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Who’s defending Albania with its army gone?

April 19, 1997

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ The barracks on the outskirts of Tirana radiate neglect and poverty but the sign above the rusty gates proudly proclaims: ``We are the commandos.″

So _ where ARE the commandos?

``We’ve sent them home,″ Maj. Alexander Culli says shamefacedly while filling in on guard duty for the absent soldiers. ``We don’t have money to pay them, nor enough uniforms to dress them.″

When Albanians outraged at losing their life savings in failed investment schemes began raiding army depots in February, the troops fled. Many even joined rebels opposed to President Sali Berisha, their commander in chief.

Now, almost two months after the first barracks emptied, many remain that way. And the interim government is faced with two daunting tasks _ rebuilding an army with no money and giving it a sense of purpose to prevent it from falling apart again.

The scene at Zal Her base, home to what was once Albania’s most elite commando unit, is a reflection of the army’s catastrophic state.

A recent visit, following a much-touted ceremony that supposedly re-launched base operations, revealed that the enlisted men state television had shown on parade had been sent home for lack of funds.

Buildings badly need painting and some windows lack glass. A rutted dirt track serves as the main road. Some of the officers hang around with no sense of purpose.

``Here I am, a major, forced to do doorman duty,″ groused Culli, clutching a Soviet-model submachine gun.

Officials speak of the need for reform. But government coffers are empty, and the army _ like most other institutions _ is reduced to taking handouts to survive.

Indirectly acknowledging that Albania cannot protect itself, the government recently asked European Union observers to patrol its borders.

Just as damaging as the shortage of funds is the erosion of purpose in the armed forces.

Indoctrinated during half a century of Stalinist rule to see enemies in all of Albania’s neighbors, the armed forces were forced to do an about-face after communism collapsed. By 1992, army leaders were preaching democracy. By 1994, Albania had joined the Partnership for Peace, the waiting room for former communist countries aspiring to NATO membership.

But though Marxists and their doctrines were purged after communism’s collapse, the troops were given no new values to defend. And nothing prepared them for the bitter political divisions that now threaten to tear their country apart.

Like Albanians in general, officers and soldiers have been split in their loyalties to Berisha, who has preached democracy but practiced repression and tolerated corruption.

His former defense minister, Safet Zhulali, hopped a refugee boat for Italy in February, leaving behind growing insurrection and charges he had been running guns to Yugoslavia.

``There were many negative factors in society, and these were reflected in the army,″ explains retired Maj. Gen. Perlat Sula, who resigned in 1995 because of differences over the direction and pace of army reform. ``There was corruption, political one-upsmanship, huge gaps between theory and practice and abandoning traditions before establishing new ones.″

How best to rehabilitate Albania’s armed forces?

Artan Koka, who deserted in February after his Vlora-area barracks were looted and now spends his days throwing sticks of army-issued dynamite into the sea to catch fish, has an answer.

``If I were to start restructuring the army, the first thing I would do is raise the wages, so at least they could afford cigarettes for a month,″ he said.

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