From: Alice Taylor
Sali Berisha interview: Pyramid schemes are the regret of my life

Former prime minister and president Sali Berisha said the regret of his life in politics was the handling of the Albanian pyramid schemes, which eventually collapsed in 1997, bankrupting half of the country and taking it to the brink of civil war.

In an exclusive interview with Exit, Berisha was asked about his vision when he co-founded the Democratic Party in 1991, and whether looking back, he would do anything differently.

“Pyramid schemes are the regret of my life. Because they started in ’91, they continued, and we totally missed the non-banking and financial boat to check on them. In one sense, we knew very little about them,” he said.

Shortly after the fall of communism in 1991, a number of companies were set up that encouraged citizens to invest money into various areas of the economy. But in 1996, the structures started to collapse, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with no money and disappearing with over $1.2 billion.

By 1997, the schemes’ collapse erupted into armed conflict, the toppling of the government, country-wide gang rule, the opening of state armouries and more than 2000 deaths. Peace was restored later that year by a multi-national peacekeeping force called Operation Alba.

“It happened what happened. It was my responsibility and my party’s responsibility. I resigned as President. We set up a parliamentary commission to investigate the links of my government to pyramid scheme,” Berisha said.

In 1997, he signed a decree against the schemes in a bid to meet calls from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which had warned they were dangerous for more than a year before their collapse.

After their collapse, he was accused of willful ignorance, while those in opposition said his responsibility ran deeper and some of the companies may have financed his electoral campaign, something Berisha denies.

He maintains that local and international investigations concluded that there were “no links between the government and pyramid schemes” and that “it was a relief, of course.”

“This is my very special story, but of course, I regret,” he concluded.

‘Persona non-grata’

Berisha’s latest woe has been sanctions and entry bans for “significant corruption” by first the US State Department and then the UK, which could challenge his future aspirations in politics.

He maintains his innocence, accusing lobbyists, the current Albanian government, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and corruption of being behind the move. 

“I have to tell you that for me, it is a shameful monument of corruption, the sanction put to Sali Berisha by the State Department. Since the first day, I told the State Department that the first proof, document, evidence, [if they make it public] I will say goodbye to politics, I won’t stay a day.”

He stated that since May 1991, US agencies have never found any evidence against him and the designation is purely political.

He also claims that reports of his links to organised crime gangs, including those made by British diplomats, are untrue and that he is the only politician who has ever publicly denounced them by name. Berisha adds that he has always fought against organised crime and will continue to do so.

“But if I have done one thing all my life was fighting criminality. When I became prime minister, Albania was dominated by tyranny. And I succeeded, Albania became a NATO member, to sign the SAA, or have visa liberalisation, it was because of a strong fight against organised crime. When I left the office, I continued my battle.”

The future of Albania’s centre right

Turning to EU politics, while the PD is a member of the European People’s Party and is categorised as centre-right, many have observed that a focus on supporting those in poverty is slightly more left-wing in approach. Berisha confirmed that the PD is a conservative party, but, the current situation in Albania means that their policies are not typically right.

“The situation of Albania is that it needs an anti-crisis package; otherwise, the country will be devastated without an emergent, strong intervention. Call it left or right or whatever- an emergency package is crucial for this country,” he said. Berisha added that the PD’s package is based on solid investment in human capital and keeping taxes low so it does not run contrary to their orientation as a centre-right party.  

Out of power for nearly a decade and with a local election looming, questions are being asked about what the future looks like for the beleaguered opposition, particularly as so many youths are fleeing the country. With some 700,000 leaving in 10 years, rising to a total of 1.4 million since the transition to democracy, Berisha says the focus is on bringing people back.

“We are trying to extend our links not only with well-educated people in Albania but also well UK to people UK, Germany, the United States, France and everywhere. It’s a huge potential,” he said.

He added that a “brain gain” project will be “one of our most important.”

Little Putin of the Balkans

On the topic of simmering tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, Berisha is clear that dialogue is the only way forward but that Belgrade needs to be reined in.

“They blame mostly Kosova, but they are not solving the problem of troops assembled around the border. I don’t think he will make the adventure to intervene as it is a NATO territory, NATO will protect it, but he has done this all supported by Putin,” he said.

“He is behaving like a little Putin in the Balkans,” he continued, adding, “With a group of thugs in North Kosovo with a group of thugs, criminals and traffickers, he disturbed the whole of Europe because of his interest in Russia’s interests. Believe me, Serbia is essential for Russian aggression. Important in all aspects”

Berisha also referred to Vucic’s comments in the Serbian parliament when he was the minister of communication in Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

“Vucic is a man who, as a spokesperson, as a minister of communication of the Milosevic, more than once in Parliament and elsewhere, told that 417 100 Muslims must be killed. This is the principle of genocide,” he said.

“His place is in The Hague to be judged.”

As for whether he would approach the situation differently from current Prime Minister Edi Rama, Berisha said he believes in a hands-off approach.

“Albania has a basic rule never to interfere in the process even when it happens very high dignitary international officials asked me to be helpful. I told them no, I could be helping more with not intervening the intervening and it was proved to be right,” he explained.