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Despite Revolt, President Hangs On in Albania

Balkans: Berisha has ceded some authority. Yet he seems to be readying for a final fight for survival.

March 24, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIRANA, Albania — The power struggle is played out on the nightly news.

For a few minutes, the new Socialist prime minister, Bashkim Fino, is shown going about his official duties of running what is left of this country.

But then his political enemy, President Sali Berisha, appears. Pictures of Berisha are accompanied by announcements of his latest meetings with German and French ambassadors or with an emergency European Union delegation.

Berisha may be down, but he's not out.

Despite the epic events of the last month--when a people's revolt triggered by the collapse of nationwide pyramid schemes swept and then shattered this poverty-racked nation--Berisha continues to turn aside angry demands for his resignation and appears to be digging in for a final battle for survival.

Albanians are only slowly awaking from the nightmare that turned their destitute but complacent Balkan country into an armed camp facing food shortages. Military barracks, banks and grain warehouses have been looted. The army and police crumbled. More than 100 people were killed, with scores more wounded, and thousands have fled across the Adriatic Sea to southern Europe.

Few government institutions are working, and those that do work are in conflict. The parliament, dominated almost exclusively by Berisha's Democratic Party of Albania, and the new multi-party government under Fino are squarely pitted against each other, the state becoming a two-headed monster at war with itself--even as it must lead the country to recovery.

Berisha has successfully resisted government efforts to take control of the secret police and the electronic media. By holding on to these two critical tools, Berisha hopes to be able to manipulate upcoming elections and ultimately stay in power, analysts say.

"Berisha has weathered the storm," said a European diplomat who met with the president recently. "He's bounced back."

Fino was named as a compromise prime minister to restore order and take Albania to ahead-of-schedule elections in June, all part of a deal meant to quiet a popular uprising in which insurgents and armed gangs seized control of a third of the country.

But Berisha, at the center of the deep anger that has fueled the unrest, appears to be doing everything to undercut Fino and the government.

The Albanians rebelling against Berisha blame him and his Democrats for allowing the pyramid schemes to flourish. When the schemes collapsed, Albanians who had sold houses or spent their life savings to invest in them were left penniless.

Berisha has told diplomats that if he is forced to resign, he will remove his party from the government and parliament--thus gutting whatever institutional authority that remains in the country.

As a consequence, Western powers appear to have abandoned any attempt to persuade Berisha to go and instead are trying to make the best of a bad deal, focusing on Fino's government.

"He [Berisha] very much wants to stay in office and not budge from where he is," said a Western diplomat. "I don't think his mind has been changed, and no one is trying to make him change his mind."

Indeed, even Fino is among those who have backed away from demanding that Berisha step down, saying his removal would create a power vacuum.

The greatest fear among Berisha's opponents is that he is using this period of confusion to arm his supporters for an eventual confrontation with armed resisters. Many of the men seen receiving weapons at police stations in Tirana, the capital, in recent days were clearly from Berisha's camp.

Debates in recent days on the secret police, censorship and the electronic media have shown Fino incapable of successfully challenging Berisha.

The parliament, controlled by the Democrats after elections widely regarded as fraudulent, rejected two laws proposed last week by Fino. One would have lifted the press censorship imposed as part of a March 2 state of emergency declared by Berisha to stop violence spreading throughout southern Albania.

Fino also proposed placing state television and radio under control of the government instead of the parliament--in other words, Berisha--to widen access to the airwaves in the months leading up to elections. The lawmakers rejected the proposal by saying it was unconstitutional.

According to people present, Fino confided to his Cabinet that he does not have any control over the Interior Ministry, which oversees all police departments; does not have the power to hire or fire police chiefs; and is unable to dismantle the secret police.

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