Albania: People and Ruins

During my long traveling over Europe this summer, among other areas, I ventured to Albania, a country where houses frequently do not have numbers and where I located the building where a friend of my youth now lives by a drawing on a gate. This is a country where the so-called oriental bazaar is buzzing everywhere, where towns literally hang on cliffs, and where one easily runs across the ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman legacy of the country and the “archaeology” of the recent communist past (small concrete family bunkers, tunnels for the former communist nomenklatura, monumental sculptures and mosaics in the socialist realism style).

It was interesting to see how this country, which lived much of the 20th century under the most vicious communist dictatorship (1944-1990), is now trying to live a normal life.  To some extent, Albania is very similar to present-day Russia: decades of the negative natural selection under communism killed much of self-reliance, individual initiative, and produced the populace that looks up to the government for the solutions of their problems. For the past thirty years, a new generation emerged, and things did dramatically change. Yet, very much like in Russia, much of the populace feels nostalgia for the “good” old days, which is natural.

According to opinion polls, 46% of the people are nostalgic for the developed communism of dictator Enver Hoxha (1944-1985), an Albanian Stalin, and 43% are against communism; the later number should be higher, given the fact that many enterprising Albanians (1/4 of the population) live and work abroad.  During the last decades of its existence, Albanian communism slipped into a wild isolationism of the North Korean style. Except for Northern Korea and Romania, all countries, from the United States, Germany, UK (capitalist hyenas) to the USSR, China, and Yugoslavia (traitors to socialism), were considered enemies.  Incidentally, Albanian communism was much darker and tougher than the Brezhnev-era USSR. Nevertheless, as it naturally happened in Russia and some other countries, in thirty years, the memory of a part of the population laundered and cleansed the communist past, and this memory now paints this past as a paradise, where everyone was happy and looked confidently into the future, where secret police and labor concentration camps existed for a good reason, and where the vengeful dictator appears as a caring father.

In the hectic transition to market economy and with the lack of established judicial system, there naturally emerged a widespread corruption, nepotism. But, at the same time, small business somehow flourishes. The masses and elites of the country aspire to be united with neighboring Kosovo since both countries are populated by Albanian majorities. On top of this, Kosovo is the birthplace of Albanian nationalism.  However, unlike current Russia, which is spoiled with abundant oil and gas resources (the notorious resource curse factor), corrupt Albanian bureaucrats that rule over a small country exercise caution. Although that small country is too blessed with oil, natural gas, chromium, copper, and iron-nickel, they do not waste their resources on sponsoring geopolitical ventures and harassing their neighbors. For themselves, the Albanians resolved the Kosovo issue as follows: we will be administratively two different states, but de facto economically and socially we will be tied to each other, and all this makes life easier for people, preventing any conflicts. Not a small factor is that, unlike, for example, Russia or Turkey, Albanian nationalism is devoid of any imperial syndromes, and therefore there is no nostalgia for any glorious lost empire. The fact that Albania is a member of NATO also plays a significant role, which forces the Albanian elites behave. Acting smartly, instead of geopolitical games, they decided to fully invest in the development of the tourism business, believing that, in addition to mining their resources, this is the best development option.

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