Albania: Europes Last Marxist Holdout
APRIL 01, 1991
The author, a journalist with an American news agency, remains anonymous to protect sources in Albania.
“We hate Communism; we love capitalism,” the young Albanian told me, with his eyes blazing. On a trip to Albania last October, I was befriended by a 20-year-old who led me down rubble-strewn alleyways in the nation’s capital, Tirana, to a squalid house where I talked politics for five hours with him and two other young men. Out of view of the security police, they were strident in voicing their hatred of the government. They asked me when America and Britain would send troops to liberate them.
At the time of my visit, Albania was the last state in Europe where unreformed Communism ruled, but then it has always been something of an oddity. The Communists came to power in 1944, led by Enver Hoxha (pronounced Ho-ja). At first they allied with the Soviet bloc, but Hoxha (1908-1985) cut off all links with Moscow in 1960 because of what he saw as Khrushchev’s revisionism. Relations with China replaced the Soviet connection from 1968 to 1978, but after that the country was kept in isolation.
To the Western visitor, Albania has the appearance of a living museum, with the only signs of the 20th century provided by a scattering of imported goods. Very few people have been allowed in or out, although, since my visit, several thousand Albanians have illegally crossed into Greece. Tourists are stared at by curious locals,
Some of Hoxha’s policies were as much bizarre as repressive: religion was banned, beards were made illegal, and until 1989 listening to Western pop music was an offense. In 1965 a government decree banned individuals from having “inappropriate names and offensive surnames from a political, ideological, or moral standpoint.” Trying to escape was a capital crime. On the day before my trip, the newspapers reported that two men had been shot while attempting to flee, and their bodies put on show as a gruesome warning.
Other policies clearly demonstrated Hoxha’s paranoia. Driving through the country, one sees the landscape littered with concrete pillboxes, built in the 1960s to defend against imperialist attack. Radio Tirana, whose transmissions could be heard in Britain, offered vehement denunciations of both superpowers as well as of many other nations.
No Sign of Wealth
The country is breathtaking in its lack of development. All the roads are narrow and pitted, and it was no pleasant motoring experience touring the country in an old bone-shaker Czechoslovakian bus. Private cars are illegal too, so the few rusting Ladas seen on the roads are driven by the police. The only other vehicles seen are prewar Chinese trucks, which seem to form the backbone of the transport system. Farm animals wander over the roads at will. To get around, ordinary people ride donkeys or bicycles.
No hint of affluence lightens the picture of poverty. There are no smart shops or houses. Buildings look cheaply made, with irregular bricks and uneven concrete. The countryside is beautiful but somewhat bleak, craggy, and sun-hardened, with little foliage. The striking thing is the lack of evidence of human industry. There are odd pieces of rusting farm machinery, but the overwhelming picture is of a peasant society, with rows of workers toiling in the fields. There are small towns every few miles, but none take up more than a few hun-tired meters of roadway.
The other bizarre sight in Albania is the Marxist iconography. In Berat, in the south of the country, “ENVER” is carved in huge letters into a distant mountainside. In Gjirokaster the same letters decorate the hillside, but this time on stilts, Hollywood-style. Statues of Lenin (and until recently, Stalin) still adorn town centers. In the center of Tirana stands the Enver Hoxha Museum, a huge glass and steel pyramid, dedicated to glorifying the life and works of the Albanian dictator.
My young friends resented these symbols as much as they resented the system. “Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Hoxha, all the same,” said one as he ticked off the names on his fingers. Another of their friends, they told me with glee, had attacked a statue of Stalin during the uprisings in June 1990.
With Communist governments overthrown in all the other Eastern European countries, the Albanian dictatorship has stood alone and vulnerable. Last June, thousands of young people in
Tirana scaled the walls of foreign embassies to escape to the West. Five thousand were allowed out to Italy. At the same time, demonstrations erupted in Shkoder and Kavaje.
The regime denounced the escapees as “criminals,” and fired on them with live ammunition. My young friends told me that 100 people were shot dead in Tirana, and then hurriedly buried in a mass grave. In Kavaje, a 22-year-old man was shot dead by troops after making a victory sign with his fingers.
Since then, walls around the embassies have been fortified, and armed soldiers posted outside. I tried to walk past the Turkish Embassy, but was ushered out into the road by a scowling guard.
Riots and demonstrations have erupted several times since early December. Some demonstrators have been given 15- and 20-year prison sentences.
The Albanian Communists are worried that their fate might be the same as that of Nicolae Ceansescu and his officials in neighboring Romania. Chairman Ramiz Alia, who took over when Hoxha died in 1985, is trying to improve the regime’s image. Locals are now allowed to talk with tourists, and more visitors are admitted. Alia hopes to have Albania admitted to the International Monetary Fund and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), and to establish diplomatic links with Britain and the United States. Some private markets have been legalized, where half the profits go to the state and half to stall-holders.
But, my young friends pointed out, the changes were limited, cosmetic, and grudging, and the country remained essentially an unreformed Marxist dictatorship. They were nervous about the secret police (sigurimi), and constantly checked that we were not followed. According to their count, one-third of the pedestrians in Tirana were either police or sigurimi.
Their caution became even more understandable when they told me that they knew of someone who had been given a 25-year sentence at the prison camp in Berul for expressing anti-Marxist political opinions. At Berul, they explained, prisoners are forced to dig coal, and are often buried alive in poorly supported mine shafts.
According to the International Society for Human Rights, there may be up to 50,000 political prisoners in Albania. The difficulties in confirming any such estimate are that there is so little access to the country, and that people who escape are rarely willing to endanger their relatives by going public with what they know.
Even so, some details are known. Human rights groups report routine torture, imprisonment without fair trial, and execution for anti-state activities. The Albanian government is one of only three ever to be publicly sanctioned by the United Nations for its record on human rights.
I was quite sickened to learn that at Sarande, a resort town where I strolled along the waterfront in the sunshine, there is a jail for political dissidents. Outside my hotel in Sarande was the smartest Albanian car I saw, a well-polished Mercedes-Benz. It was undoubtedly the property of a senior official, holidaying next door to a prison camp of his government’s making.
As with Ceausescu’s Romania, there are plenty of socialists in the West prepared to see no evil in their praise for Albanian socialism. Written while Hoxha still ruled, Albania Defiant by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle is an adulatory account of a workers’ paradise fighting to retain independence from the alien and corrupting influences of the outside world. Christopher Brown, writing in the supposedly moderate British socialist newspaper Tribune (June 9, 1990), eulogizes the simple life enjoyed by Albanians, freed from the pressures of materialism. This article, incredibly, makes a virtue out of things that most reasonable people would consider appalling limitations of freedom: the banning of private cars, the illegality of religion, and most contemptibly the refusal to’ allow people to leave. One can only hope that when all the outrages perpetrated by the Albanian dictatorship have finally been revealed, these apologists will be called to account.
There are good reasons to think there will be a revolution in Albania. According to our tour guides there is no unemployment, but this claim became patently ridiculous as in every town we saw large groups of working-age men milling around at all times of the day.
Of the three young men I talked with, two were unemployed, and in their estimation the proportion was one in five. They were numbingly bored, and passed the time listening to poor quality cassettes of rock music and considering their situation. Unemployment leads to discontent and provides the time to plan insurrection.
Ironically, the Albanian government may have hastened its own demise by allowing in tourists. Albanian people can now compare their own situation with that of people from free Europe, and can learn more about the world outside.
My 20-year-old acquaintance told me bitterly, “When I see a tourist I see a free man. He can leave.” The obvious passion of his wish for liberty was moving. He declared that he would rather sweep the streets in America or Britain than stay in Albania.
Much of the conversation with my hosts consisted of comparisons of what could be earned and what could be bought in Albania and the West. They told me that the bottle of hard liquor I shared with them cost the equivalent of a whole day’s pay. A sweater costs two weeks’ money, and to buy a bicycle requires five years of saving.
“My father earns four packs of cigarettes in one day—how much are you paid?” one of them asked. I grappled with the problem of converting my daily earnings into cigarettes, guessing at 100 packets, which made him gasp in disbelief.
Officially, all Albanians are paid 500-1,000 lek a month, which at their exchange rate converts to about $25-$50, but since locals were reluctant to take the currency there is good reason to think that the rate is an artificial one. When tips were in order, no one would take lek, but would take small items like chewing gum. The official rate was recently devalued to give 20 lek to the dollar, but on the black market a dollar exchanges for about 100 lek.
There is also very little to be bought with lek. There are few goods, and those on sale are shoddy. Many Albanian men look identical because they wear the same state-issue brown trousers and jackets. There appear to be only three or four different styles of men’s shoes.
The house I visited was cramped, kept as homey as it could be, but obviously lacking in material comforts. The only modern item, and what seemed to be the most prized possession, was a cassette player sent by the brother of one man who had escaped to Italy through the embassy.
Albanians have television that broadcasts from 6 to 10 P.M., but my friends preferred their rock music to what they denounced as “Red propaganda.” I offered to send a rock music magazine, but they told me it would be stolen by the bureaucrats who open the mail.
Education and health care are ostensibly free, but in reality bribes ensure that some are more equal than others. When I asked my friends why they didn’t study at the university—as they were clearly bright enough—they smiled and indicated empty pockets. In the Peoples Socialist Republic of Albania, the only affluent people are the Communist officials who, my Mends told me, “live like Americans.”
For all the squalor and repression, I found it heartening that the young Albanians I met had not been crushed or molded. They were lively, intelligent, and held no illusions about the government. They seemed to believe more passionately in individual liberty than most people in the West could appreciate. I told them I would visit again when Albania is a free country, and they smiled at the thought.