Sali Berisha is the current Prime Minister of Albania. A controversial figure, Berisha was at times fêted as the country's first non-communist president, as a reformer who liberalised the economy and reformed Albania's institutions in the early 1990s. He has also been accused of authoritarianism, of electoral irregularities, and of instigating violence in an attempt to maintain his party's grip on power in the 1990s.
Berisha was born in Albania's mountainous north-east in 1944. He became a member of the Albanian Communist party in 1971, but devoted his attention to science rather than politics, becoming a professor of cardiology at the University of Tirana. Following Enver Hoxha's death in 1985, Berisha and others in Albania observed Eastern European countries gradually emerging from Communism, and they became more active in their calls for change. In December 1990 the Albanian government gave in to mounting pressure, which at times spilled over in violent protests, and agreed to a multiparty system. Berisha emerged as the leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP). Parliamentary elections in March 1992 saw the DP win 62% of the popular vote. Ramiz Alia, Hoxha's successor, stepped down from his position as President and was succeeded by Sali Berisha.
As president from 1992 to 1997, Berisha presided over Albania's transition from a communist state to a market economy. Berisha's attempts to strengthen the powers of the presidency and to exclude members of the old regime from running in parliamentary elections in 1996 brought allegations of authoritarianism. The DP won the elections, but faced criticism for manipulation and repression of peaceful protests.
When the pyramid schemes collapsed in 1997, many accused the government of having stolen their money. The total investment lost, estimated in the region of $1.2 billion, represented a significant portion of an impoverished country's savings. Violent riots broke out, with the southern city of Vlora at the heart of the unrest. Berisha lost control over his own country:
"By March 1997 the situation had become untenable. Rebels had stormed arms depots and were in control of a number of cities. According to an IMF estimate roughly 2000 people were killed in the conflict. Berisha dissolved his own government and declared a state of emergency. The government declared a 'General State of Emergency' on 3 March (1997), which was done within the framework of communist-period legislation designed to mobilise the country against foreign military attack. The Emergency Laws gave the government draconian powers to rule by decree, and to use the army against internal opposition. There was to be complete government control of the media.
The Albanian Question: Reshaping the Balkans Miranda Vickers &James Pettifer, 2007, p.19
Berisha attempted to stay in power, but finally resigned after the DP lost parliamentary elections in July 1997.
In the autumn of 1998 Berisha was accused of attempting a coup, following the assassination of the DP politician Azem Hadjari and resultant protests by his supporters,. The Socialist controlled parliament voted to lift his immunity in preparation for his arrest and prosecution. Attempting to restore calm to a country in turmoil, the international community advised against Berisha's arrest.
Sali Berisha with Nato general secretary Hoop Scheffer
The Democratic Party emerged as the winners of the elections on July 3 2005, taking 74 of 140 seats. Berisha became Prime Minister in September of that year, with an ambitious government programme, and the pledge to promote Albania's bid for NATO and EU membership. The first objective was successfully achieved in April 2008 when Albanian was accepted as a NATO member. Berisha told NATO leaders;. "For me this is a miracle! This is a miracle of freedoms."