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Albanian polls are test of ties to West
by Garentina Kraja

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
3 July 2005

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Political leaders are touting Sunday's general elections as a showcase of Albania's progress toward democracy since the fall of communism a decade ago and a near collapse into anarchy in the late 1990s. But apathy is evident among voters—some of whom feel betrayed by empty promises of a better life by politicians who have failed to revive the economy in one of Europe's poorest countries or clear up ubiquitous corruption.

``We have nothing to gain, nothing to lose,'' said student Odeta Kosova of the candidates on offer this weekend. ``We have tried all of them.''

Elona Talushllari, 22, was unsure whether she would bother to vote. ``They don't make an impression anymore,'' she said. ``All use the same words.''

Since the collapse of communism in 1991, Albania has grown into a country of contrasts. New construction and expensive cars can be seen in major cities, while nearly half of the population is said to live on $2 or less a day, with running water and electricity often scarce. The country remains one of Europe's most destitute. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates revenue lost from corruption at some $1.4 billion per year.

The international community has linked the election's success—meaning free and fair polls for the 2.8 million eligible voters—to Albania's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union.

The record isn't good. Previous elections in Albania were plagued by fraud and losers refused to concede defeat.

``If these elections fail, Albania will have a huge delay ... on its path to the European Union,'' said Mustafa Nano, a political analyst.

Integration in NATO and the EU is supported by both Prime Minister Fatos Nano's ruling Socialist Party and its main rival, the Democratic Party, headed by former president Sali Berisha. Both parties also support close ties with Washington and the Albanian troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

That common ground aside, the two rival camps have gone out of their way to attack each other.

The Socialists ran ads depicting Berisha as the leader who plunged the country into anarchy in 1997 with the collapse of investment schemes in which thousands of Albanians lost their savings. In all, 1.68 million investors in 24 pyramid schemes lost a total of $1.26 billion when the schemes unraveled in 1997.

Many Albanians lost their life savings. Angry crowds looted army depots and went on shooting rampages. Thousands were killed, and a NATO-led force was deployed to help restore order. The government broke down and a temporary administration was set up with the help of the international community.

Birsha's Democrats in turn described Nano as a corrupt, reckless prime minister with a taste for traveling in luxury.

In vote-seeking soundbites and slogans, Nano insists ``Albania is developing with us.'' Berisha claims he was the ``clean hands'' needed to rule.

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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