In a country doomed for nearly 40 years to live under the rabidly isolationist regime of brutal Stalinist Enver Hoxha -- whose philosophy consisted of brute force and an Albania closed off from the world -- this first democratic president of Albania is sometimes called the "Vaclav Havel of the Balkans."

So one is not surprised when he starts out an interview in his booming voice (having learned his excellent English from listening to the BBC while tending sheep in Albania's rugged mountains), "I think that too many innocent people are dying in Bosnia -- but the principles on which European civilization is based are dying even more."

President Berisha has several strong and unequivocal messages for the present leaders of that civilization, which he wants Albania to share. And they are messages that the leaders of Europe hardly want to hear these days.

"I insisted always on air strikes against the Serbs," he began, "and it is still not too late. Not yet! It is the only means of breaking their will." He sees a large military buildup in the Serbian state of Kosovo, with its 85 percent Albanian nationality, and he is convinced that the Albanians are next on the Serbs' list for destruction because "if we analyze the situation historically, the attempts to create 'Greater Serbia' at the beginning of the century and before were always accompanied by the 'cleansing' of ethnic Albanians by the Serbs."

Not surprisingly then, Mr. Berisha wants the U.N. Security Council, the European Community and the United States to put Kosovo, now ruled tyrannically by the Serbian police, under U.N. or NATO control.

For what he sees happening behind and beneath the Serb aggression is a historical regression that, if true, could doom the Balkans for decades to come. "Countries are trying to return to their old alliances, often very tragic ones," said the president, sitting behind a large desk in his modest office here.

"We have many remains from the past in this part of the world -- religious, imperial, other types -- and they are everywhere being awakened. Greece, for instance, is against the state of Macedonia because it wants a border with Serbia." And, in wanting such a border with the fellow-Orthodox state of Serbia, he went on, "modern-day" Greece too is returning to its ancient fear of Islamic Turkey. And so, "the idea of 'Greater Serbia' was and still is in this entire area a factor for war, conflict and instability."

At home, Mr. Berisha has the idea of bringing his benighted country out of the darkness of the Hoxha years (and before that the Italian fascists, and before that the Turks, and before that the Romans) by employing "democratic space." "I think that we started out in the most difficult situation possible, and with the most heavy heritage and burden from the past," said this thoughtful man. And so he has given his people the space and time to gradually awaken from the nightmare.

"Considering all that history, and the shadow of war hanging over us as a Damocles' sword, I am very encouraged by the courage, commitment and strength the people have shown during this year. I think that in this one year we succeeded more than I foresaw in three or four years. We had 40 years of long queues and empty shops. Now there are no queues and full shops."

Mr. Berisha, a heart surgeon by profession who is known for his decisiveness, then ticked off the accomplishments of his first year in office. "We started from chaos and anarchy and a totally collapsed economy," he went on. "Thanks to the people, first we restored public order and now criminality has greatly decreased. We have made important progress in the legislature; we have now the human rights standard of Europe.

"We have 200 newspapers, almost all private. They represent a national catharsis, as Albanians are washing away their past. There is religious and political pluralism: Today there are hundreds of non-governmental organizations and other organizations. When we started, inflation stood at 40 percent a month. Last month, it was down to almost nothing. So for the first time we have the beginning of an increase in the level of life."

He then listed the import of 13,000 cars and buses in the last four months, an increase in agricultural production of 20 percent, an expected growth of 6 percent in the GDP, and the creation of 100,000 jobs.

Albania is so devastatingly poor that even these harbingers of change barely show in this society. But no longer do Albanians have to put up with a bloody dictator who forbade them even to wear colored clothes or have animals of their own. In one year of this unusual man's presidency, the country has turned a remarkable corner.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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