Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Myth of Greater Albania (Part 4)
From King Zog to a brave new world

Dr Sam Vaknin

Click here for part 1 of this series
Click here for part 2 of this series
Click here for part 3 of this series

Ahmed Bey Zogu commenced his 14-year reign first as president and then as king (for which purposes he changed his name to Zog). He ruled over a time bomb. The forces he suppressed with his foreign-backed army were alive and well, though in an underground sort of way. In dire need of funds, after the self-inflicted destruction of his country, Zog resorted to mortgaging Albania to foreign powers such as Italy. Italy called in its loans in 1939, when it invaded Albania on the way to its Balkan treasure hunt. King Zog's rule of beys and bajraktars aided by a ruthless police, a Byzantine bureaucracy (which was a major employer) and Italian money did stabilize the country, including the bandit and brigand-ridden highlands.

Many schools were established during his reign. He even turned a blind eye to Western fashions. But this stability was brittle and fake. Underneath the ornamental surface, the populace was seething: peasants aggrieved by the absence of land reform; democrats opposed to a dictatorship, however benign; liberals opposed to the police state; nationalists opposed to the undue influence of foreign powers.

Albania imported grain to feed its impoverished population - and exported people in search of a better life. Periodic revolts interspersed with labour unrest led directly to the formation of the Communist Party, the standard-bearer of the educated classes.

Revolving round the Axis

In October 1940, the Italian army invaded Greece from Albania only to be driven back. Nazi Germany had to complete the job as it swept through Yugoslavia and Greece. In 1941, Albania was rewarded for its collaboration by the annexation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia and Cameria from Greece. Having been nearly eliminated by the Allies (Britain and France) at least twice - and having been rewarded by the Axis (Austro-Hungary, Germany and Italy) numerous times throughout their history, the Albanians' loyalty was not in doubt.

Though never great ideologues, they were, all the same, instrumental in facilitating the wartime hegemony of Germany and Italy over the Balkans. The resistance movement was not uniform, nor was it very effective (though Albanians like to portray it differently). Finally, in 1944, the Communists took over and their secretary general, Enver Hoxha, became the leader of a new People's Republic of Albania, which added the word "Socialist" to its name in 1976.

Nothing seems to have changed in Albania from the 14th century to the Hoxha days. Burdened by the malaise it contracted from the Ottoman Empire, it was plagued by poverty, banditry, illiteracy, blood feuds, disease and the slavery of women and of peasants. At first, the Communists tried to tackle all these ills simultaneously. They drafted a grand plan of modernization. They vowed to liberate Albania economically and socially, now that it had been liberated politically (their reference point, strangely enough, was the war of the bourgeoisie in 1912).

Peasants were handed tiny plots of land taken from the broken estates of the former beys in an ambitious agrarian reform. Industry, banking and all foreign property were nationalized. Agriculture was collectivized in the best Stalinist traditions, though far less swiftly (it was completed only in 1967). Hoxha subjugated the wild highlands and strove to eliminate blood feuds and other feudal habits, taking on the hitherto invincible bajraktars in the process. Women were granted legal equality with men and were encouraged to participate actively in their society.

Albania was promiscuous in its foreign affairs, changing partners often and seemingly whimsically. It paired with Yugoslavia under Tito until 1948, then with the Soviet Union during the days of Stalin and Khruschev (until 1961) and then with Maoist China (until 1978). It expected to receive monetary and military aid - and it did. It received enormous infusions of credits relative to its economy. It was virtually invaded by regiments of technical experts who provided assistance with the various aspects of running a modern state. Gradually, agriculture was mechanized, industry was modernized and standards of living increased. It was a golden age and many were happy.

The people's paranoiac

But Hoxha was unhappy. He accused each ally of Albania in its turn of betraying unadulterated Marxism-Leninism for the wiles of the capitalistic West. His allies were as disenchanted with his growing paranoia and geopolitical sado-masochism. Isolated, paranoiac, obsessive and phobic Hoxha promulgated a go-it-alone, the-world-is-against-us ideology of self-sufficiency. Thus, while Albania made impressive leaps of technology in draining swamps, while it unified its dialects into a uniform literary language, while it industrialized and mechanized and reformed and transformed, it did so in splendid isolation, often re-inventing the wheel. And it had a nightmare called the Sigurimi.

The Sigurimi was the shadowy, quasi-criminal state security apparatus. It was a snake raised in the warm bosom of the party. It was omnipotent. Real or imaginary rivals of the party (really of Hoxha) were publicly humiliated, dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned in a system of hideous gulags or summarily executed. These bulimic purges were coupled with growing schizoid tendencies. Travel abroad was prohibited except on official business, and religion, a backward, unprogressive, disuniting force, was banned.

When Hoxha died in 1985, he was succeeded by a crony, Ramiz Alia, an Albanian Gorbachev who introduced local versions of perestroika and glasnost even before the Soviet leader did. He legalized foreign investments and established diplomatic relations with the hitherto reviled West. But, despite his courage and relative openness, he shared the fate of other reformers, falling victim to the very forces he unleashed. In 1989, the workers, the intellectuals and the Albanian youth all opposed the regime. In a spasmodic act of self-preservation, Alia granted Albanian citizens the right to travel abroad, limited the reach and powers of the Sigurimi, restored religious freedom, approved freedom of political association and adopted free market reforms. Nothing much was left of Hoxha's heritage. Several governments later, the Democratic Party, an anti-Communist hodgepodge alliance of interests won the elections of 1992. Sali Berisha succeeded Alia. The Communist rule was no more.

It was the beginning of a new Albania. Facing to the West, it hoped, as it always had, to modernize, to reform, to belong.

But it was not meant to be.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 8 November 1999

Click here for part 1 of this series
Click here for part 2 of this series
Click here for part 3 of this series

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.



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