What's at stake?
Albania, Europe's poorest country and one of its smallest, has
descended into anarchy over the last two months. Popular outrage
against the government was ignited by the collapse of several shaky
pyramid schemes that bankrupted many Albanians. Like other turmoil
in Europe this century, the crisis might draw in the United States.
Here's the worry: The disorder could lead to uprisings by ethnic
Albanians in neighboring Serbia and Macedonia, where American
troops are stationed. Many people in Albania are very poor and may
decide to sell weapons they have looted from Army depots to these
Albanians outside of Albania in order to earn money for food.
Many nationalities live in this southeast portion of Europe
known as the Balkans. It has been referred to as the tinderbox of
Europe ever since the 19th century, when the Islamic Ottoman Empire
increasingly lost control of the region, and European nations began
to compete for influence. World War I was sparked in the Balkans.
Solving the Albanian crisis is seen as a test of Europe's ideal
of creating a peaceful continent of market democracies after the
end of the Soviet empire. The European Union's inability to end the
war in Bosnia, and America's role in finally forging a peace
accord, has put a spotlight on Europe's response to the current
In all post-communist Eastern European nations, the challenge
continues to build democracies and civil societies. For close to
two generations, Albania experienced Europe's most repressive,
isolationist Communist rule. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an
iron hand from the early 1940s until his death in 1985.
Albanians were ignorant of the outside world, denied the
practice of religion, and became accustomed to near-total
dependence on government. That legacy helps account for their
belief in the get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and the popular
outrage that followed the collapse of the schemes.
Who are the Albanians?
Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians, an Indo-European
people that settled in the Balkan peninsula from north of the
Danube during the first millennium BC. When the area was invaded by
migrating peoples such as the Slavs in the 5th and 6th centuries,
only the Illyrians in the south of the region - roughly modern
Albania - remained unconquered and unassimilated. Thus Albanians
are not considered Slavs, unlike most others in the Balkans.
Modern Albania is roughly divided between two ethnic-linguistic
groups, the Ghegs, who live north of the Shkumbin River, and the
Tosks in the south. The Tosk dialect is in official use.
Despite minor differences in appearance, dress, and culture,
both groups - representing 97 percent of the country - consider
But the north-south divide appears to be growing.
Former Communist dictator Hoxha was from the south, and it
remains a stronghold for the Socialists, many of whom are former
Communists. President Sali Berisha is from the north and has been
accused of giving northerners positions within his government at
the expense of southerners.
The south is primarily held by a loose coalition of rebel groups
that demand Mr. Berisha's resignation. Many observers say that the
mafia and the opposition Socialists comprise most of these rebels.
Most Albanians in the north still appear to support Berisha.
Why did they invest in pyramid schemes?
Fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes still nab the unwary in almost
any country. …