Bitter dividend

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 1997, 12:00am

Balkan-watchers who have monitored the deteriorating situation in Albania over the past two years insist that the present turmoil was always destined to happen. They accuse Western powers of failing to heed warnings that the government was deeply involved in organised crime, and behind the failed pyramid schemes which left investors destitute and on the edge of open rebellion.

Members of the ruling Democratic Party are said to have been implicated in drug trafficking, illegal arms sales, sanctions-breaking and profiteering during the war in Bosnia. The May elections were rigged and drug transportation from Macedonia and Greece into Italy is allegedly organised by Shik, Albania's state security police, with the collusion or involvement of ministers.

However, Albanians remained tolerant of these excesses until the collapse of the private savings schemes, in which at least US$1 billion was lost. Isolated from the outside world by a hardline dictatorship until 1990, they have seen little in the way of improvement to their lives, and have limited knowledge of the crucial link between genuine democracy and the market economy.

Although accustomed to deprivation and regimentation, their hope was that the change to a capitalist system might better their lot. Certainly, unrealistic expectations undoubtedly fuelled the popularity of the investment schemes, which offered ludicrously high rates of return.

Nations which emerge after generations of oppression tend to regard the market economy as a cure-all. They look to the developed world and see living standards which they expect will follow automatically. They are unprepared for the long struggle involved in rebuilding reserves, or the need to transform inefficient industries into productive units before that can be done. This makes them easy prey to get-rich-quick schemes. When these fail, they look back wistfully to a state system offering cradle-to-grave care, forgetting that it was this which collapsed under its own weight.

Albania's crisis has been brought about by the excesses of its government. But it can only be solved with outside help, which must come quickly unless the troubles are to spread elsewhere. Even if stability is restored, it may be years before the country finally prospers.