Skip to main content

The past is another country...

Albania is a country that tries, quite exuberantly, to live in the present. The youngest country in Europe in terms of demographics also has a special reason to ignore history. In Albania history is too unspeakable and too near to be discussed objectively.

Take this morning, I was taking some potentially significant Western investors to visit various companies, and as we broke up a meeting, we adjourned to the nearest coffee bar. That coffee bar was in a rather ugly 1960's house that, unusually for that part of Tirana, sits in its own grounds. When I first visited the country 16 years ago, it stood alone and heavily guarded. Now it stands surrounded by new office buildings. It was once the house of the dictator, Enver Hoxha.

It was with frankly rather mixed feelings that I sat nursing an espresso in Hoxha's parlour, for the dictator was one of the most evil humans to have walked the planet. That his crimes have been dwarfed by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il was only due to lack of opportunity. Certainly the Albanians were kept in a state of North Korean isolation. Religion was outlawed, so were cars, jeans and beards- and the punishment was often a cruel death in the slave camps. In a monstrous parody of the truth, Albanians were told that their primitive and impoverished society was in fact the most advanced and enlightened in the world.

The fear of the hated sigurimi, the secret police, has gone, to be replaced by a jaunty aversion to most rules. Though- in that most Balkan way- adherence to clan and friendship takes precedence over some pettifogging details as laws or even morality, nevertheless the Albanians are trying to impose the democratic traditions of democracy and rule of law as part of the modernisation of their country: this they term "Returning to Europe". Certainly the only figure in Albanian history that they give even scant respect to- George Kastrioti, Skenderbeg- they now argue, was a great defender of Europe. The bitter resistance that the Albanians gave to the invading Ottoman Turks may well have prevented the projected invasion of Italy, which the Turks had intended to make.

Yet in some strange way, this vision of Albania is actually quite modern. All of the neighbouring countries: Montenegro, Kosova, Macedonia and even Greece, have Albanian populations: in some cases quite large ones -the population of Kosova is 90% Albanian, of Macedonia about 30%. Yet the Albanians have not fallen, as the Serbs have, into the nationalist trap of seeking a state to embrace these populations- "Greater Serbia" or Greater Albania" Instead, whether dealing with leaders of left or right, the message is the same: Any "Greater" state imposes higher border and creates more bitterness. Therefore Albania seeks a European identity, so that like the French speakers of France and Belgium, or the Catalans of Spain and France the border does not mean a separation. As a result, relations between Macedonia and Montenegro on the one hand and Albania on the other have in fact become exceptionally warm. Despite the implacable hostility of Serbia to the newly independent state of Kosova, the express determination of the Albanian state is to erode borders across the region- including those with Serbia.

The past is the elephant in Albanian living rooms. The corruption and clannishness, which are part of the Ottoman legacy in the Balkans, remains; yet the determination of this young state is to avoid the mistakes of the painful past. In the end it is this tentative goodwill that will end the Balkan civil wars that have wracked the region over the past century.

Though the chaos of this confusing and difficult society remains, it is- in optimistic moments- becoming possible to believe that this poor, but energetic; messy, but dynamic, country is finally moving away from the legacy of its poisonous and dreadful history. Soon, Albania may be known less by the vile reputation of its criminal gangs in Germany and the UK and more for the subtle and hypnotic work of its writer, Ismail Kadare, or the spectacular scenery of this rugged and dramatic country.

Comments

Newmania said…
Ah that takes me back ,we used to call Margaret Hodge , Enver , in Islington and I used to play Rugby for Old Albanians ...erm no connection.
You seem to live a sort of dream life CS , floating around ,worrying about the world and what -not.It must be very hard to understand ordinary people from such a perspective.
Newmania said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

Popular posts from this blog

Post Truth and Justice

The past decade has seen the rise of so-called "post truth" politics.  Instead of mere misrepresentation of facts to serve an argument, political figures began to put forward arguments which denied easily provable facts, and then blustered and browbeat those who pointed out the lie.  The political class was able to get away with "post truth" positions because the infrastructure that reported their activity has been suborned directly into the process. In short, the media abandoned long-cherished traditions of objectivity and began a slow slide into undeclared bias and partisanship.  The "fourth estate" was always a key piece of how democratic societies worked, since the press, and later the broadcast media could shape opinion by the way they reported on the political process. As a result there has never been a golden age of objective media, but nevertheless individual reporters acquired better or worse reputations for the quality of their reporting and

We need to talk about UK corruption

After a long hiatus, mostly to do with indolence and partly to do with the general election campaign, I feel compelled to take up the metaphorical pen and make a few comments on where I see the situation of the UK in the aftermath of the "Brexit election". OK, so we lost.  We can blame many reasons, though fundamentally the Conservatives refused to make the mistakes of 2017 and Labour and especially the Liberal Democrats made every mistake that could be made.  Indeed the biggest mistake of all was allowing Johnson to hold the election at all, when another six months would probably have eaten the Conservative Party alive.  It was Jo Swinson's first, but perhaps most critical, mistake to make, and from it came all the others.  The flow of defectors and money persuaded the Liberal Democrat bunker that an election could only be better for the Lib Dems, and as far as votes were concerned, the party did indeed increase its vote by 1.3 million.   BUT, and it really is the bi

Media misdirection

In the small print of the UK budget we find that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British Finance Minister) has allocated a further 15 billion Pounds to the funding for the UK track and trace system. This means that the cost of the UK´s track and trace system is now 37 billion Pounds.  That is approximately €43 billion or US$51 billion, which is to say that it is amount of money greater than the national GDP of over 110 countries, or if you prefer, it is roughly the same number as the combined GDP of the 34 smallest economies of the planet.  As at December 2020, 70% of the contracts for the track and trace system were awarded by the Conservative government without a competitive tender being made . The program is overseen by Dido Harding , who is not only a Conservative Life Peer, but the wife of a Conservative MP, John Penrose, and a contemporary of David Cameron and Boris Johnson at Oxford. Many of these untendered contracts have been given to companies that seem to have no notewo