Albania. The very word conjures up sinister connotations. The murderous regime of Enver Hoxha. The fact that under this vile regime almost everything was illegal. Religion was outlawed. Beards or jeans were illegal. The regime isolated the country almost completely. Firstly Hoxha quarreled, first with Tito, then the USSR- for being insufficiently Stalinist!- then China, for "bourgoise revisionism" (whatever that was). Dirt poor and desperate, internally, Albania's brutality was legendary. It is not surprising that the West filled much of their lack of knowledge of this mountainous country with fantasy- the Albanian Sigurimi torturers of the Ipcress File, for example.
If anything the reality was worse.
Tormented and brutalized. Isolated from any contact with the outside world, the Albanians nevertheless at least partly believed the propaganda of the regime- that Albania was the strongest and richest country in the world. When the fall of the regime finally came- sadly too late to hang Hoxha for his crimes- the shock of freedom was compounded by the sudden understanding that Albania was the poorest and least developed country in Europe. A country with African levels of poverty and malnutrition. The Sigurimi forced every Albanian to make a choice. There was no choice: the Party or death. The moral compromise, that every Albanian who lived through the regime was forced to make, has left a legacy of fear and guilt. Of all of the vile regimes inspired by Marxism-Leninism, with the exception of Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Albanians were the victims of the most depraved and brutal. In a company that includes Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu, perhaps this gives a sense of the depths of the darkness in which the Albanians lived.
Not surprisingly post Communist politics has been turbulent. The bitterness of the past reinforced a politics of breathtaking irresponsibility. By 1997 the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes destroyed the country. The armouries of the military were looted and, awash with guns, the country descended into total anarchy.
Yet that is not the end of the story. Slowly, with the support of an international force led by the Italian Carabinieri, order was restored. A new government, led by a new President, began to start again. Slowly guns were removed from daily life. The economy began to move once more. Even the most lasting effect of the anarchy- the fact that a whole generation of young Albanians left the country, began to have a positive effect- they began to send money back home. The economy began to stagger, then walk, then trot, then run.
I first went to Tirana before the chaos. A bleak scene of dire poverty greeted me. Few cars. Electricity off for much of the day, water for only two or three hours. A fly blown and dusty place.
Twelve years later I have returned. The city is bustling- new buildings everywhere, new roads and a new airport under construction. Albanians are growing much richer. New projects to transform this beautiful place are everywhere: new tourism, new roads, new ideas. Politics is now far less poisonous, though still shrill and occasionally bitter, but becoming more courteous and dramatically less extreme. The casual insult "Hoxha!" is less used in Parliament, as the country begins to come to terms with the dreadful psychological scars of the appalling regime. It is not too much to say that the country has transformed, and is unrecognizable compared to the ghost haunted Albania of twelve years ago.
On Monday the dramatic improvement of the country was recognized: Albania finally signed the Association agreement with the European Union- a milestone that will eventually allow the country to join the bloc.
Albania, with minorities in all its neighbours, has renounced the idea of making those minorities part of Albania- instead they seek to make themselves and their neighbouring states a part of a common European home. As a result, Albanian relations with Montenegro and Macedonia are very good. The future independence of Kosova, which now seems likely, is hoped to be an end to the ceaseless struggle with the Serbs too. I met a senior official from Prishtina, and his comment: "we have all suffered too much. it is time for us to look to the future and work together, and not to take revenge for the past" was especially moving after he had described the appalling deaths of the entire family of a close friend in the Milosovic pogrom.
Albania- even Albania- is becoming European. Though to my eye the black double headed eagle on red that is the symbol of the Albanians is still exotic and- yes maybe- slightly sinister, the fact is that it is the flag of a country that is growing more normal every day. The reputation of the Albanian mafia may be extreme- but they are not in Albania, which is now a pretty law abiding place- the mafia were amongst those who left the country first.
I asked the driver what the biggest problems were for his country. "Well", he said, "The traffic is just awful".