Albania doesn’t get a very good press these days: people smuggling, money laundering, pyramid selling projects, international prostitution rings, mafia rackets, etc. And this is the image that has taken over from that of the mysterious Balkan country, which was totally closed to contact with the outside world from the post-war period right up until the end of the eighties.
After resisting the Ottomans for many years under the leadership of Skanderbeg, they finally succumbed in 1479. Many Albanians converted to Islam to improve their upwards mobility and to avoid their sons being press ganged into the Janissaries. And the Ottomans ruled for more than 400 years. In1878, the Albanian League began a struggle for autonomy which was put down by the Turks, In 1912, fighting together with Greek, Serbian and Montenegrin armies, the now disintegrating Ottoman Empire was defeated, and Albania declared its independence on 28th November 1912. But in the division of the former Ottoman territories Kosovo, formerly an integral part of Albania, was ceded to the Serbs. In the First World War Albania was occupied by the armies of Greece, Serbia, Italy, France and Austria-Hungary. The great powers favoured a separate Albania after the war, and a republican government brought some stability after the war, but it was overthrown in 1924 by the Northern warlord Ahmed Bey Zogu, who installed himself as president then as King Zog I in 1928 and was attracted to Italian fascism. However, Mussolini ordered an invasion of Albania in 1939, and King Zog fled to London, taking the country’s gold with him.
After the war, the partisans under Enver Hohxa, the Secretary general of the Communist Party, took control. He broke off contact with Yugoslavia, which wanted to incorporate it into the Yugoslav federation, and collaborated closely with the USSR until 1960, when Khrushchev demanded that a Soviet nuclear base be set up off the Albanian coast. Albania then closed ranks with China and built some 700,000 concrete bunkers in fear of an invasion from East, or West. They are still there. Hohxa died in 1985, but after the huge funeral ceremonies, the Communist system began to collapse, as it did elsewhere; people were not bothering to work on the collective farms, and there were considerable food shortages. As the Communists governments fell like a pack of cards from 1989, Albania embarked on a free-for-all capitalist system. Stolen Mercedes were smuggled into the country, indeed Albania has the highest proportion of Merc ownership in the world, marijuana was grown on ex-collective farms, and Albania became a central point on the drug and people smuggling routes. An enormous number of people lost their life savings in the 1996-7 pyramid scam. Since then a certain stability has been achieved, and Albania has had to cope with another major problem: nearly half a million ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo who arrived in 1999.
Albania has become a big fan of the US, and, when touring Europe in June 2007, it was the only country where there were no protests against the US, Indeed, quoting from the BBC site: “On a quick trip outside the capital, Mr Bush was given a welcome worthy of a rock star by thronging Albanian fans, who shook his hands and kissed his cheeks as he walked through the crowd waving and blowing kisses.” This was in lower Kruje, Kruje Fushe, where the main cafe has now been renamed the “George W. Bush Cafe”.
Compared to the staider ex-Yugoslavian states of Croatia and Slovenia Albania has a whiff of the Wild West. The power supply is so irregular many businesses have their own generator. Traffic clogs the main avenues; roads and pavements (where they exist) are full of potholes; a smog covers Tirana on this mild and sunny January morning; rubbish remains uncollected. Plenty of people of all ages are begging for money. Even the steps on the once prestigious communist built House of Culture in the main square are cracked and broken. But worst of all for the tourist, there are absolutely no street name plates. But this becomes a good excuse to meet the locals… And just before I left I noticed that nice clear blue signs had been set up in my street, “Mine Yaza”.
Yet, after the snow of Budapest and Sarajevo, and the rain of Dubrovnik and Podgorica, it is pleasant be in a mild Mediterranean winter climate and to stroll around the Sheshi Skenderbej main square, now without its statue of Hohxa, leaving only that of Skanderbeg, to visit the central Et’hem Bey Mosque, one of the few not destroyed by the communists as Albania became the first ever official atheist state in the world, and down the tree-lined main avenue, the Bulevardi Seshmoeret e Kombit, lined by its Italian fascist style ministries, to the university, and a statue of Mother Teresa (born in Macedonia, but an ethnic Albanian) and to the city park, where, after paying my respects to the monument to the 19th century Albanian patriots, I see, together with the normal park fauna of joggers and football teams training, a couple of cows and flock of sheep grazing. They seem to have been brought by an elderly couple, who lovingly lead the cows to ever fresher grass.
Thence to the district of Blloku, formerly inhabited by the top party officials, and now the area which concentrates international hotels, chic cafes, mobile phone boutiques, designer clothing stores, new Mercs and four-wheel drives. It seems there is plenty of money around. Not very well distributed, though. Does it all comes from drugs, prostitution, scams and people smugglin? Are those two guys with their shaved heads, designer stubble and sunglasses getting out of their Merc intently doing business, it seems, for my knowledge of Albanian is pretty limited, involved in some scam? Of course, many Albanians work abroad and send money home: half a million in Italy and some three hundred thousand in Greece. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much industry in Albania. I haven’t seen a single factory. Those opened up by the communists have all closed down. Indeed, the nearest to any kind of industry I see are innumerable car breakers yards.
But people are pleasant and easy-going. Despite the great gap in wealth street crime is almost non-existent. There seems to be little resentment of those who have made it.
The public squares I pass on my way to Kruje on a Wednesday morning are full of men chatting and smoking. Outside the mosque in Tirana I am approached by Edmond, 30, who has already worked in Greece and Italy, but he couldn’t get a visa extension. he now has to pay some 300 euros to get another visa. He asks me to get him a job in the UK.
Every country needs a hero, and Albania now has Skanderbeg (1405-1468). The main museum in Tirana still hasn’t rid itself of all its communist labels, and Skanderbeg, whose name is not Scandinavian but rather a corruption of Alexander Bey (Lord), and who united the clans of Albania to defeat the Turks on a number of occasions in the 15th century before, after his death, they were finally defeated, is seen as a leader of the people against the Imperialistic aggression of the Ottomans. His home town is Kruje, just 25km from Tirana, and I visit the fortress he successfully defended, and the neighbouring museum in honour of Skanderbeg, designed by Hohxa’s daughter and son-in-law in a retro castellated style. Skanderbeg in terracotta, bronze, oils, plaster. Skanderbeg’s helmet and sword (only replicas as the originals are in Vienna). Skanderbeg painted by artists from all over. Statues of Skanderbeg in Michigan, Rome, Brussels, Spezzano and Gdansk. The inscription on the Geneva statue is most revealing: “Skanderbeg, Défenseur de l’Europe”.