May 1, 1997
In the six weeks or so from the middle of January 1997 to the end of February 1997, the anti-government demonstrations in Albania turned into riots, then the riots into an armed insurrection. The starting point of these demonstrations was the collapse of crooked financial companies linked to the country's rulers, a collapse which ruined tens of thousands of ordinary savers. Quite clearly, however, the anger against the government, against poverty and against the dead-end situation in which the majority of the population finds itself extended far beyond those who had been swindled.
Starting in the town of Vlore, the insurrection set the southern third of the country ablaze within a few days. The population seized arms, took over barracks while the army remained benevolently neutral and battled with the SHIK, the regime's political police. The regime sent in tanks, helicopters and troops with orders to open fire. These attempts to clamp down on the movement were a complete failure. The army collapsed, the barracks were deserted, the political police decided to lie low and part of the army joined the insurrection. Instead of being contained, the uprising spread to the towns in the North and surrounded the capital, Tirana.
The insurrection was a popular uprising, with a large part of the population directly participating in it or supporting it, in the South at any rate. For the first time in a long time, a popular revolt in Europe was able to take arms and break the state apparatus. Since then, however, the revolt seems to have been going nowhere, for want of concrete objectives and for want of organizations which could embody them.
A small country of about 11,000 square miles, with a population of 3,440,000, Albania is the poorest country in Europe. Bourgeois commentators, of course, claim that its ruined economy is the result of fifty years under a "communist" regime. This is absurd. Ever since it became independent in 1912, Albania has always been the least developed region of Europe. Its railway, for example, was not built until 1948, if we discount the lines built for military purposes by the Italian army, which occupied the country during World War II.
The short history of modern Albania, like that of all the neighboring Balkan states, has been deeply marked by rivalries between major imperialist powers, acting either directly or through their control over small regional powers. Indeed, the very creation of an independent Albanian state resulted from these rivalries.
The territories inhabited by the Albanians had been under the domination of the Ottoman empire for more than four centuries. But the decaying Ottoman empire had for a long time survived only because the ambitions of the major powers – the British, French and German imperialist powers, along with Austria-Hungary and Russia – canceled each other out. But in the last 40 years of the nineteenth century, different nationalities present in the Balkans began to awake. In the first decades of this century, those who had already managed to set up their own states began to stake a claim on other territory. This opened up new fields of maneuver for the rival imperialist powers, and it resulted in a succession of so-called "Balkan" wars, the last of which turned into World War I.
Albanian political leaders took advantage of one of those Balkan wars to proclaim independence from the collapsing Ottoman empire on November 28, 1912. But the consent of the major powers was still necessary.
The major powers, meeting in London in July 1913 to end one of the Balkan wars, discussed all sorts of combinations: allowing Turkey to retain nominal sovereignty over an autonomous Albania; dividing the region inhabited by the Albanians between the neighboring states of Serbia, Montenegro and Greece; handing over the whole country to Italy, the new imperialist power in the region. But the major powers finally opted for an independent Albania. This solution did not excessively reinforce one of the rival powers or neighboring states at the expense of the others, and thus garnered the most support.
Modern Albania was born not in Tirana but in London, and its borders were drawn in London. These borders left nearly half of the Albanians in the region outside the borders of the new state, divided up between Montenegro, Macedonia and above all Serbia. Today, 40% of Albanians still live in neighboring countries, mostly in Kosovo, which has an Albanian majority but is part of Serbia, and in the Republic of Macedonia, which came into being after the break-up of Yugoslavia. On the other hand this artificial carving up of the region left a Greek minority in the southern part of Albania. This created another source of tensions for the future.
The imperialist powers fastened an obscure German prince on the Albanians as their king. Within six months, however, this new king was driven out by a popular insurrection. The country was left in a state of anarchy for several years, with rival feudal lords and clan chiefs competing for power. During World War I, although Albania was neutral, it was nonetheless occupied by troops from three powers which had gone from being rivals to being enemies: Italy, Austria and France. Troops from Serbia, Montenegro and Greece also occupied Albanian territory from time to time.
When peace returned, Albania at least escaped being divided up between Italy and Greece, even though this had been planned in a secret treaty signed in 1915, at the height of the war, again in London. But it took another two years after the end of the war for the troops of the powers with various designs on the country (Italy, Greece and France) to eventually move out one after the other.
Albania was thus restored with the borders drawn in the 1913 London agreement. But fighting between armed bands, insurrections and maneuvers went on for another three years, with the neighboring powers often operating in the wings. Finally, a feudal clan chief, backed by Mussolini's Italy, managed to stabilize the situation to his own benefit. After a dazzling rise to power which saw him acting successively as the chief butcher quelling the insurrection, minister of the interior and prime minister, he was driven out of the country for a time by another insurrection. Returning at the head of troops recruited abroad, he eventually became President of the Republic and then had himself crowned King of the Albanians under the name Zog the First.
With the next world war approaching, however, Italian imperialism no longer was content to use its local stooge. On April 7, 1939, Mussolini's troops occupied the country. Five days later a puppet assembly proclaimed the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, as King of Albania. Still the poorest in Europe and still retaining feudal or even pre-feudal social structures, Albania was now reduced to the rank of an Italian colony, supplying materials and food products and acting as a strategic base for Italian imperialism's new adventures in the Balkans.
Armed resistance groups grew out of the fight against first the Italian occupation and then the German occupation. The biggest group to emerge from this process was one organized by a recently unified party led by Enver Hoxha.
For forty years, Albania was what certain journalists liked to call "the most Stalinist country in Eastern Europe." Albania was, at any rate, the country which remained longest under the rule of a party of Stalinist origin, the Albanian Workers Party. As soon as the Soviet bureaucracy let it be known, through its then leader Gorbachev, that it no longer wished to control the Eastern European countries which had previously been its buffer states, most of the "People's Democracies" quickly abandoned their references to "socialism" or "communism" one after the other. Albania alone seemed to be standing against the tide.
In fact, by the end of the 1980s, Albania had long ceased to be a real member of the "People's Democracies" and was no longer subordinate to the control of the bureaucracy in Moscow.
The political force embodied by the Albanian Workers Party, and personified for more than forty years by Enver Hoxha, certainly came into being as part of the Stalinist movement. It even seemed to be the most orthodox version of it; the Workers Party continued to proclaim its loyalty to Stalin himself long after the new leaders of the Soviet bureaucracy had gone so far as to rechristen towns, streets and squares to erase even the name of the late "Little Father." Having risen to the head of his party in 1941 as a Stalinist, Hoxha was still a Stalinist when he died in 1987.
In politics, however, such labels represent only a fragment of reality or, even, do not represent reality at all. Although a product of the Stalinist movement, Hoxha and the people around him were even more a product of Albania's situation: it was an underdeveloped, socially archaic country; more than anything else, a plaything for the major powers; and an object of lust for the neighboring states. Hoxha and his party embodied a nationalist policy aimed at building and consolidating, if necessary by terror, an independent national state apparatus. During the same historical period, the Third World saw several other "progressive nationalist" leaders of this type, the word "progressive" referring to the desire to modernize society in their country, rid it of its most anachronistic structures, unify it and above all resist as far as possible any external political or economic control.
Because of the era and the country's geographical position, this political desire was expressed in Stalinist phraseology. But despite the turbulent history of his alliances, Hoxha remained faithful to the last to his nationalist objectives. More exactly, it was precisely this political desire to remain free of any external control, whether from the imperialist powers or from the "friendly" powers of the so-called socialist camp, which explains the chaotic history of Enver Hoxha's alliances.
Hoxha owed a great deal to Tito. It was with Tito's help that he had succeeded in uniting the divided Albanian Stalinist movement and establishing himself as its leader. It was also with Tito's help that Hoxha's resistance movement had imposed itself, in a violent struggle, on the other movements (notably those which wanted to restore the monarchy and which were generally pro-Western). The Yugoslav resistance provided an example, and sometimes support, for the Albanian resistance. The Albanian and Yugoslav resistance movements were the only ones in the whole of Eastern Europe which took power themselves, without the presence and direct help of Soviet troops, when the Nazi military machine collapsed.
After the war, however, Tito's power and proximity were what made him such a threat for the independence of the Albanian state. The Yugoslav leaders did not hide their intention to make Albania the seventh federated republic of the Yugoslav Federation. This was not an absurd idea, given all the divisions in the Balkan region; moreover, the Yugoslav leaders' policy was aimed at setting up a Balkan Federation which would also incorporate Bulgaria.
This policy met with some support even from some of Enver Hoxha's supporters. But it was not Hoxha's policy. He sought the backing of the Soviet Union, which he won all the more easily because Stalin was preparing to confront Tito, whose independence Stalin found excessive.
At the time of the break between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1948, Hoxha naturally chose the side of the former against the latter. Preferring a distant protector to a closer and therefore more menacing protector was to become a constant element in the Albanian regime's policy.
For twelve years, the alliance with the Soviet Union protected the Albanian state from any venture by Yugoslavia and, even more so, from any threat from the West.
In addition, the economic help of the Soviet Union and the possibilities for trade with it were important factors in Albania's economic survival.
From 1960 onward, however, Enver Hoxha chose the support of China against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union exerted ever more pressure on the Albanian state apparatus and on the economy. Moreover, Moscow had committed itself to a policy of rapprochement with the Western powers. Albania feared that rapprochement might aid Italian designs on the Albanian economy and Greek designs on part of the Albanian territory.
For some eighteen years, China replaced the Soviet Union as Albania's diplomatic ally and as its economic and commercial partner. Even though China was a country as poor as Albania, its sheer size allowed the Albanian economy to attain a certain division of labor and degree of expertise and to obtain aid.
In 1978, Enver Hoxha broke with China as well. The country tried to survive as best it could. Its borders were kept absolutely closed and the economy operated on an autarchic basis. A siege psychology was imposed from above in the name of an ideological hodge-podge mixing Stalinist phrases with a frantic nationalism.
During the forty years and more of Enver Hoxha's reign, prolonged for another three years by the reign of his successor Ramiz Alia, Albania was a brutal dictatorship. But there was more to Hoxha's regime than that. After all, the Third World, to which Albania belongs in spite of its location on the European continent, has experienced many other dictatorships which, what is more, economically ruined their country.
This was not entirely the case in Albania.
Enver Hoxha's dictatorship sought in fact to achieve what his pre-war predecessor had not even attempted: to liquidate the feudal legacy and tribal traditions, to begin industrializing the country, and, above all, to unify a state which, between the wars, was more a coalition of armed bands with varying degrees of power than a state in the modern sense of the word, and to make it capable of resisting imperialist pressures. At least as far as the state apparatus was concerned, Enver succeeded, at any rate while he and his successor were in power. They were able to forge a state apparatus with a powerful and well-manned political police and army compared to the size of the population. These were inherited by the regimes which succeeded Enver Hoxha's, even when they were led by his pro-Western political opponents.
On the social level, Enver Hoxha's dictatorship bore a certain resemblance to Kemal Ataturk's dictatorship in Turkey. With the violence of his political police, he liquidated the armed bands and the power of the feudal clan chiefs over certain areas of the countryside. Through police violence, he sought to resolve the question of religion, in this country with a Muslim majority but which also had a large Catholic community and a large Orthodox community. It was the only country in Eastern Europe which ended up completely banning religion, closing all religious buildings and proclaiming itself in 1967 as the "first atheist state in the world." (It is very difficult to say how far this decision was attributable to anti-religious "progressiveness" and how far it was simply a refusal to tolerate any structure which might shelter opposition to the dictatorship).
A unified Albanian language was imposed from above, replacing the two main dialectal variants, which had been spoken one in the North of the country, one in the South.
Again it was by means of police coercion that the regime combated the most backward aspects of Albanian society, such as the traditional oppression of women, arranged marriages and tribal endogamy. As a result, in a country where 95% of women had been illiterate in 1938, women accounted for 44% of middle-ranking and top executives in 1982.
It was also through police violence that the regime carried out a policy of forced industrialization on the basis of existing raw materials such as chromium, oil and bitumen. Industrialization was carried out without the help of foreign capital – not even in the form of loans which were illegal according to the constitution. This required an enormous effort which was paid for by keeping the standard of living of the peasantry and the proletariat to the bare minimum. This policy did not turn Albania into an industrialized country. But state centralization and the successive aid of the Soviet Union and China led to the rise of chemical complexes and large industrial enterprises (textiles, sugar, hydroelectric power stations and iron and steel combines) and, above all, to the emergence of a working class which had hardly existed before the war.
Police dictatorship could not liquidate the most anachronistic aspects of society in Albania any more than it did in Turkey. But Albania in 1990 was nonetheless not the same country it had been before Mussolini's occupation.
The fall of the Ceausescu couple in Rumania, in December 1989, concluded a series of changes of regime in the East European countries. It had become obvious that Albania could not survive in economic and political autarchy. Up until then, the transition from dictatorships claiming to be communist and subject to Soviet control to regimes claiming to be more or less democratic and open to the West had taken place peacefully in all the East European countries. It had taken place amid tacit complicity between the dignitaries of the outgoing regime (when it was not these same people who led the transition) and the leaders of the pro-Western opposition. And it was all conducted under the surveillance and with the help of Western political leaders.
At the beginning, this was no easy matter. Not, of course, because the people in charge of the state machinery in the East European countries wanted to retain the economic and social forms imposed on them by Moscow during the Cold War. On the contrary, over their four decades of existence, the state powers in the "People's Democracies" had always been trying to distance themselves from Moscow and renew links with the West.
As for sacrificing the state-run and planned economy for the capitalist market, the strongest aspiration toward this came precisely from the ruling layers, where the political and economic apparatchiks had been rubbing shoulders and forming ties with an authentic petty bourgeoisie for varying lengths of time depending on the country.
But it was clear that a change of regime and a transition from dictatorship to a parliamentary system could prove difficult to control from above.
Over the previous decade, the West had already faced this problem several times, although in a different context and from a different starting point. The transition from the dictatorship of Franco in Spain, of Salazar/Caëtano in Portugal and of the colonels in Greece to parliamentary regimes took place without real problems for the imperialist order, but not without difficulty, especially in the case of Portugal.
The problem in each case was to prevent the transition from creating illusions other than passive ones, to prevent it at any rate from provoking an intervention by the masses and from leading to confrontations between the regime and the masses. The same problems existed in the transition in Eastern Europe.
From the point of view of the major powers, the transition in almost all the countries of Eastern Europe took place in the best possible way. Only in Rumania was it necessary to stage a "showpiece insurrection" to get rid of the Ceausescus, who hung on to power a little too long.
Albania's rulers also demonstrated their sense of responsibility by stepping down, when the time came, handing power over to a supposedly democratic opposition. Of course, this opposition had, itself, emerged from the ranks of the former Stalinist Party.
Nonetheless, the transition was hardest in Albania, still the poorest in Europe. In the case of Albania, social problems became mixed up from the start in the political processes, taking a periodically explosive form. In certain respects, the February-March insurrection is only the latest in the series of explosions which accompanied the process of transition from the beginning.
The initiative for change came from Hoxha's successor, Ramiz Alia himself. Very cautiously, of course! It began with measures such as, for example, the liberalizing of the penal code, which now tolerated leaving the country or religious propaganda, which had previously been subject to the death penalty.
In June 1990, the Albanian National Assembly voted for the free circulation of Albanian nationals. Immediately, several thousand people invaded Western embassies in Tirana requesting visas to leave. All the ambassadors of major Western countries (the United States, France and Germany in particular) then suddenly discovered that their premises needed urgent restoration work and closed their embassies in Tirana one after the other. It was no longer the dictatorship which was barring the way from within, but the Western powers which were closing their doors to those fleeing the general poverty and worsening shortages.
From then on, attempts to flee, particularly to Italy, periodically became a mass movement. This was a desperate movement, backed up at times by workers' strikes such as the strike by miners in the big Valias coal mine, by riots like those in Shköder, and by student demonstrations in support of political demands. Ramiz Alia gave way in the only field where he could give way: the political field. On December 11, 1990, following a student demonstration, he authorized a multi-party system. Sali Berisha, a cardiologist by profession and also a member and middle-ranking cadre of the Stalinist party, seized this opportunity to hand in his party card and declare that he was founding a "Democratic Party."
A new wave of riots and mass departures took place in February 1991. On February 22 of the same year, there were big demonstrations in Tirana during which the omnipresent statues of Enver Hoxha were toppled. Ramiz Alia continued to retreat, still in the political field. He tried to give his regime a new face by appointing Fatos Nano, a young economist but still a member of the Workers Party, as the head of the government. The Fatos Nano government organized elections which were to take place in April 1991. This was a neat way for the ruling group, who still claimed Enver Hoxha's legacy, to relieve the pressure on themselves and hand over if necessary to a new team which could more easily embody the break with the former dictatorship.
It was thus the very Stalinist Ramiz Alia and his supporter Fatos Nano who initiated this policy which was to mark the whole subsequent period, and which consisted of offering "if you want them, you've got them" elections every time the situation became tense and social problems came to the fore.
The main rival of the former Stalinist party was Sali Berisha's Democratic Party, which was supposed to represent a pro-Western orientation. Nonetheless, the two rivals joined together in pushing for elections as a way to answer the crisis.The Western press heralded the coming April elections as the "first free elections in Albania for forty-five years." Nonetheless, these elections produced a surprise: they handed power back – "democratically" – to the people who were holding it, the late Enver Hoxha's Workers Party. The Workers Party obtained a very comfortable majority with 64.5% of the vote. The Western press thus explained: "The conservative instincts of the peasants allow the communists to win.... frightened by the possibility of the return of the beys, i.e. the old feudal lords, the peasants opted for the former communist party."
At the end of the month, Ramiz Alia, who had come to power four years earlier as Hoxha's successor as leader of the Stalinist party, was this time "democratically" re-elected as President of the Republic by Parliament. To prove his desire for reform, Ramiz Alia changed the name of the "People's Socialist Republic of Albania" to the "Republic of Albania."
Neither ballot papers nor even changes of regime, however, can fill empty stomachs. Barely a month after the victorious elections, a fifteen-day general strike broke out, demanding wage increases of 50 to 100%. On June 5, unable to restore order in spite of the threat to send in the army, the so-called "communist" government resigned, two months after its victory in the elections. A few days later, no doubt again in order to make a political concession, for want of willingness to make concessions on economic demands, the Workers Party renamed itself the Socialist Party.
This was followed by various combinations. First there was a so-called "government of national stabilization," in which Sali Berisha's Democratic Party agreed to collaborate with its "communist enemies." This government then resigned to give way to a government of technicians. Meanwhile, however, the already poor economy, which was supposed to be privatized, collapsed. In the space of two years, industrial production had fallen by 50 to 60% and half the agricultural land was no longer planted. Shortages were becoming catastrophic
In December 1991, hunger riots broke out in most of the major towns. The rioters broke into warehouses and food stores to take what little there was to be taken. The special correspondent of Le Monde reported the words of an inhabitant of the town of Fushe-Arrëz, where the rioting had taken the most violent form, causing around forty deaths: "We have nothing left to eat and the schools are closed because there is no heating. If this goes on, we could get even more violent. To get revenge, some people would be capable of setting light to the mines and the complexes." The correspondent added, "More than 50% of the town's population is unemployed, and one only needs to see barefooted ten-year-old children going round in makeshift sandals in temperatures of minus five degrees to understand the situation!" The wave of hunger riots spread throughout the country.
With the complicity between the ruling group and the opposition, the masses demanding food were offered... new elections! At the end of March 1992, elections did indeed take place. This time it was the Democratic Party which won two-thirds of the seats. Four days later, Ramiz Alia, even though he had been elected for five years only one year earlier, made a last responsible political gesture: he handed in his resignation, giving way to Sali Berisha on April 6, 1992.
Commentators rambled on about the end of the communist system. "The peoples of the enslaved countries have not wanted to content themselves with rationed freedom and a watered down market economy," wrote Le Monde on April 6, 1992. Indeed, the masses were to be given the freedom to live in a country now dominated by a market that was not watered down, one now at the mercy of Albanian or Italian business sharks eager to get rich quick, when it was not at the mercy of the Albanian, Italian and the Russian mafias! That is, the masses were given the freedom to starve to death.
The Western powers celebrated the victory of Sali Berisha. They even helped him a little financially, especially Italy. This was not of course out of excessive generosity, even toward a regime which claimed to be democratic, but in the hope that the stabilization of the regime would stem the flow of refugees to Greece and Italy! And above all, thanks to the accession to power of a government advocating unfettered capitalism, Italian imperialism hoped finally to regain its traditional zone of influence.
The privatization measures, which began under Fatos Nano and were speeded up under Sali Berisha, did not lead to the emergence of an Albanian bourgeoisie (other than in the form of mafia gang leaders). On the other hand, they cleared the way for investors from Italy. Of course, the Italians didn't want to invest in the big companies created during the period of forced industrialization! These "combines," which require a lot of material investment, remained closed and their workers unemployed. No doubt they will remain closed, or will only be partially restored to operation, solely in sectors which are profitable from the capitalist point of view. On the other hand, however, the very limited stabilization of the first few years under Sali Berisha attracted a number of Italian bosses specializing in sectors demanding little material investment and a lot of labor, drawn by wages less than a tenth or even a twentieth of Italian wages. This stabilization also attracted dealers and smugglers of all kinds, not to mention the Italian mafia. But all of this was not enough to bring the economy back even to the level of the early eighties.
In April 1992 the world's press agencies reported a joyful young person as saying: "Sali Berisha is the star of the world" on the evening of his election. His star was quick to fade as strikes were followed by demonstrations and sporadic hunger riots.
Once his period of grace was over, Sali Berisha attempted to find a new outlet in nationalism. The attitude of the government of neighboring Greece lent itself to this. Athens encouraged anti-Albanian nationalism in all its forms. On its own territory, it periodically rounded up Albanian immigrants, illegal or otherwise. In Albania itself, it claimed Albanian territories inhabited by the Greek minority. Sali Berisha quickly responded. While remaining very discrete about the fate of the Albanians in Kosovo, he launched himself into an anti-Greek campaign. This was not enough, however, to make people forget the generalized corruption and the continuing descent of the majority of the population into dire poverty. This poverty was all the more difficult to bear because the uniformity of the generalized poverty of the last years of Ramiz Alia's regime was replaced by a visible increase in inequalities. The ostentatious wealth of the nouveaux riches, often former or recent apparatchiks, contrasted with the poverty of the majority.
While international experts rejoiced in the relative stabilization during the first years of Sali Berisha's reign, poverty was leading to a resurgence in diseases associated with the Middle Ages, such as cholera.
The legislative elections of May 1996 again gave Sali Berisha's party a two-thirds majority. But, as had already happened on several occasions, this result led to more rejoicing in Western chancelleries than among the Albanian population.
In March 1997, the majority in parliament again allowed Sali Berisha to have himself re-elected President of the Republic. But at the very moment when parliament was appointing Sali Berisha as his own successor, the riots which had begun in the south of the country were turning into an armed insurrection.
When fraudulent financial companies, linked to the government, collapsed after promising quick enrichment, there was a massive popular explosion. But this collapse was merely the triggering factor. There may not have been much popular reaction in the face of rising poverty during the first few years under Sali Berisha. But the anger was there. And the interval of social calm was short-lived. In fact, the popular revolt which began last February was in many ways a continuation of the hunger riots which had taken place at the end of 1990.
This time, however, the rioters seized arms everywhere. And when Sali Berisha sent in the army and his secret police, this only deepened the popular insurrection. Soldiers opened up barracks without a fight and often joined the ranks of the insurgents. Others threw away their uniforms and tried to go home. As an opposition daily asserted, "Not only were the soldiers afraid, they did not think the cause was just." Those members of the political police who took their role too seriously were mercilessly liquidated by the armed population.
Faced with a worsening situation, the Western powers, which had up to then given unfailing support to Sali Berisha, began to abandon him. The movement was led by the United States. Did the Western powers reproach Sali Berisha for not succeeding in crushing the rebellion or for continuing to hang onto power after his powerlessness had become apparent?
No matter. The major powers had good reason to be concerned about the situation. It was customary at the beginning of the century to say that the Balkans were a powder keg, but it was sometimes added that Albania was the fuse. The Balkans have certainly become a powder keg once more. The explosion in Albania is heavy with risks of repercussions, starting with the neighboring regions populated by Albanians, such as Kosovo and Macedonia. But a flare-up even just in the Albanian regions is likely to call into question the existing borders, and as a result lead to a new version of the old Balkan conflagrations.
And then there is also, for the major powers, the other aspect of the explosion, its social aspect, its revolt-of-the-poor aspect. This is true even if there is unfortunately no one to express this aspect of things and above all to organize the revolt from the point of view of those who were victims of Enver Hoxha's dictatorship before becoming victims of the dictatorship of money and the "unfettered market economy."
As had become traditional in this kind of situation, Sali Berisha offered the insurgents in the South a truce and above all elections. The opposition, still represented mainly by the Socialist Party, i.e. the former Stalinist Workers Party, obviously responded favorably to the government's proposal. On March 9, Sali Berisha made an agreement with ten opposition parties (no less!) calling for new elections in June and, in the meantime, a "government of national reconciliation."
The agreement was saluted in Paris, Rome and Athens. Along with the other prisoners, the insurrection freed Fatos Nano from jail, allowing him to become the new leader of the former Stalinist party. But this does not mean that the insurrection trusts this party any more than the one which was in power. On the contrary, the insurrection then spread to the North, flaring up in Shköder, north of Tirana, then encircling Tirana, before erupting in some districts of the capital itself.
This is how the situation stands at present: Sali Barisha clings to his title of president, but seemingly is without real power outside the presidential palace and those districts of Tirana which his own private militia controls; in the rest of the country, each city or town is controlled by local authorities emerging during the insurrection, many times coming from the Mafia.
Undoubtedly the insurrection has been a popular one, in that the masses have been widely involved, particularly in the towns. Over the past weeks, they demonstrated their will and ability to arm themselves. And they proved to have enough energy and combativity to shatter the state machinery.
In this respect it is only natural to compare this insurrection with that of Hungary in 1956. But comparing these two events brings to light differences. The international context was different in the case of Hungary: the world was divided in two blocks. Besides the Hungarian dictatorship appeared to the population as the expression of the Soviet bureaucracy and was supported by Soviet troops within the country itself.
But there are other differences. The Hungarian revolution was characterized by the specific position of the working class within the insurgent masses, which was expressed in the councils the working class set up. It was characterized by a thorough politicization of the masses in general, and the working class in particular; by the debates which were taking place among the ranks of the working class over the political future and the organization of the economy. It was also characterized by the presence of a whole generation of activists, both within the working class and the intelligentsia, who came from the Stalinist current but had already broken from it for some time, among whom a significant number were genuinely seeking another way, in reaction to both the bureaucratic dictatorship and the restoration of the market economy and private ownership of the factories. Finally, there was, in Hungary, a tradition of proletarian organization and the collective memory of the 1919 revolution.
Despite all this, a party really representing the interest of the proletariat and aiming at the seizure of power by the workers council did not emerge. Such a party does not result from improvisation. The situation of Hungary in 1956 would have offered considerable possibilities for such a party. But for this party to emerge, a political capital would have been necessary, together with a clear consciousness of the situation from the point of view of the interests of the proletariat – and both are difficult to acquire in the heat of events, without a political tradition rooted in the past. While the workers councils exercised power in deeds, politically they handed it over to Imre Nagy, until the intervention of the Soviet bureaucracy's troops cut short any further revolutionary development.
In Albania, the situation is very different from what happened in Hungary.
The insurrection in Albania was triggered by the population's anger against the government which, while protecting thieves, was refusing to reimburse the losses of those who had been deceived. This did not reflect a high level of consciousness, although, of course, things could have changed in the course of the insurrection itself.
Although this was an armed insurrection, its lack of politicization and its desperate character – that of an insurrection without any prospect – makes it closer to the hunger riots of 1991-92 than to the Hungarian insurrection of 1956. Besides, as far as we can see, the working class did not appear in a specific position, neither in the events, nor through the emergence of political forces representing it one way or another.
Of course, one has to take into account the fact that news reportage was sporadic, inadequate and biased. But while the population did seem to know what it did not want, it did not seem to know what it wanted, all the more so as there was no political force to help it in that respect. It is difficult to measure the significance, among the population, of those who were convinced that armed action could shape the future, and who had the determination to shape it, and that of those who were trying to escape, because they thought there was no future in Albania.
In any case, the Albanian population now possesses arms which they took when they occupied army barracks and naval bases. The fact that the population is armed and, as commentators say so elegantly, is "uncontrollable" has prompted fears on the part of Western and Albanian leaders both. This is why the Socialist party, although in opposition, sent one of its leaders to serve Berisha as prime minister. It is for the same reason that the Socialist party has refrained from demanding Berisha's resignation: this is the main, if not the only, demand of the insurgents.
All the parties are saying that order can be restored only by disarming the population. The governments of all the major powers agree with this.
As long as the poor population remains mobilized and armed, the future remains open. But even to keep the weapons require a political will and an organization. A popular insurrection which does not go forward consciously towards the exercise of power by the armed population can only go backwards sooner or later.
There have been several reports of people showing their kalashnikovs, saying proudly that now they are in power. Unfortunately this reflects only one aspect of reality, while at the same time reflecting many illusions.
Rifles and tanks may be the essential instruments of power, but they do not constitute power in themselves. To take over and exercise power requires a very high level of political consciousness and organization. And there is no political force in Albania which represents and advocates this perspective in front of the popular masses.
For the moment, the break-up of the central power is encouraging the re-establishment of local powers, all the more easily in fact because the constitution of a centralized state is a recent phenomenon in Albania. These local powers seem to be in some places the product of more or less democratic assemblies, but judging from what witnesses report, these assemblies tend to entrust leadership to high-ranking officers of the collapsed Albanian army, themselves naturally linked to local dignitaries, not to mention the part played by the mafia gangs.
Significantly, the two most prominent figures among the southern insurgents are a general, the local leader in Gjinokaster, and a colonel who leads the insurgents of Sarande. And, as Le Monde reported the latter saying, "officers tend to know one another and to coordinate their actions."
Such people may become intermediaries for what remains of the central power to deceive the population and subsequently disarm it.
According to Le Monde (March 25), "Delegates from the 14 rebel towns have agreed to work with Fino [the prime minister] if he succeeds in reforming the institutions directly connected to president Berisha. They have denied any plan to launch an armed attack against Tirana."
But failing to turn against Tirana and to attack the central power at a time when it had looked isolated, with only the support of the remaining loyal members of the political police, means giving it time to get its act together. It is already a way of betraying the insurrection.
It is difficult to tell whether there will prove to be a force capable of restoring order and state unity in Albania, nor how this will be achieved. But if order were to be restored, it would be at the price of a violent crushing of the population and a new dictatorship which would be every bit as bad as Enver Hoxha's. But if such a force does not emerge, at least in the near future, Albania could break up and, given the vacuum of central state power, give way to the rivalry of a host of local powers. Albania has experienced a similar situation at least twice in the course of this century.
Finally, several European powers did send military forces into Albania, but only after hesitating for weeks. The New York Times (April 25) quoted the Italian chief of operations as saying, "We also have to take into consideration Bosnia and Somalia, and it all makes us very cautious." Naturally Italian imperialism is leading this operation in what it considers to be its zone of influence. But it is accompanied in the venture by the inevitable French imperialism, together with the troops of several states, particularly those of Central Europe.
So far, the U.S. has preferred to let the second-rate European imperialisms intervene alone. First, little Albania isn't very important for the U.S. Second, if a situation like Somalia were to develop, the U.S. prefers not to be directly involved.
If the Albanian population is determined to keep its weapons, this intervention force may well not be able to disarm the population. And this in fact does not seem to be the aim of the intervention force, the declared purpose of which is to ensure order in the port of Durres and in the capital Tirana. In other words, its goal is to ensure the survival of a government which can claim a semblance of legitimacy, at least in legal terms. It may be enough, for the time being, to restore order only in the places which are vital for the restoration of central state power. (These happen to be, at the same time, the places where foreign investment, particularly Italian, is concentrated.) Italy's concern for safeguarding its interests in Albania is undoubtedly combined with its concern for preventing the Albanian "boat-people" from fleeing into Italy.
Whether the situation produces recurring insurrections by a population which is not disarmed, or at least not completely; whether it follows the Somali pattern, with local powers fighting against one another; or whether it settles down under a restored authoritarian power – the future that the Western powers have in store for Albania is that of a concentration camp where people live in poverty and starve, without any chance to escape. Unless, that is, the situation becomes more explosive and the whole region flares up.