The election of Sali Berisha (born 1944), the leader of the Democratic Party, as president of the Republic of Albania in April 1992 marked a stage in the country's transition from communism to political democracy. Berisha was involved in a series of scandals which led to his electoral defeat in 1997.
Sali Berisha was born on July 1, 1944, into a poor peasant family from the Tropoja district of northern Albania. After completing his education in local schools, he was admitted to the medical faculty of the University of Tirana, where he received his degree in 1967 "with honors." Following graduation he specialized in cardiology and was subsequently appointed as an assistant professor of medicine at the university and as staff cardiologist at the Tirana General Hospital.
Although Berisha, like many other Albanian intellectuals and professionals, was viewed with suspicion by the regime of the Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, he was nevertheless admitted to membership in the Albanian Party of Labor (Communist) in 1971. That same year he married Liri Rama, a pediatrician, and the couple eventually had two children, a daughter, Argita, and a son, Shkelzen.
During the 1970s Berisha gained distinction as the leading researcher in the field of cardiology in Albania and became professor of cardiology at the University of Tirana. In 1978 he received a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fellowship for nine months of advanced study and training in Paris. Upon his return to Albania Berisha initiated a research program in hemodynamics that attracted considerable attention among his colleagues in Europe. He was selected in 1986 as a member of the European Committee for Research in the Medical Sciences, headquartered in Copenhagen. As Berisha's international reputation grew, he was invited to share the results of his research in European medical journals.
With the death in 1985 of Enver Hoxha, the long-time (1944-1985) Albanian dictator, Berisha hoped that the country's new leader, Ramiz Alia, would repudiate his predecessor's hard-line Stalinist policies and encourage change. But Berisha, along with a growing number of Albanian intellectuals, students, and young workers, was disappointed when these expectations were not realized. By 1989, as the countries of Eastern Europe began to abandon communism, Berisha and other advocates of reform became more outspoken in their calls for change in Albania. In an October 1989 interview with the Albanian Television Service, Berisha urged the regime to initiate a broad program of liberalization. The Albanian authorities, however, refused to permit the taped interview to be aired. When the Albanian government, responding to popular pressure, promulgated a series of economic and legal reforms in early 1990, Berisha applauded the initiative but urged the regime to expand the scope of these reforms to include the establishment of a market economy and a multiparty democratic political system.
By the beginning of 1990 Berisha had emerged as one of the most respected spokespersons for the reform movement in Albania. In an interview published in the newspaper Drita on May 20, 1990, Berisha demanded that the remaining barriers to freedom of thought and expression be ended, that Albanians be granted the right to travel freely within the country and abroad, and that Albania abandon its isolationist foreign policy. At a July 1990 meeting of the nation's intellectuals convened by President Ramiz Alia, Berisha urged the Albanian Party of Labor (APL) to surrender its political monopoly, sanction the drafting of a new democratic constitution, and remove all monuments to Stalin in the country. In an article published in the newspaper Bashkimi, Berisha condemned what he termed the "cosmetic reforms" of the Alia regime, which he charged had only served to aggravate unrest within the nation. Without political pluralism, he argued, there could be no true democracy in Albania. To underscore his break with Alia and the Communists, Berisha resigned from the APL at this time.
In December 1990, following a series of student demonstrations and outbreaks of violence that had forced the government to approve the establishment of a multiparty system, Berisha emerged as the leader of the Democratic Party (DP), the first and largest of the new opposition parties. He was formally elected DP chairman in February 1991 at the party's first national congress.
Although the DP was unable to match the organizational and financial resources of the APL, in the March 1991 parliamentary elections, it won 39 percent of the popular vote and emerged as the main opposition party in the National Assembly. When the newly elected APL government, however, was unable to govern the country following the outbreak of a general strike called by noncommunist trade unions, the DP agreed to participate in a coalition government mandated to address the nation's economic problems and make arrangements for a new election. By December 1991 Berisha and the DP had become sufficiently alarmed by the continued deterioration of the economy, breakdown of law and order, and reports of official corruption to withdraw from the ruling coalition and request new elections.
The March 1992 parliamentary elections resulted in a dramatic reversal of the results of the previous year, with the Democratic Party winning 62 percent of the popular vote and 92 of the 140 seats in the National Assembly. Following the resignation of President Alia, the DP-dominated National Assembly on April 8, 1992, elected Sali Berisha to the position. As the first noncommunist head of state, Berisha's election represented the first stage in Albania's transition from communism to democracy.
Upon assuming office, Berisha announced that the major goals of his government were to restore law and order, privatize and revitalize the economy, and strengthen Albania's external ties—especially with Western Europe and the United States. During the first two years of his presidency, Berisha could claim some notable successes in realizing his objectives. There was a significant decline in the nation's crime rate. After disastrous falls in production during 1991 and 1992, the country's gross national product rose by 8 percent in 1993. Additionally, by 1994 the country's runaway inflation rate and government budgetary deficits had been curbed while the private sector of the economy continued to grow. Albania had succeeded in ending its diplomatic isolation and expanded its relations with the European Union, the United States, and various international organizations and agencies. In 1994 Berisha was clearly the most popular and influential political personality in Albania.
Berisha's popularity, however, was short-lived. By October of 1995 he and his administration had endured harsh criticism for supporting legislation to exclude members of the old regime from participating as candidates in the 1996 parliamentary elections. Following the 1996 elections President Berisha was blamed for a series of pyramid schemes, the most notorious of which was known as the Gjallica pyramid scam. Albanians feared as much as $2 billion dollars may have been invested in the phony schemes. The public outcry soon escalated into rioting as Berisha's already waning support continued to erode.
The year 1997 was marred by increasing civil unrest in the country. Berisha lost favor with prominent nations and eventually dissolved his own government in March of 1997. He then attempted to establish a coup with himself in effect a dictator. The citizens responded with increased rioting. This general deterioration of the political climate kept Albania on the verge of civil war until parliamentary elections in June of 1997 resulted in a defeat for Berisha and his Democratic Party.
A brief biographical sketch of Berisha appears in the publication Democratic Party of Albania (1992). Useful accounts of political developments in Albania during the transition from communism to democracy appear in Elez Biberaj, "Albania," in Eastern Europe in Revolution (1992), and in Nicholas Pano, "Albania," in The Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century (1992). For an account of more recent developments in Albania under Berisha, see Elez Biberaj, "Albania's Road to Democracy," Current History (November 1993). Berisha's presidential activities are chronicled in the Albanian press and the daily News Bulletin of the Albanian Telegraphic Agency.
Economist (October 7, 1995).
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (February 5, 1997).
MacLean's (March 10, 1997).
National Review (April 7, 1997).
Newsweek (March 24, 1997).
Time (March 17, 1997). □