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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The West and Albania

The financial scandal that has rocked Albanian society exposed the failings of what passed for democracy here and of shortsighted Western efforts to prop it up.

Albania, the poorest country in Europe, has struggled through five years of democratic rule with few institutions untouched by scandal. But until the collapse of pyramid-style investment funds sparked a popular uprising in the past month, there was little rebuke from the United States or Europe.

Soon after it emerged from 45 years of isolation under communist rule, Albania was singled out by the West as a possible bastion of stability in the unstable, ethnically divided Balkans. The United States offered military training and assistance, as well as development aid, and European nations also developed close ties. But as events made clear that Albania might not live up to its patrons' expectations, the West did little in response.

Even when last May's parliamentary elections were found by international monitors to be riddled with fraud, the West was not dissuaded from its logic of using Albania as its safe port in the dangerous, war-torn Balkans.

Weeks after the May 26 vote effectively made Albania a one-party state, the United States co-hosted week-long NATO exercises, the largest ever in Albania. Dubbed Peaceful Eagle they were held in a new training center east of Tirana.

In August, Albania sent a platoon of soldiers to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for training. That same month, U.S. Marines joined Albanian seamen in the Adriatic for another joint exercise.

Europe did little more than fret aloud about the elections and nothing about the demands of its own election monitoring and security group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that new voting be held.

The close relationship between Albania and the West began to emerge in 1992, when cardiologist Sali Berisha became the first Albanian president chosen by a freely elected parliament and the West was eager to find a Balkan leader it could trust.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had helped foment and sustain Serb insurrections in the Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia that cost thousands of lives and led to the breakup of the Yugoslav state. By Christmas 1992, fears about the spread of war and unrest into the Serbian province of Kosovo -- whose population is 90 percent Albanian -- were high in Washington.

Berisha, charismatic at first blush and skillful at playing off this perception of Kosovo as a potential tinderbox within Serbia, quickly rose in Western calculations. A former communist who was part of Albania's democracy movement, Berisha learned to use the country's location to his advantage.

With Greece to the south, the remaining Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro to the north, newly independent Macedonia to the east and the Adriatic and Ionian seas to the west, Albania had a strategic value that Berisha touted to the United States and its allies. He welcomed U.S. and NATO use of Albanian military facilities. By 1994, U.S. spy planes and the CIA were using Albanian air bases free of charge for reconnaissance missions over the former Yugoslavia.

As the effort to end the Balkan wars intensified, Berisha could feel sure of Western dependence on his small country of 3.4 million people. What he and his Democratic Party were starting to lose, however, was support from the electorate.

Early in his presidency, Berisha was "quite adept at playing the anti-communist card," said Arben Puto of the Albanian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights monitoring group. "But it became apparent within months that he was also creating an atmosphere of extreme intolerance."

Purges of the court system and the military allowed the Democratic Party to push supporters into positions of power. Berisha, intent on creating his own loyal following, stocked the secret police and military with recruits.

By 1994, voters in a referendum soundly rejected Berisha's proposal to expand his presidential power. By early 1996, the government began an aggressive campaign in and against the press, with repeated incidents of harassment and intimidation of opposition and independent print media. All electronic media remained mouthpieces of the ruling party, despite Berisha's promises to allow private radio and television stations.

By the time of the May parliamentary elections, many Western observers viewed Berisha as an autocrat. But he continued to be seen as a "lesser evil" in contrast to a diffused and fractious opposition, a Western diplomat said.

The election results, which gave Berisha's Democrats 101 seats in the 115-seat parliament, only triggered harsh comments. The colossal collapse of nationwide pyramid schemes late last year -- get-rich-quick scams that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had warned Berisha about -- forced a closer, and more uncomfortable, look at the 52-year-old leader. Still the United States was loath to back out of Albania. Military training funds -- $400,000 annually -- were maintained for 1997. Economic aid administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development rose from $21 million in 1996 to $27 million.

Only when the pyramid schemes' collapse brought civil unrest that turned into an armed rebellion did the West take a second look at Albania.

"It was obvious that things were wrong in Albania, but the slogan of the West in the Balkans was 'stability,'" said Agim Isaku, director of the Open Society Foundation for Albania, a rights monitor funded by New York financier George Soros. "That was the biggest mistake of the West. You can't have stability without democracy. And if they try to do the same thing here again -- emphasize stability over democracy -- Albania will repeat this [chaos] every five years. Every five years, you'll see people with guns, people in the streets."

Christine Spolar is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.