From Albania with love

Article published on Oct. 8, 2004
community published
Article published on Oct. 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A postcard from a little known Muslim country in the heart of the European continent, which is creeping closer and closer towards the bosom of the European Union – to evoke a few clichés

With a population of 3.3 million and a land mass of 30,000 km2, Albania is a little country of rugged terrain, both agricultural and pastoral. Bordered by lagoons, this land finds itself hemmed in by the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece.

It’s been a long wait for the Albanians. Descended from the Illyrians, conquered by Alexander the Great, Christianised, invaded by the Barbarians and then the Slavs, their country found itself expropriated by Charles d’Anjou, King of Albania in 1272, attacked by the Serbs of Etienne Duisan in 1343 and subjugated by the warriors of the Sublime Porte. Such is the history of a people forced to wait until 1912 to declare independence and forge a homogeneous population.

The Stalinist Regime

Today, 96% of the population is of Albanian origin, with Greek and Slavic descendants accounting for the remainder. 70% of the population is of Muslim faith (mainly Sunni), the rest being composed of Catholics (in the North) and some autocephalous churches. Superimposed onto this homogeneity is the dream of a Great Albania; of bringing into the picture the considerable number of Albanian speakers who found themselves left outside the borders of 1913, in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia.

In brief then, 1912 saw Albania break away from the Ottoman yoke and find its freedom. Torn apart by the victors of the Great War and signatories of the Treaty of London in 1915, the country - with its borders as outlined in 1913 - was finally welcomed into the League of Nations in 1920. From 1939 to 1944 the country was occupied by Italy, with a resistance organised under the Iron rule of Enver Hodja who became one of the most terrible dictators of his era. In 1945 he condemned his country to follow an orthodox Stalinist regime, which was to last until 1985. Reclusive and autarchic, Albania threw itself into a partnership with China, a partnership which ended badly leaving the nation even more isolated than before. In 1990, under pressure from the people, Hodja’s successors were forced to throw everything into the balance and consent to the formation, on 11th July 1991, of a government of “national stabilisation.”

Since then, Albania has been known not so much for having been the most repressive State this side of the Black Sea, but for being the nest of one of the most terrifying mafias of this part of the world. None the less, Albania has never been so close to us – to Europe – and to membership of the European Union, benefiting since 2002 from an agreement of stabilisation and association (ASA). Thus the country has been presented with the opportunity to sweep away old stereotypes and discover a new sense of self.

High corruption levels, but increased literacy

Albanian life is organised around a clan society, which breeds a hard way of life. Clan chiefs, heredity power and the implementation of the Kanun law - which establishes the rule of vengeance – all serve to paint the picture of an archaic society. For example, within the town of Shköder alone, there are estimated to be several thousand families living in “interior exile,” in fear of revenge of other clans.

The bulk of the country’s resources come from the exploitation of oil and agriculture, cattle or sheep rearing and aquaculture. There are 466,000 small agricultural farms, of which the majority occupy themselves with extensive agricultural practices (edible plants, cattle, sheep and dairy exports). Aquaculture has also developed in the sea (trawling), in the lagoons (mussel breeding) and in the lakes and rivers (fish farming). Generally, a lot of progress has been made, although Albania still suffers from a serious energy crisis, resulting in frequent power cuts, and still experiences the lowest quality of life of this part of the continent.

In order to fulfil the conditions of ASA, on a political and economic level, Albania has had to commit to reforming certain practices (battling corruption, money laundering, organised crime, and recognising human rights), and its economy (respecting the norm with regard to business practice, the free circulation of property, of capital and of people, along with the adoption of strict veterinary and phytosanitary regulations. Nevertheless, one must not ignore the fact that within the Balkan nations, Albania boasts one of the highest percentages of children in full time education, one of the most accommodating legislations as far as the creation of new businesses is concerned, and counts six small financing institutions which its 55,000 small businesses can lean on to aid their development.

The Albanian Mafia does exist, but there is no question of imagining that this is all there is to Albania. Its conciliation with the European Union also evokes a crucial issue: the integration of a Muslim country into a Union which has a predefined sense of what is European, inscribed on the heart of the continent.