The American stake in Albania

March 25, 1997|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- In early 1991 Sali Berisha -- then in his proud prime as one of Albania's new opposition politicians -- was full of hope.

Charming at first blush, the cardiologist-turned-dissident had the reassuring manners of an experienced physician. We just have to get rid of communist lawlessness, he told me as we walked in Tirana's Skanderbeg Square that sunny winter day, and Albania would join democratic Europe.

Mr. Berisha and economist Gramos Pashko had just founded the first opposition Democratic Party vowing to end Albania's bleak isolation. Mr. Pashko was equally bursting with optimism. He pointed out the nearby glass-and-marble mausoleum to the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. ''One day soon,'' he grinned, ''we'll turn this into Europe's biggest disco.''

The Democratic Party came to power in 1992 and the United States embraced President Berisha as Albania's best hope for democracy. Mr. Berisha, for his part, eagerly sought to expand military and strategic ties with the United States.

Within months, however, there was an early warning that heady optimism was misplaced. Messrs. Pashko and Berisha quarreled. Mr. Pashko, former university economics professor and first deputy prime minister in the first coalition government, accused his friend of authoritarian rule. He left Albania (he is now practically in exile in Washington).

Few heeded his warning, in America or elsewhere. Why should they? President Berisha, while strengthening his position, continued to expound his commitment to democratic ideals whenever meeting foreign officials.

Increasingly dictatorial

In retrospect, Washington should have been more attentive to Mr. Pashko and other early-warning signs, especially after Mr. Berisha became increasingly dictatorial and brushed off U.S. appeals to respect the rule of law (such as when he closed down newspapers critical of him).

Even when international monitors accused Mr. Berisha's government of fraud in last May's elections, the United States and European allies turned a blind eye and continued to support him. It was more convenient, so long as there was no overt trouble of the Bosnia variety. Indeed, NATO conducted military exercises in Albania a few weeks later followed by joint U.S. and Albanian exercises in the Adriatic.

The tragedy and chaos that have now overtaken Albania have left the West unprepared when it should not have been. A substantial section of Albanians are demanding Mr. Berisha's resignation. There are charges of corruption involving him and his government.

Pyramid schemes

The unrest may have been touched off by the collapse of pyramid investment schemes, but the reasons for public discontent run far deeper: President Berisha's Albania was unable to make that difficult transition from its past of tribalism and dictatorial communism to democracy.

But why should we care about Albania? Or Bosnia for that mat- ter? Or Zaire? One school of thought espoused by the new secretary of defense, William S. Cohen, is that the United States should make no long-term costly commitments. Speaking about Bosnia, he said that if the warring parties ''go back to slaughtering each other,'' that is going to be ''up to them.''

Mr. Cohen may be right as far as the narrow interests of his department are concerned. But this is not the answer to the proliferation of ethnic wars, implosions and other accidents that are erupting with greater frequency in the post-Cold War era. Moreover, American foreign policy is the domain of the secretary of state, who must embrace larger U.S. interests.

Europe's stability

Since Europe's stability is in the U.S. national interest, Washington should provide leadership in the current crisis to revive European efforts to create new institutions capable of monitoring and containing dangerous regional crises. The Europeans, too, have vital interests at stake as they face the resulting refugee problems and economic distress.

Beyond that, the United States -- now the world's only superpower, and one looked to for leadership and inspiration in much of former communist Eastern Europe -- could play a decisive role in the evolution of Albania's political development. President Berisha's departure from the political stage may be necessary to resolve the immediate crisis. America should help that happen quickly and smoothly.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a truly democratic government in Albania, given its tortured history and absence of civic institutions. But one can expect a reasonably honest and open government -- particularly since another more horrifying crisis hovers on the horizon: the explosive ''Albanian question'' that has yet to be dealt with.

Americans in Macedonia

In addition to 3.3 million in Albania, an equal number of Albanians live in neighboring Serbia and Macedonia. A modest U.S. military presence in Macedonia and American diplomatic pressure on Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic have kept these issues from boiling over. So far.

If Albania's anarchy continues for a longer period it could touch off a violent crisis, which would touch of a new and wider violence -- not only involving Balkan countries but also U.S. forces in Bosnia and Macedonia. A thoughtful, far-sighted approach and serious diplomatic effort is a far better alternative.

Dusko Doder is a journalist who has covered the Balkan region.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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