In 1990 Albania ended 44 years of xenophobic communist rule and established
a multiparty democracy. The transition has proven difficult, as corrupt
governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated
infrastructure, widespread gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents.
Albania has long been thought of as a freak country. Actually it is one of
the most beautiful in Europe, with a magnificent climate, warm but never
getting too hot, given its mountainous and hilly topography. It is merely a
matter of time before it becomes a great tourist attraction.
That has been prevented of late by its well-deserved reputation for
gangsterism and kidnapping. It is worth giving a historical survey to see
why things may shortly change.
The country was ruled in the interwar period by highland chieftains with
resonant names like King Zog and his son, Leka. The last reigned as an
infant for a few months in 1939 before Italy under Mussolini invaded and
occupied the country. He is still alive and attempted a comeback in an
election in 1997. But he made the mistake of standing as a prospective
premier, clearly wanting to be a king. Despite his pedigree and majestic
height of 6ft 9ins, he failed to impress his subjects-to-be with his
hereditary right to rule. He came nowhere in the election.
In the interim between the infant Leka and the events of 1989, the
Albanians were ruled for fifty years by the communists. This meant in
effect the personal dictatorship
of Enver Hoxha, an extraordinary character, perhaps the most extraordinary
the communist world threw up. He kept his country in virtually complete
isolation. It became the poorest in Europe.
Albania had a severe crisis in the 1990s, with a financial crash in
mid-decade. The population took a while to understand the rules of the
capitalist market-place. Thousands lost their savings in pyramid investment
schemes. But from the turn of the millennium it has done well, compared
with its bleak past. GDP has been rising by 7-8% per year, albeit from a
very low base. The Albanians are no longer the poorest people in Europe.
That dubious distinction now belongs to the Moldovans. The Socialist Party
is benefiting, in power since 1997, and was re-elected comfortably in 2001.
Tirana is 100% behind the US anti-terrorist campaign, having no truck with
ethnic Albanian secessionists next door in Macedonia and Kosovo. The last
thing the Albanians want is a war of any sort. With Milosevic gone there is
no reason to quarrel with the Serbs.
The Albanians blotted their copybook, however, with the French and the EU
by supporting the US over Iraq. Indeed they have even agreed with the US
not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court.
The two leading premiers of the PS government have been Pandeli Majco (now
defence minister) and Fatos Nano, the current holder of the post. Both are
very highly regarded in Washington, which sees Albania as its closest ally
in the region, now that the Turks have refused cooperation over Iraq. The
grimness of the Hoxha years have made the Albanians no friends of