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Balkans troubled by 'economic desperation'

Albanians In this story:

January 31, 1997
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EST (0000 GMT)

From Correspondent Richard Blystone

LONDON (CNN) -- Rampaging Albanians blame their anti- Communist but authoritarian government for a giant swindle that some say has hit every family in the country.

Marching Serbs keep up the pressure on a government of ex-communists who, when opposition parties won elections, did what came naturally -- it reversed them.

And striking Bulgarians, who've had both anti-Communists and ex-communists in power, say both share the same old thinking that's brought ruin on their country.

Three different scenes, one common factor.

Yugoslavia protest

"There is economic desperation in all these countries," says Martin Rady, a professor with the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

"Albania probably has the worst standard of living and the worst incomes in the entirety of Europe. In Bulgaria, you have a constitutional crisis coming on top of an economic slump of the worst possible proportions. In Serbia, we're dealing with a country that is still under what is called the 'outer wall' of sanctions where economic recovery just hasn't taken place."

Former Soviet bloc dependent on international aid

When protesters in Eastern Europe took to the streets in 1989, they never knew when they might overstep some line and be beaten or mown down.

Today's demonstrators can feel safer. Their governments are mindful of international aid, and have to restrain themselves. And they will, so long as they feel they still have something to lose.

But 1989 was not like the start of a horse race, where everyone got an even chance when the bar went up

Bulgaria protest

Albania, authoritarian in the extreme, had isolated itself from the rest of the world. Fear in Romania was an epidemic disease. Hungary and Poland retained only vestiges of their prewar sophistication and prosperity.

It was Yugoslavia that everyone envied. Marshal Tito had welded its disparate groups into a nation, pulling the country out of the Soviet orbit and made it into a wealthy, progressive bridge to the West.

"Yugoslavia had the best standard of living and the most sophisticated market economy," says Martin Rady. "It had a civil society, free associations and organizations operating, and it had an intelligentsia."

Yugoslavia has lost its economic luster

But what once looked like a front-runner is now running near the back of the pack. While ex-communists in Yugoslavia struggle to stifle democracy, other countries are returning to the democracy and free market systems they had enjoyed before the USSR suffocated them with communism for over four decades -- and they are regaining their prosperity.

Hungarian capitalism

The Czech Republic and Slovenia have higher credit ratings than Greece. Post-communist Hungary has had five times more outside investment than Bulgaria and Romania combined.

Given these choices, then, who would invest in Albania, where gangs and tribal law often have the final say? And with no visionary strongman to hold it together, who wants to invest in a Yugoslavia that has fragmented back into its quarrelsome component parts?

But the isolation of an Albania and the disintegration of Yugoslavia cause a dangerous fissure that widens throughout the old communist bloc.

Michael Williams is a senior Balkans analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "There has to be some sort of overall Western policy of assistance to these countries," he says. "Otherwise they're going forever to be a pool of instability in Europe."

To fail to do so is to invite visions of a poor, polluted, trash-strewn Continental back-lot that does little but export illegal migrants and invite aggression. It would start the next century with a disturbing similarity to the start of this one.


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