Tensions are running high once again in Albania -- a country plagued by widespread poverty, corruption, illegal trafficking of people and a high degree of social apathy. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has one of the highest emigration rates in the world. Most observers say political squabbling has delayed development. Prime Minister Fatos Nano of the Socialist Party is facing increased pressure to resign as the opposition Democratic Party blames him for Albania's dire situation. In this report, written by VOA's Keida Kostreci, Zlatica Hoke examines the challenges facing this Balkan country.
In the fall of 1997, Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano promised to bring home the wreckage of a ship that sank near the Italian coast, killing 83 Albanians, including many women and children. Mr. Nano said the sight of the wreckage would encourage Albanians to stay home and work for their country instead of fleeing like "boat people."
Last month, another nighttime dash across the Adriatic Sea ended in disaster. Twenty-one people died after a violent storm overtook their inflatable speedboat. In both cases, Albanians were trying to escape poverty in search of a better life in Italy and other Western European countries. Many of those who died had paid 2,000 Euros -- the equivalent of an entire year's salary -- to smugglers who promised a one-way ticket to the West.
Why are so many people trying to leave Albania? Janusz Bugajski, a Balkans analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says, “In instances like this, you have to go to the root of the problem, the causes and the consequences of the people leaving. The causes are frustration, lack of economic opportunity, lack of social opportunity, desperation by young people, corruption and the operation of criminal organizations. These are the roots that really have to be handled. The fact that people want to leave the country, they become victims in a way of a terrible situation, is out of their control.”
In the past decade, an estimated 600,000 -- nearly a quarter of the country's population -- have left Albania. According to a 2002 poll conducted by the Albanian Center for Social and Economic Studies, almost 50% of all university and research organization staff have left the country.
The opposition Democratic Party has been quick to blame the government for the exodus, saying it has not created conditions for Albanians to want to stay. Prime Minister Nano was in Turkey when last month's speedboat disaster occurred. And the fact that he didn't return to the capital, Tirana, right away fueled widespread criticism that he is insensitive to the plight of most Albanians.
Since the accident, the Democratic Party, led by former president Sali Berisha, has organized protests in Tirana. The latest demonstration took place in mid-February when about 20,000 Albanians took to the streets. A couple of weeks earlier, stone throwing demonstrators tried unsuccessfully to force their way into the prime minister's office.
According to Nicholas Pano, a professor of history at Western Illinois University, the struggle between the two main political forces in Albania -- the ruling Socialist Party and the Democratic Party -- has its roots in the early 1990's, after the communist regime collapsed. “This partisan strife that plagues Albania and has plagued Albania for over 10 years, it's a price that Albania can no longer continue to pay,” he says. "Its negative consequences are devastating for the country and its people."
Professor Pano says the political turmoil is stalling the prospects for Albanian prosperity. He says the bickering and demonstrations have become a virtual soap-opera, with its unpredictable turns and intrigue.
At the core of this rivalry are Fatos Nano of the Communist-turned-Socialist party and Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party. They have taken turns running the country and each accuses the other of massive corruption. In 1997, many Albanians lost their savings in fraudulent investment schemes. And many people blamed Mr. Berisha for failing to protect them. Civil unrest turned violent and 2,000 people were killed in the rioting that ensued. Later that year, Mr. Nano and his Socialist Party returned to power, but bickering between the two parties continued with each accusing the other of corruption. During the past six years, the government has changed six times. Now Mr. Berisha is calling for Mr. Nano's resignation.
Analyst Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that every Albanian government in the last 10 years has only been interested in staying in office. “My sense with all Albanian governments is that they do enough to try and stay in power, but they don't do enough in order to move the society and the economy forward. So whether it's socialist, whether it's democrat, I haven't seen, unfortunately, sufficient commitment to moving Albania forward, not just their party forward.”
While the political fighting continues, the poverty persists. Unemployment is rampant and organized crime flourishes. The Albanian Institute of Statistics says unemployment is 18%, but some international observers report it may be as high as 40% because of limited job opportunities, especially in the agricultural sector.
Ilir Gedeshi, Director of the Albanian Center for Social and Economic Studies in Tirana, says poverty is not the only reason for the massive exodus from the country, particularly by Albania's young people. “There is also a psychological effect -- they see a lack of perspective in their country and that's why they should be given hope, in order for them to see the future in their country.”
By most accounts, political apathy among Albanians is also on the rise. In the last major election, only half of Albanian voters went to the polls. Observers say this turnout pales in comparison to early elections in the 1990s when at least nine out of 10 people made their way to the ballot box.
Although the situation is quite difficult, some analysts do have hope for Albania's future - particularly Albania's youth. Edmond Dragoti, Director of the Institute of Studies on Public Opinion in Tirana, expects young people will become a political, economic and social force in the country. “It would give hope for the development of the country in the future. There is a new youth movement called Mjaft (Enough), which is trying to rekindle civic responsibility in the country.”
Other analysts share his belief. Nicholas Pano of Western Illinois University says, “The country's youth really hold the key to the long-term development of the strong roots for democracy that Albania needs. I think other Albanians who have been turned off need to become active. I think intellectuals need to become more and more active in all the political parties, and especially in non-governmental organizations.”
Albania's economy may be showing signs of recovery. Last year, the Gross Domestic Product the value of all goods and services produced in the country grew by nearly 1.5% to 6%. Some foreign companies are also investing, including the US company Lockheed Martin, which plans to update Albania's air traffic control facilities. And some progress has been made in privatizing key sectors of the economy such as banking. But in the end, most analysts say it will be the Albanians themselves who must decide the political future of their leaders and ultimately of their country.