Albania's Troubled Democracy Critics Charge That the Ruling Democratic Party Is Slipping Back toward the Repressive and Arbitrary Policies of the Former Communist Party Leadership That It Replaced

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ALBANIA'S ruling Democratic Party is turning increasingly authoritarian, diplomats and Albanian critics say.

The criticisms come at a time when the Albanian government is hoping for approval of most-favored-nation trade status from the United States Senate.

Albanians overwhelmingly elected the Democratic Party (DP) last March, sweeping the ex-communist Socialist Party from power. But since then the DP has taken a number of undemocratic steps, critics charge.

* On Aug. 14, the Democrats purged six moderate leaders from their party, calling them "extreme leftists," "deviationists," and "traitors." The party may remove some of the dissidents from their parliamentary seats, although that is not legal under current Albanian law.

* The Socialist Party won a majority of seats in local elections July 26. But local officials have refused to distribute international food aid in some towns where the Socialist Party won, one European diplomat says.

* State enterprises and offices can now fire employees without cause or access to appeal. The government says it must be able to remove communists; opponents call the law arbitrary and undemocratic.

* Police have harassed members of the Socialist Party, arresting and then releasing them a few days later without charge.

Albanian President Sali Berisha strongly denies the charges of authoritarianism. President Berisha, a founder of the DP, says the country has made great strides toward democracy but must be given more time.

Berisha says his critics once "considered dictatorship as democracy," and now confuse democracy with dictatorship.

Albania was ruled for more than 40 years by the repressive regime of Communist Party leader Enver Hoxha. Student demonstrations in December 1990 and growing international pressure forced the Communist government to hold elections and begin the transition to a market economy. The former Communists won the 1991 parliamentary elections, but the political and economic situation deteriorated.

By March of this year, the DP swept 62 percent of the national vote in new parliamentary elections. Many Albanians hoped the DP would stabilize the country politically and revive the failing economy. The DP started companies in an effort to stimulate production.

But many Albanians resented the steep price hikes and voted for the opposition Socialist Party in the July local elections. The Socialists, made up of many former Communists, maintain that they have become a "European social democratic party. …