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Slouching Toward Democracy

Albania, fifty miles across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, has the same beautiful coastline as Montenegro and Croatia to its north and Greece to its south. The 3.3 million citizens of this small, mountainous country roughly the size of Maryland suffered longer and more silently under communism than those of any other European nation. Economically backward, militarily insignificant, and politically isolated, Albania slipped out of sight during the cold war. For forty-five years, from 1944 to 1989, it remained closed, as remote to its European neighbors as a mountaintop Himalayan kingdom. Few people knew, or cared, about the brutality of its leaders or the persecution of its people.

Enver Hoxha, Albania’s despot from 1944 until his death in 1985, was a Communist partisan who led the resistance against the Italian and German forces that occupied Albania during World War II; he established one of the first of the postwar Communist regimes in Europe. He took power in an undeveloped, largely Muslim country that had long been dominated by outside powers: the Ottoman Turks, who exerted political control for hundreds of years, and, more recently, the Italians, who after World War I were a major economic influence during the monarchy of King Zog—a monarchy that ended when the Italian army invaded in 1939.

Hoxha remained an orthodox Communist throughout his life, becoming more independent and isolationist in his policies through the years. He sided with Stalin in the Soviet Union’s 1948 break with Tito, then broke with Moscow’s post-Stalin leaders in 1961, and supported Mao Zedong in the Soviet-China split. Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in 1968, and was the only country in Europe that did not sign the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. After Mao’s death in 1976, Hoxha broke with China.

Hoxha took from Stalin and from Mao the harshest features of their repressive systems. His handpicked successor, Ramiz Alia, continued those policies after Hoxha’s death, and began to modify them only after 1989 when the revolutionary turmoil that brought down communism elsewhere in Europe gradually began to filter into Albania. In April 1990 Alia expressed interest in signing the Helsinki Final Act, thereby modifying Albania’s longstanding reclusive policies. A few restrictive laws were rescinded, such as the “crime” of religious propaganda, or limited in their application, as was the case with “agitation and propaganda against the state,” but not in time to prevent protest demonstrations by students and attempts by thousands of Albanians to flee the country. By the end of 1990 Alia gave in to public pressure and agreed to release political prisoners, to allow opposition political parties to be formed, and to hold multiparty elections in 1991. A year later, in parliamentary elections that were held on March 22, 1992, the opposition Democratic Party of Sali Berisha, a medical doctor, won the majority of seats in the parliament. Alia resigned, and Dr. Berisha became president. In September Alia was charged with unlawfully taking public funds; he is now under house arrest and awaiting trial.

On the surface, Albania is not unlike some other new democracies in the Balkans and Central Europe. Several political parties are represented in the 140-seat parliament, the two largest being the majority Democratic Party, which controls ninety-two seats, and the Socialist Party, which replaced the banned Labor (Communist) Party and holds thirty-eight parliamentary seats. A group of intellectuals, dissatisfied with President Berisha’s policies, recently left the Democratic Party and formed a new Democratic Alliance outside parliament. Several nongovernmental groups have been formed in Albania, among them a Helsinki Committee, demanding that the rights guaranteed by the Helsinki accords be protected, a group representing former political prisoners, and a women’s organization.

But despite these signs of pluralism, the government’s ability to sustain democracy seems shaky, especially because of the staggering weight of the Communist past and because the country has come to an economic standstill, existing mainly on foreign aid and the money and clothes that Albanian émigrés send from abroad.

Hoxha’s regime was extremely cruel. He boasted that Albania was the world’s first atheist state, and banned religion there. (Previously 70 percent of Albanians had been Muslim, 20 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 10 percent Roman Catholic.) He also banned foreign travel and private ownership of cars. He kept files on all Albanian citizens, which followed them from workplace to workplace throughout their lives. These files remain sealed to this day. He banned the independent practice of law: none of the many thousands who were tried and sentenced before 1990, either as political dissidents or as common criminals, had a defense lawyer at the trial. Some were sentenced without any trial, while others were summarily executed or disappeared.

Under Hoxha, many thousands of Albanians were imprisoned on political grounds or because of their class background; no one is certain of the total number. Sentences were outrageously long: thirty- or forty-year prison terms were not uncommon. People arrested were treated with exceptional cruelty, both in prison, where additional sentences were frequently tacked on just when prisoners were about to be released, and in internal exile, which invariably followed their imprisonment, and where they were forced to work in the fields under conditions approaching slavery.

The families of those imprisoned also suffered internal exile: not only wives and husbands, mothers, fathers, and children, but sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces—all were sent into remote regions or otherwise made to suffer for a relative’s “crimes,” a punishment that continued from generation to generation. With the end of dictatorship, political prisoners and their families are returning from exile—gaunt and ravaged men and women who are now demanding restitution for the injustices of the past from a government that is sympathetic to their complaints but too poor to help them.

Flying into Tirana airport on my first visit to Albania this November, * I saw a vast expanse of undeveloped beach merging into a broad, flat plain of scratchy farmland ringed by mountains. The plain stretches inland, some thirty miles or so, to the capital city of Tirana, where the mountains serve as a constant backdrop, unreachable for lack of roads. As we landed, we saw cows grazing along the bumpy runway, which was made up of large concrete paving blocks and had been built, I later learned, by gangs of prisoners. A soldier guarding the runway with an automatic rifle, no more than a boy, waved eagerly to the plane; only a few flights arrive each day. The airfield was full of people who had come to meet the plane and were milling around in noisy excitement. We were soon driving along the winding road to Tirana, past donkeys and horse-carts, lopsided haystacks, and wandering sheep. Women were listlessly working the fields with primitive hoes. Our interpreter, a teacher of English at the university, described her shock and sense of betrayal when she went to Paris for the first time in 1989 and saw the quality and variety of goods that were available in a market economy. “In two months in France I bought more than in all the fifteen years of my marriage,” she told me.

Wherever I looked—in the fields, on the mountain slopes, along the road, in the city—the landscape was dotted with cement bunkers, the size and shape of small igloos, which face in every direction with no apparent logic. The bunkers, most of which look as if they would hold two soldiers, were built as a defense against a hypothetical invader, who, of course, never came. I was told that there are 700,000 of these bunkers throughout Albania, some high in the mountains and that their construction began after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Their very existence must have contributed to the collective pathology of paranoia that Enver Hoxha sought to foster.

Surrounded by mountains, Tirana has a pleasant, temperate climate in which tropical palms and northern conifers grow side by side, and there are several wide, tree-lined boulevards, built, I was told, during the 1930s by the Italians, who invested heavily in Albania in the days of King Zog. But the buildings, including those housing government offices, are extremely shabby, with stained and peeling walls, and crumbling stone steps. The Dajti Hotel, the best in town, was also built by the Italians in the 1930s. It was conceived on a grand scale, with a stately tree-lined entrance and large public spaces, but the boat bringing the furniture sank, and thus it was never adequately furnished. Like virtually everything else in Tirana, it is now severely run down. I slept badly my first night there, disturbed less by the hordes of scattering roaches every time I turned on the bathroom light than I was by the smell of bug-killer that permeated my dirty room. Shortly after I had dropped off to sleep at about five, I was awakened by the muezzin’s call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Albania’s president, Sali Berisha, is a large and likable man, forty-eight years old, a cardiologist by profession who had previously been a member of a Communist Party group in the hospital where he worked. He became involved in politics at the time of the student demonstrations, and in December 1990 went on to form the Democratic Party, which became part of a coalition government with the Labor (Communist) Party in March 1991. In December, the Democrats left the government, complaining of continuing Communist control and demanding new elections. In the elections of March 1992, Berisha’s Democratic Party won 67.7 percent of the seats in parliament, while the Socialists won 27.1 percent. “After March 22, we fell into an empty hole,” Berisha told us. “Our society is full of shadows and ghosts from the past but now we have a real start.”

Berisha talked of the need to bring an end to crime and violence in the streets, which have reached frightening proportions. The country badly needs a new constitution, he said, that will guarantee human rights and the rule of law, and a new press law to govern what he sees as an irresponsible press. He would like to compensate the former political prisoners, and believes that members of the former Communist government should be brought to justice. But he still doesn’t know how to deal with the temporarily sealed files of the Sigurimi, or secret police. The files are held by the agency that took over from the Sigurimi, euphemistically renamed the National Information Service (NIS). Many former Sigurimi officers remain in the NIS, and there is good reason to be concerned about the security of the files that some former officials and their collaborators would not want opened. “Some of the files may disappear,” the prime minister, Aleksandr Meksi, acknowledged with resignation. “It can’t be helped.”

Without US and European assistance, we would be an Ethiopia,” Berisha told us. Investors, he said, are wary because they fear that violence will break out in the Serbian province of Kosovo, which borders on Albania and whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Two and a half million Albanians live in Kosovo and in neighboring Macedonia, almost as many as in Albania itself. The Serbian army has virtually occupied Kosovo Province since 1990, and the rights of Albanians there are severely restricted. “We will try to stay out of it,” Berisha told us, “but how we’ll react is hard to say. We cannot allow an ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo, but a conflict there could create a Balkan war.” Despite its poverty Albania, according to Misha Glenny of the BBC, maintains a standing army of some 70,000 with 155,000 reservists, 597 tanks, and nearly 200 planes. Thousands of Kalashnikov rifles are manufactured in the town of Gramsh, some fifty kilometers from Tirana. Glenny warns that in Macedonia tensions between Albanians and Macedonians could easily erupt into a wide-ranging Balkan conflict involving some of the neighboring states. Berisha and virtually everyone else we spoke to think that the United States should protect the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia by taking action to stop Serbian aggression. During our stay, an agreement was reached with Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic that Albania would take in a small number of refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina.

  1. *

    I traveled to Albania with Jonathan Fanton, president of the New School for Social Research and chair of Helsinki Watch.

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