I’ve just returned from Albania, almost 22 years after visiting that country for the first time. In July 1991 I went there on an assignment with U.S. News & World Report, only weeks after the country’s borders were finally opened to foreigners after 45 years of hermetic isolation. I have visited many countries over the years, but this trip—in the summer of 1991—proved memorable for its sheer awfulness.
I drove from Yugoslavia, which was on the verge of disintegration at that time but still vibrant and eminently prosperous by Balkan standards, into a time capsule. A few miles west of Struga, I stopped at the Albanian police and customs post that looked like a prop from a low-budget World War II movie. It was guarded by a detachment of sweaty, shabbily clad soldiers with large red stars on their caps. The hills behind it were littered by dozens of giant mushroom-like structures, which turned out to be reinforced concrete bunkers, the backbone of Communist Albania’s defense strategy and the embodiment of its leaders’ paranoid mindset. Some 700,000 of these militarily useless but virtually indestructible objects were planted all over Albania by the time of Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985. Most of them are still there, almost three decades later, as a lasting monument to Hoxha’s 45 years of iron-fisted Stalinism. The potholed road to Elbasan could have come from a badly neglected Third World country; ditto the scruffy children chasing the car—a rare sight in Albania a generation ago—and begging for food. There was only one place to stay, the Dajti in Tirana. It was also the only venue where a cooked meal could be obtained, at any price. An unexpected encounter with Christopher Hill, an acquaintance from Washington who had arrived a few days earlier to open the first U.S. embassy in a two-room suite at the hotel, resolved the food problem: on my foray north to Scutari I was well stocked with military rations and bottled water to keep the body and soul together.
At the time of my second visit in January 2013, Albania was no longer the poorest country in Europe—that dubious distinction now belongs to Moldova—and its people are well fed and reasonably dressed. It is still far from being of Europe, however, although it is better conn. There are many glossy bars in downtown Tirana, finding a parking spot is hard, and the construction boom seems unaffected by the economic downturn in Greece next door or in Italy across the Strait of Otranto. The buildings housing government institutions at Skenderbeg Square are as charmless as before, but there are high rise office blocks around it that are inoffensive in appearance and populated by prosperous-looking young men and women with laptop bags and SmartPhones.
An hour’s drive from Tirana south to Fier offers a very different picture, however. Dilapidated communist era housing blocks compete for space with chaotically built new single family homes. The traffic crawls along unmarked local roads that range from awful to impassable. The drive from Fier to the historic southern town of Gjirokaster started well on a modern two-lane road but soon turned into a nightmare of unpredictable, unannounced segments . . . reminiscent of the Western Front in 1918. The countryside remains desperately poor and backward, and more than one-half of the workforce is still engaged in underdeveloped and underfunded agriculture. The revenue from Albania’s recently discovered reserves of oil (estimated at 3 bn barrels) and gas will bolster its sluggish economy. In the meantime it remains a developing country a very long way from its stated objective of joining the European Union.
Many Albanians seem cheerfully resigned to their predicament as Europe’s political and cultural periphery. Asked why suburban streets had no house numbers that would make the search for a particular location easier, a friendly receptionist at the Viktoria—a family-run hotel on the southeastern outskirts of Tirana—smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “This is Albania!” The same answer was given by a gas station attendant, when asked why the roadside sign included Visa and MasterCard logos, but no credit cards were actually accepted. “This is Albania!” said the cable ferry operator when asked why the 2012 road map did not indicate that there was a watery obstacle in what looked like an uninterrupted drive along the Ionian coast south of Saranda.
The same resigned response may have come from many Albanians upon learning last month that 1.3 billion dollars’ worth of liquid assets have been illicitly whisked out of the country over the past five years through a combination of corruption, tax evasion, and criminal activities. Such outflows fuel the underground economy, crime and corruption, exasperating income inequality by making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The data coincide with the ascendance to power in 2005 of the government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who promised “zero tolerance” of corruption. In fact his government has been plagued by corruption scandals making Albania one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. The 2012 Transparency International corruption index classed Albania as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and 113th out of 176 countries in its list, down from 95th place in 2011.
Berisha has tried to bolster his standing by playing the nationalist card during the celebrations to mark 100th anniversary of Albania’s statehood last month. Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos cancelled a visit to Tirana scheduled for December 5 after Berisha made a statement laden with audacious territorial aspirations to neighboring countries. Berisha said that the declaration of independence in 1912 had applied to all majority Albanian areas in the region, stretching from Preveza in Greece to Preševo in Serbia, and from the Macedonian capital of Skopje to the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. While Berisha later explained that he was only referring to past history, his tone has caused alarm in the region. “It needs to be clear that we will not tolerate moves and nationalistic stances that drag our region back,” Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Gregory Delavekouras said. Undaunted, Berisha announced that all ethnic Albanians in the region would be granted Albanian citizenship and given Albanian passports on request.
Unlike their political bosses, and unlike their relatives in the self-proclaimed Kosovo to the northeast, most ordinary Albanians in Albania are on the whole law-abiding lot, willing to live by the rules of a well-ordered society. That is and will remain impossible for as long as Berisha remains in power. The temptation to pursue the path of greater-Albanian irredentism should be resisted by his eventual successors, for the sake of Albania’s economic and social advance and for the sake of stability in an ever-turbulent corner of Europe.