Past and present, ancient and modern, young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, north and south, urban and rural, monarchist and socialist: the extremes of Albanian society are vivid, its tensions palpable. But Albania is not another Yugoslavia: it is more like a tensegrity framework, a stable structure of rigid poles positioned in space – and linked together by flexible cables. The cables are stressed but, barring catastrophe, they will not snap. Albania, this land that is breathtakingly beautiful, but only few Americans can tell Albania from Albany or Alabama, and fewer still would be able to find the country on the map.
Despite its spectacular and varied beauty, its rich natural resources, and its extraordinary tradition of hospitality, Albania has always been the most isolated country in Europe, and from World War II until very recently, one of the most isolated countries on earth. Since 1991, Albania has welcomed foreign visitors but, as the poorest country in Europe, it has attracted relatively few of them. Yet there are many reasons why the outside world should be interested in Albania and concerned for its future. Albania is a Balkan country and thus a crossroads of East and West, North and South; it is as rich in history as it is in resources.
When Albania achieved independence, nearly half its population found itself outside its newly drawn borders, in what is now called the former Yugoslavia. But Albanians are not Slavs, and the Albanian language is not Slavic. Much has been written about historic transition from communism, but Albanias transition is ignored in most of these accounts. This is probably because Albanias brand of communism was different from the others, and its society is more difficult for a Westerner to understand, or maybe because people didnt pay much attention to what happenes in a tinny little country in Eastern Europe. (A portrait of High Albania)
The legacy of fifty years of Europes most draconian communism is the darkest shadow of the past , that ended only in 1991. (a portrait of high Albania) Writing recent history is always problematic; an objective account of the past fifty years in Albania, where extremes and excesses of the communist regime are recent memory, is probably impossible. But everyone agrees in one thing: Albanian communism was not like the others. It brought this country overwhelming disasters and poverty. Albania’s economy changed drastically in the early 1990s, as the government moved from a Communist system to a more democratic organization.
Albania emerged from the Communist era as the poorest country in Europe. For the first time Albanians were granted the right to foreign travel. The country still relied on tens of thousands of Albanians who work in Greece, Italy, and Germany and send money home to support their families. (The Albanians) Throughout 1990 thousands of Albanian citizens tried to flee the country through Western embassies. A multinational relief operation arranged for safe evacuation of more than 5000 Albanians, and 20,000 more sailed illegally to Italy in vessels seized at civilian ports. ( Albania a country study)
From 1944 to 1991 Albania’s government was under the complete control of the Communist Party. Power was consolidated in one man, Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania with an iron fist and stifled any dissent. After Hoxha’s death in 1985, Albania began to emerge from its isolation. As Communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, some Albanians demanded extensive reforms. In 1990 the government endorsed the creation of independent political parties. Albanian citizens had few of the guarantees of human rights and fundamental freedoms that have become standard in Western democracies.
According to Amnesty International, political prisoners were tortured and beaten by the Sigurimi during investigations, and political detainees lacked adequate legal safeguards during pretrial investigations. Most investigations into political offenses lasted for several months. Alia’s regime took an important step toward democracy in early May 1990, when it announced its desire to join the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, while at the same time introducing positive changes in its legal system. A prerequisite for membership in the CSCE is the protection of human rights.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee had severely criticized Albania for its human rights abuses in 1989, and in May 1990 the secretary general of the United Nations visited Albania and discussed the issue of human rights. The results of these efforts were mixed, but in general the leadership became more tolerant of political dissent. The communist regime faced perhaps its most severe test in early July 1990, when a demonstration by a group of young people in Tiran, the nation’s capital, led about 5,000 to seek refuge in foreign embassies. (the Albanians)
I remember for the first time when the people broke the gates of the foreign countries embassies in Albania. That was the first step for the people to get out of there, but the government told us that all those people who broke those gates will be punished. I still remember the crying of the relatives of those people, they thought that their sons or daughters would be killed, but what they didnt know was that their sons and daughters were the first ones to brake free from a fifty year old communism, and that a very good future was awaiting them.
To defuse the crisis in July 1990, the Central Committee held a plenum, which resulted in significant changes in the leadership of party and state. The conservatives in the leadership were pushed out, and Alia’s position was strengthened. Alia had already called for privatizing retail trade, and many businesses had begun to operate privately. In a September 1990 speech to representatives of Albania’s major social and political organizations, Alia discussed the July crisis and called for electoral reform.
He noted that a proposed electoral law would allow all voting to take place by secret ballot and that every precinct would have at least two candidates. The electors themselves would have the right to propose candidates and anyone could nominate candidates for the assembly. Alia also criticized the bureaucratic “routine and tranquility” of managers and state organizations that were standing in the way of reform. Despite Alia’s efforts to proceed with change on a limited, cautious basis, reform from above threatened to turn into reform from below, largely because of the increasingly vocal demands of Albania’s youth.
On December 9, 1990, student demonstrators marched from the Enver Hoxha University at Tiran though the streets of the capital shouting slogans and demanding an end to dictatorship. By December 11, the number of participants had reached almost 3,000. In an effort to quell the student unrest, which had led to clashes with riot police, Alia met with the students and agreed to take further steps toward democratization. The students informed Alia that they wanted to create an independent political organization of students and youth.
Alia’s response was that such an organization had to be registered with the Ministry of Justice. The student unrest was a direct consequence of the radical transformations that were taking place in Eastern Europe and of Alia’s own democratic reforms, which spurred the students on to make more politicized demands. Their protests triggered the announcement on December 11, 1990. The day after the announcement, the country’s first opposition party, the Albanian Democratic Party was formed.. Five of the eleven full members of the Politburo and two alternate members were replaced.
The student unrest that began in Tiran gave rise to widespread riots in four of the largest cities in northern Albania. Violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces took place, resulting in extensive property damage but, surprisingly, no fatalities. On December 17, the Democratic Front’s daily newspaper, Bashkimi, described what had occurred and then warned that such violence could lead to a conservative backlash, suggesting that conservative forces posed a real threat to the process of democratization in the country.
In his traditional New Year’s message to the Albanian people, Alia welcomed the changes that had been occurring in the country and claimed that 1991 would be a turning point in terms of the economy. A constitution created a multiparty parliamentary democracy and guaranteed freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and organization. But despite positive signs of change, many Albanians were still trying to leave their country. At the end of 1990, as many as 5,000 Albanians crossed over the mountainous border into Greece. Young people motivated by economic dissatisfaction made up the bulk of the refugees.
Foreign journalists who visited Albania in spring 1990 reported that Alia enjoyed considerable popular support as he toned down the APLs harsh rhetoric on ideological issues and raised widespread hopes that finally Albania was on the way to rejoining Europe. (David Binders reports in the New York Times, May 14, 15, 25, and 27, 1990; and the Times (London), April 30, 1990. ) In March 1991 elections to the People’s Assembly took place. The Communist Party and its allies dominated, but the newly formed Democratic Party won a substantial minority of seats. In April 1991 an interim constitution was passed.
Parliament elected Alia to the new post of Albanian president. Following a general strike by thousands of workers, the government resigned and a coalition government was created in June 1991. It included Communists, Democrats, Republicans, and Social Democrats. In December 1991 the coalition government collapsed and an interim administration was appointed. Elections were held in March 1992, and the Democrats took control of the People’s Assembly. The assembly elected the leader of the Democratic Party, Sali Berisha, as president. Opposition parties boycotted the parliament, which in early 1997 elected Berisha to another five-year term.
Also in early 1997, several fraudulent investment schemes failed, costing thousands of Albanians their savings. A lot of people lost everything they had: their homes, land, money and everything else. The economic disruption and political scandal prompted Albanians in several cities to protest and riot. A sporadic rebellion broke out, and several parts of the country were virtually ungoverned. To prevent the outbreak of an all-out civil war, President Berisha appointed a Socialist, Bashkim Fano, to lead a government of national reconciliation. He also promised new legislative elections in June 1997.
The Socialist Party won control of the assembly in those elections and chose Rexhep Mejdani as the new president. ( Albania a country study) Traditional clothing consists of colorfully embroidered shirts and dresses. Traditional clothing was discouraged under the Communists in favor of inexpensive, modern clothing made by the state. Traditional costumes are still worn in many rural and upland areas, especially among women. Urban homes were owned by the state, consisting chiefly of apartment blocks with attached cultural and recreational facilities and state-owned stores.
In the countryside dwellings were usually one- or two-story family houses, mostly for peasants living on collective farms, and small apartment blocks for workers on state farms. People who lived in larger dwellings could buy them from the state for small fees. Over the next few years, many state properties became private and a market for private homes developed. Still, housing construction in the mid-1990s did not keep pace with the countrys high rates of birth and migration to cities. As a result, some cities were overcrowded and the number of shanty dwellings grew.
The Communists ended much of the traditional, male-dominated clan system and guaranteed equal rights to women. Aspects of the clan system survived, especially in the highlands, and people followed the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini For all their habits, laws, and customs, the people, as a rule, have but one explanation: It is in the Canon of Lek – the law that is said to have been laid down by chieftain Leke Dukaghin As for the laws and customs ascribed to him, the greater part obviously far earlier than the fifteenth century, when he is said to have lived.
The legal age for marriage was 18 years old for both sexes and access to divorce was equalized between spouses. However, virtually no birth control was available to women because the state wanted them to bear children. Since the democratic reforms, women have become more organized and established their own associations. Nonetheless, womens participation in the countrys political life remains limited.
Living standards have improved in Albania since the collapse of the Communist system, but the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The newly rich are mostly entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of growth opportunities, while the newly poor are those who depended on the state welfare system and, in the absence of that system, suffer. Homelessness and hunger are higher now than under the Communists Communications. Meanwhile, protests in Albania continued, leading to the removal of several hard-line Communists from the government and party Politburo.
Although isolated for decades and ruled by a repressive regime that denied them their most elementary rights, the Albanians have undergone significant cultural, social, and economic transformations; they are no longer a largely uneducated peasant education, characterized by a clan mentality, as often portrayed by the Western media.
The majority of the Albanians evidently recognize that national reconciliation, a major aspect of the program of the Democratic Party, is the best way for the successful revival of their poverty-stricken country. Albania is endowed with considerable mineral resources and has a young, dynamic population, eager to join the rest of the world. Now as it enters the post dictatorship phase, it desperately needs the assistance and friendship of the outside world. Without that assistance, Albanias fledgling democracy may be doomed.