by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
Law, order and sanity have collapsed in Albania. Chaos grips this tiny Balkan land of 3.5 that has literally run amok.
What's left of President Sali Berisha's discredited government hangs on in Tirana, while armed thugs continue to loot and pillage everywhere. Western journalists blame Berisha for the collapsed pyramid schemes that sparked this crisis. The New York Times took the lead, denouncing Berisha as a `rightwing authoritarian,' and calling on the US to end support for his government. I know Berisha: he's tough and uncompromising, like most Albanians, but he's not a despot.
Most western journalists understand little about this land that was known as `the Tibet of Europe'- until the 1991 revolution that overthrow nearly half a century of Stalinist tyranny. Albania's demented dictator, Enver Hoxha, isolated the nation and turned it into a gigantic prison camp. I was one of the first North Americans into Albania in the 1970's and remember it as the most frightening and sickening place I have ever seen in a lifetime of exploring evil locales.
People were in rags. There was barely any food. Over 100,000 political prisoners filled Hoxha's gulag. Slave laborers dug toxic chromium with their bare hands. One person in six was an agent or informer of the dreaded Sigurimi secret police. Terrified people were forced to worship busts and portraits of dictator-god Hoxha.
I left Albania at dusk through a gate in the 30-ft high wall of electrified barbed wire and guard towers that completely sealed off Albania's land borders. Guards in a tower shone a spotlight on me as I carried my bags across a wide minefield leading to the Yugoslav border. I was petrified I'd be called back.
When communism collapsed and was replaced by Berisha's elected government, the party renamed itself `Socialists' and went into opposition. Berisha is a Gheg, the tall, fierce warrior tribe of the norther region of Mirdita. Hoxha, and many communist bosses, were Tosks from the south. The better-educated, but shorter Tosks gravitated to communism, while mountaineer Ghegs kept Albania's ancient traditions alive - much like the lowland and highland Scots, to whom Albanians are often compared.
Half of the current chaos in Albania is pure anarchy. But the other half has been engineered by the communists and former Sigurimi agents. Riots, attacks on arsenals, government offices, and banks are part of a Sigurimi campaign to overthrow the democratic government. It's no coincidence much of the violence is in the Tosk, pro- communist south. What we are really seeing is a stealthy communist coup under cover of anarchy.
Communists (Socialists) have now managed to seize part of the government, naming a prime minister and defense minister. The `New York Times' has played a key role in conferring legitimacy upon these later-day Stalinists by lauding their leaders as `moderate reformers,' just as the Times hailed Castro as an `agrarian reformer' when he marched into Havana in 1959.
Europe is petrified to take any action in Albania; Italy is totally preoccupied by the flood of Albanian refugees. Almost no one has noticed the creeping communist coup. If this coup succeeds, Albania could face a full-scale civil war between tribal, political and regional factions.
Last week, the majestic, 7 ft tall King Leka, Pretender to the crown of Albania, announced he was ready to return in 24 hours. I once spent enjoyable hours with Leka, who is also an arms dealer, planning an invasion of Albania. I urged Leka, as I also later did Serbia's Pretender, Crown Prince Alexander, to land on the coast at the head of royalist fighters, draw his sword, and march on the capital. This is what Balkan people understand. Leka is very much the son of Zog, the late Albanian monarch who won his kingdom by the sword.
In a remarkably coincidence, exactly 75 years ago last week, Albania was also in anarchy. A feeble government in Tirana had collapsed. Mobs pillaged Durres, as they do now. Gheg tribesmen were advancing southward. This anarchy continued until 1928, when a powerful Gheg chieftain, Ahmed Bey Zogu, rode with his horsemen into Tirana, and proclaimed himself King Zog I.
Eleven years later, Italy invaded Albania. Zog fled into exile in Egypt with King Farouk, who was of Albanian descent from the dynasty founded by the great Mehmet Ali.
Colorful, yes, but what next? NATO must send troops at once. to Albania. Even 15,000 would restore order. Hardline communists, criminals turned fake democrats, must not be allowed to seize power through subversion. Albania's collapsed economy has to be restored.
Europe cannot afford to allow Albania's chaos to continue. Half of all 7 million Albanians live in neighboring Macedonia, Serbia or Greece. Albania's firestorm could transform already boiling ethnic tensions in Macedonia and Serbia into open war. Highly strategic Macedonia is particularly dangerous. A third of its people are Albanians. If they rise against the Slav majority, Macedonia would dissolve in chaos. This could quickly spark a major regional war between Greece, Serbia and Romania, aligned against Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
More irony. These aforementioned states kicked off this bloody century by waging the Ist and 2nd Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, over Macedonia. Now, there's a risk the century might end with a nasty war between the very same old enemies, and in the very same place.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]