"The Albanian people have hacked their way through history, sword in hand,” proclaimed the preamble to Albanian Communist constitution of 1976. The words, penned by the country’s post-World-War-Two despot Enver Hoxha were used to exploit the Albanians’ collective memory to enhance the power of the regime. Like his Soviet mentor Joseph Stalin, Mr. Hoxha used manipulation and repression to keep Albanians isolated and subjugated for almost half a century. At the time of his death in 1985, Albania was one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world.
“The economy of the country had been rigidly controlled with very few of the reforms that were found in Eastern Europe,” says Nicholas Pano, professor of history at Western Illinois University and author of books and studies on Albania.
“And so when the Communist regime collapsed during 1990 and 1991,” adds Professor Pano, “the Albanians then were faced with the prospect of building a new democratic regime and society and economic system almost from scratch.”
In 1992, Albania established a multiparty democracy, headed by pro-Western president Sali Berisha. The new democratic government inherited a collapsed economy, a dilapidated infrastructure, high unemployment, rising crime and disruptive political opponents.
Professor Pano says the transition has been more difficult in Albania than in other Eastern European countries because Albania has had much less to build on: “The industries which had been developed during the Communist regime for the most part are non-competitive. Albania was a producer of oil. It was at one point the third leading producer of chrome in the world, but it has been difficult to restore the oil industry,” says Professor Pano. “Mining, again, because of antiquated equipment and the large amount of investment needed to make the operations economically feasible, just simply has not been able to function.”
Albania currently has some light industry, says Professor Pano, including food and clothing. Most of it is owned by foreign companies. Agriculture, which accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product, has been disrupted by the break-up of the collective and state farms and the ensuing disputes about land ownership. Frequent drought and antiquated equipment have not helped either. Severe energy shortages are currently forcing small firms out of business, increasing unemployment, scaring off foreign investors, and spurring inflation. The economy is bolstered by remittances of $400-$600 million annually from Albanians working abroad, mostly in Greece and Italy.
Despair, fear of political repression, and expectations of an easy life in the West triggered waves of illegal emigration to Europe's established free-market democracies. The craving to leave Albania in search of work was so strong that in August 1991, tens of thousands of people converged on the Adriatic port of Durrës after rumors that a ship would take passengers from there to Italy. Crime has become a new and significant problem. When Albania opened its borders to international trade and businesses, its convenient location between the Middle East and Western Europe also made it attractive to smugglers and illegal traffickers.
“Albania has been a significant transit point for the drug trafficking, the trafficking in women and children for prostitution and also for the smuggling of illegal immigrants to Western Europe,” says Nicholas Pano, adding that the hopes raised by free elections in 1992 have largely waned: “When Berisha was elected president in what were probably the freest elections held in the country in 1992, there was a great deal of hope because this was a man who would become the symbol of the opposition to the Communist regime. He was thoroughly imbued with the ideas of a democracy and had some really lofty ambitions for leading Albania into democracy and into establishing a market economy.”
Unfortunately, notes Professor Pano, efforts by Communists-turned-Socialists to undermine Mr. Berisha and divisions in his own Democratic Party caused him to assume an increasingly authoritarian stance. The democratic president, who was re-elected in 1996, also failed to protect Albanians from painful economic losses sustained in the collapse of several fraudulent investment funds that worked essentially like pyramid schemes. When the pyramids began to collapse in 1997, the popular agitation for the refund of lost savings turned into political unrest. Between February and June of 1997, some 2000 lives were lost in riots and much property was damaged. In the renewed elections that year the Socialist Party came to power, but bickering among various factions accusing one another of corruption has not stopped. Since 1997, the government has changed six times.
Vote-rigging and violations marked the most recent municipal elections and the politicians could not agree on the appointment of new government officials, leaving Albania without real leadership.
Ismail Kadare, an Albanian author living in Paris, expresses the disappointment of many of his compatriots: “It is clear that the Albanian political class has a long, long way to go. It was hoped that by now we would have developed an emancipated political elite. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The only positive aspect of this great autumn of disillusionment is that the critics and the dissatisfaction are harsh and widespread. This means that the Albanian people are spiritually, morally and mentally determined to reject such things.”
Political struggles have slowed down Albania’s already difficult economic recovery and diminished the country’s prospects of global integration. Last month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged Albanians to halt political infighting if they want a timely integration with the European Union.
Janus Bugajski, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says there are several causes of this state of affairs: “Part of it, I think, is the old legacy from Communism. Part of it, I think, is not the merit system, but the ‘spoils’ (from: to the victor all the spoils) system -- whoever comes to power, doesn’t want to compromise, but basically wants to control everything. Part of it, I think, is the fact that the Socialists, although reformed to a certain degree, have still not split into their constituent, let’s say, policy parties. The same happened on the other side. The two-party system that exists in Albania isn't sufficient to handle the diversity of opinion in the country.”
Mr. Bugajski says if this state of affairs persists, the government will lose its legitimacy both at home and abroad: “Clearly progress has been made. Clearly there is more stability, more agreement. However, if this continues and there is a crisis, a political crisis, and the reforms, particularly on the anti-corruption, anti-crime, the legislative reforms – if they are not accomplished, if they are not pushed through, then I think there’s going to be falling support, not only for this government, but less support for Albania to join either EU or NATO.”
Joining the European Union and NATO are the two priorities of Albania’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Fatos Nano hopes to reconcile the factions of his Socialist Party at the Congress this Friday -– at least enough to appoint new interior and foreign ministers. Analysts say Albania may be able to move forward if Mr. Nano can persuade politicians to put the people’s interest before their own.