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 A few restrictive laws were rescinded, such as the “crime” of religious propaganda, or limited in their application, as was the case with “agitation and propaganda against the state,” but not in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.


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