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Modern Albania

Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe

Fred C. Abrahams
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Modern Albania
    Book Description:

    In the early 1990s, Albania, arguably Europe's most closed and repressive state, began a startling transition out of forty years of self-imposed Communist isolation. Albanians who were not allowed to practice religion, travel abroad, wear jeans, or read "decadent" Western literature began to devour the outside world. They opened cafés, companies, and newspapers. Previously banned rock music blared in the streets.

    Modern Albaniaoffers a vivid history of the Albanian Communist regime's fall and the trials and tribulations that led the country to become the state it is today. The book provides an in-depth look at the Communists' last Politburo meetings and the first student revolts, the fall of the Stalinist regime, the outflows of refugees, the crash of the massive pyramid-loan schemes, the war in neighboring Kosovo, and Albania's relationship with the United States. Fred Abrahams weaves together personal experience from more than twenty years of work in Albania, interviews with key Albanians and foreigners who played a role in the country's politics since 1990-including former Politburo members, opposition leaders, intelligence agents, diplomats, and founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army-and a close examination of hundreds of previously secret government records from Albania and the United States. A rich, narratively-driven account,Modern Albaniagives readers a front-row seat to the dramatic events of the last battle of Cold War Europe.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-4118-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Map of Albania
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Map of Tirana
    (pp. x-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Fred Abrahams

    For four decades after World War Two, tiny Albania was hermetically sealed. The Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, banned religion, private property, and “decadent” music such as the Beatles’. Secret police arrested critics and border guards shot people who tried to flee. But as communism crumbled across the Eastern Bloc, the regime loosened its grip. Pressed by demonstrations and poverty, in late 1990 the communists allowed other parties to exist. In early 1992, more than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a democratically elected government came to power and started to bring Albania in from the cold.


  6. Prologue: On the Boulevard
    (pp. 1-12)

    The dry, rocky mountains of Montenegro drew near as the plane decended from the north. The high peaks of Albania rose to the left, flashing their fangs to the sky. The jagged teeth settled into deep valleys and dense forests that held the highlanders I had read about and would soon meet for myself.

    The mountains got shorter and rounder as the plane slid south. The gray rock ran down the country’s eastern length like a spine. Albania is a small country, a saying goes, but it would grow ten times if it were ironed flat. On the western side,...


    • 1 Hoxha’s Heart
      (pp. 15-27)

      Enver Hoxha’s doctors enjoyed their work. The dictator treated them well, and they had access to modern medical gear. They felt honored to care for the country’s elite.

      The most coveted task was night duty in Hoxha’s large but unglamorous villa in Tirana’s forbidden “Block,” just west of Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard. After checking on Hoxha, the doctors slipped into the large library, full of banned books, mostly in French, which Hoxha spoke well. Translations of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky lined the shelves, as did writings by Lenin, Machiavelli, and Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s minister of police, and novels by...

    • 2 Fences Fall
      (pp. 28-40)

      A balding head and soft face gave Hoxha’s successor, Ramiz Alia, a gentle look. His speech and manners were calm and measured, not the attributes of a forceful man. But dark eyes and a sly smile betrayed a clever and ambitious operator with a skill for working his way up the communist elite. A young Partisan during World War Two, Alia survived forty years of purges and sweeps.

      In some ways, Hoxha’s attempt to protect his legacy might have aided Albania. True to form, Alia was a less dogmatic character who dealt with changes in Eastern Europe and Albania as...

    • 3 The System Shakes
      (pp. 41-48)

      Bujar Alikaj was a jovial street guy, a thirty-year-old bus driver from the Kombinati neighborhood of Tirana—the workers’ area named for the textile mill Kombinati Stalin. Throughout Albania, Bujar’s generation of young men, most of them unemployed, all of them gazing west, was making the regime nervous. They had rioted in Kavaja and were restless in other towns. They were not overtly political but they wanted the system to change. They saw how a clique of elites was carousing in the Block at their expense.

      Bujar had known he wanted to leave Albania since 1979, when he started teaching...


    • 4 Student City
      (pp. 51-64)

      The student quarter of Tirana, called Student City, sits atop a low hill in the southeast of the capital. In 1990, the squat beige-and-gray dormitories surrounded an open area consisting of concrete and trampled grass. The communist elite controlled most aspects of Albania’s political shift, but that autumn the students took charge of that drab hilltop and rattled the regime.

      Ramiz Alia and the party leadership grasped the regime’s precarious state. They postponed the start of classes for two weeks, claiming that some university buildings needed repair. When classes began, party functionaries condemned “the vagabonds” who had stormed the embassies...

    • 5 A Democratic Party
      (pp. 65-83)

      Student City rejoiced. The last communist party of Eastern Europe had succumbed. Students, professors, and workers hugged, sang, and cheered. They also began to plan. The students wanted to form a party of students and young intellectuals, as they had told Alia, but some professors and Tirana intellectuals proposed an organization with broader scope. While jubilant crowds cheered in Student City, a small group discussed what they called a “real party”—a party that went beyond the confines of student life.

      The people involved gave different versions of the discussions and debates, but all agreed that approximately twenty people made...

    • 6 Vote for the Future
      (pp. 84-110)

      Albania’s first day without Enver Hoxha had bright sun. Tirana residents strolled outside, gawking at the empty pedestal in Skanderbeg Square. But the monument’s fall sent tremors from Shkoder to Gjirokaster. As the students had intended, their actions pierced the regime.

      The government warned against anarchy and accused the Democratic Party of inciting the attack. The Central Committee called on citizens to restore order. “No honest and patriotic person should stand by with arms crossed,” a statement said. “They should organize on the basis of neighborhood, quarter, street, shift, enterprise or institution in order that, together with the communists, they...


    • 7 Rebuild the State
      (pp. 113-126)

      For forty-five years, elections in Albania had been a farce. Ballots listed one candidate from the Party of Labor, and a folded paper without marks constituted a valid vote. Now Albanians had secrecy and choice.

      Albanians overwhelmingly chose to usher in a new generation of politicians who promised to break from the past. In what was largely a referendum on communism, Enver Hoxha lost. Albanians wanted to own jeans, travel abroad, and speak their minds.

      A political prisoner for twenty-eight years, Pjetër Arbnori, became speaker of parliament. On April 4, 1992, he opened the first session:

      The great honor to...

    • 8 One-Party Town
      (pp. 127-144)

      In this tense atmosphere I arrived, landing in Tirana in July 1993. My two friends and I started working on the student newspaper at Tirana University, funded by the Soros Foundation, with two computers donated by the International Media Fund, which the U.S. government had established to assist media in the former communist bloc.

      Among the first people we met were the founding members of the Democratic Party, Gramoz Pashko, Arben Imami, Preç Zogaj, and Teodor Keko, who had just been kicked out of the party and formed the Democratic Alliance. They gathered every Friday night at the home of...

    • 9 The Fall
      (pp. 145-166)

      Early in the morning of April 10, 1994, around 2:00 a.m., a small group of armed men crept towards an Albanian army outpost near the southern village of Peshkopia, not far from the border with Greece. It was the last night of a three-month training course for Albanian border guards, and the soldiers slept in the simple barracks. The intruders approached silently and opened fire without warning, killing two soldiers and seriously wounding three, before slipping into the dark.

      The Albanian government quickly blamed a “Greek terrorist commando” and demanded the Greek government take responsibility. One of the attackers spoke...


    • 10 Profiteers’ Pact
      (pp. 169-179)

      The International Monetary Fund and World Bank could not have been more thrilled with their pliant client in Albania. Since 1992, Tirana had followed their formulaic diet of liberalizing prices, cutting government subsidies, and containing inflation. “We do not cure a foot, we cut it off,” an IMF official told a shocked meeting of the government in spring 1992, one Albanian minister recalled.

      At first the formula had success. After the calamity of 1990–91, inflation decreased and production rose. Albania emerged from chaos to tentative calm, and IMF and World Bank officials lavished praise. Albania was the “success story”...

    • 11 Revolt
      (pp. 180-203)

      To residents of the dusty and dilapidated town of Lushnje in central Albania, the pyramid boss and former army officer Rrapush Xhaferri was a saint. Known as “the general,” he renovated the stadium and brought world-class players to the local soccer team. More importantly, he helped thousands of Lushnje residents survive. His pyramid scheme Xhaferri, which he called a “charitable foundation,” provided income in the town of crumbling concrete homes.

      The Albanian government had a different view: “the general” was a leftist sympathizer with Socialist Party ties. His “charitable foundation,” along with the other newer scheme, Populli, were pure pyramids...

    • 12 A Horrible End
      (pp. 204-222)

      The Rogner Hotel was what one journalist called “virtually Albania’s only functioning institution,” so it was understandable that the new Government of National Reconciliation would work in its restaurant and café.¹ The new minister of justice, Spartak Ngjela, took it a step further by moving in. One of his first acts was to amnesty all prisoners. “Albania is a natural state, if you know your Thomas Hobbes,” he explained.²

      Across town, the director of Prison 313 strolled through his facility to inspect the cells. In one he was shocked to find Ramiz Alia and Socialist head Fatos Nano with six...


    • 13 Democracy 2.0
      (pp. 225-231)

      Rexhep Meidani was eager to work. After parliament elected him president, he drove to his new office with Bashkim Fino and some members of the Republican Guard. They found the office in a disorderly state, with stains and cigarette burns in the carpet from those who had slept there during the crisis. Files were missing, including the 1997 minutes of the Supreme Defense Council.

      Meidani stayed calm. The fifty-three-year-old was soft-spoken, tall, and slender with glasses and neat, graying hair. He was orderly and precise, smoking cigarettes in a controlled motion with an even draw like the disciplined physics professor...

    • 14 Illegal but Necessary
      (pp. 232-235)

      The Clinton administration was not thrilled about working with a former communist party, but Berisha’s fall left it with no choice. Stability in Albania and the region took precedence over a Cold War grudge.

      In October 1998, Nano visited the U.S. to meet Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Washington’s key concern was still Kosovo, where ethnic Albanian guerillas had for one year been attacking Serbian police, prompting a harsh response. The U.S. needed Albania more than before to support a political deal. But by 1998 the U.S. had an additional concern. Militant Islamists were posing a threat to Western interests,...

    • 15 A Shot, a Coup
      (pp. 236-244)

      Fatos Nano and the Socialist government gradually improved relations with the international community, which was thankful to get Albania off the news. But the domestic political scene stayed fraught. On Saturday night, September 12, 1998, it got markedly worse.

      Sali Berisha was working late in the DP office. A party official was briefing him on a recent trip when they heard shots. Both men jumped. It was normal to hear gunfire in Tirana, but rarely so close. Someone opened the door and informed them that a person near the office had been shot.

      Party officials ran outside but Berisha stayed...


    • 16 Argument of Force
      (pp. 247-255)

      Xhavit Haliti watched with shock. His Tirana apartment offered a view of Embassy Street, the guarded diplomatic row. It was July 1990, and hundreds of frantic Albanians were trying to flee the crumbling communist state by storming the German, Greek, and French embassies. The Albanian government soon allowed these people to leave, but the serious and determined Haliti felt no joy. He was an Albanian from Kosovo on his first trip to Albania. For him the exodus looked bizarre. His whole life he had dreamed of seeing the motherland. Now most of Albania wanted to flee.

      Haliti’s view from Kosovo...

    • 17 A Formula
      (pp. 256-265)

      President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, Bob Gelbard, was known as a table-thumping, cowboy-style diplomat who did not mince words. In February 1998, he lashed out at the KLA. “The UCK is a terrorist group by its actions,” Gelbard said in Prishtina, using the Albanian acronym for the KLA. “I used to be responsible for counter-terrorist policy in the American government. I know them when I see them.”¹ He repeated the claim the next day in Belgrade, while announcing a series of U.S. concessions to Milošević for his cooperation on Bosnia.

      Five days later, the KLA ambushed the...

    • 18 To War
      (pp. 266-272)

      The ceasefire and international monitors helped the KLA. The group welcomed the deal because, in the words of one commander, it was good “for further mobilization, for the training of our soldiers, and for pulling our strength together.”¹

      CIA director George Tenet agreed. “The KLA used the ceasefire and the presence of international verifiers to reoccupy all of the territory it lost last year,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 1999. “It has kept up a continuous series of small-scale attacks against Serb security forces.”²

      Milošević also used the time to rearm, apparently thinking he could resist...


    • 19 Busts in Our Heads
      (pp. 275-280)

      February 20, 2001, marked ten years since a joyous crowd had toppled the bronze statue of Enver Hoxha in Skanderbeg Square. With the Socialist Party in power, the government avoided a commemoration. Only Democratic Party head Sali Berisha held a demonstration. He seemed to forget that, in February 1991, the then opposition DP had distanced itself from the felling of Hoxha’s statue so as not to appear a destructive force.

      One former student wrote a reflective piece about the “December movement,” as the student activists of December 1990 and February 1991 were called. “Where are all those students today?” he...

    • 20 The Doctor Is Back
      (pp. 281-291)

      In July 2005, Albania was set for its sixth parliamentary elections since 1991. Fatos Nano and the Socialists had amassed enormous wealth, and they wanted more. Sali Berisha and his coalition were feeding on Albanians’ frustration. Only eight years after the calamitous pyramid schemes, the doctor was poised to return.

      On one level, the campaign had a serious tone. Both sides hired American consultants with ties to the Republican Party. The parties staged elaborate rallies and ran slick ads. On a deeper level, the campaign involved the same dirty tricks as before. Albanians had learned how to buy votes and...

    • 21 Pendulum Swing
      (pp. 292-296)

      The U.S. and E.U. made it known they were watching. High-level visitors stressed the need for Albanian parties to cooperate and compromise, like a frustrated parent telling siblings to get along. As parliamentary elections in 2013 neared, diplomats and foreign officials called the vote a test: it would show the maturity of Albania’s democracy and readiness for the E.U.

      The government hired two major U.S. lobbying firms, the Podesta Group and Patton Boggs, with the influential businessman and former diplomat Frank Wisner, whose father had helped found the operations directorate of the CIA and had tried to overthrow Hoxha in...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 297-300)

    Albania’s modern history can be described with Tirana’s cafés, and each phase had a defining locale. When Albania opened in 1990, the Dajti Hotel was a hub of social life. The café with a parquet floor and high windows offered a tranquil place to talk politics, mostly with former communists who felt at ease in the faded room. By my arrival in 1993, Tirana’s elite drank coffee in the pyramid, the former Enver Hoxha Museum. Journalists, ministers, and members of parliament sat at low tables with red upholstered seats to gossip and scheme. Over time, cafés grew around the pyramid’s...

    (pp. 301-302)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 303-324)
    (pp. 325-328)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 329-344)
    (pp. 345-345)