New Internationalist


June 2004
368albania_map_145px.gif [Related Image]

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
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.

Horatio Morpurgo
Albania Fact File
Leader President Alfred Moisiu (head of state); Prime Minister Fatos Nano (head of government).
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,380 (Macedonia $1,700, Greece $11,660).
Monetary unit Lek.
Main exports chrome, copper wire, ferro-nickel ore, bitumen, oil. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Its infrastructure, from transport to telecommunications, urgently needs rebuilding. Economic planning has recently been minimal. The Government is now seeking foreign investment in agro-processing and manufacturing and is in the middle of a three-year IMF programme following a $36-million loan.
People 3.2 million. People per square kilometre 115 (Britain 245).
Health Infant mortality 26 per 1,000 live births (Macedonia 22, Greece 5). Albania’s health system was underfunded even during the communist era and remains inadequate. An average of 14% of children under five suffered malnutrition from 1995 to 2001.
Environment Tirana is now the most polluted capital in Europe, clogged by 300,000 vehicles burning fuel that is banned in the EU and pumping out PM10s (tiny particles that harm the lungs and cause cancer). French and Italian thieves are pillaging the red coral forests and underwater archeological sites.
Culture Albanians (96 per cent) are a homogeneous ethnic group, although there is an important division between the Gegs – from the north – and the Tosks – from the south. There are Greek, Bulgarian and other minorities.
Religion Freedom of worship was authorized in 1989, having been banned since 1967. Islam (70 per cent, with a Sunni majority and a Shi’a-bektashi minority); Christian: Orthodox (20 per cent) and Catholic (10 per cent).
Language Albanian-Tosk (official) and other dialects; Greek; Macedonian, Romanian and Romani.
Sources World Guide, State of World’s Children 2004,
Last profiled link May 1994
Albania ratings in detail
Life expectancy
74 years (Macedonia 74, Greece 78). 1994 *****
Income distribution
Huge disparities, especially after so many had all their savings wiped out in the pyramid scam of 1997. 1994 **
The communist regime virtually eliminated illiteracy but the education system has deteriorated since. Primary school attendance is still high but enrolment at all other levels of education has fallen away. 1994 ****
Position of women
Generally better in the south, in cities and for the young. But the revival in the north of traditional law - Kanun - is hostile to women. Luring/kidnapping into prostitution is an urgent problem. 1994 **
Laws are broken with impunity by those with the means. Intimidation of journalists is a growing problem. 1994 ***
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality: Legal. Age of consent higher for lesbians and gay men (18). Transgender: Sex change is illegal. LGBT citizens have been granted asylum by other countries.
NI Assessment (Politics)
21 Albanians were drowned in January trying to cross illegally from Vlore to Puglia in Italy. The protests of a new civic group, Mjaft - ‘Enough’ - drew large crowds, calling for a crackdown on the traffickers and real reform at home. Mjaft is comparable to the youth groups in Serbia and Georgia which called on Milosevic and Shevardnadze to go. The current Socialist Government, in power since 1997, is widely perceived as ineffectual against unemployment, corruption, inflation and trafficking.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 368 This column was published in the June 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Life expectancy5
Income distribution1
Position of women2
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)1

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This article was originally published in issue 368

New Internationalist Magazine issue 368
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