Wednesday, April 16, 2008

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.


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...
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