Albania On The Verge

While senior figures both inside government and in the opposition continue to squabble like village politicians, Albania verges closer towards a direct involvement in the war.

Albania On The Verge

While senior figures both inside government and in the opposition continue to squabble like village politicians, Albania verges closer towards a direct involvement in the war.

Wednesday, 24 March, 1999

"War" is the headline of every Albanian newspaper. Last night the independent TV stations cancelled their normal programmes and illegally re-transmitted CNN's live coverage of the unfolding events in Kosovo.

Local radio stations now break their daily programs for quick up-dates on the war and the status of the NATO bombing. At every cafe and on the street, the topic is Kosovo, especially the question: Will the war encompass Albania?

Tirana's relief at the signing, by the Kosovo Albanian delegation, of the Rambouillet agreement was short-lived. The sense that direct NATO involvement had at least been triggered was tempered by concerns about the real extent of its commitment-and by the increased violence on the ground, including provocations by Serb forces of Albanian border guards.

Tirana's concern is that any half-measures by NATO will only lead to a major escalation of the crisis. Both the Albanian government and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fear that air strikes alone — the most likely option — will lead to a Serbian blitzkrieg against Albanians in Kosovo. That in turn would result in massive refugee flows across the borders into Macedonia and Albania, and a major humanitarian crisis. The political and social implications from there, including expanded conflict, are hard to estimate, but the risks are seen as severe.

"We are asking NATO to intervene immediately to stop Belgrade from sparking a Balkan war," Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paskal Milo said on state TV over the weekend. "Meantime," he added, "we are our organising our troops."

At a meeting with NATO ambassadors from the NATO countries, Milo asked for immediate NATO action. He also called for assistance for the Albanian troops which are being mobilised and placed by the northern border, with Kosovo. And he requested substantial humanitarian assistance for the expected wave of refugees.

Yet time is short. Air strikes are expected at any moment, and government officials fear that direct Albanian involvement will become inevitable.

"Without ground troops in Kosovo to stop Belgrade's offensive, air strikes would undoubtedly drag Albania and the ethnic Albanians from Macedonia into the conflict," warned Prech Zogaj, political advisor to Albanian President Rexhep Meidani. Indeed, with the government in a round-the-clock meeting, the sense is that the conflict has already been joined. "As NATO bombs," one senior official commented, "we are expecting an exchange of gunfire on our northern border with the Serbian forces. In so many words we are at war."

Yet despite these concerns, it is in fact village politics which continue to loom over Albania. The conflict in Kosovo has united the various Albanian political parties in words only. Both the governing Socialist Party and the opposition, the Democratic Party (DP), have separately declared their support of the Kosovo Albanians and NATO actions. But political bickering between the opposition and the government, and between former Prime Minister Fatos Nano and Prime Minister Pandeli Majko for control of the Socialist Party, is akin to town politics.

On March 22nd, on the anniversary of the Democratic Party's 1991 victory, Sali Berisha, former president and current chairman of the DP, organised a demonstration over Kosovo in the central Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. Some 20,000-30,000 supporters — the DP newspaper Albania put the figure at 80,000 — turned out. Berisha spoke in support of the Kosovo Albanians. But at the same time he called for early elections. Similarly, their public fight for control of the Socialist Party also overshadows Nano's and Majko's support for the Kosovo Albanians.

Yet even amid this squabbling, anxiety remains. "NATO forces are the only ones who can stop this process," noted Zogaj, the presidential advisor. "If NATO fails to intervene to stop Belgrade's offensive, than we Albanians, from Albania proper and from Macedonia, will be forced to take measures to defend ourselves and the slaughter of the Kosovars." And the general public remains tuned to the radio and television stations for constant up-dates on the war. The personal political bickering is thus only a distraction from the reality that Albania is on the verge of war.

Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.

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