WED, 27 SEP 2000 23:21:43 GMT
AIM Athens, September 28, 2000
An Albanian's Short Visit to Albania
After three years I revisited the country of my birth, Albania. My previous visit was a month before the grim events of 1997. I remember when the "uprising" was developing. Among other things, I had also spoken at a meeting in Thessaloniki, at the University of Macedonia if I'm not mistaken (after all, it's been three years). My speech, before a full house, was eventful: I was trying to describe the events, the institutional and social collapse, the ensuing reign of terror, the hypocrisy and irrationality of those in power - and, in short, to tell them that Albania was paying the price for 50 years under one of the most savage totalitarian regimes known to the history of "realized socialism". I realized that this sort of thing was displeasing the audience. Some of them, in fact, attempted to verbally lynch me with fiery anti-imperialistic speeches. I understood why. They didn't like the fact that I described these events as being more a consequence of the "communist" past than of the "capitalist" present. They wanted to hear that the uprising following the collapse of the "pyramids" was the first uprising against the "new order." These situations provoke the avid fans of Hegel's phrase - that symbol of secrecy - "Your theory sir is not consistent with reality!" they told him. And he replied, "so much the worse for reality!"
I recalled this episode as we were preparing to land at Tirana airport. This was the first time I had managed travel by plane to my country - my financial situation had precluded it on previous occasions.
If any foreigner (semi-foreigners not excluded) wants to have a first taste of what isolationism and underdevelopment means, all s/he has to do is glance around the airport, its terminal and the surrounding area. During the years of totalitarianism, you couldn't even get near the airport. It was a strictly "forbidden zone". How many planes landed here each year? I don't know exactly, but it must have been very few. More or less the number of foreign visitors coming into Albania - like drops from an eyedropper. Plus suspects...
While I was standing in line at passport control I was trying to figure out where in this crowded building they had housed the "barber shop." Yes, the barbershop. A story that was half myth, half reality, which in the end was presented as fact. After the rift with China, our remaining friend, they set up a barbershop at the airport so that those few arriving foreigners could pass through there and adapt to the socialist look. So that they wouldn't "bring the fashions of the caves and the hippies to our socialist country." There were stories of such insanity that you still find it hard to believe you actually lived through those years that passed.
On the right and left along the road from the airport to the city of Tirana, I'm struck with the sight for the thousandth time of the ubiquitous bunkers (how come I can never get used to them and they always provoke in me a mixture of depression and laughter?). The bunkers - one of the greatest inventions of the persecution complex and the "anti-imperialist" struggle. I don't know what blow they delivered to imperialism, but, if nothing else, they devastated Albania's economy beyond hope of recovery. As for the rest, I'd better stop now before I become tiresome.
I arrive in Tirana that afternoon. A city whose population, due to internal migration population, has tripled or, according to some, quadrupled. Just about nothing has changed in comparison with three years ago. There's still the same chaotic traffic and unauthorized construction. In certain spots - in the center, in fact - the roads look "like they've been walked on by a dinosaur," as my friend driving the car observes.
In any case, I personally love this Tirana much more than the one with the terrifying statue of Hoxha in its central square, which the demonstrators demolished in 1991.
The first bit of information: some friends are absent. Several have emigrated, others - fewer - have returned, and still others would like to leave but they don't know where or how to go.
Bouyiar, an old friend, is a writer and journalist. Now, in order to survive he's engaged in trade. He's non-allied politically. He tells me about the scandalous corruption and arrogance of the government, about the party's appropriation of the state. "Even the nephews of Politburo members have returned to power," he says. "When will we end our involvement with the past?" I ask.
The conversation turns to the price of a visa: 260,000 drachmas for the "Greek", for just one month; 1,000,000 for the "American", etc.
The next day I call my friend Irena, a young journalist. We make an appointment for that evening. Right now she's got to run. She tells me that "the 'doctor' is holding a press conference and 'it's a lot of fun.'" The "doctor" is Mr. Berisha. And my friend Irena is going to a press conference as if she's going to some show or revue.
But in this revue the dialogue they use is very harsh: "thief", "jail", "I'll blow your mind up". A weird spectacle. When we meet among a bunch of "toughs" of the leader of the opposition, she tells me that, "its amazing that a party created to oppose totalitarianism looks much more like a Stalinist party... so much that it's hard to imagine how this party will survive after Berisha."
On Tuesday I'm invited to Elli's house for lunch. We discuss everything else but politics. I learn that she has to work at two or three jobs to manage. "I wouldn't want to emigrate. Life here often makes you tired and despairing but at least I have my dignity, my parents and my friends."
I see an illustrious official of the Socialist Party on television. We were students together at the same university during the years of totalitarianism. He was the terror of the student dormitory and a sworn enemy of the enemies of the regime. During the elections at that time he ardently observed those who were too lazy to wake up and vote before 9.00 am, "filled with joy and optimism." That was the hour when the election results must be announced: "the people have voted unanimously for their party." The one and only party!!! Now the "illustrious official" is talking about democracy and pluralism. The thought that occurs to may be crude, but I still don't resist the temptation. Such are the traps of memory.
The last day before my departure I have coffee with Arben. He's always been involved in politics and the party. I purposely bring up the topic of "how will the elections go." "Patience," he says, "things will run their course." Again we discuss 1997. "Albania is the story of a crime without any guilty parties. The leaders of the totalitarian regime were not convicted for the imprisonings, the exilings, the murders, the disaster they caused, but for the number of coffees they had drunk and how many refrigerators they had in their homes. The same with the "pyramids". Albania was turned into a hell, but everyone blames everyone. The guilty ones are everywhere and nowhere. On his own, Berisha won't leave the political scene for anything. And that probably benefits his rivals," he says. "You know, Albania sometimes looks like a mental ward to me. Only the crazy people are the ones in the doctors' roles." "You're exaggerating," I tell him. "I know," he responds.
Back to Greece. Also on the same plane is the Greek woman who was invited to be on the selection committee for Miss Albania 2000.
Albania is setting up the ballot boxes for municipal elections. As far as tension and party activity goes, these elections are indistinguishable from parliamentary elections. At any rate, if anything does "distinguish" them, it's the fact that these elections frequently resemble warfare without arms. One has to only superficially observe the events to conclude that they are the product of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party, and more so the two party leaders who interpret the election process as a life-and-death struggle. The Other is not viewed as an opponent, but as an enemy to be eliminated. Personal attacks are the usual practice and the most frequently heard words in the leaders' vocabulary and at the rallies of both parties are "criminal", "prison", "terrorists", "agents", "beware", "homosexual", "psychopath", and "prosperity for all Albanians"!
Berisha promises that these elections will be "Nano's grave," while Nano promises that they will be "Berisha's grave." With both party leaders turned "gravediggers" (to tell the truth, in polemics and crude nationalism Mr. Berisha comes in first by a long shot), "the big losers," writes the authoritative Albanian magazine Klan, "will be the Albanian voters," who see the ghost of 1997 coming back to life. And after the results are in, which Berisha has already indirectly but clearly proclaimed he will not accept if they are against him, we'll see, in the next elections, "the same game, the same faces, the same roads, the same hospitals, the same schools, all certainly in worse condition..." - the magazine ends its commentary.
Of course, Albania is not the only Balkan country who finds itself at this painful crossroads. It looks like the deliverance from the "unbearable weight of the past" will be a time-consuming ordeal. Yet, there is also something optimistic on this landscape. The election campaigns of several very important candidates, in key areas such as Tirana and Skodra, are considerably more moderate and "political" than those of the leaderships of the parties who have chosen them. This, of course, sounds quite contradictory and the questions raised are many: Will these candidates be the Trojan Horses of the party leaderships? Or will they be the heralds of a new era in Albanian politics? Maybe they are just ploys used by the two leaderships to attract voters, the majority of whom seem to be tired of seeing politics constantly turned into a combat operation the casualties of which are always the Albanian citizens. After the elections of 1996, in which fraud prevailed, and of 1997, in which the terror of guns prevailed, will these elections mean change or the protraction of a "civil war in disguise" between the two major party leaders? Only the future will tell. There is a saying that "the future lasts a long time." For Albania another long saying may apply: "Until now the past has lasted a long time. The future is late and it's urgently needed."