Investigative journalists bullied into silence by police, army officers or plainclothes mafiosi. The vast sinister fleet of stolen and illegally imported Mercedes Benzes on the streets of its cities. The jerry-building everywhere since 1990 that has seen apartment blocks spring up without permission all over Tirana’s main parks...

‘Freedom’ only seems to have reinforced outsiders’ view of Albania as Europe’s Number One Anomaly. But the trouble has been a long time brewing. Albanian is Europe’s oldest living language and its survival is perhaps the greatest riddle of all.

Take Durrës. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, five different powers fought each other and the Albanians for control of the port. This was after successive colonizations by Greeks, Romans, Goths and Byzantines.

Albania was the last province of the southern Balkans to fall to the Ottoman Empire (1506) and the celebrated leader who fought it off for 25 years, Skanderbeg, remains prominent on currency and main squares, and a folk hero right across the Balkans.

It was never a large country but the ‘Via Egnatia’, the main trans-Balkan route from Rome to Constantinople, started in Durrës. This made ‘Illyria’, as Albania was historically known, the constant prey of any power with ambitions in the region.

Andrew Testa / [Panos](

When the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed, Albania set off into the 20th century as an independent state. Yet even then Italy, Greece and Germany each invaded the country during the Second World War. Serbia, Macedonia and Greece still claim parts of the country as their own territory: the present unrest in Kosovo and western Macedonia is a legacy of this.

All of which might go some way to explain the tragedy of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime. Under his rule (1946-85) the country was closed not only to the West but also, after 1960, to the Soviet Union, plotting its own ever more neurotically defensive course.

The free country which turned its satellite dishes west in 1990 fell an easy prey to the images it received, mainly from Italian TV. Western Europe looked on in bewilderment as the first ‘boat people’ arrived off Bari in 1991. The looting of military stores and collapse of the central authority in 1997, amid massive financial scandal, has meanwhile left parts of the country under the effective control of (well-)armed gangs.

These gangs traffic weapons, drugs and people into Western Europe. The populist press in the countries worst affected (Italy, Holland and Britain) have ensured widespread scepticism about anyone and anything Albanian – past, present or future.

As Europe’s only country with a Muslim majority – though large Orthodox and Catholic minorities are fully integrated – Albania now finds itself once again the object of suspicion from its neighbours.

The prospects look bleak. The mountains in which Albanians have traditionally found shelter are no protection against television. For the rural population, especially since the dismantling of collectives, work and happiness are elsewhere. And with them something irreplaceable is being lost. It was to Albania’s mountain villages that classicists Milman Parry and Albert Lord travelled in the 1920s, to record the traditional singers (rhapsodes) and draw their ground-breaking conclusions about the origins of Homer’s poetry.

The country seems rudderless.The Socialist Government has changed its leader three times since it came to power in 2001. Its continued failure to guarantee the rule of law or reform the economy will continue to leave many with little choice other than to leave – for Rome, London or Chicago. A proud past is all very well but it won’t feed the kids.