Exclusively for ARGUMENTUM: Abbreviated version of the book: True Stories from Red Albania by Dr. Jorgji KOTE
Even Business and Foreign Trade in Bunkers!
I spent almost 14 important years (1978-1992) working as an expert and for a short time in 1991-1992, as Director for Business Advice in the former Ministry of Foreign Trade. It was set up in 1977, after the break in relations with China and the adoption of the most important constitutional principle of “building socialism by relying entirely on our own efforts”. During this time, especially in the 1980s, Foreign Trade was in “the front line of the fight against the imperialist and revisionist blockade” (although to be honest, we were isolated from them by our own choice, due to the absurd principles and slogans. Hence it is more accurate to speak about a self-imposed isolation or self-encirclement). Therefore, even foreign trade was based strongly on politics and ideology; from 1975 onward was heavily limited by the new constitutional laws, which prohibited it from receiving aids, credits and loans, industrial cooperation and other international trading practices.
Accordingly, the guiding principle of foreign trade was ‘no imports without exports’ i.e. the import volume would depend on the value of exports. Usually, our annual export value never exceeded 300 million US dollars, but the equivalent import value was too little for the growing needs of our economy and people. Our major export commodities were chrome ore, crude oil, vegetable, tobacco, textiles and some other occasional/seasonal products. Whereas imports included a wide range of raw materials for the Metallurgical Complex, chemical fertilizers, mechanical goods and food stuffs.
To cut this story short and to illustrate in plain terms these absurd principles and practices, in the following there are some true stories related to this specific sector of Albania’s economy at that time.
Water for the US Army!!?
In 1986, after an investment was made amounting to a quarter of a million US dollars in a wonderful tourist attraction called Cold Water in Vlora city in the south, huge quantities of delicious drinkable water became available for export sale. Accordingly, foreign purchasing companies had to be found by hook or by crook, so that the state could earn several million US dollars. These funds were already included in the state budget, although it was the first time we ever tried to sell water. No one wanted to hear that even this item, which was considered as easily saleable due to its superior quality, had its own difficulties, especially in
defining the selling price. At a meeting in France in December 1988, with two of my colleagues and some representatives of a well-known French company, they told us that our water, regardless of its superior quality, was very hard to sell. It needed time, market research and marketing, a totally unknown and unacceptable concept in our country at that time. Hence, Albanian drinkable water could not go to market with the same prices as other countries that had traditions and reputations, despite its superior quality. Secondly, it was necessary to have proper water containers, which we lacked, and there was no hope of that. All these elements had a strong impact on the sale of our water and its prices, especially in Arab markets.
Nonetheless, thanks to our competent experts and lawyers it became possible to sign a contract, which however was not implemented due to lack of trust. Then, another opportunity was detected to sell that water to Malta, which badly needed it, but at a much lower price. But, someone in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the PLA learnt and stated very angrily that our water destined for Malta was going to be used by the US military base there. He posed the killing question for us: “How was it possible that US imperialist soldiers should drink our pure socialist water, and at such a low price! Never! True, we needed cash badly, yet not at the cost of our sacred principles!”
This was like a real bomb, producing an ’earthquake’ in our Ministry! Albeit the arguments we provided that, in the final analysis, it was not our business to know about the water consumers since the deal was with the State of Malta! This contract was cancelled and the water was wasted, adding not a cent to our revenues.
Collection of documents - sin and crime?
In many meetings, one of the most frequent words we heard was incasso; but I failed to understand the meaning of this word which sounded so strange to me. Even less could I realise why were it was considered as capitalist ‘sin’ and ‘enslaving credit’. Later on, when I was for training at the Economic University in Vienna, I learned that incasso was a usual and common form of payment, which in English is called collection of documents. The idea here is that the exporter, thanks to excellent relations and trust, sends a certain commodity, whereas the receiver, after checking its quality and quantity, collects the documents and forwards them to its own bank, which makes the payment. This simple technical and payment procedure lasts from one week to 15 days. It is a very normal form of payment, especially when there are reliable partners involved. This form of trade and payment was common especially with Greece, when we were forced to demand commodities which were badly and urgently needed for our industry, mainly. But, again, the vigilant eye of the Party and State detected this ‘disguised credit’ we were allegedly receiving from the Greek capitalists, in an open violation of our socialist Constitution of 1976!! Despite the technical arguments from our best experts and executive officers, who were also politically reliable, the order was categorical: “Don’t make jokes with incasso, or otherwise find yourself in a prison cell!”
Business - not necessarily bad!
One of the basic arguments for banning domestic private business under the Constitution, and especially international business and economic cooperation, was that they could lead to the ‘exploitation of man by man and also spoil the new socialist man’. As I have done throughout this book, instead of academic or theoretical arguments, I shall offer a few concrete facts and names, to show that people, Albanians and foreigners can do business and yet be good social citizens and a friends of Albania.
The German-Albanian Economic Association (DAW) has been very active in the last 22 years. Among its large number of members are also Albanian business people living in Germany. Since November 2005, the DAW President has been Mr Hans-Jürgen Műller, a former member of the Board of the Federal Foreign Trade Confederation. With the strong support of the German Government and together with other relevant institutions, he has offered his contribution to holding numerous official meetings, conferences and missions in Albania with German business people and dignitaries, in Berlin, Tirana and elsewhere. The ‘engine’ of this association is Mr. Michael Albert Michael, doing his best to promote economic cooperation and investments between our two countries. He is a true friend of Albania and knows almost every single inch of the country, thanks
The second case relates to the Albanian Honorary Consul for North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, our fellow citizen, Mrs Anduena Stephan. After studying English at Tirana University, in the 1990s she left for London to study business management. Then, she linked
her life with a German gentleman, Andreas and they have a happy family with two children. Anduena started a bright career in Essen, in Germany, becoming Director in the giant German construction company Hochtief. Afterwards, she set up her own private company, Ideal, in Essen, aiming to boost business cooperation with Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and other frontier regions. In the last 25 years, apart from forging the close bonds with her family, friends and fellow citizens in Albania, Anduena has also done a lot to promote friendly relations with Germany. Each time we meet, she keeps telling with joy and concern about her current and future projects, not only in the field of business, but in arts and culture as well. There could hardly be a better choice for Honorary Consul in the largest state in Germany with its 18 million of people.
Moving to Brussels, after graduation from Tirana University and some work experience in Albania in the 1990s, our good friend, Mrs. Silva Reka came to Brussels in search of a much better life, where she could develop and demonstrate her strengths and gifts. She did also study for business management and married Jan, a Belgian professor of French and Spanish; they have two nice children. After 20 years of experience in various jobs, Silva is working as Operational Relationships Manager at Ingenico in Brussels. Although in personal and material terms she is quite happy and has accomplished a lot, Silva wants to do much more for her native country and its image. With her modesty, lively nature and open-mindedness, she has gained the admiration of Albanian and foreign friends, including diplomats and other senior officials.
The story of PM
Although we were doing business in foreign trade, it was confined within very strict lines and even to friendly countries. To this, one had to add also the import restrictions under the major slogan of that time ‘no imports without exports’. This was a real torture, because our commodity supplies were very poor and almost without a market. So even the talks with some friendly countries had to be stopped or proceed under unpleasant conditions, since we had to refuse many goods and commodities they offered, due to lack of cash on our side. At certain moments, this also produced funny situations and episodes, which have remained even now a source of humour. Such was the case during a working visit to Turkey in 1986. In the talks at experts’ level, we were drafting the list of possible import and export commodities to be included in a formal state protocol. But these talks came almost to a deadlock. The Turkish side offered a series of commodities which we could not afford to buy. They offered tourist buses, but we could not buy them since, as mentioned above, tourism was very limited and we already had some 20 buses which were more than enough. Then they offered refrigerators. Under these circumstances, so as not to spoil the brotherly atmosphere since the ‘no’ list would be much longer, the chair of our delegation proposed ingeniously to put a ‘PM’ in the Protocol text, which meant pro memoire. The idea was that if and when we would need them during the year, we could address the Turkish side. Then they offered washing machines and again it was PM. Their list continued with offers of colour TV sets and again we proposed to put PM. In short, we rejected all these items, not because we did not need them - on the contrary - but since we did not have the necessary funding. Because the export plan was usually fulfilled only to 60-70 per cent, we had to cut more ‘luxury commodities’, as the above-mentioned were defined. Then, in order not to put our friendly hosts in an awkward position, especially our Turkish friends who were so kind and generous with us each time we were in Ankara, and in order to avoid another ’no’, we proposed maybe for the tenth time to note PM in the list. Meanwhile, this catalogue of PMs had become quite large, accounting almost for half of the total list. Then, at a certain moment when we added another PM, the Turkish director and chair of the working group, a very competent and friendly person, after listening with a great patience all our PMs, turned to us with a little smile and said sweetly: “It seems to me that this protocol has become…” and then he said in Albanian “Punë Muti”( bullshit) which coincided perfectly with PM in French! Our chairwoman Fiqrete Sala instantly burst out laughing, with her loud, characteristic voice, and then all of us followed. She asked how he came across this phrase in Albanian, which was in fact the most proper term for that situation. He told us that it was a friend from Kosovo who had warned him to be cautious with Albanians about this PM, which in Albanian did not mean Pro Memoire but just ’bullshit’. Later on, with our colleagues, when we were discussing the same thing we asked them humorously whether they liked to put ’no’ or PM in the text and everyone laughed, saying PM!
Since we are in Turkey in this time journey, and during those years we frequently went there with official and business delegations, I retain the most best memories both from the competence and the friendly atmosphere that our Turkish friends provided for us there, in every way.
Eyvallah, Mashallah, Inshallah!
In general, all our foreign counterparts had a very fine and elegant way of accommodating the different positions between us and I have learned a great deal in this respect. To be more concrete, below is a true story of a conversation between a senior Albanian official and again his Turkish colleague during a visit by the latter to Tirana, our capital. To help the reader grasp its context better, let me add here that there are numerous old Turkish words which form an intrinsic part of Albanian day-to-day vocabulary. Surprisingly enough, although there are very nice Albanian equivalents, the old Turkish words have gained ‘citizenship’ in our language and they are widely used even by the younger generation. Moreover, there are some peculiarly vital words, which in certain situations sound even better, thanks to their specific connotation and emotional touch.
Given the sharp differences in our socio-political systems, one may easily note how well the Turkish friends expressed their position during the host’s welcome remarks, through their laconic answers. The following dialogue which despite some exaggeration “in letters” remains true in “spirit” occurred during the arrival of a Turkish senior official and the welcoming remarks by his Albanian host:
- A: “We are delighted to extend our welcome to you!”
- T: “Eyvallah, eyvallah!” ( Thank you)
- A: “We have a lot of victories and achievements under the Party leadership in all domains!”
- T: “Mashallah, mashallah.” (Wonderful, God has willed it)
- A: “In the past, the people suffered a lot, they were poor, exploited, homeless and living in miserable conditions, illiteracy, oppression….!”
- T: “Hallah, hallah!” (what a pity)
- A. “But we are going to have other achievements in the future, in building a new life…..”
- T: “Inshallah, inshallah!” (By will of God, let us hope)
- A: “We have shut down all churches and mosques. We are the only atheistic country in Europe.”
- T: “Tobestafurullah, tobestafurullah”! (Oh, my God!)
- A: “But we hope that other peoples will follow our example, since religion is the opium of the people.”
- T: “Maazallah, maazallah!” (God protect us!)
Major Socialist Slogans
Our society at that time cannot be understood in all its dimensions without touching on the major socialist slogans, the outcome of all the above-mentioned processes and developments. These slogans occupied a very large and particular place and accompanied us during the whole process of the country’s revolutionisation after 1960. Most of them in fact derived from speeches and discourses of the ‘great leader’, becoming universal truths and maxims. There is a wide-ranging catalogue of these slogans. Therefore, below they are classified as thoroughly as possible, subdivided into the relevant categories of our socialist life, with some short explanations when necessary:
On the construction of socialism
- With the pick in one hand and the rifle in the other
This became the major slogan and motif in life at that time. It was eternalised in the famous martial song written by the greatest composer of that time, Prenk Jakova. It was sung collectively as an anthem at the most solemn national and international events, meetings, congresses, celebrations, even family festivities, weddings, and other occasions. Together with the song Enver Hoxha Tungjatjeta (A long life to Enver Hoxha) dating back to the mid-1970s, With the pick in one hand and the rifle in the other (Në njerën dorë kazmën dhe nw tjetrën pushkën) concluded all mass manifestations and concerts everywhere. Our foreign M-L friends, tourists and members of the friendship associations also learned it by heart and sang it in Albanian and translated in English.
- Think, live and work as revolutionaries
In the mid-1970s, the last word was replaced with ‘as in encirclement’.
- Be the first in sacrifices and the last in claims!
(Note that even a requirement at that time was considered as a ’claim), accompanied by the next similar slogan:
- Place the general over the personal interest
On the defence of the fatherland and the imperialist-revisionist encirclement (isolation)
- Albania – the Red Lantern of revolution and socialism in Europe!
- Albania – a granite rock and castle of socialism on the Adriatic coast!
- Defence of the motherland, a task above all other tasks!
- One falls down, thousands rise up (used in the case of the above-mentioned heroes and martyrs, to replace them by thousands).
- This is the army of a ‘soldier people’! Everyone is a soldier of the fatherland
- The enemy aims us at the gun barrel, we aim them at the cannon barrel!
- Hold the eye on the target and the finger on the gun trigger!
- Keep the powder dry! (most common at that time)
- Kill the enemy with the first bullet!
- The borders of the motherland are untouchable!
- Chrome ore and crude oil smash the blockade (since chrome ore and crude oil were our two major export products accounting for 50 per cent of revenues).
- We dance in the wolf’s mouth!
This slogan, while showing that Albania was surrounded on all sides by imperialist and revisionist enemies, became a symbol in the political language of that time. There was also a special song entitled We are dancing in the wolf’s mouth which was dedicated to that slogan. As far as I can remember, it went on to say amidst other things that “we are dancing in the wolf’s mouth, what a great honour for you Albania to have us like that!” Both prominent singers are alive and have talked in the media about such a strange song.
On the countryside and socialist agriculture
- Agriculture - an issue for the whole people!
It should be mentioned that agriculture at that time accounted for over 70 per cent of GNP; 80 per cent of the population lived in the countryside.
- Take to the mountains and hills and turn them into fertile land like the lowlands!
- Become self-sufficient with bread grains!
- If I were 20 years old, I would go at once to our beautiful socialist countryside and work there!
This was a saying by Enver Hoxha in 1975, which was followed again by revolutionary initiatives. Thousands of young folk, teachers and doctors left their towns and went to work on a ’voluntary basis’ in villages and remote areas all over the country for 1- 3 years. In fact, this ‘appeal and invitation’ for youth to go to the countryside was a compulsory call to thousands of young female teachers who were obliged to stay for a long time and sometimes for ever in the countryside and remote areas. Even after many years of work there, no one cared to bring them back to the town near their families to make a living there; only those who had strong Party connections benefited and came back. It should also be said that many of them could not get married and create their own family, due to the backward mentality in the countryside with regard to such girls and women. Under these conditions, their transfer to the town became a great social problem, with no proper solution. Therefore, the appeal by the leader was a direct, high-level call for them to reconsider their lives and stay in the countryside; and moreover to regard that not as suffering or sacrifice, but as an honour and privilege.
On the class struggle
- The class struggle (Lufta e klasave) develops in continuous waves; it goes up and down, it weakens and intensifies, but it never disappears!
With regard to this slogan, which produced so many human tragedies even within the ranks of the system’s high nomenclature, a true episode took place during an annual analysis of the work of the interior and security agency of the district of Përmet in 1985. Let me add here that Përmet is a small town in the south. It has a kind and cultivated people, some of the best musical and cultural traditions, wonderful roses and many other good things. Even now, there is hardly any petty crime registered in that area, which seems to be blessed by God.
In the said meeting, as usual there was the delegate from Tirana, a member of the Politburo. The District Prosecutor was trying to show his joy and pride with the following remark:
- “It’s so nice to be here in Përmet, dear comrade…. And to rejoice in the fact that the prison cells here are empty, without any inmates!”
However, he was totally embarrassed when the delegate gave the following disappointing reply:
- “How is that possible, comrade Prosecutor? Where is the class struggle here, does it take place or not?!!“
No one uttered a word and silence reigned in the room. But, then, the District Party Secretary intervened gently saying that this was right, they were developing the class struggle, but the fact mentioned was much more thanks to the great educational work done there by the Party and other state bodies and the people. Most importantly, he added, the class struggle went on also in Përmet and so there would soon be inmates in the prison there, and this was indeed the case, just to prove the Party directive on class struggle correct!!!
But this issue is much more serious and it certainly deserves more space and attention. Moreover, unlike other communist countries, the problem with the notorious ‘class struggle’ in Albania was that it was waged and extended on biological grounds. Accordingly, when a family member was denounced and imprisoned, this had instant repercussions on the whole family and their relatives, inventing charges and accusations against them, mostly for ‘lack of revolutionary vigilance’. This had serious repercussions on the children’s future, since their biographies were examined several times in all their ins and outs, going back to their grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides, uncles and so on.
Former ‘Class Enemies’ - now prominent patriots
However, the reality and developments in later decades show clearly that these ‘class enemies’ have turned out to be genuine patriots who, despite their sufferings and decades in prison, set a very good example in Albania and abroad. Here I have to highlight again Brussels, since
during the communist regime the European capital was considered as the hotspot of the domestic treacherous reaction, meaning the emigrants, the EU, and NATO:
A bright example here is Lek Pervizi, an 86-year-old man who suffered more than others under the previous regime. Just because of his father, who was an army general under former King Zog, defending the lands and due to the class struggle which went deep into the biological roots of a family. For 45 years, he and his whole family spent their life in prison. Nonetheless, here in Brussels for the last 25 years, Lek Pervizi ranks among the most positive-thinking men and with a keen sense of humour. The long time in prison has surprisingly not impaired in the least his faculties of thought, action and literary inspiration. Instead of only complaining about his bitter past, Mr. Pervizi is committed to writing books and poems. He even has his own homepage and journal Red and black, which reflects the bitter stories of the past, the current developments and prospects for the future, together with his children who are also good artists. He is also Chairman of the Former Political Prisoners of the comunist regime.
Let me now move on to some other prominent Albanians in Belgium, whose families were considered hostile, traitors, or at least were disliked by the former regime. They left Albania in pursuit of a more dignified life and asked for political asylum here in Brussels in the mid – 1950s and later on. One of the most representative of them is Mr Ahmet Gjanaj from Kukës in the north. He was born and grew up in Brussels. Despite that, Ahmet has a perfect command of the history of his own native land, its language and culture and last but not least its traditional and folk motives, songs and dances. Not only that, but he was inspired by them and did his best to bring and implant these wonderful traditions here to Brussels as well, not simply for festivals or artistic events, but far beyond that. He wanted them to accompany Albanians from their cradle and throughout their loives. He founded years ago what is now the largest cultural association of Albanians in Belgium and even in Europe, called ALBABEL, and the Albanian language school Vatra with a team of committed Albanian teachers led by Mr. Ibrahim Dizdari. They have become indispensable in festive and official events and celebrations. It is amazing to see the little children, pupils, students and their parents dancing and singing together their proud inheritance of songs and dances, with gorgeous folk costumes, and reciting in Albanian the masterpieces of our literature and arts. But this was not easy to achieve. Ahmet has worked with painstaking effort and was elected a member of the local council in the commune of Molenbeek. Ahmet’s contribution was noticed also by Belgian socialist leaders and they picked him as a candidate for the regional elections to the Brussels Parliament. Ahmet Gjanaj won in these elections held on 25 May 2014 and became the first ever Albanian MP in the European capital.
If Mr Gjanaj chose to be engaged directly with parliamentary activity, our friend Mr Safet Kryemadhi from Dibra has devoted his life and career to politics and literature. Safet is advisor to the Brussels Parliament. As a well-known writer, he has published some interesting and attractive books in French on Albania’s tourist attractions, history, traditions and recently a collection of legends and fables. In April 2016, the Albanian Embassy hosted a very interesting and inspiring cultural event to hand over to Safet thea Letter of Acknowledgment from our Foreign Minister, Mr Ditmir Bushati, for his contribution to Francophonie. Our well-known actor, Anila Dervishi, recited with passion and talent some of Safet’s best literary mpieces, accompanied by Afrim Jahja on the guitar.
Another telling example how the sons and daughters of the so-called class enemies of that time have turned out to be genuine patriots is Mr Ali Islamaj. He came here with his parents from Tropoja in an effort to escape the dictatorship at that time. He is director of one of the largest secondary professional schools for cooking and tourism, Coovi. It has 1,800 pupils and teachers, and a 14th-floor glass tower restaurant. The school authorities in Brussels have told us that Ali is the most successful among some 60 directors there. He is really enjoying life with his family and two talented daughters, yet as a patriotic citizen of Albania, he is concerned and wants to do much more for his own country. Given this ardent desire, three years ago, his school established an active partnership with the High School of Tourism in Tirana, becoming the first example of such cooperation between Albanian and Belgian schools. This is being implemented through frequent exchanges of pupils and teachers, both in Tirana and in Brussels. This is largely thanks to the generosity and genuine patriotism of o ur good friend, Ali Is
the promised land and the ideal place also for rank and file Albanians and prominent personalities both prior and after World War II. Much has been written and spoken about them after the 1990s, depicting them as the incarnation of the finest qualities, as genuine patriots and democrats, freedom loving persons, upholding and fighting everywhere for their native country’s lofty interests. Mr. Sami Repishti ranks among many of them as an outstanding writer, humanist and historian. It is quite impressive to see that Mr. Repishti is also generous with positive remarks and appreciation in the media and various events for Albanian “success stories” everywhere in the world; the latter not necessarily VIP or celebrities, but first and foremost young promising talents and citizens in Albania and particularly abroad. This is an important message which cannot be taken for granted, especially at a time when the media is hunting for and rushing to spread negative news.( to be continued )