Democracy’s race against fear

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Fear was the true victor in Albania’s first contested election under Communist rule. The two-thirds parliamentary majority amassed by the ruling Labor Party, as the Communists are called, reflected less an endorsement of President Ramiz Alia’s incremental break with Stalinism than it did the Communists’ continuing ability to frighten vast numbers of Albanians with the consequences of change.

I saw that fear in early March when I visited Albania for Helsinki Watch as part of the first nongovernmental human rights delegation ever received in that country. It was written on the faces of the young men in Durres harbor, whispering about the prospect of “civil war” as they waited for a chance to break through the lines of bayonet-equipped troops and jump on a boat for Italy. It was apparent in the eyes of student leaders debating whether to defy government orders not to demonstrate. And it was evident in the furtive glances of recently released prisoners, daring for the first time to speak with a Westerner but recalling all too vividly the spirit-crushing cruelty of the labor camp.

For a brief moment, in the giddy first days of Albania’s aborted revolution, it appeared that fear might be overcome. Weakened by the Eastern European revolutions, quickening economic collapse and the spectacle of thousands of Albanians fleeing their homeland, the government capitulated when students took to the streets in December demanding multiparty elections.

The concession, for Albania, was extraordinary. This was the land where, until the thaw of recent months, religion and lawyers were banned, private cars and foreign travel were available only to the privileged few and criticism of the government led to extended prison terms for antistate “agitation and propaganda.”

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Emboldened by the government’s quick retreat, the students pressed on, attacking the sacred founder of the Communist state, Enver Hoxha, whose lifelong infatuation with Stalin kept Albania an isolated enclave of repression. On February 20 a student hunger strike inspired thousands of supporters to descend on the capital city of Tirana’s central square and topple the huge bronze statue of Hoxha. it seemed a sign of the Communists’ skin-deep support that the thirty-foot monument, erected upon Hoxha’s death in 1985, turned out to be hollow and fell easily.

The rejoicing that followed proved premature. The desecration of this official icon set off a “strategy of terror,” in the words of Sali Berisha, chair of the newly legalized Democratic Party, the leading opposition group. The government convened a series of pro-Hoxha rallies around the country, including one at Tirana’s Military Academy, where army sharpshooters took potshots at pro-democracy protesters, killing four. Several others were murdered in the following days as loyalist troops vented their frustration on random victims.

The turmoil sparked a renewed exodus, the third since last July, this time with some 20,000 refugees hijacking every available seaworthy vessel to Italy. Deeply embarrassed, the government moved to stop the flow. However, hundreds of refugees who were crammed into one cruiser refused to disembark. After a tense three-day standoff in Durres harbor, the government launched a.midnight raid. Baton-swinging soldiers bludgeoned those who resisted as some troops opened fire, leaving at least two dead and ten wounded.

Fear also struck the Labor Party. Staggered by the repeated displays of public discontent, the Communists retreated from view, apparently hoping to deprive the opposition of further rallying points for attack. They refused invitations to debate, allowed opposition leaders to run unopposed, forced all but two government ministers to resign, left campaign posters and literature in party warehouses and, with opposition consent, deferred the critical question of Hoxha’s official status until after the election, which was held on March 31.

Still, the four-month-old Democratic Party faced an uphill battle trying to convince voters that change was possible. One difficulty was its mere skeleton of a program. Berisha, a cardiologist, outlined his party platform to me–legalization of private property, economic shock therapy and respect for human rights-but offered few details. A sturdy, powerful man with a winning grin that betrays a certain disbelief at his sudden prominence, Berisha was, in essence, asking Albanians to take a leap of faith.

Conveying even that simple message was not easy. Democratic Party activists at their modest headquarters in Tirana had just a handful of cars at their disposal to campaign in the rugged and often remote countryside. Their six-page newspaper, published semiweekly since January, was given sufficient newsprint to publish only 60,000 copies for a nation of 3.2 million. The national radio and television stations gave each opposition party a mere two hours and five minutes of air time to overcome the Labor Party’s forty-six-year monopoly of the media.

In the end, the opposition’s most effective campaign tool was the power of the crowd. In a series of impassioned demonstrations in Albania’s major cities-Tirana, Shkoder, Durres, Kavaje and Elbasan-urban residents gained a sense of their strength in numbers. These same cities tilted decisively for the Democrats on Election Day. But outside urban areas, two-thirds of the country remained atomized, subject to threats and intimidation. There, the Communists prevailed.

For the moment, therefore, Albania’s principal divide is not between Ghegs and Tosks or Muslims and Christians but between the city residents who have sampled freedom and rural dwellers who have not. But now, the student spearheads of what Le Monde dubbed the “nameless revolution” no longer have reason to heed the counsel of restraint issued by Democratic Party activists who feared providing a pretext for cancellation of the election. By the same token, those Communists prone to heavy-handed methods have every reason for renewed confidence in their tactics.

It was indicative of this increasing polarization that Albania’s first postelection victim was 24-year-old Arben Broxi, a student and local Democratic leader in Shkoder, whom the police shot in the back while he was trying to calm demonstrators protesting the Communist victory. The enraged mob ransacked and burned the local Labor Party offices. Three more protesters were killed in the process, while Democratic Party offices and supporters came under attack in several other cities.

Whether Albania continues its gradual reform or explodes in violent conflict will depend in large part on President Alia. Sitting in the cathedral-like receiving room of the presidential palace, below a large white plaster bust of his patron, Hoxha, Alia recited to me in a two-hour interview a list of Communist accomplishments in education, health, employment and life expectancy. “That can’t be done by the Holy Spirit alone,” he boasted. Asked whether the Labor Party would relinquish power to a victorious opposition, he struck the pose of a committed democrat: “It hasn’t been used to that, because it has always been first violin-sole violin-but if it must it will get used to being second violin, and it will be a good violinist!”

But beneath this veneer was a disquieting bitterness at his subjects’ increasingly visible discontent with Communist rule. Attempting to rationalize the opposition’s appeal, he spoke of a “collective psychosis'” a national self-delusion that leads Albanians to “stand with crossed arms and open mouths waiting for others to feed them.”

Alia himself was humiliated in the balloting, despite his party’s victory. Although Albanians were not asked to vote for president, Alia ran for a parliamentary seat from a district in Tirana-selected, he explained, because of his “longstanding ties with the constituency’s residents.” Unimpressed, the voters delivered him a crushing defeat, electing in his stead an unknown geologist from the Democratic Party.

Under Albania’s Constitution, Alia’s failure to reach Parliament precludes him from being selected president. A proposed new Constitution, to be taken up by the incoming Parliament, would eliminate that requirement while adding provisions securing a range of fundamental freedoms. But the legitimacy of the new Parliament was called into question when the Democratic Party boycotted its first session, on April 15, because of the government’s failure to name those responsible for the Shkoder killings. Even if the Democrats end the boycott, Alia will be in the embarrassing position of needing a constitutional amendment simply to stay in office.

In any event, Alia will remain first secretary of the Labor Party, which, despite deep divides, retains a commanding parliamentary bloc. But Alia’s electoral misfortune was repeated on a larger scale nationwide: Many of the Labor Party’s reformists ran in urban constituencies and lost. The new Parliament will thus be tilted in favor of pro-Hoxha hard-liners, who, to the dismay of many, will take up the deferred issue of Hoxha’s crimes.

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My most moving moments in Tirana came when I met some of Hoxha’s victims-most just freed from prison and some awaiting release. A parade of gaunt figures told me of beatings during interrogation, trials without lawyers, prison terms of eight, ten, even twenty years and arduous labor in work camps. Their “crimes” included complaining about economic conditions, seeking to marry a French national, trying to flee the country, failing to deliver enough oil for export and writing poetry with “too free a hand.”

Rehabilitation of these victims-acknowledging the wrongs they have suffered and allowing them to piece together what remains of their lives-is the foremost duty of Albania’s new government. As one Roman Catholic priest said of the imprisonment of clerics, “If all the forests of Albania were made into paper and pencils, it wouldn’t be enough to express our bitterness.” Whether the government will begin to relieve that pain, whether it will permit all Albanians to conquer their fear, will be its ultimate test.

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