ALBANIA IN ANARCHY
MARCH 14, 1997
The situation in Albania continued to degrade today as gunmen fired on U.S., German and Italian helicopters involved in evacuation procedures and rumors swelled around the capital that Albania's president, Sali Berisha, has left the country. After a report from ITN's Gaby Rado, Margaret Warner leads a discussion of the Albanian situation with Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
JIM LEHRER: It's been barely a month since disorder first broke out in Albania, with the collapse of pyramid financing schemes that cost thousands of Albanians their life savings. Margaret Warner has more on this story.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
March 14, 1997:
ITN's Gaby Rado reports on the current situation in Albania.
March 10, 1997:
Two Albanian experts discuss the degrading situation in the country.
Browse The NewsHour's coverage of the former Yugoslavia..
Browse The NewsHour's European coverage.
US State Dept. press statement on the violence in Albania.
Albanian Crisis News Web site.
A brief history of the political transition in Albania.
Some tips on how to avoid being burned by a pyramid scheme.
MARGARET WARNER: Now two views on today's developments in Albania and on what it will take to restore order there. Peter Tarnoff is Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, is founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Albanian Issues Caucus. He was in Albania last Saturday as part of a delegation of Europeans and Americans meeting with Albanian President Berisha and some members of the opposition. Welcome to you both. Let's start--starting with you, Sec. Tarnoff, first of all, let's talk about the evacuation. Why was it necessary to stop the evacuation altogether this afternoon?
PETER TARNOFF, Under Secretary of State: The evacuation was temporarily suspended this afternoon because the security situation had deteriorated. And our forces had to re-evaluate what that situation was, but I have every expectation that it will resume first thing tomorrow morning.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying U.S. forces could not protect these helicopters once they were fired on?
PETER TARNOFF: These helicopters came under some fire after having evacuated approximately 500 people, most of whom were Americans but some non-Americans as well, and they estimated that the hostile fire required a reassessment and that was done, but the operation will resume first thing tomorrow morning.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And how will it resume? Are we talking helicopters again, or are you--other methods?
PETER TARNOFF: That decision will be reached by the military commanders on the ground, but we have assurances that the evacuation will resume first thing in the morning.
MARGARET WARNER: What are the other, at least, options, if not helicopters?
PETER TARNOFF: Other countries have evacuated people by ship. As a matter of fact, the Italian Navy took off 60 Americans earlier today who were on a beach, and, therefore, it is possible to extract people by ship, and some other countries have been doing that.
MARGARET WARNER: And how many--we heard reports initially that there were some 2,000 Americans in Albania. How many of those want to leave, so how many more do you need to get out?
PETER TARNOFF: It's difficult to say. Most of the 2,000 American passport holders in Albania are dual nationals. They have American passports, but they're also Albanian citizens. And they will have to decide whether they stay or come out. I think we will probably have several hundred more American passport holders who will decide to come out in the next day or so.
MARGARET WARNER: And how long do you think that should take?
PETER TARNOFF: It depends on what the security situation is, but here again I think that we can probably complete the evacuation of all Americans who would like to leave in the next few days.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to what it will take to resolve this, and let me just ask you that. What do you think it's going to take to restore some semblance of order in Albania?
PETER TARNOFF: Clearly, what has to happen is a reconciliation between the various factions and parties. And I think during the course of the day Dr. Franz Vranitzky, who is, as you indicated earlier, the European negotiator on the spot, had a promising meeting on an Italian ship off shore. He met first with the representatives of the interim government, of the government of national reconciliation. And he met afterwards with a dozen or so leaders from the southern cities who had defied the authority in Tirana. In his report to us after the meeting was a positive one in the sense that he believes that it is possible for these two groups to work together, and clearly, there can be no military solution for this situation. There has to be political dialogue, and I think Dr. Vranitzky supported very actively by the United States. We have an American diplomat working with him, is on a good path to trying to establish this dialogue.
MARGARET WARNER: You said clearly there's no military solution but just the quote we heard from Dr. Vranitzky and also others that have been on the radio suggested that, in fact, he was saying some sort of international force would probably be needed. There's no army, no police left to really restore order.
PETER TARNOFF: The government of Albania did request that Dr. Vranitzky endorse their suggestion that a police force go in. That's something that we just learned about that we will study in the coming days, but I think, in any case, the answer to this chaos and this anarchy is political. There must be dialogue between the various factions, and I think Dr. Vranitzky made a very positive move today in getting the parties in the same place and beginning to talk to each other.
MARGARET WARNER: Just going back to this military question though for another minute, can you imagine a situation in which the United States government would commit some sort of troops to some sort of force there if it came to that?
PETER TARNOFF: I don't want to speculate on what we might decide in some future circumstances, but we believe that supporting the political process is the highest priority, something that Dr. Vranitzky has started very successfully, and we will support him fully in that respect.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that either the government or the opposition leaders who have been meeting are in enough control to actually negotiate a solution that would stick?
PETER TARNOFF: Yes, I think they have authority. But the government certainly has authority from many of the political parties, including the opposition political parties in the capital. As a matter of fact, the parliament did meet briefly in Tirana today. And with regard to the situation in the south, our information is that the representatives who met with Dr. Vranitzky do have standing, they do come from communities which have endorsed their participating in the process, and I think they are able to represent the hopes and aspirations of the people in the South.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about the nature of the contacts with President Berisha and what your--what the U.S. government's understanding is of what his intentions are at this point.
PETER TARNOFF: We have had no recent contacts with President Berisha, and, therefore, I can't tell you anything based on our conversations with him. He is apparently still in Tirana, and his future will have to be decided by the people of Albania. Clearly, what is necessary is to have a government emerge which has the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of Albania and who is in that government and who is not in that government will have to be decided by the Albanians, themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think based on the U.S. government's assessment and analysis of the situation that that will mean he will have to leave, President Berisha will have to leave? Does the crowd seem to be demanding?
PETER TARNOFF: This is a decision for the Albanian people. I think it's all the more important for the representatives of the government and the southern leadership groups to get together to decide what the terms and conditions are for a national movement of reconciliation take place. And it will be up to them to decide who will be in the government and who will not be able to continue to serve.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Sec. Tarnoff, very much.
Turning to Congressman Engel, give us your sense, after being there just a few days ago, and I know the situation's deteriorated more since you left, but what do you think it's going to take to resolve this?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL, (D) New York: Well, I agree with Sec. Tarnoff. I think that ultimately the solution has to be a political solution. The problem is it may be a case of too little, too late. We, the Americans, have been urging President Berisha for nearly a year since the last elections last May to re-run the elections because they were tainted; they were not deemed free and fair by international observers. He had refused to do so. Last week, he finally agreed to have new elections, and we urged him to build a government of national unity which would hold those elections. He did all that, and the situation has still deteriorated. So it may be a case of too little, too late, and once the genie is let out of the bottle, it's very difficult to put it back in.
MARGARET WARNER: So you are saying you think he might have to leave? It's not possible to get a solution to this without him out of the picture?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I think it's a very real possibility; that the question is events have been moving so quickly in Albania even if he left, would that be enough to mollify the rebels? Berisha last week, or this week, the beginning of this week said that the people who were rioting were all socialists; they were former Communists, and that they were all manipulating the scene, that it wasn't the people who had lost the money in the pyramid schemes.
MARGARET WARNER: This is the pyramid scheme that was just referred to, that many people in Albania lost their savings then.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Just explaining it. Okay.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Yes. And that's what's really driving the people. Well, if, indeed, the socialists were behind it, now that there's a government of national unity, the socialists like the Democratic Party of Sali Berisha is trying to stop it, and they have an inability to do so. The question really is: If the rebel leaders decide that they want to stop now, do they have the ability to do so? Because there are so many guns--there's a proliferation of guns--out there in the streets. The average person now has all these--all these rifles and high power guns, that the question is, all these depots have been broken into, what do you do? How do you restore order? And that, to me, is the real danger.
MARGARET WARNER: So what you're saying is that the opposition figures, many of whom are the former Communists, who are now part of this government, are meeting on this Italian ship, they aren't necessarily at all in control of the rebels, the people in the streets?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: That's exactly the case. You now have--this thing has taken on a life of its own. You know, the rebels took over a lot of these southern towns without any opposition whatsoever. Nobody met to stop them. They raided the gun depots. It's been easy for them. So now they think that they can just keep doing it. It's really a very big problem, and we don't know if they can be stopped.
MARGARET WARNER: Help us understand one thing. There have been many reports that--at least in Tirana, the capital--that the gun depots were opened up to civilians actually by the government. Do you think that could be true, and, if so, why? Why would President Berisha want to arm civilians?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, when I was there on Saturday in Tirana--I've been there a number of times--if you didn't know there was an insurgency in the South, you wouldn't know it. Tirana was calm. It was normal. You didn't know. Now, we did hear rumors on Saturday evening that some of Berisha's supporters had gotten hold of these weapons and that was just a rumor. Like all the other rumors you hear in Albania these days, a lot of them are unsubstantiated. And you really don't know what's true, and what isn't.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean--do you think that it does appear, however, that he has no army left to protect him, so these are sort of freelancers protecting him?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, perhaps. I think it's a very real possibility, but, again, we really just don't know. The shame of it all is that we want to see democracy take root in Albania, and it's a very, very small country. And they consider the United States to be their most important bilateral relationship. And it's a shame to kind of see it all go down the drain. I would hope that it's not too late, and I think that we ought to be engaged and we ought to try every diplomatic means possible to have a reconciliation.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the United States government is engaged enough?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I think we are. I think we will be more engaged in the future. I had a lengthy conversation with Sec. Albright yesterday, and she assured me that the United States will not turn its back; that we will be engaged. And I think we have to. When I was there, it was very clear that they welcomed U.S. participation.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Congress, if it came to this, would support the idea of having U.S. involvement in any kind of a peacekeeping mission, any kind of a military presence?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: No, I don't. I don't think there would be any support for it on Capitol Hill. It was difficult to get support, as you remember, in Bosnia, and the President did it. Congress didn't really support it. I happened to have supported it, but I think there would be next to no support for American troops being put in harm's way in Albania. That's why I think diplomacy is so important and a political solution is so important, and we ought to put the full force of our government behind that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Congressman, thank you very much.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.