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Albanian uses chaos to cling to power

Employing survival tactics straight out of a Marxist-Leninist script, President Sali Berisha appears to have deliberately created armed chaos in the capital to defend himself against a popular rebellion that threatened to engulf him.

So far, at great cost to his country, this strategy has worked. Berisha, a former Communist, has kept the reins of the powerful secret police and state media. And he has defiantly blocked the small attempts of the new interim government, which contains members of the opposition, to assert some control.

As a Western diplomat put it, "People I'd spoken to have never seen a revolution like this where _ on cue _ the warehouses of weapons are opened, the police disappear and then suddenly reappear. No government buildings were attacked, the television station was not touched."

Such institutions could easily have been taken, he said, had the shooting in the capital been part of a real revolt.

Enver Hoxha, Albania's Communist dictator for 40 years, would have been proud of Berisha, the diplomat said. "This is not normal behavior where you burn your country in order to stay in power," he said.

Popular anger over failed investment schemes boiled over into open rebellion recently in southern Albania. Analyzing the country's descent into anarchy since then, Albanian analysts and foreign diplomats believe that when Berisha saw the insurgencies wresting control from him and his Democratic Party, he reacted by arming his own loyalists and local thugs.

The weapons depot in his hometown of Tropoje in the far north was opened. Then the military academy and other weapons depots in Tirana were surrounded by officers of the secret police and the firearms were distributed.

In Shkoder, a major northern town, a similar pattern developed, with looting led by Berisha sympathizers. On the outskirts of Tirana a university library with a prized collection of 150,000 books was burned, apparently by people from Berisha's region, judging by the crude graffiti they left behind.

For some hours last weekend it looked as though Berisha might step down. Among the flood of rumors were several that he was "vacillating" over whether to resign. According to another report he telephoned the new prime minister, Bashkim Fino of the Socialist Party, and ordered him to the presidential offices to inform him of his imminent departure, only to change his mind once Fino arrived.

But Berisha, long reputed to be a shrewd inside fighter who can adopt a threatening demeanor, toughed it out. During the visit of a European Union delegation early last week he appeared on television, calm and poised, in the red brocade presidential reception room.

The signs of Berisha's resurgence amid chaos abound.

The man he handpicked to lead the secret police, Bashkim Gazidede, remains in place, even though Fino said last week that Gazidede had resigned. It turned out that the only post relinquished by Gazidede, a former teacher from Berisha's northern province, was a temporary one: manager of the state of emergency imposed nearly three weeks ago.

Many of the so-called volunteers armed the week before last to quell the manufactured disorder in the capital were actually members of the secret police or recruits of the Interior Ministry, which Berisha still controls, a Western military expert said. Riding about in rusted tanks, manning improvised checkpoints and shooting at night, these vigilantes have created a false calm.

The new finance minister, Arben Malaj of the Socialist Party, who is regarded favorably by Western diplomats, said in an interview that he had refused requests from the Department of Public Order to approve financing for what he called "illegal" law-enforcement squads.

"The government will not share the country with illegal structures," Malaj said, alluding to the vigilantes.

Berisha may well hang onto power for weeks or months, managing to delay elections he has agreed to hold by June with the excuse that the country is too unstable to go to the polls. But the European Union officials who were in Tirana assessing the need for humanitarian aid say that if the anarchy persists, Albania may receive a dollop or two of assistance, but no more.

Malaj said last week that he understood the Europeans' wariness. So did Fatos Lubonja, a leader of the Forum for Democracy, an opposition group that said it would not join the coalition government while Berisha remained president.

"It's like the end of a film _ the film can't finish until the bad guy is dead," Lubonja said in an interview, speaking figuratively.