The Rocky Road to Democracy: 1985 to 1998
- With Enver Hoxha's death in 1985, his hand-picked successor, Ramiz Alia, inherited a failing economy and a disgruntled people. To counter the decline Alia legalized foreign investment, instigated some reforms, and began to establish diplomatic contacts with the west. However, the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 encouraged resistance among the people. To stave the growing unrest, Alia allowed citizens to travel abroad, cut back the activities and powers of the secret police, restored religious freedom, and allowed some capitalistic activities. After a brutal Stalinist regime and isolation that had spiraled Albania into poverty, the reforms were too late and too little. Demonstrations in January 1990 led to a state of emergency in Shkodra. The following July the youth demonstrated in the capital of Tirana and 5,000 citizen sought refuge in foreign embassies. December's student demonstrations forced even more concessions from Alia. The allowance of other political parties in 1990 signaled the end of the dictatorship.
Each concession to the opposition only weakened the communist monopoly. In January the first opposition newspaper was published. On February 20th, 1991 thousands of protesters toppled the statue of Enver Hoxha in the capital. By the end of March elections were organized throughout Albania. Although the Socialist Party won the elections and began reforms, the unrest continued. Opposition demonstrators are killed in Shkodra that June and in August 18,000 Albanians are denied asylum after fleeing to Italy. By December the coalition government collapsed when the populace and the opposing Democratic Party accused them of stalling on reforms. New elections were held in March of 1992 and the Democratic Party came to power. Dr. Sali Berisha was sworn in as president in April. The Democratic Party won the elections again on May 26, 1996.
Democracy didn't bring peace, however. Many Albanians invested in get-rich-quick pyramids. When these pyramid schemes failed in the spring of 1997 widespread rioting resulted. Citizens blamed Berisha for not warning them, and some even thought the arrest of the pyramid leaders caused the schemes to collapse. Many lost their life savings, and were embittered when Berisha did not suffer financially as well. The resulting riots led to the death of more than 1,500 people and thousands of machine guns fell into the hands of citizens when they looted the military armories. Soon criminal gangs controlled the countryside and Albania nearly collapsed in total anarchy.
Berisha was forced to schedule new elections in the summer in hopes of restoring order. Those elections were marred by widespread violence despite a 7,000 member International Protection Force guarding polling stations. Drive-by shootings, murders, arson, bombings, and intimidation by gunmen forced polls to close three hours early. Some ballot papers and boxes were stolen or tampered with, but eventually a tally was made. The Democratic party had lost the people's confidence and the Socialist Party came to office, led by Fatos Nano. However, in the autumn of 1998 the assassination of a Democratic Party member incited riots and Nano was nearly overrun in an armed revolt.