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Albania's Rumblings May Shake Kosovo

This week's near coup, not yet quelled, shows popular support for Kosovars that could trigger intervention.

To some, Azem Hajdari was a symbol of democracy, an Albanian patriot who championed the cause of his ethnic brethren in Kosovo. To others he was a troublemaker who bullied his way to the heights of political power, making enemies on the way.

Regardless, his murder has touched off a new round of violence in Europe's poorest country, where thousands of people took to the streets this week and threatened to topple the government of Prime Minister Fatos Nano.

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European officials in Tirana warn that the Hajdari killing and its aftermath could fuel the war in neighboring Yugoslavia's province of Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian majority is fighting for independence from Serbia. Officials are also bracing for the kind of civil unrest that last year left Albania in a virtual state of anarchy.

Waving machine guns and calling for revenge, supporters of Mr. Hajdari's Democratic Party fired on the main government building and even commandeered two tanks. Police returned fire.

Hajdari, a former student leader, was shot in front of his party's headquarters Sept. 12. Police have suspended their investigation while the government struggles to reestablish itself.

Hajdari was from northern Albania, where the guerrilla fighters from Kosovo have their base. He and his political mentor, former Albanian President Sali Berisha, had openly supported the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Mr. Berisha has used Kosovo to help fuel his political comeback, playing on Albanian nationalism and a deep-seated hatred of Serbs. After this week's events, he appears to be a real threat to Mr. Nano.

International diplomats have been urging Albanian leaders to lay off the sensitive topic of Kosovo. But, they say, a Berisha coup could lead to direct Albanian involvement in Kosovo.

"Berisha was the first major figure to support the KLA," says Dan Everts, the senior representative in Albania for the Operation for Security and Cooperation In Europe. "Nano has urged restraint. We worry about vengeful action in Kosovo."

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Kosovo is foremost in the minds of many Albanians. Tirana teems with refugees from Kosovo and young men can be seen wearing KLA patches. Some people here say Albania's current unrest was provoked by the Serbs to divert world attention from Kosovo.

While Albanians took to the streets this week, the Serbian forces in Kosovo continued a two-month-old offensive. They also deported thousands of ethnic Albanians who had sought refuge in Montenegro, the smaller of the two remaining Yugoslav republics.

In Albania, Nano appears to have survived the Berisha onslaught for now. His government is likely to charge Berisha with inciting the uprising, but some members fear that taking Berisha could set off more violence.

THE troubles in Albania are deep-rooted, buried beneath decades of Enver Hoxha's isolationist Communist rule. Democracy is still a new concept in Albania, with voters making their decisions based on personalities.

"The whole political class operates with passion and a revenge mentality," says Spartak Ndjela, a former justice minister now a member of parliament. "Albanians are not able to understand the repercussions of taking up arms against the state."

Berisha rose to power with US support after communism's collapse. But he was widely blamed for allowing several pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians lost their savings. After the collapse of the schemes last year, people took to the streets, looting police arms stocks and making rule of law almost nonexistent for more than two months. Many of those weapons filtered into Kosovo and would later fuel the KLA.

After Berisha fell, Nano's Socialist Party won control. But soon after, Nano began a Communist-style consolidation of power, culminating a month ago with the arrests of six opposition politicians.

Now, the streets are flooded with guns, and political divisions are widening.

"Azem Hajdari was a symbol of democracy and I'm sure the government killed him," says Arjan Verzivolli, a restaurant owner. "First we have to fight to get Nano out of power, then we will fight for Kosovo."

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