Albania is a small country, about the size of Massachusetts, with 3.6 million people tucked in a corner of Europe that is not, to say the least, a popular tourist destination for Americans. It is one of those countries rarely in the news unless blood is flowing in the streets or, in the Albanian case, unless a massive Ponzi scheme comes telegenically crashing down, as in the infamous Lottery Uprising of 1997.
I had always wanted to visit Albania for several reasons. The strange character of its communist past evoked my curiosity. I wondered if the personality of the French-educated supreme leader, Enver Hoxha, accounted for the peculiarities of that system, or if instead there was something in Albanian history and society that made it different (and worse) than others of similar basic character. My curiosity was also aroused by the fact that almost nothing was known about the country for so many years. In a way, Albania was a Balkan version of North Korea. So when I received an unexpected invitation from a distinguished Albanian sociologist to attend a conference at the new European University of Tirana I eagerly accepted.
What little I knew about Albania before setting off last May was that it used to be the poorest country in Europe and the most harshly repressed among all the European communist states. Hoxha, who ruled as supreme leader for more than forty years, was a paranoid tyrant whose personality cult rivaled those of Stalin and Mao. His megalomania was reflected not only in the fact that his collected writings amount to 65 volumes, but that Hoxha himself was an avid reader of his own writings. In 1989, the British author Anthony Daniels, visiting the Enver Hoxha Museum (no longer in existence), saw a video that showed Hoxha “approaching a bookcase in his study. He looks the books up and down, evidently searching for something good to read. Finally, after some considerable thought, he alights on something suitable: Volume Six of his own Collected Works. He settles down contentedly to read it.”1
During the Cold War, Hoxha outdid both Tito and Ceausescu in distancing his country from the Soviet Bloc. He denounced the Soviet Union following Khrushchev’s de-Stalinizing reforms (after having earlier provided a submarine base for the Soviet navy) and concluded that only Mao’s China was sufficiently revolutionary for his tastes. Yet he also broke with the latter in the late 1970s. Hoxha thus had a talent for making powerful enemies, and he felt besieged as totalitarian leaders do, but more so than most. Among his distinctive contributions to the building of socialism were somewhere between one-half to three-quarters of a million concrete bunkers facing outward from Albania in all directions. Hoxha expected Albania to be attacked from every point of the compass.
The other odd fact I knew about Albania before my visit was that in communist times the authorities refused to permit bearded tourists from entering the country. An eyewitness told me that during a rare visit by Western tourists all passengers had to disembark at the border from their bus, and those with any facial hair had to shave it off before being allowed into the country. This policy was the opposite of the Islamic insistence on growing and retaining large amounts of facial hair in conformity with moral-religious obligations. These starkly contrasting convictions are reminders of the seemingly limitless human capacity to take unwavering moral or philosophical positions about seemingly trivial matters. It is also possible that Hoxha associated beards with hippies and other manifestations of Western decadence, or that, more likely, his objection to beards was part of his campaign to extirpate Islamic traditions.
Islam came to Albania in the 14th century with Ottoman rule, and in the central and southern parts of the country, more upwardly mobile Albanians adopted the Sunni traditions of the Turks, just as the locals did in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere. As time passed, however, some Albanians came to adopt a form of Bektashi Shiism, a mystical Sufi order that came to the country via Albanian Janissaries who had served in the Ottoman army. Since Sunni Islam was associated in Albanian history with the country’s class structure, and since Marxists tolerated no form of mysticism beside their own, Hoxha had no use for either variety. Today there is little evidence of the survival of Muslim religious sentiments or practices resulting presumably from a combination of the communist anti-religious campaigns of the past and the rapid modernization since the early 1990s.
I was first struck by Albanian modernization upon my arrival to Tirana from Budapest at the attractive new airport terminal, which offered the usual amenities of Western airports. By contrast, as Daniels noted in 1989:
At Tirana airport one leaves a continent and several decades behind. No businessmen bustle . . . no one rushes to buy a watch or camera. . . . People move slowly. . . . The aircraft in which one lands stands in solitary glory. . . . Before the entry formalities are completed, the aircraft has taken off to the other world, and suddenly the reality of Albania’s terrible isolation is revealed.2
A similarly impressive feat of physical modernization was the recently completed expressway and tunnel in the north connecting Albania to newly independent Kosovo, with its own border guards and passport controls.
I had no specific expectations of what I would find in Albania except interesting geography, largely unspoiled natural scenery and a few medieval fortresses. As I discovered, Albania, like nearly every other former communist country, had benefited greatly from socialist underdevelopment. In those days there was little commerce; few restaurants, hotels or resorts dotted the countryside. Only high-level officials had second homes (or access to party resorts) in the country. The ugly apartment complexes favored by these states took up far less space than Western-style suburbs. There were few cars—in Albania virtually none, except for those of a handful for high-ranking officials—and thus little need for parking lots, garages or gas stations and little incentive either to build new roads or widen existing ones. Shopping centers were unknown since hardly any consumer goods were produced or imported. It is also true that in communist states the authorities did not hesitate to despoil and disfigure the environment by building enormous factories and mines whose inefficiency was legendary. Albania too has its share of such abandoned monuments to the failure of socialist planning and industrialization, but on balance its countryside and natural environment benefitted from the prevailing scarcities.
Its small size notwithstanding, Albania has a varied and often spectacular topography, much of it mountainous. But the country is also endowed with an attractive indented coastline on the Adriatic and Ionian seas, substantial rivers and three large lakes, one shared with Montenegro and two with Macedonia. Nearly 90 percent of its electricity is generated by hydropower, one third of the country is forested and its mountains remain lush and verdant. Like Bulgaria, Albania has the potential to become a center of eco-tourism, offering hiking, skiing, kayaking and bird-watching (and other wildlife).
Unfortunately, the country may not remain relatively pristine for long. The tentacles of capitalism, seemingly unregulated, are rapidly and efficiently spreading. In the coastal town of Lech north of Tirana a wave of development has already left new apartment buildings and hotels, built cheek-by-jowl, crowding the seashore. There are signs of feverish economic activity everywhere; I have never seen more construction anywhere than in this country, which has an impressive growth rate of 6 percent. A whole new area of industrial parks and office buildings has sprung up between the airport and Tirana, while the city itself features countless new apartment and office buildings, shops, department stores, restaurants, hotels and gas stations. The streets are choked by mostly new cars (Japanese and European), and there is no metered parking. Satellite television dishes sprout from most apartment windows, balconies and rooftops. For the present day visitor it is hard to imagine that scene twenty years ago; as Daniels observed, “There was no traffic in Tirana and no commercial life . . . the people who trudged along the pavements . . . were clad in dreariness . . . darkness is pierced by no garish neon proclaiming vulgar entertainments. People in Tirana go home early.”3
Albanian capitalism and consumerism benefit from very low tax rates (a maximum 10 percent income tax) and the entrepreneurial spirit of Albanians. With so many new cars, for example, have come ubiquitous cheap car-wash services offered along many highways, consisting only of a hose with water gushing out of it. Aggressive and dangerous driving habits prevail, and a profound disdain for the rules of the road is apparent. (Then again, this is something one also finds in other Mediterranean countries.) There is a lot of honking and near misses when cars pass one another. As in Greece the highways are lined with small memorials of people killed in accidents. Although widespread use of cars dates back less than twenty years I saw numerous junkyards filled with cars in various states of disrepair—possibly a legacy of Albania’s reputation as a stolen car chop-shop—which in countries like Cuba would have been lovingly restored and put to use.
Twenty years ago, Tirana had a population of 200,000; today, it nears a million. The infrastructure, meanwhile, has not kept pace with growth. Nor have public authorities been able to pay much attention to urban aesthetics. Tirana is by no means beautiful, or even quaint. There are no old sections or buildings, except one 18th-century mosque. It is, after all, a city that barely existed before the 20th century. It is easy, however, to tell apart the older socialist buildings from the newer post-communist ones: The former are decrepit, literally falling apart; the new ones are, as a matter of policy, often painted in different colors to mitigate their uniformity.
Nevertheless, life in Tirana today is redeemed by its bustling energy. Multitudes enliven the streets, even late at night. Sidewalk cafes and eateries are abundant and busy. Small shops and sidewalk merchants do a brisk business selling a variety of goods, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. There are also the ubiquitous Western chains of retail stores one finds almost everywhere these days, for better and for worse. Children play on the street even at late hours and people demonstrate that Albania, like the rest of Europe, is now a full-fledged cellphone culture.
Perhaps most astonishing, Albania is an approximation of a democracy. On the day I arrived, Tirana’s street life was further enlivened by political protest. A huge and noisy anti-government demonstration, complete with banners and loudspeakers, railed against the governing party’s alleged cheating during the June 2009 election. Also in progress, surrounded by the protestors, were large tents sheltering some 200 hunger strikers. The country does not yet have mature mass-based political parties, and traditional loyalties slow the development of impersonal social trust. But there are vigorous NGOs of highly motivated young people, one of which I addressed in the small town of Kukes. All transitions to the modern state have to start somewhere, and Albanians have made a promising start.
The streets of Tirana are also full of well-dressed and well-groomed young women, reminding me of a similar post-communist phenomenon in St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s. In Tirana now as in St. Petersburg then, women seem far more attentive to their appearance than in comparable urban settings in the United States. Apparently, Albanian women feel liberated from the enforced drabness and scarcities of the communist era, when few women could find or afford attractive clothing or cosmetics and the authorities frowned on physical beautification. The current preoccupation with looks probably also has something to do with the weakness of feminist ideas. Albania used to be, and in most respects still is, a more traditional culture than any other in Europe. The communist authorities’ attempt to destroy traditional attitudes succeeded in some respects, as with religion, but not even the greater educational and career opportunities for women promoted by the communist system changed significant traditional attitudes, social roles and patterns of behavior between men and women. Feminism has made limited progress in Albania (as in other post-communist societies) also because there is less receptivity to the feminist preoccupation with the victimization and oppression of women. After all, this is a society where everybody experienced severe political repression. Compared to that, discrimination against women remains a minor grievance and source of limited moral indignation.
Albania’s pro-Americanism is nearly as eye-catching as its women. American flags often fly next to the Albanian ones at gas stations and hotels. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty adorn some hotels, including one called “Amerika” whose services I engaged in the small town of Kukes near the Kosovo border. Upon learning that, despite a residual Central European accent, I lived in the United States, many Albanians expressed a friendliness and curiosity and some switched to English after speaking Albanian to my host or guide.
Pro-American attitudes have several layers of historical sources. In 1919, the United States, Woodrow Wilson, in particular, supported the creation of an independent Albania. During World War II, the United States was at war with Italy, the occupier of Albania. More recently, of course, the United States took a strong pro-Albanian position (including military assistance through NATO) over Kosovo, and since the 1999 war Washington has been at the forefront of support for Kosovo’s independence.
Another source of Albanian pro-Americanism may be that American-style capitalism has clearly helped Albanians to improve their living standards. That it may also have led to large new inequalities and incipient environmental problems does not seem to have yet garnered much attention. Indeed, Albania has been modernizing so rapidly that the darker sides of the process have not been conspicuous so far—except perhaps for the large amounts of uncollected garbage on the streets and along the highways. It probably helps, too, that certain stabilizing and reassuring traditional attitudes remain in place. As in Italy, which has exerted much cultural influence on Albania over the years, large families parade on the streets in the evening. People socialize in public places, clinking glasses to express friendliness. Hospitality, especially to foreigners, is downright rampant. Albanians express strong opinions; Western-style social reserve and impersonality have yet to make a noteworthy appearance. Even policeman reflect some of these attitudes. One who stopped my host for exceeding the speed limit not only failed to give him a ticket but somehow ended up in a bout of warm handshaking (and without getting a bribe).
For the casual visitor these seem to be good times in Albania, a rare and possibly fleeting period. The nightmare of Hoxha-style communist life is gone, but the depredations of capitalist modernity have yet to emerge in full force. In this transitional period, if that is what it is, traditional ways still have a substantial foothold. In Albania one can even enjoy a simple commercial transaction between a producer and a buyer. Fishermen sell fish they just caught in Lake Ohrid on a nearby road. Children and adults sell fresh cherries and other produce along another stretch of the road. No one charges tax or offers you a receipt. Roadside fresh produce stands in western Massachusetts where I live somehow don’t inspire similar sentimental reflections about the remnants of traditional life. Should Albania become a member of the European Union, such freewheeling commerce is likely to be eliminated for its questionable hygienic standards.
In the final analysis the most remarkable aspect of Albanian modernization is its apparent speed and comprehensiveness. A repressive, stagnant and scarcity-ridden system collapsed, and suddenly, miraculously, Albanians became busy bees, their energies released and channeled into a multiplicity of projects and activities. In 1989, the redoubtable Mr. Daniels wondered what went on in Albanian minds behind those impassive, weather-beaten peasant faces. Had lies become truth simply through repetition? Or did they become “white noise” within a repertoire of efforts to preserve one’s sanity? What effect, if any, did even the passive acceptance of systematic untruth have on the human psyche?
As far as I could see, whatever damage a half-century of communist totalitarianism inflicted is healing. The human psyche has a surprising capacity to recover from practically any non-fatal affliction. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to fully comprehend how a society as thoroughly repressed and regimented as Albania had been could modernize so quickly and yet retain a substantial portion of its traditional values and virtues. Certainly, Albania’s hearty embrace of capitalism and political democracy is an unexpected response to the sufferings and deprivations of the past, and it suggests that market democracy can spontaneously arise in the unlikeliest of places. Now, if it only lasts for a while, I might want to visit again before long.