Albania trembles on the brink Balkan protests: Pyramid schemes bilk people's faith in post-Communist era.


ONLY IN Albania, perhaps, could failures of pyramid schemes threaten to bring down the regime. Albanians knew they were changing from communism to capitalism. No one told them that a pyramid scheme -- in which everyone puts in money and collapses when no one is left to put in more -- is a confidence game but not capitalism.

For two weeks, crowds have been protesting in Tirana, torching the city hall of Peshkopija, beating state television cameramen, attacking the foreign minister, fighting police and fleeing across the Adriatic in little boats. President Sali Berisha called the troops out to defend the parliament, central bank and broadcasting stations. The protests turned into a movement to overturn the last election.

This is not unusual in the Balkans. The people who returned President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists (Communists) to power in Serbia have been on the streets for weeks demanding his ouster. In Socialist (Communist)-run Bulgaria, the people are protesting the regime to the point of driving the non-Socialist president to press for new elections. Romania is experimenting, finally, with a non-Socialist (non-Communist) government.

One of the things that sets Albania apart from other poor countries of the Balkans is that Albanian voters threw out the Socialists (Communists) in 1992, installing the Democrats to whom they are now giving grief. The regime accuses the formerly ruling Communists (now Socialists) of fomenting the unrest.

Albania remains a sad country of beautiful mountains and fierce people that is not remote, facing the heel of the boot of Italy pTC across the Adriatic Sea. It is the most Islamic country in Europe, Middle Eastern in a way the modernist Muslim population of Bosnia never was. If a great country like Russia could confuse capitalism with crime, so can Albania.

In a functioning capitalist society, the state protects common people from crooks and predators. The pyramid schemes wrecking Albania would be suppressed in a truly capitalist state. It will be healthy if the Democratic government of Albania survives this unrest and protects the people. It would be a tragic mistake for Albanians to conclude that market forces have been found wanting, when they have not really been tried.

Pub Date: 1/29/97

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