A Nation Free of the Iron Fist: Gideon Levy Visits Albania

Albania's premier is rehabilitating his country after almost 50 years of communist rule. A visit to the small country on the Adriatic Sea.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Pope Francis shakes hands with Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama (R) upon arriving in Tirana for his one-day visit to Albania September 21, 2014.
Pope Francis shakes hands with Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama (R) upon arriving in Tirana for his one-day visit to Albania September 21, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

TIRANA, Albania – A gardener was trimming the overgrown hedges in the large yard of the building on Ismail Qemali Street. The spacious home recalls the villas in 1960s’ Tel Aviv: wooden blinds, gilded aluminum lintels, broad balconies, three stories in an almost-Bauhaus style. Albania doesn’t know what to do with this structure. For most of the year it’s closed to the public, and its walls are rank with mold – but the gardener is nevertheless working on its partially neglected garden.

This was the home of Enver Hoxha, who ruled this battered land with an iron fist for some 40 years. The current prime minister, Edi Rama, says he would like to turn the building into a center for the arts, “which Hoxha hated above all.” If so, it will be sweet revenge for Rama, an artist who was forced into exile from his country, only to return as minister of culture, mayor of its capital, Tirana, and, since September 2013, its charismatic, promising prime minister.

Rama’s office is probably the most colorful of any prime minister’s bureau in the world; its walls are decorated with his bizarre frescoes. He never stops doodling, even during working meetings (“except for those with foreign guests”); his desk is stacked with colored felt pens.

But in the early afternoon on a recent day, this impressive man – who is also physically impressive, as he is tall and played basketball in his younger days – looks worn out. There probably aren’t many premiers who face such complex challenges with so few prospects of meeting them.

Rama heads a socialist government in one of the poorest (121st place) and most corrupt (116th place in the 2013 rankings of Transparency International) countries in the world. An hour’s flight from Rome, Albania has an image that perhaps does it something of an injustice: It is almost always mentioned only in the context of trafficking in prostitution, the mafia and backwardness. Rama is well aware of this.

At the entrance to the courtyard of Hoxha’s one-time residence, a peddler offers roasted corn for pennies. Opposite stands the Imperial Casino. This quarter, called Bloku, was off-limits to the public for the decades of despotism and isolationism that were Hoxha’s hallmarks.

Now, as though in defiance of the dead ruler, Bloku is a bustling center of leisure and entertainment, with dozens of bars, restaurants and cafes. But the poverty, neglect and despair still hang palpably in the air. This hardscrabble country is still a long way from overcoming the wounds of the past. What was referred to as the “North Korea of Europe” has yet to recover from its trauma.

Hoxha’s aged widow lives in poverty in a converted chicken coop.

The country whose tyrant built some 700,000 small concrete shelters for its inhabitants against imagined enemies, remains in a mental bunker, struggling to extricate itself.

The principal obstacle the country faces, Rama says, lies in the disparities of education and knowledge, and in the people’s mistrust of the governing institutions. “Even a German who, in his own country, will always drive with a seat belt, will drive without one in Albania,” he explains.

As mayor of Tirana, he was noted for his demolition of hundreds of illegally built structures and for painting many of the city’s ramshackle buildings – almost all of them the last word in communist architectural ugliness, in bold “Edi Rama colors.”

But Tirana remains unsightly and ungainly. Other parts of the country, including the mountain regions and along the coast, are spectacularly beautiful, but have yet to be discovered by the world’s tourists. Globalization, too, has passed Albania by: There’s no McDonald’s, no Ikea, no Starbucks.

Tirana International Mother Teresa Airport is almost deserted; our plane was the only one landing and departing. The spanking-new airport was built by the German firm Siemens, which also operates it, and in return Albania promised not to build another international airport for the next 15 years.

Albania is a multi-religious country with an ostensibly Muslim majority, but secular in its essence. “Religion” is not a rubric on local identity documents, and many people say it is immaterial to them if their children marry someone of a different faith.

From this point of view, the country can serve as a model. Indeed, Albania’s national hero, Skanderberg, a 15th-century figure, switched religions four times in his lifetime. The first poem taught in the country’s schools, written by the 19th-century poet Pashko Vasa, says: “Albanians, don’t look at mosque or church. Our religion is Albania.” The cemeteries are secular in character, and the same sort of colorful plastic flowers adorn the graves of the dead of all religions.

Most Albanians describe themselves as having no religion, even though the majority are Sunni Muslims or Bektashis (an Islamic Sufi order). The Christians are Catholics or Orthodox, with a few Protestants. The prime minister himself was baptized as a Catholic but considers himself to be without a religion. When the pope visited here some three weeks ago, as a gesture to Europe’s poorest nation, Rama spoke to him in Italian, the language of the admired neighbor.

The Middle East is of little interest here, and the attitude toward Israel ranges from amity to indifference. A young researcher for a local television program asked me if the Palestinians are Jews. The rector of the European University of Tirana, Prof. Tonin Gjuraj, said he doubted that the West Bank is “occupied territory” – and he’s a former Albanian ambassador to Israel.

Some people here draw an analogy between the two countries: Both are small and surrounded by enemies – in their case, many Albanians believe, Serbia and Greece. Not one Jew in Albania was killed in the Holocaust, a fact the country is still proud of. Israel-Albania relations are good, even though Israel has not recognized the independence of Kosovo, to Tirana’s chagrin.

The Israeli arms industry doesn’t have much of a market here, however. Albania disbanded most of its armed forces at the request of NATO, of which it is a member; by next year, it will have only about 8,500 soldiers, down from 80,000 at its peak. The air force was done away with almost completely, and the neighboring countries rotate in providing Albania’s air defense.

The large naval base at Pasha Liman, on the Adriatic coast in the country’s south, is almost abandoned. The remains of an imposing Soviet submarine, No. 105, and a few rusting remnants of destroyers, are anchored here as a monument to past times. At the height of the Cold War, this was the Soviet Union’s only military outlet in the Mediterranean Basin. But in the late 1960s Albania dropped out of the Warsaw Pact and became the most isolated country on earth.

We were allowed into the base thanks to the presence of our host, Dritan Hila, the deputy defense minister, who doesn’t like to fly and whose driver brought us here in an old Seat military vehicle. Hila volunteered enthusiastically to show us his country, together with his wife, Rudina Xhunga, who moderates a prestigious interview program on television (on which I appeared during my visit). Xhunga has visited Israel twice, in order to interview the writers Amos Oz and David Grossman; her husband is an avowed supporter of Israel and is well informed about the latest developments there.

Indeed, there are Albanian translations of Oz’s books in the couple’s splendid rooftop apartment, which also boasts two Hanukkah menorahs, in the heart of Tirana. Oz is apparently a bestselling author here.

In his spare time, the deputy defense minister makes excellent wine and raki, both named for the couple’s toddler daughter, Alana, and which he gives away to friends. Hila’s salary is the equivalent of about 800 euros a month. The local currency is the lek, and the prices on the street are ridiculously low for a foreigner. The seafood and the spit-roasted lamb are excellent.

The black market continues to account for about half of Albania’s economic activity, according to estimates. The country’s poor reputation has deprived it of foreign investments, for which it is desperate, despite the cheap labor it provides just a short flight from Rome.

When dusk falls, Tirana becomes dim. The surrounding villages are completely dark. The Mont Blanc – a dessert served on the roof of a hotel in the town of Berat – is appallingly sweet; price: 1 euro. For entertainment, most of the locals stroll back and forth along the main street of this colorful town in the evening. Few have enough money to go to a café, and the stroll, in honor of which they don their finest attire, is the daily ritual here.

The voice of Israeli singer Asaf Avidan is heard from the radio in the car of the deputy minister, singing: “Love it or leave it.”

The previous regime was brutal and destroyed Albanian society, Prime Minister Rama says. “To make a revolution takes hours, but to change a society takes decades,” he continues. “The previous regime promised paradise and brought hell.”

Rama himself embodies the promise of paradise. But even this formidable leader is unlikely to succeed in fulfilling that promise in this bruised, sad land, which is emerging from 500 years of Ottoman occupation and five decades of communist rule. For now he creates another amusing illustration, which will serve as a dedication to the large album of paintings – titled succinctly, “Edi Rama” – that he gives his guest.

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin September 10, 2014. Credit: Reuters

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