Albanian Students Challenged Communism, 20 Years Ago

12/09/2010 03:58 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2014

Twenty years ago this week, student protests in Albania helped topple Eastern Europe's most closed and rigid communist regime. Four days of demonstrations culminated in the legalization of political parties on December 11, 1990.

This chapter on the student movement comes from a forthcoming book on the fall of communism in Albania, to be published by New York University Press.

By Fred Abrahams

The student quarter of Tirana, called Student City, sits atop a low hill in the southeast of the city. In 1990, the squat beige and gray dormitories surrounded an open area of broken concrete and trampled grass. The communist-era elite controlled most aspects of Albania's political shift but that autumn the students briefly took charge of that drab hilltop and rattled the regime.

The ferment began when the university postponed the start of classes for two weeks. The government claimed some buildings needed repair, but the students smelled deceit. The French and Italian embassies lay a short walk from Student City. The government probably feared another embassy siege.

When classes began, party functionaries condemned "the vagabonds" who had stormed the embassies in July and urged students to respect the law. The Party of Labor was becoming democratic, they said. Albanians themselves would dictate the pace of change. The students rejected the claims. When the Minister of Interior visited the Academy of Arts, he faced sharp questions about free speech and the ban on modern art.

The students were losing their patience. For one year they had watched the dramatic changes in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and even Romania, hoping [party leader] Ramiz Alia would follow that path. Instead, every move was mixed. Alia allowed the issuance of passports but soldiers shot those attempting to flee across the border. Previously taboo topics appeared in the state press but Alia demanded respect for the party line.

Albanian students burn portraits of communist
leaders in February 1991 (c) Gani Xhengo

Many of the students came from other cities, including Shkoder and Kavaja. They had watched the first protests in those cities and brought that energy to Tirana. Like the rest of Eastern Europe, they thought Albania had to change.

As winter neared, the students grew cold and upset. Enver Hoxha University and Student City suffered from broken windows, no heat, sporadic water, and electricity cuts, made worse that year by a drought that slowed the turbines. In mid-October, some students refused to eat the deplorable food at the cafeteria. Two days later, someone taped a hand-written appeal to the wall: "The food is bad! Do you agree?" It represented a minor protest for most universities, but a significant step in a place so closed and afraid. A group of students and young professors developed what they called the Organization of Students and Young Intellectuals. It had begun cautiously the previous spring to discuss the difficult living conditions and political reform. Abstract goals emerged, such as "change," "freedom" and "democracy."

Some of the students cherished these political goals but many dreamed of blue jeans, rock music and travel abroad. Even those with blue jeans and digital watches could not flout them in a public way without punishment. "Our inspiration was not political but personal," explained Blendi Gonxhe, a student activist from that time.

In November some of the faculties wrote letters to Ramiz Alia and the government, asking for reform. The communist youth organization from the mechanical engineering faculty requested a meeting with Prime Minister Çarçani and complained about economic conditions at the university. "You can't make a new coat with old cloth," the letter said.

"The idea was not to go against but to be different," one of the letter's co-authors, Pandeli Majko, explained to me in 2005 from his office as Minister of Defense.

Shivering and mad, the electrical engineering students built heating coils out of bedsprings to warm their rooms. The devices strained the transformer that supplied the dormitories; the transformer frequently blew and the lights went out. In the cover of darkness, voices sprang from the balconies: "Freedom!" "We Want Democracy!" Students banged on the heating pipes. Music students answered from other dormitories with a chorus of horns.

* * *

In Tirana, it rained on Saturday, December 8. Around 3:00 p.m., Prime Minister Çarçani came to Student City unannounced while the students sat in class, together with the ministers of education and construction, allegedly to inspect the renovated buildings. "We had to be careful that conditions were not a reason for revolt," then-Minister of Education Skënder Gjinushi told me, when reflecting on that day.

The students wanted to meet the prime minister, and 400 of them gathered in a hall to present their views. They spoke respectfully to Çarçani but asked for better conditions. When the three officials left, they understood that "something was burning," Gjinushi said.

That night around 8:00 p.m., the lights went out--again. A small group of mostly engineering students gathered at the transformer to complain. Together they chanted and sang an old patriotic song, "Eja mblidhuni këtu, këtu..."--"Come and gather here, here..."

Years later, it remains unclear why the lights went out. Some former students say they died from excessive demand, as happened many nights. Others say students threw a cable or metal coil into the transformer, eager to blow the lights and draw a crowd. Maybe foreign governments encouraged some students to sabotage the lights and start a revolt, as they had pushed people to enter the embassies five months before. Yet others believe the Albanian government had a hand, sending agents to provoke a crowd that it could then control.

A reconstruction of events suggests that all these theories have their place. Without doubt, the students were ready to move. Some of the protesters that night believed in pushing change, and they used the darkness to incite. It is also likely that western governments encouraged the students to revolt. While none of the former student leaders I interviewed provided facts, and they all denied having contact themselves, many admitted that various secret services were active in Albania during those days. In addition, the Albanian government probably placed trusted students among the group to steer events in a direction it liked. And many of these plots melted and merged over time. Power corrupted honest students. Government plants turned against their masters. There were games and double-games as people aligned and realigned themselves in a chaotic and fast-changing scene.

Regardless of the blackout's cause, between fifty and one hundred chanting students drifted towards the open space in the center of Student City. The other dormitories had lights, and the group called on supporters to extinguish them in solidarity. "Every light out was a great joy," said one of the student leaders, Arben Lika, as he walked me down the route taken that night, recalling the event with pride.

The students walked past building 14 and there, standing on a low concrete bench, stood a husky young man with wavy brown hair and a shiny black leather jacket, exhorting the students to march. The students thought he was a government provocateur, but then they heard him speak. "I have two children," the man yelled. "But I swear I am with you!"

The man was Azem Hajdari, a twenty-seven-year-old philosophy student from Tropoja in the North, who would soon become the most powerful student leader and eventually the head of Albania's first opposition party. A courageous hero to his fans, a thuggish spy to his detractors, he played an important and controversial role until his assassination in 1998.

Gaining size and momentum, Azem Hajdari and the protesters rolled downhill. They lacked strength to leave Student City, so they veered left towards the women's dormitories, where they called to friends and girlfriends, urging them to join. A few came down in their pajamas, and the growing mass rumbled on.

At the same time, Central Committee member Piro Kondi telephoned Minister of Education Gjinushi to inform him of events. "They're fighting up there," Kondi said. Gjinushi called the university rector, and the two men drove to Student City, arriving as the students were leaving the area, heading into town.

"The students did not like the lights," recalled Gjinushi, another man who has played a continuous role in Albania's political life. "They feared the Sigurimi was filming."

On Budi Street below Student City, the protesters met a cordon of police, commanded personally by Minister of the Interior Hekuran Isai. The students braced for violence but Isai gave unexpected news. "Get fifteen people to go to the university," he said. Ramiz Alia was ready to talk. The students were surprised and suspicious, expecting to be arrested. But they organized a delegation and went to the university's main administration building, for what they did not know.

Tirana party head Xhelil Gjoni, a stern man with a reputation for strict views, entered the classroom first. "So boys," he said sarcastically, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. "You want to postpone your exams?"

Alia arrived shortly thereafter and walked to the podium. "You're young, good-looking boys," he said with a tired smile. "Why do you wake an old man like me?" He asked their names, home towns and areas of study.

The students complained that the prime minister had fooled them by coming to Student City while they sat in class. They protested about conditions in Student City: the black outs and terrible food. They faltered and got confused, but who would not when facing two of Albania's most powerful men in the middle of the night?

When I interviewed Alia in 2002, he remembered the evening well.

"They told me they had economic concerns," he said. "I asked them, or better said, when I told them: listen, the problem you have, why do you have the [communist] youth organization? Discuss it with them. A few of them said, 'We don't trust that organization. We want to create our own independent organization.' After my intervention, they presented this issue. It was clear that it was a political rather than economic problem."

Alia agreed that he would meet the students again to discuss their complaints, but only if they calmed the crowd at Student City and returned to class. He promised they would not be harmed.

The delegation returned to Budi Street around 2:00 a.m. to relay the news. Then the police intervened.

"They took my pistol!" a policeman screamed, and his colleagues attacked with bamboo sticks. The students ran in all directions, dodging blows and retreating uphill to the dormitories. The police badly wounded one girl and rumor spread that she had died. The police claimed they had reacted when a student grabbed a policeman's gun. The students denied that any of them had touched the police.

"It was terrible," the former student leader Arben Lika recalled almost twelve years later, as he stood on the spot of the beating, next to a restaurant called Made in Italy. "[Minister of the Interior] Isai was there. He said, 'beat the hell out of them.'"

Hekeran Isai declined to be interviewed for this book but Ramiz Alia remembered the incident too.

"After the meeting with me, I went home and I didn't know what happened," he said. "The next day, I learned there had been an incident between the students and the police. Allegedly it was a banal incident--an officer said the students had grabbed his gun and the police attacked to get it back, and they beat three or four students with batons. That is what they told me."

Alia's senior advisor Sofokli Lazri was equally dismissive but more honest about the government's intent. "It was just a light message," he told me with a wave of the hand.

Ramiz Alia, left, with his predecessor Enver Hoxha, center, on May 1, 1983. Hoxha ruled Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. (c) ATA

* * *

That same night, a group of art students protested in a different way. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of John Lennon's death, some students and professors gathered at the Academy of Arts. Lyrics from Lennon's forbidden songs adorned the auditorium walls. The group sang¬ -- Revolution, Working Class Hero, Imagine -- and then danced. Students turned portraits of Alia and Hoxha upside down or replaced them with photos of Lennon. Candles replaced the lights. A letter was written to Yoko Ono; some signed and others refused but without Ono's address it never got sent.

The memorial was coming to a close around 2:00 a.m. when word arrived of the demonstration in Student City. A small group walked uphill to check it out. At Budi Street they saw the students and Interior Minister Isai, who appeared to be talking with the crowd. "Then suddenly, the police struck," said one of the Lennon commemorators, the writer Ardian Klosi. "The crowd split. I ran."

* * *

It rained the morning of December 9, a make-up day of class, and students from Tirana came to Student City cold and wet. They saw students' muddy pants and shoes hanging from the balconies, some stained with blood from the previous night. No one had died but the police showed they would use force. For the students, the violence galvanized the cause. Change would not come from above, they realized. Alia could not be trusted to keep his word.

A group of twenty students met on the first floor of the cafeteria and formed an organizing commission. At 9:00 a.m., two of them met the head of the communist youth organization Lysien Bashkurti, on Bashkurti's request. At the lower part of Student City, Bashkurti told them that they had left Alia without sleep. He proposed the students form a commission, named as they wish, to become part of the communist youth. The students refused.

By 10:00 a.m., thousands of students had gathered at Student City's central space. Some had political aims but many were the children of party members who enjoyed proximity to power, if not power itself. They had the regime to thank for giving them books instead of ploughs, but they craved more. Amidst the confusion, someone proposed a protest in front of the university administration. The eager crowd marched, armed with hormones and high hopes.

The riot police blocked most of the roads from Student City and funneled the crowd down the larger Elbasan Street. A few blocks away, in front of the High School for Arts and next to the Museum of Marxism-Leninism, the riot police lay in wait, shields and batons in hand. A few thousand students pushed up against the demoralized police, swinging at students in the front row, trying to stop the flow.

The communist youth head Bashkurti tried to speak with the students from behind police lines, ensuring them the violence would stop. The students switched positions so the Sigurimi would have difficulty taking photos from the buildings nearby. They spoke about economic conditions and political demands as the crowd chanted in support: "We As All Europe!" "All Tirana Is With Us!"

Near the Italian embassy, behind police lines, three middle-aged friends observed the scene. One was a filmmaker, one a writer and one a doctor, Sali Berisha, who had written critical articles and spoken at the intellectuals' meeting with Alia that summer. He would soon play an important role.

Current Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha (c) Fred Abrahams

Just before 2:00 p.m., the cold, rain and fear had whittled the crowd to a few hundred. But the Sunday soccer match in the nearby stadium started at 2:30 p.m. The Ministry of Defense's team, Partizani, was playing Dinamo from the Ministry of the Interior. Fearful of the dangerous cocktail of students and football fans, the government decided the protest should end. The students in the front row heard the order on the police radio: "Disperse them with force!" The students bolted through a field next to the Italian embassy, muddy from the day's rain. They sprinted and jumped into apartment buildings, taken in by sympathetic residents. School books and shoes littered the sloppy field.

For the first time, the government acknowledged that the police had clashed with protesters. A brief report by the state news agency said that some students, angry over a power failure in Student City, had "tried to make use of this dissatisfaction for political goals." Under these circumstances, the report said, "the forces of order were compelled to intervene in order to disperse them." ["Students in Albania Clash with Police," Reuters, December 10, 1990.]

That night, rumors and confusion reigned: Alia is cracking down, the burly student Azem Hajdari has been killed, Alia is changing his mind, Hajdari is alive. At the same time, divisions began to emerge among the students. Some wanted to push the demand for pluralism, taking their protest to the Tirana streets. Others feared a confrontation and wanted to focus on economic complaints within the comfort of Student City.

* * *

After the police dispersed the students, Dr. Sali Berisha and one of his friends, the writer Besnik Mustafaj, walked uphill to Student City. The students they met were agitated and worried about their friends who had been beaten and detained by the police. According to Mustafaj, the two men offered their help. They made their way to the Tirana party headquarters, where Berisha knew the deputy head, to explain the situation and to plead on the students' behalf. Berisha spoke with the deputy minister of the interior, Mustafaj recalled, asking him to let the arrested students go.

The influential Tirana party head Xhelil Gjoni was in the building at the time. When he learned the two men were in the headquarters, he summoned them to his office, both Mustafaj and Gjoni told me. He then called Ramiz Alia to say he was sitting with the writer and doctor. "Let me speak with Sali," Alia replied.

After a brief conversation on the phone, Alia asked Berisha to come at once. Gjoni's car took Berisha and Mustafaj into the forbidden Block, and Berisha met Alia alone while Mustafaj waited outside.

"One night before, when I was with the students, I asked where they were from," Alia recalled for me twelve years later. "Two or three of them said from Tropoja -- Azem ¬and the others whose names I don't remember. I thought, because Sali is from Tropoja, it would be reasonable for this guy to transmit to the students a couple of words."

Sali Berisha refused to be interviewed for this book, but Alia presented his version of their conversation that night. "I told him that, when I had met the students the night before, we agreed that they would go to class and that I would come at 5:00 p.m.," Alia said. "I did not go, but the students are to blame because they did not keep their word." Alia said he told Berisha that he was willing to meet the students, but only if they returned to class. "Tell them this in my name," he said. "And when you're done, come back."

From Alia's perspective, Berisha was a trusted messenger. He had been head of the party at Tirana Hospital and was trusted enough to let study in France. An ambitious and accomplished cardiologist, he had cared for a senior Politburo member and applied to join Enver Hoxha's medical team. At the same time, Berisha was known for his critical views expressed in interviews and articles, in which he had praised Alia but called for further reform. He was the middle man Alia could use.

Berisha's reception at Student City was mixed. Many students appreciated his articles, but others suspected his motives, as they did the other party-bred intellectuals flocking to Student City. They knew him as a loyal party head at the hospital and a disciplinarian in the classroom, who reportedly forced male students to cut their long hair. He must be bringing the party word.

The students were debating their options when Berisha and Mustafaj arrived. After being blocked and beaten that morning, some of them wanted to storm Skanderbeg Square, expanding the revolt. Berisha and Mustafaj argued against leaving Student City, because it might provoke a bloody confrontation with the state. With violence, they said, Alia could reassert control.

While the students spoke, Mustafaj introduced Berisha to the energetic student Azem Hajdari, who had exhorted the students from the concrete bench in Student City the night before, and whom Mustafaj knew from their common Tropoja home. It was the first time Berisha and Hajdari met. They would play a complicated political game with one another for the next eight years. The three men retreated to the cafeteria basement for a quiet talk in an alcove, Mustafaj recalled, where Berisha asked Hajdari about the students' demands. We want better living conditions, Hajdari replied. "You don't start this by putting sugar in your tea," Berisha replied. "You should demand pluralism." The students should not leave Student City, Berisha urged, but put political pluralism atop the list.

Why Berisha told Hajdari to demand pluralism remains unclear. Berisha supporters present the doctor as a committed democrat, who wanted more than anyone to change the regime. Critics claim he was serving Alia, who wanted the students to push change that the party could control. The most likely scenario is Berisha played both cards. As the highly skilled politician he would soon become, he stayed close to both sides, reacting to subtle shifts.

When the three men returned upstairs, they found the students aggravated and confused. A few hundred had slipped out of Student City to protest in Skanderbeg Square. Hajdari tried to convince the remaining thousands that it was better to stay. The crowd booed and called him a traitor, while Berisha and Mustafaj watched from a corner in shock.

"You betrayed us!" someone yelled at Hajdari, pointing at Berisha and Mustafaj. "Those two were sent by Ramiz Alia to deceive us." [Besnik Mustafaj, Midis Krimeve dhe Mirazheve (Tiranë: Onufri, 1999), p. 57.]

Hajdari used a dramatic line he had yelled the night before. "We will all die together and we will not permit anyone to trick us," he proclaimed. "I will be the first to die." [Mustafaj, p. 56.]

Gradually Hajdari calmed the crowd. "This was one of the most delicate moments when everything was at risk of being destroyed," Mustafaj later wrote. [Mustafaj, pp. 56-57.]

Just after midnight, Berisha returned to Alia. "You cannot understand those people," Alia claimed Berisha said. "I did not get anywhere with them. If one said one thing, another said something else. If you agreed with one, another disagreed. I told them what you said, but they said they have no trust."

* * *

The next day, December 10, more students gathered in Student City's open space, soon named Democracy Square. For the first time someone brought a sound system. The space filled with music and words. Student leaders began to formulate a list of economic and political demands. They named an organizing committee with many of the individuals who had been active the previous two days: Azem Hajdari, Arben Lika, Tefalin Malshyti, Mimoza Zhamo and Shinasi Rama, who had slipped out with a small group the previous night to protest on Skanderbeg Square. With the exception of Zhamo, the only woman, all of the committee members came from the North. In part this reflected the southern leanings of the Party of Labor; Enver Hoxha had largely drawn political elites from his native South. But it also reflected the personalities of those involved. The brave and hardheaded highlanders from the North wanted to speak their minds.

The tall and wiry Shinasi Rama from Shkoder, 31 years old, held the hardest line, later calling for the students' "blood on the square" to see the revolution through. The son of a military officer, he later clashed with the intellectuals he thought were betraying the movement, especially Sali Berisha. "They are saw dust leaders," he told me in 2002 from his apartment in New York City. "They are all cut from the communist block."

At Student City, more students, professors and professionals appeared, some of them addressing the crowd, calling for pluralism and faster reform. Factory workers earning 500 leks per month, about 60 U.S. dollars, threatened to strike. By midday, Student City had spun out of control.

The students prepared a list of nine demands for Ramiz Alia, including acceleration of the reforms, political pluralism, punishment for the police who had beaten students, legalization of the Organization of Students and Young Intellectuals and a meeting with Alia. "We are supporters of the democratic reforms undertaken by President Ramiz Alia, and we are for their acceleration," point number one began, revealing the cautious approach. "This was and is the goal of our peaceful demonstration."

In the afternoon, Alia sent two officials to negotiate with the organizing committee: Minister of Education Skënder Gjinushi, the wily politician with thick, dark eyebrows, and Lysien Bashkurti, head of the communist youth. With them came Dr. Berisha. The negotiations continued through the afternoon in the director's office at Student City. Three other men from northern Albania also took part: Berisha's friend Besnik Mustafaj, editor of the communist youth newspaper Remzi Lani and a writer named Preç Zogaj. All of these men would remain active players in the years to come.

The meeting quickly grew chaotic and tense, six of the participants separately recalled, as the crowds chanted outside. Political pluralism stood atop the students' list, but they included better university conditions to keep the movement united. A key sticking point became the students' demand that Ramiz Alia come to Student City for negotiations. Alia could not negotiate while students were on the street, Gjinushi insisted -- any discussion had to be with a smaller group in a quiet place. Berisha and others suggested the students form a delegation to meet Alia. After lengthy debate, the students agreed, but with one symbolic condition: their delegation must meet Alia as president of the republic and not as first secretary of the Party of Labor.

Gjinushi demanded that the students return to class before meeting Alia, because Alia could not meet them under pressure. The students resisted, fearing they would lose momentum and legitimacy if the protest stopped. Berisha urged the students to return to class, participants in the discussion recalled. "Alia cannot trick you," he said. "You are here and you can always strike again."

"You're a dirty communist," Shinasi Rama yelled. "And a servant of the regime."

"Get out," others students screamed at the doctor.

Two of the non-student participants, Remzi Lani and Preç Zogaj, intervened. We don't agree with Berisha, they said, but he should be allowed to express his views. The students calmed down but insisted they would not stop their protest while meeting Alia. Gjinushi left to confer with Alia, believing his boss would refuse to meet unless the students returned to class. To his surprise, Alia agreed. The meeting was set for the next evening at the presidential palace, called Palace of the Brigades.

* * *

December 11 marked day four of the Student City revolt. Students, professors and workers took the microphone to demand political pluralism, economic reform, "Freedom and Democracy!" Students from other universities and citizens of Tirana came to show solidarity. The state media barely mentioned the news. Zëri i Popullit ran a three-paragraph story on the bottom of the front page that said the situation in Student City is "irregular" and the students had requested a meeting with President Alia.

Throughout the morning, the university faculties conducted Albania's first free election in more than fifty years. With secret votes, they chose three or four delegates from each faculty to meet Alia, mostly students but some young professors too. While the crowd chanted and rallied in Student City, the forty-five elected delegates assembled in the television room of Building 15 to strategize.

"So, you have chosen your side," an official of the communist youth told two of the delegates as they approached the building. "Well, good luck because they're going to use tanks."

At the meeting, the delegates realized the group was too big. Fifteen people volunteered to resign, bringing the group to thirty, among them five professors. At the same time, a high level party meeting was taking place. Aware of the inevitable, Alia had convened the Central Committee to discuss the central issue of political pluralism.

"I did not use the position of the president to issue a decree," Alia recalled. "I gathered the Central Committee and threw it out for discussion. Naturally I made my opinion known, but I did not impose it."
The hard-line members of the Central Committee opposed the idea, arguing that pluralism would threaten their power.

"Then what do you propose?" Alia asked.

The younger members agreed with Alia that the party had no choice.

"If we did not do it, there would have been blood up to the Central Committee," then-Central Committee member Dritëro Agolli told me.

With an open show of hands, the committee voted to allow the creation of independent political organizations. Only two members of the more than 100-person committee voted against. Hoxha's widow Nexhmije reluctantly agreed.

Alia was cleverly snatching victory from the students. They had started the protest, but he would take credit for allowing reform. As then-Minister of Education Skënder Gjinushi told me in 2003: "Once the Central Committee had decided, the [students'] meeting with Alia was in vain."

* * *

The government sent a white bus with red stripes to Student City around 5:50 p.m. The students feared arrest or worse so the government officials Gjinushi and Bashkurti also climbed aboard as a guarantee. "When we saw them smiling we knew everything was okay," one student said. Word had already spread about the Central Committee's momentous decision, but in the chaos no one knew if it was true.

Students surrounded the bus, touching its sides, as if wanting to lift it from the ground. From inside, one saw faces full of hope pressed against the glass. The crowd in Student City had swelled to 80,000 people. Music and speeches filled the air. It was rainy and muddy but nobody cared.

The students and professors arrived at the Palace of the Brigades at 6:00 p.m. They entered an elegant room with a red oriental carpet, white curtains and beige velvet drapes. Three rows of chairs were arranged at a slight curve across from a low wooden table with a glass top and two microphones. The students sat and, in a few minutes, Alia arrived, escorted by Gjinushi and Bashkurti. The Zëri i Rinisë editor Remzi Lani took a seat in the back. The students stood and applauded as Alia shook hands with those in the front row. He then sat at the low table with Gjinushi on his left and Bashkurti on his right. Two television cameras, one static and one roaming, recorded the event.

"Shall I talk a little, and after that you can speak," Alia said calmly, according to the recording.

Reading from hand-written notes on small pieces of paper, he presented that day's decision by the Central Committee. The committee had reached a number of decisions about the next party congress, the party platform and some dismissals from the Politburo, he said. It had also recommended that the Council of Ministers change the government. Then came the real news.

"The plenum expressed its opinion that it is for the good of the further democratization of life in the country and pluralism, the creation of independent political organizations in conformity with the laws in effect," Alia said.

The students and professors applauded cautiously, not knowing what to make of the radical news. Alia then explained for fifteen minutes in a gentle but determined tone.

"Everything should be solved with calm and understanding," he intoned. "The road to democracy is not a boulevard... It demands respect for friends and respect for the law. Otherwise it opens the possibility for anarchy, which is dangerous for everyone."

Albanian Party of Labor head and President Ramiz Alia, front and center, telling Albanian students about the legalization of political parties on December 11, 1990. (c) ATA

As he had argued many times before, Alia claimed Albania was a special case -- it had to proceed at its own speed. The "freedom and independence" of the country depended on it. "We must control our steps," he said. "Now I would like to hear from you."

The cunning Alia had played it well. Sensing the irreversible pressure from Student City, he had preempted the students. At the same time, his message was mixed. He had allowed the creation of "independent political organizations in conformity with the law," but had not specified what kind of organizations were allowed and according to what law. At the time, the constitution still declared the Party of Labor as the country's guiding force.

The delegation had difficulty articulating its views. Two of the students present went on to become prime ministers but on that day they and the others displayed understandable confusion and restraint.

One by one, most of them addressing Alia as "Comrade Ramiz" instead of "President Alia," they asked for clarification of the committee's decision. What exactly did it mean to allow the formation of "independent political organizations?"

Alia skirted the question, saying the decision allowed for the creation of "political subjects," as long as they respected the law.

"What about our party of youth?" the drama professor Arben Imami finally asked.

"It is not forbidden," Alia said. "No law forbids parties."

"Can we form a party?" Shinasi Rama pursued in a scratchy voice, broken from shouts in the square.

"Yes, with this law it's finished," Alia answered. "Send your program to the ministry of justice."

"What shall we say to the thousands of people waiting for us in Student City?" an incredulous Blendi Gonxhe inquired. "Do you call this pluralism or not? Is it true or not?"

"The decision of the Central Committee for this case will be applied." Alia said. "The constitution and laws do not forbid the application of what we have said here. We even allow the pluralism of parties."

"Can we call it a party," the engineering professor Arben Demeti asked.

"Yes, call it what you want," Alia said. "But respect the law and do not act against the interest of the people."

Confident the position was clear, the students broke into applause.

The rest of the three-hour meeting rambled through the prospects for economic reform and the need to proceed at a careful pace. Gjinushi and Bashkurti sat expressionless at Alia's side the entire time with their hands on their laps. The most heated moment came when the students demanded justice for the police beatings on December 8 and 9. Alia answered that the police had responded appropriately to an illegal gathering. "Those who don't respect the law, the law will punish," he said.

Throughout the meeting, Alia sat composed, articulate and polite. He had been tense before the meeting, but was clearly pleased with the way it had gone. When the meeting ended, many of the students surrounded him at the door, shaking his hand enthusiastically and thanking him for the chance to meet.

* * *

Back at Student City, the crowd continued to grow. The students from the Alia meeting were engulfed by a swarm of faces and hands. An Albanian flag without communist star fluttered over the crowd. The delegation played an audio recording of the meeting over the sound system. Some in the crowd complained that the delegation had been too soft.

The next day, Zëri i Popullit announced the momentous news on its front page, with a photo of Alia meeting the students. The lead article reported the Central Committee's historic decision to allow "independent political organizations in conformity with the law." The article below covered Alia's meeting with the students, saying the students had requested the "development of political pluralism and the formation of a party of students and young intellectuals." The large subheads made Alia's views, and fears, abundantly clear:

"The Road to Democracy is Not a Boulevard"

"Order, Tolerance and Culture are Needed"

"If You Don't Respect This, It Opens the Door for Anarchy."
["Comrade Alia Meets with Representatives of the Students," Zëri i Popullit, December 12, 1990.]