Berisha Tones Down Nano Threat

Climbdown follows foreign warnings against attempt to overturn government.

Berisha Tones Down Nano Threat

Climbdown follows foreign warnings against attempt to overturn government.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Albania’s opposition leader Sali Berisha has backed down from a veiled threat to topple the government by force, after it became clear that the public and the international community would not recognise such a coup.

Inspired by the rallies that recently sent packing Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze, the Democratic party leader on February 7 urged street demonstrations on February 21 to bring down the Socialist-run government of Fatos Nano.

International criticism was sharp. After meeting Berisha on February 8, the European Commission amabassador, Lutz Salzmann, criticised the implied threat of force. “Protests should be democratic,” he said.

The US ambassador in Tirana, James Jeffrey, backed Salzmann the next day, declaring Americans “support for peaceful protestations but never violent ones”.

Berisha had made it clear on February 7 that he hoped massive street protests would expel the country's current boss from office, yet he insisted all along that any anti-government action would be “peaceful and democratic”.

The oppostion leader had claimed Nano was Albania's answer to Shevardnadze, who was driven from office last December with the support of an overwhelming majority among the Georgian public.

But Albanians shunned the comparison, despite deep dissatisfaction with the government’s performance and anger over the handling of the death at sea of 21 Albanian economic migrants.

Domestic and international opinion turned against the Democratic Party leader after the February 7 protest turned violent.

Thousands of demonstrators marched towards the prime minister's building, yelling, “Nano Leave!” When they broke windows with stones, special forces units surrounding the building fired in the air.

Far from cowing the authorities, Public Order Minister Igli Toska told parliament the following day that they would be “merciless” when it came to dealing with future protests.

The prime minister also adopted a bullish tone on February 9, telling Socialist Party leaders they would “use every means to fight terrorists who want to destabilise public safety”. An iron fence was promptly placed around the prime minister's building to discourage violent attacks.

To many Albanians, the February 7 protests brought back unhappy memories of the crisis in 1996-1997, when the collapse of unsound financial pyramid schemes under Berisha’s presidency impoverished many and propelled the country to the edge of civil war.

Until recently, the opposition seemed to be marshalling public opinion against what it claimed was government mismanagement of the economy.

With 80 per cent of the population living on less than three US dollars a day, discontent was growing over recent planned price hikes in staple items such as energy, telephone and bread.

Central bank governor Shkëlqim Cani on January 31 warned the increases were inevitable, as the government had failed to tackle monopolies.

“The government has let the country down,” Besnik Mustafaj, a Democratic Party official said. “We want to bring an end to corruption, organised crime and poverty. We want early elections.”

The government’s credibility was also dented over the maritime tragedy of January 9, when 21 Albanian emigrants drowned while trying to reach Italy illegally.

A campaigning group called Mjaft held rallies immediately after the tragedy. Thousands gathered in front of the prime minister’s building to demand he quit, accusing him of neglecting the tragedy while continuing a vacation in Turkey.

But the tragic deaths at sea and the increase of prices alone may not be enough to force out Nano.

Mjaft leader Erion Veliaj criticised the aggression of the protesters on February 7. “It reminded people of 1997,” he told IWPR. “The Democratic Party does not see protest as a way to improve things but as a means to an end – the end being Berisha taking over the government.”

Tirana resident Lavdie Tako, 46, concurred. “I did not like what happened on February 7,” he said. “I don’t want to see 1997 repeated. It was violent then, and Berisha may be violent again.”

Bledar Zaganjori, editor of the private television Top Channel, remarked that most people were “just as dissatisfied with Berisha as they are with Nano”.

The February 7 protest also lost Berisha the backing of Nano's chief rival within the Socialist Party, former prime minister Ilir Meta.

“I condemn those acts, ” he said of the demonstrators, “and would like to add that violent protests have nothing in common with the democratic standards that everyone wants.”

When the opposition demanded a vote of no-confidence in the government after the drownings, Nano fended off the demand in parliament with the support of dissident Socialist votes in Meta's camp.

Nano can count on support from abroad, where his moderating influence over the ethnic Albanians in neighbouring Kosovo is widely appreciated.

America became a strong supporter of Nano after he sent troops to back the US-led forces in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Berisha, on the other hand, forfeited international goodwill after the pyramid schemes foundered in 1997. His foreign profile worsened after September 1998, when he and his supporters stormed the prime minister's office and the parliament building following the murder of Berisha’s close ally, Azem Hajdari. Nano had to flee the country. Berisha was soon urged by international bodies to withdraw his supporters.

Some believe Albania would be better off without either leader. “The Socialist government leaves our pockets empty. But when Berisha was president, we not only had empty pockets but were scared of guns firing everywhere. They are both the same. I want them both out of politics,” said Neki Kurti, 38, a taxi driver

Dalina Buzi is a journalist with the Albanian private TV station Top Channel.

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