CRISIS IN ALBANIA
APRIL 1, 1997
Since January, the small eastern european nation of Albania has been wracked by violence. Early in March, open rebellion in the south made most countries evacuate their citizens. Following a background report on Albaniua since the evacuation, Margaret Warner gets an update from Erin Saberi, Albania field representative for the National Democratic Institute and Mario Platero, of the Italian newspaper, Il Sole.
MARGARET WARNER: It's been more than two weeks since the United States and other nations evacuated their citizens from Albania. Since then, the standoff there has hardened between an uneasy coalition government in the North headed by embattled President Sali Berisha and a disorganized force of rebels who control the southern third of the nation.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
March 14, 1997:
The NewsHour reports on escalating anarchy 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.
Albanian Crisis News Web site.
A brief history of the political transition in Albania.
In both sections of the country thousands of armed civilians have been roaming the streets toting machine guns and pistols looted from army and police barracks. The rebellion began as a citizens' protest over the collapse of a government-reported financial pyramid scheme that cost hundreds of thousands of Albanians their life savings. Rebels in the South and elsewhere blamed Berisha for the collapse and called for his ouster. Instead, three weeks ago Berisha agreed to enter into a coalition government with the socialist opposition. Berisha promised new parliamentary elections in June and agreed that a socialist, Baskim Fino, would become prime minister in the interim.
In the meantime thousands of Albanians fled the country, most of them by sea to Italy. One attempted escape ended in tragedy last weekend. A boat filled with more than 100 Albanian refugees collided with an Italian navy frigate, killing at least 79 Albanians. The refugee crisis has prompted Italy to urge the international community to get involved. Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council authorized a multinational military force under European auspices to deliver humanitarian aid to Albania.
Now, for two perspectives. Erin Saberi is the Albanian field representative for the National Democratic Institute. NDI and its republican counterpart received congressional funding to help develop political parties and other democratic institutions abroad. She was evacuated from Albania last month. Mario Platero is the U.S. editor and bureau chief for Il Sole, the Italian financial daily. Welcome both of you.
Erin Saberi, give us your sense from--based on your conversations with people there of the situation on the ground now. Is it still as chaotic as when you left?
ERIN SABERI, National Democratic Institute: Well, certainly in the capital things have calmed down tremendously during the day. We're still receiving reports of sporadic gunfire throughout the night, of people shooting guns in the air. And we're also hearing reports of some armed gangs doing looting in specific places, robbery and looting, certainly in towns such as Scodra in the North and certain towns in the South, there's still quite a lot of upheaval, a lot of confusion and anarchy still.
MARGARET WARNER: And what is your understanding of how so many civilians got guns?
ERIN SABERI: Well, my understanding when I was on the ground is that literally civilians would go as police forces and military forces would pull away from towns; that one thing to be clear here is that there was no march--an uprising that was marching on the capital of Tirana. What happened was that in individual towns people would literally take over their own towns, go to the police headquarters, and to military barracks, and loot what was there, take guns and literally hand them out to each other, sell them for $5 on the street, give them to their children, so there is a widespread armed citizenry in Albania.
MARGARET WARNER: The American press has been reporting that really the Berisha government essentially permitted this to happen. Do you think that's true, and, if so, why? What was the strategy behind that?
ERIN SABERI: I think it's certainly much more complex than that. I personally don't see why there would be an interest in the Berisha government to allow widespread anarchy in the country. Whether or not certain postures that the president took in the last days contributed to this sense of chaos and confusion probably--there were reports, different sides of the conflict were handing out arms and weapons to their supporters in different towns, and the truth is nobody at this point knows for sure what happened other than widespread anarchy.
MARGARET WARNER: And politically now, within this government in the North, in Tirana, who really wields the power between Berisha and the socialists that he's got in the coalition with him?
ERIN SABERI: Well, there is a coalition government that has agreed to work together. I think we've seen the prime minister, Bashkantrino, take on a leadership role, but the truth is President Berisha still is president of the country. His support on the ground has eroded considerably, to say the least. There are reports that he still has some support, popular support, in areas of the North. At the time I left Albania a few days back, his popular support had eroded, but I think that there is a coalition government that--an agreement to work together--that may be breaking down at the moment, or there are some rumors there are flaws in that coalition at the moment.
MARGARET WARNER: But does that government control the whole North?
ERIN SABERI: Well, there is question as to how much control over the country the central government in Tirana has right now. And certainly the hope is that the government can continue marching on the road of regaining control of the country. Reports I have, however, are at 40 kilometers outside Tirana you don't see a lot of police; you don't see military. And the whole question right now for the Fino--the Berisha-Fino coalition government is to try to find ways to get control both of the South and of towns in the North, and to regain control in the first step, and that I think would be to start finding a way to get those guns back.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, let's, Mario Platero, turn to you. How many fleeing Albanians have ended up in Italy in the past month?
MARIO PLATERO, Il Sole Newspaper: Well, just in the past month the count is at about 13,000, which is an incredible number for the Italian resources. I mean, Brindisi, which is the small town in the south of Italy, basically became the center, and they had to handle the situation for which they were not organized at all.
MARGARET WARNER: And what kind of political--when you say they're not organized at all, what kind of political and financial problems is it causing?
MARIO PLATERO: Well, lots of problems. I mean, when I'm saying that they're not organized, I mean that they do not have the resources to host these people. I was just recently in Italy last week, and I would see, you know, mobile homes that were transferred from the North into the South to provide shelter for these people. And they do not have the food. They have volunteers that are trying to help. And all this is happening within a situation, the political situation in Italy, which is complicated in itself. We are trying to enter into the European monetary system. The government just came out with very difficult and strong fiscal measures, and of course, doesn't help. The public opinion is quite upset to see all these people fleeing Albania and then arriving into Italy.
MARGARET WARNER: Has there been any kind of violence?
MARIO PLATERO: There has been some violence. The problem is that lots of these refugees are criminals, and they consider the southern stop as the first stop to then moving to the North and to connect with some of the other former refugees. You have to understand that people have been fleeing Albania for several years, so the 13,000 is just the last lot of people that we've got in Italy. So there have been scenes on the side, you know, to get food and to prevail and the TV has reported some of that. But the danger is that these people will then enter the criminal circles of the country.
MARGARET WARNER: So this is why Italy has wanted the international community to get involved.
MARIO PLATERO: Well, it has this country that is exploding, you know, 40 miles on the other side of its beaches, and the situation is relevant internationally. It is not just Italy. There is danger for Macedonia, which is, you know, right there, and Europe, as a whole, thinks that this is a problem which is a little bit far away but Italy has suffered from it quite dramatically. So the idea has been for a while to try to intervene to normalize the situation, to bring troops there, to bring food, medicine, and finally the UN has voted quite in a rush. I mean, I think it took about 12 hours for the Security Council to vote the procedure to authorize the multinational force to go there and the multinational force would be led by Italy, it appears.
MARGARET WARNER: And how many other European governments have volunteered to send troops?
MARIO PLATERO: There are five or six of the governments. We have France, which is the largest contributor after Italy. We contribute with 2,000--2,500 men, France about 1,000. We then have Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania, and Turkey, and they will all contribute for about five, six hundred. The total force should be of about 5,000 men, which is just enough really to get organized and deliver the food and to try to make sure that this food would be delivered to the population and will not fall in the hands of the rebels.
MARGARET WARNER: Erin Saberi, how do you think this force will be greeted in Albania, particularly in light of this collision that occurred between these two boats? And I understand the Albanian government has accused the Italians of doing this on purpose. Will this force be welcome, do you think?
ERIN SABERI: Well, I think certainly the situation is complicated by the boat incident and the unfortunate lost of lives the other day, but I would say when I left Albania, certainly the Albanian citizens were clamoring for help from the outside world, begging and asking and begging, please, Erin, they said to me personally, tell people on the outside we need help. I think that an international force would be well received for the most part and welcomed with open arms. Vlora is a problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Vlora is the city that this boat has left from.
ERIN SABERI: And it's also the city where these uprisings began at the beginning of the pyramid scandal.
MARGARET WARNER: And this is where I think the force is supposed to be deployed.
ERIN SABERI: Probably two ports that would need to be secured, I suspect, would be Vlora and the port of Dura. And that might--that's obviously going to be complicated, but there's also the airport that is now open, and my opinion in the end of the day that multilateral force coming in would be well received by the large percent of the Albanian population.
MARGARET WARNER: Mario Platero, where is Italian public opinion on this notion of Italy leaving this force?
MARIO PLATERO: Well, the Italian public opinion was behind me at a certain point, but just now of course that we're getting closer to it, there are some political forces that are resisting it. The accident also produced some troubles, but the idea is that tomorrow morning the Italian parliament should ratify to, you know, express solidarity with the government the mission. And from what I hear the troops could be ready to leave within 48 hours after the approval, so--
MARGARET WARNER: And what is--what are the rules of engagement as you understand it for this force?
MARIO PLATERO: Well, the rules of engagement will go under Chapter 7 of the United Nations statute, so that means that you can engage to defend yourself. You can use arms and weapons if you need to, so it goes further than Chapter 6 which has been previously authorized, which has more of a limited authorization in using weapons and arms.
MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Erin Saberi, do you think this force in the delivery of the aid has a political impact in Albania?
ERIN SABERI: Well, certainly people are going to need food and supplies, but the larger issue is how these guns are going to be collected to provide stability in Albania today. We need to look at how free and fair elections can be held when over 90 percent of the population is armed, and so I think this is a first step perhaps but certainly there's a long road to go down before we can see stability in Albania.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Erin Saberi and Mario Platero, thank you both very much.