TIRANA, June 30 (AFP) -
Former Albanian president Sali Berisha, a symbol of the fall of the communist dictatorship, hopes to return to power in legislative elections on Sunday, after eight long years in opposition.
The first post-communist president of Albania is still regarded by many as the man who ended almost fifty years of isolation of the country under the rule of dictator Enver Hoxha.
But his rivals constantly recall the chaos that engulfed Albania at the end of his presidential mandate in 1997: armed unrest by hundreds of thousands of Albanians caused by the collapse of several fraudulent investment schemes he had allowed to function.
Born on October 15, 1944 into a Muslim farmer's family in Tropoja, in the mountainous north, former heart surgeon Berisha came to prominence by managing to transform an anti-communist student revolt into a general movement that eventually toppled the communist regime.
Detractors at the time said he had been hand-picked as an opposition leader by then communist President Ramiz Alija as a device to control the student protests. Berisha, a former party member, said he joined the anti-communist protests out of contrition for his earlier support of the regime.
After the multi-party system was introduced, Berisha, a big man with the stylish appeal of an actor, was one of the founders of the Democratic party. He was elected president in March 1992.
"I am opposed to the (Communists) because I feel co-responsible for the dictatorship," he said after the election.
Despite ending his country's isolation -- Albania was among the first former communist countries to join the NATO Partnership for peace programme -- and opening up Europe's poorest state to the world's market economy, Berisha soon squandered the goodwill he inherited after succeeding Alija.
In particular his intolerance of dissent within his own party and his use of the courts and secret police to intimidate the opposition cost him dearly in terms of support.
Although insisting that he was against a "witch-hunt" of former communist officials, he allowed the "genocide" trials of dozens of former leaders, some of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Berisha has never managed to establish a dialogue with the opposition, thus provoking ongoing demands for his dismissal.
His ouster in 1997 was the culmination of years of growing discontent at government corruption, cronyism and authoritarian rule.
The rebellion in 1997 left almost 2,000 dead and the country lawless and divided, with large quantities of weaponry in private hands and the government holding little sway in the north and south of the country.
After the Socialists took power, Berisha went into opposition and has for eight years been condemning his main rival, Prime Minister Fatos Nano as a "dictator," accusing him of corruption and dictatorial rule.
Berisha seems to see Sunday elections as his last chance to return to power. To reach that goal, he has listened to his critics and changed his style, assuming the image of a "people's politician".
Advised by American experts, he attends local meetings, mingles with crowds, exchange handshakes and kisses with his supporters.
"Nano wants to transform elections into a personal battle. I will not follow him," Berisha insists.