A pyramid pummeled: Albania's financial crisis

International | Failed get-rich-quick schemes lead to anarchy then martial law; capitalist excesses threaten Eastern European freedom

Issue: "Stealth Bible," March 29, 1997

American missionary Von Golder admitted to being a little more ready to pay taxes this year after watching a Marine Corps CH-43 gunship lift off from Tirana last weekend with his family aboard. Mr. Golder's wife and three children were among more than 400 Americans evacuated from Albania after weeks of protests and rioting turned into civil skirmishes and wholesale looting.

"These are days of weeping and fear in Albania as the Lord does surgery on us," Mr. Golder wrote to friends via e-mail following his family's departure March 14. The collapse of pyramid investment schemes that has engulfed the country in anarchy threatens to undo fledgling Christian churches as well. Protestant churches have been legal in the former communist country for less than a decade; they have shallow roots to withstand the violence and deprivation now sweeping the country.

Mr. Golder, a church planter in the Balkan country since just before the fall of communism in 1991, felt he should stay on with recently converted Christians even as he sent his family to safety.

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"I have been convicted by the mention in John 10:12 about the hired hand abandoning the sheep when the wolf comes," said Mr. Golder. "I saw this happening when pastors were forced to leave the cities in the South when the violence first broke out. We kept in daily phone contact with one of those churches, and they seemed to be fighting a losing battle with fear and despair. I don't believe that is right if it can be avoided."

Others have decided to remain at church-planting posts as well. Missionary Steve Galegor said he plans to stay on in Korce, another site of fighting. "It has been said that if we go now there is no need to come back," he said. "The issue of credibility is greatly at stake at this time."

David Allen, based in Tirana, also felt called to stay, but sent his wife and children home to Great Britain until stability returns. Nurse Heather Eley, along with two other American missionaries, will remain in Tirana as well, caring for 180 orphans.

American Mark Nyberg and his German co-worker, Peter Hoffman, are the only foreign workers remaining in the city of Vlore. Mr. Nyberg directs an orphanage run by AMG International, a Chattanooga-based interdenominational ministry, in Vlore. Sixty-six babies and small children now housed at the orphanage would have nowhere to go if the two foreigners agreed to be evacuated. But keeping the place running is risky as well. Two weeks ago, looters struck the orphanage's warehouse. They stole a year's supply of basic foodstuff and some equipment. With all supplies for the orphanage set to run out this week, and diesel fuel for its vehicles gone too, Mr. Nyberg is looking for ways to place the children in private homes temporarily.

Vlore is the second largest port in Albania. Five of nine companies involved in the pyramid schemes were based there, so it has been at the epicenter of chaos.

Even before communism, Albania was Europe's poorest country. With the Communists' fall in 1991, Albanians latched onto the risky pyramid ventures that briefly lured all of the former Eastern Bloc. The promise of impossibly high returns of up to 100 percent a month offered Albanians comforts they could only imagine during five decades of harsh Communist isolation. Up to 1 million of Albania's 3.2 million people poured between $1 billion and $2 billion into the pyramid schemes, most of which have now failed.

According to AMG's Tasos Ioannidis, the situation in Vlore is "desperate." Troops and tanks have surrounded the city since despair over the investment losses led to February protest demonstrations and the burning of banks and businesses involved in the fraudulent investment deals. Police actually left the city rather than defend the government of President Sali Berisha, who is seen as a dictator. When mob rule took hold, unrest spread to other cities in southern Albania as protesters raided military and police depots, stealing at least 20,000 weapons (journalists reported seeing 10-year-olds carrying Kalashnikovs) and raiding prisons to release inmates as far north as the capital of Tirana.

Like the rest of Albania, Vlore is now under a curfew, with shops and public places forced to close at 3 p.m. every day and public meetings of any kind banned. Outside news reports, too, are blacked out in the government-enforced state of emergency.

Even in Tirana, citizens expected to run out of bread this week; store owners removed many other supplies from the shelves to avoid looters.


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