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1997 Albanian civil unrest

Evacuation of the United States citizens during Operation Silver Wake
Date16 January – 11 August 1997
(6 months, 3 weeks and 5 days)
Result New parliamentary elections[1]


  • Armed civilians who lost their properties
  • Armed Gangs
  • Albanian Army defectors
  • Salvation Committees


United Nations UNSC missions

Commanders and leaders

Albania Sali Berisha (President)
Albania Bashkim Gazidede
Albania (SHIK) Safet Zhulali
Albania Gazmend Braka

Austria Thomas Klestil
France Jacques Chirac
Germany Helmut Kohl
Greece Costas Simitis
Italy Oscar Luigi Scalfaro
Romania Emil Constantinescu
Spain José María Aznar
Turkey Süleyman Demirel
United States Bill Clinton
Unknown 30,000 soldiers
7,000+ peacekeepers
Casualties and losses
2,000[2]–3,800, civilians and members of army, police, and secret police[citation needed]
During the riots in the city of Vlorë, men broke rocks to hurl at police.

In 1997, widespread civil unrest struck Albania due to economic problems in the country that were caused by the collapse of pyramid schemes. Due to the large quantities of money robbed from the government to fund the schemes, the Democratic Party's government collapsed in January 1997. More than 2,000 people were killed in the conflict until its end in August 1997. The creation of a new government came as the revolutionaries surrounded Tirana.[3][4] Various other sources also describe the violence that ensued as a rebellion or even a civil war.

By January 1997, Albanian citizens, who had lost a total of $1.2 billion, took their protest to the streets. Beginning in February, thousands of citizens launched daily protests demanding reimbursement by the government, which they believed was profiting from the schemes. On 1 March, Prime Minister Aleksandër Meksi resigned and on 2 March, President Sali Berisha declared a state of emergency.[5]

On March 11th, the Socialist Party of Albania won a major victory when its leader, Bashkim Fino, was appointed prime minister. However, the transfer of power did not halt the unrest, and protests spread to northern Albania. Although the government quelled revolts in the north, the ability of the government and military to maintain order began to collapse, especially in the southern half of Albania, which fell under the control of rebels and criminal gangs.[5]

All major population centres were engulfed in demonstrations by 13 March and foreign countries began to evacuate their citizens. These evacuations included Operation Libelle, Operation Silver Wake and Operation Cosmas, by the German, American and Greek military forces respectively.[6] The United Nations Security Council, in Resolution 1101, authorized a force of 7,000 troops on 28 March to direct relief efforts and restore order in Albania. The UN feared the unrest would spread beyond Albania's borders and send refugees throughout Europe. So, the US and NATO provided assistance to the refugees by managing refugee camps, airlifting the displaced populations throughout Europe, and securing the borders.[7] On 15 April, a multi-national peacekeeping force launched Operation Alba which helped restore rule of law in the country by late July.[5]

After the rebellion had ended, some of the weapons looted from Albanian army barracks and stockpiles were acquired by the Kosovo Liberation Army, with many making their way to the ensuing Kosovo War (1998–99).[8][9]



The period has been asserted as a civil war,[10][11][12] brink of civil war,[13] and a near civil war,[14][15][2] and anarchy,[16] while others claim that it was not.[17]



In 1992, the Democratic Party of Albania won the nation's first free elections and Sali Berisha became president. In the mid-1990s Albania was adopting a market economy, after decades of a planned economy under the People's Socialist Republic of Albania. The rudimentary financial system soon became dominated by Ponzi schemes, and even government officials endorsed a series of pyramid investment funds.

By January 1997, the schemes, many of which were fronts for money laundering and arms trafficking, could no longer make payments, which led to their collapse.[3][18] By then, the number of investors who had been lured by the promise of getting rich quick grew to include two-thirds of Albania's 3 million population.[3][18] It is estimated that close to $1.5 billion was invested in companies offering monthly interest rates ranging from 10%–25%, while the average monthly income in the country was around $80. A significant number of Albanians had sold their homes to invest, and emigrants working in Greece and Italy transferred additional resources to the schemes.[19]

1996 elections


On 26 May 1996, general elections were held and the conservative Democratic Party won by a large margin, winning 122 out of 140 seats in Parliament. The voter turnout was 89.1%.[20] However, the opposition Socialists (PS) accused the government of election fraud and rejected the results.[21] They proceeded to leave the ballot-counting process and boycott the parliament. Five months later, local elections were held on 20 October. The Democratic Party won again, but the Socialists rejected this result as well.

Pyramid schemes

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The pyramid schemes started operations in 1991. Their activity was based on making payments to old investors using money contributed by new investors. The first scheme was that of Hajdin Sejdisë, who later fled to Switzerland with several million dollars. It was followed by "Sudja" of shoe factory worker Maksude Kadëna in 1993, then the "Populli" foundations run by an opposition politician, and "Xhaferri". By the end of 1996 the schemes peaked. The interest rates they offered were very tempting; Sudja offered 100% interest.

The schemes were not criticised immediately because of a banking law adopted in 1994 which, on International Monetary Fund (IMF) advice, contained no provision that the National Bank of Albania act as a supervisor of commercial banks. The IMF changed that advice two years later, after the consequences had become visible. Despite IMF advice to shut down these schemes, the government continued to allow them, often participating in them.[citation needed]

Between 8–16 January 1997 the schemes finally collapsed. On 22 January the government froze the Xhaferri and Populli firms. "Gjallica", another firm, was on the verge of bankruptcy, while "Vefa", which had invested in Albanian hotels, fuel industry and factories, continued as usual.

The first public protests occurred on 16 January in the south of the country. On 19 January, demonstrators protested in capital Tirana over the Sudja scheme. On 24 January the open rebellion de facto began. Thousands of people in the western town of Lushnjë marched on city hall in protest against the government's support of the schemes, and the protest quickly descended into violence. Police forces were subsequently routed and the city hall and the adjoining cinema were burned down.

One day later, on 25 January, leader of the Democratic Party, Tritan Shehu, was sent to Lushnjë to resolve the situation. On his arrival, he was captured by protesters and held hostage for several hours at the City Stadium where he was assaulted as well. Albanian Special Forces units intervened to extract Shehu. By the morning of 26 January, every government institution in the city had been looted and destroyed, except for the Interior Ministry building, which was protected by the Director of Communications, seven of his engineers, and a guard who refused to abandon his post.[citation needed]

On 26–27 January violence erupted in other southern towns, including the major port city of Vlorë. On 30 January the Forum for Democracy was formed by opposition parties to try and lead the protests. Anger was also directed against President Sali Berisha and the government for allowing the schemes to continue despite IMF advice.[citation needed] As allegations grew that Berisha and others in the government had personally profited from the schemes,[citation needed] many[who?] became convinced that the Democratic Party had to be removed by force. This was especially true in Vlorë.[citation needed]

On 4 February the government began distributing reimbursements of some of the lost money at subsidiaries of the state-owned National Commercial Bank. Rather than quelling the protests, the move backfired as it increased the public's suspicions. A check for $550,000 paid by the "Gjallica" firm on 7 January to the Socialist Party accelerated the firm's collapse. On 5 February Gjallica declared bankruptcy and on 6 February violent protests resumed in Vlorë. On 9 February state police were attacked in Vlorë and a day later, also in the south, a group of 50 Special Forces troops attacked and brutally dispersed protesters.[citation needed]

Hunger strike at the University of Vlora


On 20 February 1997, about 50 students at the University of Vlorë began a hunger strike on campus; they demanded the government's resignation and the full return of invested money. On 22 February, the opposition Forum for Democracy declared its support for the strike. Students from the towns of Gjirokastër and Elbasan also came to give their support. They were then brought by the FRESSH (Youth Wing of Socialist Party) activists from Vlorë to capital Tirana. In contrast, the students of University Luigj Gurakuqi in Shkodër did not take part in the protest, and its Students Union declared that although "the students share the pain of the citizens of Vlorë in losing money in pyramid schemes, on the other hand, they think that freedom and democracy, homeland and nation, have a higher price".[citation needed]

On 26 February thousands of people surrounded the building of the university in Vlorë to defend it from a rumored attack by SHIK (Shërbimi Informativ Kombëtar), the national intelligence service. The same day a group of strikers requested more medical help, raising doubts about the doctors near them.[clarification needed] On 27 February in Shkodër, mayor Bahri Borici of the United Right declared his support for the hunger strike.

The next day was a decisive moment in Albanian history—after strengthening their perimeter around the building of the university, the rebel forces, without warning, attacked the SHIK building. In fighting between the rebels and government forces, nine people—six officers and three civilians—were killed. This incident marked the start of a year of violence in southern Albania.[22]

Angry protesters throwing stones at government forces

Looting and opening of weapon depots


The so-called opening of the depots (Albanian: Hapja e depove) refers to the opening of army's weapons depots on orders of President Berisha in the northern areas of the country, which he justified by the need to protect the population against the violence from the south.

When southern Albanian bases were looted, it was estimated that, on average, every male from the age of ten upwards had at least one firearm and ample ammunition.[23] During the rebellion 656,000 weapons of various types and 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition, 3.5 million hand grenades and one million land mines, were looted from army depots according to UNDP.[24]

At the village of Selitë near Burrel, a town 90 km north of capital Tirana, an explosion occurred at an arms depot on 29 April after a group of villagers broke into the facility.[25] The blast resulted in the deaths of 22 of the 200 village residents, most of the victims coming from the same family.[26]

Treasury robberies


The Krrabë Event (Albanian: Ngjarja e Krrabës) was the theft of gold of the Albanian state treasury on 24 April 1997. The treasury, hidden in tunnels near Krrabë outside Tirana, consisted of 340 kg of gold ingots, banknotes, and other items.[27] The perpetrators, who were later tried and received prison sentences, were: Arian Bishqemi (7 years), Blerim Haka (3 years), Pellumb Dalti (6 years), Enver Hyka (8 years) and Ahmet Hyken (4 years).[28]

The Robbery of the Northern State Treasury (Albanian: Grabitja e Thesarit të Veriut) was the theft of approximately $6 million from the Albanian state treasury in Shkodër in March 1997. A group of six people attacked the fortified building of the State Treasury with an antitank weapon. The total amount of money that was inside the building was $8 million, but the robbers only managed to get away with $6 million. The few police still in the city soon arrived at the scene and took control of the remaining assets.

Later, the thieves were seen by several witnesses meeting at the outskirts of Shkodër, where they divided the money between themselves. After the robbery, the police and investigators began investigations in Shkodër. In the spring of 1998, more than a year later, the investigators closed the file and it was given to the police for further investigation. The perpetrators of this crime are still unknown to this day.[citation needed]

International intervention


On 28 March the United Nations adopted Resolution 1101 for humanitarian aid to Albania, and on 15 April Operation Alba forces began to arrive, finally withdrawing on 12 August. About 7,000 soldiers in the multinational Italian-led UN mission came to Albania to restore order and rule of law.[29] The first forces were deployed in Durrës. Normality first returned to Tirana. An element of the Operation Alba forces stayed in place, retraining the military to modern standards; this unit was joined from mid-May by members of WEU's Multinational Albanian Police element, doing the same with the police after restructuring the legislative base which caused the problem.

Involved were:

UN resolutions


These UNSC resolutions provide the basis for the establishment & execution of the mission (resolution 1101) and its limited extension (resolution 1114).

Evacuation operations


During March 1997, several nations launched evacuation missions to evacuate their nationals, embassy personnel and numerous other civilians by air and sea (weblinks see above). Italy carried out a series of different rescue flights and evacuations by sea without giving these actions an overarching operation name.



As part of a peacekeeping mission based on UN Security Council Resolution 1101, a multinational protection force of more than 7,000 troops was sent to Albania in mid-April. By mid-August 1997, it had largely restored public order and secured new elections under OSCE supervision.[31]

Snap elections


During 1997, a referendum on restoring the monarchy was held in Albania on June 29, 1997, alongside early parliamentary elections.[32] It was rejected by 66.7% of the voters,[33] while former Crown Prince Leka claimed that 65.7% voted in favour.[34] Meanwhile, the parliamentary election result was an overwhelming victory for the opposition Socialist Party of Albania, which won 100 of the 151 seats, with the voter turnout being 72.6%.[35]

Armed groups




Taking advantage of the difficult situations, criminal groups armed themselves and took control of entire cities. Most leaders had been imprisoned in Greece, but suddenly escaped and returned to Albania. The most famous case is that of Zani Caushi, who escaped from the high-security prison of Larissa in February 1997 and, with a group of friends, established the gang of Çole in Vlora.

In Vlora five gangs were created, but two ruled the city: the gang of Zani and the gang of Gaxhai. Movement in the city started at 10:00, when people gathered in Flag's Square to hear the Committee of Rescue, and ended at 13:00. After that hour the streets were deserted and the only people who moved were gang members. Gangs announced through speakers and flyers that other people were not to go out as there would be fighting.

Each night brought attacks with explosives and shooting, leaving dozens dead. In Berat Altin Dardha's rule was even more severe. In Lushnje Aldo Bare's gang had control. The worst crime that this gang committed was to behead an opponent. Cities ruled by gangs were Vlora, Berat, Tepelena, Memaliaj, Ballshi, Saranda, Gjirokastra, Lushnja, Pogradec, Cerrik and Tropoja.

Salvation Committees


Salvation Committees (also known as People's Committees or the Committee of Public Salvation [Albanian: Komiteti i Shpëtimit Publik]) were organizations created during the unrest. They were established in many regions of the country in order to usurp the functions of the Albanian state.[38][page needed][39] They were most influential in the south, where early in the crisis the local Salvation Committees merged to form the National Salvation Committee and demanded the removal of President Sali Berisha.[40]

Many committees were based on local organisations for the Socialist Party of Albania and saw themselves as protectors of democracy against authoritarian one-man rule. The Albanian government viewed them as similar to Communist-era local party organisations and therefore a potential threat of returning to Communist rule.[39][page needed]




Money lenders in Vlora




The Otranto tragedy













According to Christopher Jarvis, there were 2,000 killed.[2] According to Fred C. Abrahams, between March and May 1997 some 1,600 people were killed, most in shootouts between rival gangs.[80] An UNIDIR document claimed more than 2,000 killed in March alone.[81]



Damage from the rebellion was estimated at US$200 million and some 3,700 to 5,000 wounded. Lawsuits were filed against the bosses of the rogue firms.[citation needed] Various members of the government, including Safet Zhulali and Agim Shehu, were sentenced in absentia.[citation needed]

In elections in June and July 1997, Berisha and his party were voted out of power, and the leftist coalition headed by the Socialist Party won. The Socialist party elected Rexhep Meidani as President of the Albanian Republic. All UN forces left Albania by 11 August.

See also



  1. ^ "ALBANIA: parliamentary elections Kuvendi Popullor, 1997".
  2. ^ a b c Jarvis 2000.
  3. ^ a b c Jarvis, Christopher (March 2000). "The Rise and Fall of Albania's Pyramid Schemes". Finance & Development: A Quarterly Magazine of the IMF.
  4. ^ "Crisis in Albania". Public Broadcasting Service. Archived from the original on 30 October 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  5. ^ a b c pPike, John. "Albanian Civil War (1997)". Retrieved 14 June 2010.
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  8. ^ "Kosovo: Background to crisis (March 1999)". Archived from the original on 15 May 2008. Retrieved 17 June 2010. Following the February/March 1997 looting of Albanian Army barracks and depots, weapons became even more readily available. The current price for a Kalashnikov is barely US$300, and the most conservative estimates of Albanians' stocks now start at 25,000 hidden AK assault rifles. Also available are anti-tank weapons, rifle and hand grenades and even small-calibre mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
  9. ^ Robert Bideleux (11 November 1998). "Kosovo's Conflict". History Today.
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  11. ^ Barjaba, Kosta (2004). Albania's democratic elections, 1991-1997: analyses, documents and data. Edition Sigma. ISBN 978-3-89404-237-0. For a detailed chronological course of events in the Albanian civil war
  12. ^ Adcock, Gene (31 October 2012). CCT-The Eye of the Storm: Volume II – The GWOT Years. Author House. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4772-6997-8. trapped by Albania's civil war
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Further reading