There are at least ten flights a week to Tirana from Athens but news from Albanian world travels through different channels. Pristina airport and the borders of Kosovo closed in March following unrest in the UN protectorate. Rumours of what could be going on in Albania were vague and threatening – I was told that former President Berisha, who’s Democratic Party brought Albania to anarchy in 1997 was making moves to regain power. Kalashnikovs, drugs, mafia, blood feuds and chaos. The only guide book, James Pettifer’s ‘Blue Guide’, published three years ago is full of warnings and advice like ‘Take food, drink and cigarettes with you’ and ‘a local guide is needed. Do not go out after dusk’ seeming to confirm that Europe’s poorest country remains an anachronistic Balkan nightmare.
The bus station in Athens was dark and full of small groups of men in leather coats drinking coffee. Outside, families moved from one area to the next as coaches arrived and then refused to open their doors. Baggage had to be passed through a parody of a check-in procedure with stickers, non-functional x-ray machines and queues. Bus 1? 5? or 2? Some had the number hand-written on a slip of paper under the windscreen wiper. The coaches were old, the Greek OSE railway buses were probably built before 1976 when President Enver Hoxha split with Albania’s last communist patron, China, and plunged the country into hermetic isolation until 1991. Bus 2, my bus, was run by a private Albanian firm, Albanian Interlines, and seems to have spent a shorter but nonetheless arduous life in the Benelux region before being re-sprayed and relocated to run 28 hour round trips between Tirana and Athens.
Following nearly fifty years of the tightest restrictions on all travel (even domestic), the last 13 years have been characterised by the mass movement of Albanians leaving the poverty (and at times real hunger) and chaos of the country. There are between 200 and 250 thousand Albanians living in Athens, a community that has grown since the fall of the communist regime in 1991. As such they were the first and are by far the largest single group of immigrants in the city in recent years. Though initially welcomed there is a marked tension and a certain mistrust between Greeks and the newer arrivals. Controversies over assimilation and the state bureaucratic machine keeps immigrants who can’t prove Greek descent in a constant state of anxiety. Green cards have to be renewed every six months in a Sisyphean procedure of gathering original documents, translations and waiting. Sometimes the process is completed just a few weeks before the green card itself expires.
The bus was nearly full. When my neighbour, Alberti, found out that I was a Greek journalist a lively discussion broke out in the back of the bus. Alberti, travelling home to Elbasan for the first time in eight months, pointed out that the representations of Albanians in the Greek press were almost always negative. Why was a Greek-Albanian girl on reality TV show subject to harassment about her origins in a way that the Greek-American was not? Why did no one cover the fact that police had regularly harassed immigrants sometimes demanding money not to cause them trouble? ‘Propaganda!’, claimed Spiro, travelling to the outskirts of Tirana, ‘something we understand well.’ The problems they faced in Greece, however, were quickly overtaken by complaints about the Albanian state. Twenty people died when their boat sank on the way to Italy and the Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, did not even send condolences. If the Greek state was cruelly obstructive, the Albanian state did nothing to help. Their embassy was useless and demonstrated this by regularly doing nothing to support its citizens who ran into trouble in Greece.
To understand something of the reality of today’s Albania and its capital Tirana, one has to understand the nature of the regime that eventually collapsed in 1991 – two whole years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The government of Enver Hoxha that emerged from the Partisan resistance to the Nazis in World War II proved to be the most isolationist, totalitarian and repressive in Europe and, with the exception of North Korea, probably the world. The paranoid mix of nationalism and state socialism led to the country’s split with Tito’s Yugoslavia, Khrushchev’s Soviet Union in the 1950’s and finally in the mid-1970’s, with post-Maoist China. In the mid 1980’s Albania was the last country in Europe with statues of Stalin still standing in public squares. The country was alone in increasing economic stagnation, with rigid social control through the secret police (the Sigurimi that infamously used school children to report on their parents) and the complete control of the ruling Party of Labour over all social, cultural and economic institutions.
The Party’s goals of independence and social equality could arguably be claimed to have been met: a manager earned little more than an assembly worker, but neither had enough, and rationing of basic products such as eggs and butter was common. The country’s readiness to meet external invaders was evident in the infrastructure of the country: hundreds of thousands of mushroom like bunkers peppered public space and road sides, farmers were instructed to fit spikes to their vineyards to spear invading forces arriving by parachute, and as late as 1989, Albanian forces were exercising to push back a possible NATO invasion from the sea. Mountainsides were covered with gigantic Hoxhaist slogans and even three years after his death in 1988 the new leader Ramiz Alia published a memorial volume called ‘Our Enver’ that reaffirmed the Hoxhaist legacy in uncompromising terms. In total seventy-one volumes of Hoxha’s ‘Collected Works’ were published, several of which appeared after his withdrawal from public life in the early 1980’s when it was rumoured that he was suffering from dementia.
The bus stopped at the border at about four am. Everyone rushed out into the cold to get their passports checked and stamped, after half an hour we were back on board and making our way to the duty free. ‘Buy your cigarettes here,’ counselled Alberti, ‘You can get anything you want – from whisky to TV’s and washing machines.’ And you could, but soon we were at the Albanian checks and I was rushed off to fill in a couple of forms with a friendly enough guard and pay a 10 Euro visa whilst everyone else crowded around a tiny window and pushed their passports towards a tired official. An hour and a half to cross: at busy periods, getting back into Greece through the border at Kakavia can take over eight hours.
In January 1990, small groups of refugees had begun to assemble just north of the Greek-Albanian border. A few began to walk through the frozen passes and across the icy rivers into Greek territory. When it became clear that they could do so safely if they could survive the weather, more followed. The border control mechanisms of the one-party state had collapsed and Albania’s physical isolation had ended. With them, went all the “information, education, cultural, economic, military and political power structures” of the country. A pattern was set as increasing numbers of working aged people abandoned the country where institutions that had seemed permanent for fifty years ceased to function and wages were as low as $20 a month with unemployment rising to 40%.
In the semi-darkness I could see the valley opening up beyond Kakavia and the small potholed road weaving past canteens, old Mercedes’ taxis and trucks with German and Dutch advertising on their sides. The road to Tirana runs through Gjirokastro and Tepelene, through the Greek communities that suffered particularly harshly when the Hoxhaists tried to turn Albania into the ‘worlds first atheist state’ through a cultural revolution in 1967. A lack of recognition for minority languages, education and culture under the old regime and tensions that erupted since have played to a ready audience in the Greek media. The expulsion the Chams, an ethnic-Albanian minority from the Suli region just south of the Greek border, by the right wing forces of Napoleon Zervas in the Greek Civil War after 1945, is less well known in Greece, but I was to hear more from the educated, politically conscious inhabitants of Tirana.
In a few hours, we would be passing inland of the port of Vlora, where in March 1991 hundreds of rafts (some no more than empty oil barrels with cloth sails) steered their way out of the bay for Italy. Most refugees made it, some coming ashore as far north as Ancona, a few ended up in Montenegro but others were lost in the Adriatic. In August that year, after months of political unrest and shortages in Albania a second mass exodus took place, this time in larger ships, some taken from the port Durres where marshal law was imposed in order to stem the tide of people. More than ten thousand exhausted, hungry people spent the night in a soccer stadium in Bari before being repatriated by the Italian authorities. After ordering the navy to turn back any further boats, Italy sent 500 soldiers to Albania to help distribute $150million in food aid to avoid the starvation that was predicted for the following winter. So it was that the first ‘non-communist’ government came to power in a country dependent on food aid. The Democratic Party was led Sali Berisha, a former cardiologist to the Tirana elite from the less influential north of Albania, who promised integration with Europe and was popular amongst donor countries and particularly the USA.
We stopped for breakfast in a steep valley just north of Tepelena. The first rays of morning sunlight turned the snow on the peaks of the mountains peach and, not for the last time, my companions insisted on buying me an espresso and bottle of Tepelena mineral water. The reality of Democratic Party rule proved disappointing, my companion said. Fed up with the state that had long been an oppressive force, people began to expropriate all public property, from trees on the sidewalk to electric cables and public telephones. Whilst funds accumulated by the growing diaspora were invested in flawed Pyramid banking schemes, power was increasingly concentrated around Berisha himself and there was ‘a total collapse of public life and almost any kind of social responsibility.’ The exodus of qualified and working people continued and when the Democratic Party was re-elected in 1996 in polls regarded by many as rigged, trust in state institutions reached an all time low.
The next year the Pyramid banking schemes collapsed leading to an armed uprising that the Berisha was unable to quash. In March 1997, the residents of Tepelena formed people’s committees and after releasing the jailed Socialist Party leader, Fatos Nano, from the local gaol, local barracks were raided and the town became a key arms distribution centre as the rebellion moved towards Tirana. With thousands of civilians taking Kalshnikov guns into their own hands a state of anarchy prevailed until the Berisha government fell. The Socialists eventually returned to power and slowly restored a semblance of order. The post-post-socialist reality, however, was hard: Tirana’s population had grown threefold since nineteen nineties and international troops were called in to keep the peace. Major EU and IMF funds began to tackle some of the countries dire infrastructure needs but the dreams of freedom following the fall of communism had by now evaporated.
As we passed through the outskirts of Elbasan, the sulphur-laden air was a sign of the more developed industrialised central flatlands of Albania. ‘The Steel of the Party’ ferro-chrome refinery was built with loans and assistance from China in the 1960’s and dominated the life and economy of the once picturesque Ottoman town. Continuing towards Tirana new post–regime brightly coloured apartment blocks and businesses were becoming more regular. Since the return of the Socialists, re-elected in 2001 ‘ironically’ with a tiny voter turn out, development has been irregular but more stable. Economic growth has been high though from a very low start and heavily dependant on remittances from Albanians working abroad mostly in Greece and Italy.
The beach town of Durres is rapidly filling with high-rise suburban architecture though electricity supplies are such that the residents of the new ten story buildings don’t use the elevators. A new motorway connects the town with it’s large Italian military base to Tirana’s traffic filled outskirts in little more than half an hour. In the summer the beach is packed with Tirana bathers and the badly paved back streets are filling up with pizza restaurants and photo developers.
As we entered Tirana the bus slowed to an uncomfortable urban lilt as we were overtaken by pedestrians weaving their way through the works that were widening the road and stripping many of the buildings of their fronts. The sky was blue but as we got closer to the centre, the chaotic rush of vehicles, the cheap fuel and the dust thrown up by all the movement gave it an ochre tone.
Posters for the mayor, Edi Rama, a former painter who lived in Paris battled for attention with adverts for Greek cigarettes, property developers and banks.
Spiro walked me though the bare brick tenement blocks to open space of Skandeberg Square where a small fun fair and big-wheel now occupies the place where Enver Hoxha’s gold-plated statue once stood. Old Mercedes circled children driving plastic cars around the square under the heroic frieze of the national museum. According to 2001 figures, 30% of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment is between 17% and 30%. Average income is the lowest in Europe at only $4400 a year. The social realist peasants, workers and soldiers on the frieze of the national museum look bravely on, the red star above them has been removed, but reality is still very tough.