Exclusively for ARGUMENTUM: Abbreviated version of the book: True Stories from Red Albania by Dr. Jorgji KOTE
On the eve of democracy
Thus, slowly we were heading towards the 1990s without any visible prospect of improvement. Everybody felt this, but while working in foreign trade we could perhaps see most clearly the lamentable situation. The country was surviving only thanks to promises for the future, with the Utopic prospect of ‘receivable revenues’ and with the vanished hope of insallah. Each year, a scheduled growth of 20 per cent was announced, but that was only as compared with the performance of the previous year, when the latter in fact had been only 60 per cent of the projected figure! All this at a time when the population was growing rapidly, together with the associated requirements and demands for the most basic imported goods. The situation was very tense, due to large deficits in our exports.
Meanwhile, there were people and experts at that time who raised their voices, demanding changes to various laws and practices. Reformist elements, even in the high party positions and ministers were suggesting reviewing the issue of accepting credits and aids from abroad, as well as the reconciliation and establishment of diplomatic relations with international organisations like the EU, the World Bank and IMF, and with countries like USA, Germany and former Soviet Union. They were also asking permission for private property in its most primitive forms, which were harshly banned in 1967. Because even a shirt or yogurt was not allowed to be produced on a private basis?! They properly argued that the Constitution of 1976 and other principles should not be treated as dogmas and taboos! Given the high rate of unemployment, it was also proposed to send organised groups of working emigrants to some Arab countries, Cyprus and elsewhere. This extremely refractory mentality of the leadership at a time when energetic and bold actions were demanded to overcome that awkward situation was shown, to our tragic cost, even during the three historic visits by former Bavarian Prime Minister, the German legendary politician F. J. Strauss, in 1984 and 1986. All his offers of aid and credits were rejected. In the meantime, the propaganda about the alleged economic growth and prosperity with an ’empty spoon’ continued to blow its ridiculous trumpets! The anecdote about social and economic welfare as something that ‘grows and grows but no one can ever see it’, had become known everywhere.
The irony of such a situation reached another climax in late 1980s, when it was announced that Mexico had awarded Albania the Prize for Food! The people by and large were stunned to hear about it, when we did not have the basic essentials to eat, such as cheese, bread, meat, coffee and milk, and yet were still top for self-sufficiency in food products!! In fact, our country was assessed by an anonymous institution in faraway Mexico, just on the strict implementation of the principle of self-sufficiency in bread grains. That is to say we did not import food commodities, since we were supposed to satisfy these needs ourselves, which was not the case at all. However, we tried to cling stubbornly to the absurd principle: ‘We shall live on grass, but never betray the M-L principles’!!!!!!
Thus, Albanians by and large realised that the regime was not only incapable of bringing the country out of its hopeless situation, but it was even ridiculing us at those moments with the tragedy of its own people! Supplying the economy with the much-needed raw materials had become impossible, since we did not have the necessary funds due to the poor export performance. However, Albania could not import more than it exported and this led to severe cuts and restrictions in the most basic consumer commodities including sugar and coffee – the latter at that time was a vital social and spiritual institution for Albanians, much more than in other countries.
Under such circumstances, when due to energy shortages most of the factories could not operate, the government decided to pay temporarily thousands of workers with 80 per cent of their monthly wages without going to work at all! But this went for months and months! Unemployment was working havoc in our socio-economic life. It was during this time that a funny true story became popular in the country, having its origin in the northern city of Shkodra, ’the capital of humour’. After a lecture on the role of work in transforming ape into man, at the Q&A session, a person asked the following question, which produced a lot of laughter in the room:
“Friedrich Engels is right when he mentions that it was through work that ape became man, like us today. Now I have been unemployed for the last two years, doing nothing in life. Is there a danger that I may become an ape again?!”
Besides, it should be emphasised that the situation was totally different from the 1960-70s, when for the sake of truth, apart from well-known negative events, persecution on the account of political convictions, religion and others, the state propaganda machinery was much more effective. Many hospitals, schools and kindergartens were opened, a large number of factories, mills and giant hydropower plants were built and commissioned, there were many cultural festivals, movies, theatre shows, more fun and entertainment. Likewise, various socio-economic measures were taken in the field of education, health, social security and the supply of food and other commodities was much better than in the 1980s. Afterwards things went from bad to worse in all walks of life. There was despair and lack of hope for the future also among our own parents. Therefore, even those factories and inaugurations greeted with a glamorous fanfare, even a great public work like the largest Hydropower Plant commissioned in Fierza in the north, were seen with scepticism. People no longer thought that they would produce any real benefits in their day-to-day life. Hunger for food products and consumer goods had reached unprecedented levels. We had only the right to buy one kg of meat per week - lamb, pork and veal and one kg of chicken. Coffee had become extremely tight, with only 250 gr per week.
The reliability of the political and economic system had almost collapsed. Meanwhile, the 8th five-year plan (1981-1985) with its targets and objectives as the first one under the principle of ‘relying entirely on our own efforts’, only added to the mounting lack of confidence. People could clearly see that the regime had failed not only to make the world ‘speak Albanian’, as it was claimed, but Albanians were reduced to such a lamentable state that they were speaking and murmuring to themselves! They had to wake up after midnight to go and buy milk for their babies. Even kerosene was rationed, but without it one could not even take a shower, since the baths functioned mostly with kerosene!
Due to lack of imported coffee, in our cafeterias and houses it became common to have coffee made from barley! We can never forget a respectable grandmother living next to us in Tirana, while we were watching the World Football Chairmanships on the TV. She always prayed naively for Brazil’s victory, thinking that in this way coffee would be available for sure; because as it was mentioned above coffee was not a luxury comodity, but a matter of life to her and many, many others! It was the only remaining link between her and the world!
True, by the end of the 1980s there were some liberal economic measures in the context of the so-called ‘new economic mechanism’. Yet it was too little and too late, indeed! Albania continued playing the old tune again and again. Under the slogan “Neither open, nor closed, neither east, nor west, neither reform, nor integration, neither here, nor there, neither forward, nor backward!”
It became clear that the regime was attempting to cross the river without getting wet, as the saying goes in Albania. To this end, in May 1990 they tried to make use of the important visit of the UN former Secretary General, Mr Javier Perez de Cuellar. This visit, the first ever in this format, was perceived as a great victory for Albania’s diplomacy and they hoped it would play its own role in the country’s image and prolong the life of the regime. Our authorities used Mr Cuellar’s courtesy for their own domestic propaganda rather than for any progress in the human rights field. Only two months later, on 2 July 1990, and then in March 1991, Albanians challenged the regime by storming the foreign Embassies in Tirana and the Adriatic Sea and fleeing in hundreds of thousands to Greece, Italy, Germany and elsewhere.
Although it was breaking apart, the regime wanted to demonstrate its alleged strength. It ordered the border police to kill all those who were trying to flee from the country through mountains. It did not hesitate to kill other intellectual opponents. A typical case is that of Havzi Nela, an inspiring poet and a permanent opponent who was mercilessly beheaded in 1988!!
In August 1990, the first US delegation of the Helsinki Committee led by two distinguished ambassadors came to Albania for a week. This visit followed the official demand for membership of OSCE. The talks were led by one of the most influential party leaders and an academic, Secretary of the CC of PLA, Mr Foto Çami. The major demand for Albania was to allow religion, opposition and press freedom as well as free and fair elections. The conservative and refractory position held by Mr Çami was a total disappointment for the US and this Commission. Then, on 25 September, we were at the reception in the Palace of Brigades, on the occasion of the First Balkan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, when we heard that our great writer, Ismail Kadare had asked for political asylum in Paris. It goes without saying that the atmosphere and climate there changed for the worse instantly. This was a very strong and serious warning for the regime. Yet, in its Plenum in November 1990 it still maintained the same hard-line position. It condemned Kadare for his betrayal and expressed determination to continue the course of Stalinist socialism. The monument of Stalin was still there in the centre. Then it was the fall of the Berlin Wall and especially the violent overthrow of Ceaușescu which encouraged the democratic forces in Albania to escalate their activity and resistance, until the establishment of pluralistic democracy in December 1990.
And if we defeat the USA?
Despite these extremely hard times, humour continued fortunately to be an important part of life. There were unending jokes and anecdotes. One of them tells how some wise people met to find a way out and ensure the survival. One of them said that the best alternative would be to declare war against USA. For sure they would win, Albania would be part of USA and thus survive and even live happily.
Everyone felt relieved after such a proposal. However, before the meeting ended, a person from Vlora, a region in the south distinguished for its pride and bravery, asked the rhetorical question: “Wait a little, please. OK, if USA wins, but just think what would happen if we defeat them?”
In another meeting, they were discussing ways and means of bringing down ‘’S imperialism’. After many proposals, both hard and soft, the cleverest was the one made by a wise man, who made reference of the bad economic system we had, proposing the following:
“Why do you worry so much about how to destroy USA? It is very easy. Just send them 100 Albanian economists and within a year the USA will collapse!”
The past in the future, the future with the past
As it was underlined before, despite the sharply deteriorating socio-economic situation in Albania at the end of the 80s, the regime clung stubbornly to the absurd idea of prohibiting the folks to travel abroad, work and live there; allegedly to prevent them from ‘falling into the trap of bourgeoisie and capitalism’. However, in the last 25 years, without excluding negative occurrences, Albanians and the young, in particular, have clearly proved quite the opposite.
The Albanian cultural associations with their wide–ranging activity worldwide represent convincing evidence of the notable attachment of Albanians to their homeland. It would take long to describe their huge contribution in all areas of life including public, cultural, economic and citizens’ diplomacy. Besides the ones mentioned previously, in Belgium there are many such associations recognized and supported by both Albania and Belgium: ‘Konica’ ‘Eagle Event’ and ‘Writers’ League’ in Brussels, ‘Youth’ in Ghent, ‘Iliria’ in Tongeren, ‘Migjeni’ in Hasselt, and ‘Makowal’ in Namur. Their founders and leaders, respectively Gentian Metaj, Alketa Selimaj, Shqiponja Duro, Adrian Muçaj, Rifat Ademi, Morena Kasa and Mamadali Ahmedi share more or less the same motivating history; they came in Belgium in the 1990s. Although most of them were journalists, teachers and artists, they were forced to do other hard jobs for their survival. Nonetheless, they never lost sight of their major goal – to keep Albanian culture and traditions alive and promote them in Belgium and elsewhere. Therefore, one of the first steps they made upon arrival here was to set up these cultural associations with a large – scale voluntary membership of our fellow citizens and other Belgian friends and well-wishers. They themselves have carved their own personality and are rendering their acknowledged contribution in politics, business, arts, culture, journalism and other fields.
The same maybe said about the small but active cultural association of Albanians in Luxembourg.
Like his above-mentioned colleagues and friends, its chairman, Mr. Bashkim Hazizaj has succeeded in bringing together some of the best citizens and intellectual there with an international echo as well. The most well-known, Mrs. Huyeda El Sayed with blended Albanian and Sudanese blood won the first TV dancing contest “ Twelve dancing without a Saturday” in 1994. Afterwards, she has poured down her multiple talent and passion in writing, TV and painting in Albania, France, Belgium and most recently in Luxembourg. Whereas Ms. Besmira Uruçi from Shkodra has gone even beyond the distinct social and human values she inherited from her intellectual parents. She was not self-conceited with graduation in the world famous Sorbonne University and has shown her best at different working posts in France and Luxembourg, Besides, Besmira was a few years ago Albania’s youth delegate and Representative of the 8th Youth Forum at UNESCO, lecturer and Secretary General of the Franko-German University of the Balkans in Tirana, Pristina and Skopie. Currently, she is a lawyer at the renowned company Selectra in Luxembourg.
There are many others elsewhere who have tried to do the same thing by building up strong bridges of friendship with their hosts abroad. Four decades ago, with Mrs. Myzejen Nova (Johansen) from Kruja we studied English and served as part time tourist guides. After the 1990s she travelled for the first time ever to Denmark for a training course. There, in Rønde, a small town near Aarhus, she met her future husband, Ejvind Johansen, a noble person and a great lover of Albania, with whom she has been living ever since. The renowned Rønde High School where she started teaching is unique and practical, with pupils coming from different countries to learn about various skills and professions, computers, communication and other subject matters. There they have the great advantage of coming into contact with mates from different parts of Europe, forging an eternal friendship and becoming somewhat Danish. On the suggestion of the school management and supported by her husband, Myzi as we call her started inviting each year a couple of pupils from Kruja, her native town, and other places to stay in Rønde for a few months. This was and remains an interesting and educational opportunity for all these Albanians and their families. For them, small Rønde has become a large favourite place, an intermediary ’station’ for their future destinations. This useful tradition has been going on for 25 years. There are nearly 100 Albanian young boys and girls who have been visitors at this school; some of them are married to Danish and thus, an Albanian - Danish community is active now there and in other nearby towns: another vivid example of successful blending.
Thus, this small town and its high school has become a second home for these Albanians, their families and friends. The credit for this goes to all distinguished school teachers and directors during the last 20 years who have been so hospitable and helpful in every situation; the current director, Mrs. Birgit Fuglsblerg has made sure that this specific friendly tradition is further promoted. Many of these teachers and friends from that region have visited Albania not only as tourists but also to offer their generous help in different areas. Among the first whom we met over 20 years ago in Tirana, in Rønde and in Ebeltoft where they live is the venerable 90 – year old Pastor Knud Schjødt Pedersen and his dear wife, Ruth whom we wish all the best and a long life. Then, Mrs. Annette Sørensen and her husband Wagn who are always so kind and enthusiastic about Myzi&Ejvind and our friendship. Myzi and Ejvind celebrated their 65th and 70th anniversary in early May.
As her brother – in – law I was there with many other relatives and friends; it is indeed hard to express in words the joy of that festive Danish – Albanian event and the respect they all showed to our Albanian – Danish couple for their long teaching activity and social service there in the last 20 years. Among others, their colleague, the teacher of music and a bright singer Ms. Dagmar Winther touched us all when she sang a beautiful song dedicated to our Danish-Albanian couple.
But, do not forget, only three decades ago Myzejen and many others like her were not allowed to go abroad even for a short stay, for fear that they might ‘betray’ her fatherland.
Besides the above-mentioned examples related to somewhat a more senior age, there also thousands of much younger folks in Albania who were born on the dawn of democracy in Albania; many of them have been living, studying and working under hard conditions, away from their parents, at times short of money, under the growing pressure of the consumer society and other negative phenomena. Yet they have set brilliant examples of unyielding efforts and passion, producing each and everyone his/her own success story for themselves and most importantly for the community.
What a great pleasure and happiness for their parents, relatives and us all to hear their Albanian and foreign colleagues and friends praising them for their noble human qualities, distinct professional skills and excellent multi-lingual communication! Most importantly, they highlight the natural link between the past, the present and the future of modern Albanian society, both at home and abroad.
Let me illustrate this beautiful reality with the vivid example of Ms Ermelinda Hajdari, who came to Antwerp with her younger sister Angela when she was 16. Era as she likes to be called (wind) had to choose the most difficult route in life, working hard to pay for the university studies, following the principle “no sweet without sweat” She graduated from the University in Antwerp and after the first experience in part time jobs at companies with great names Era was hired by a business promotion company in Antwerpen. Recently she moved as a Custom Success Agent to Twieky in Gent, a company managing and arranging automatic online payment services and operations. Apart from her professional commitment, Era is also ‘hungry’ to learn about modern technology, history, arts and literature. Although very project and target -oriented, she does also devote special attention to social and human goals and values.
And now it is time to stop and end up our story here with some of her moving poetic lines written in a perfect English;
I am from Albania;
a country full of contrasts, with claws captivating.
With white beaches and rocky houses.
Where people have the resilience of the mountains,
with hearts big and soft as a cloud.
An eagle on its proudest holds the beacon of her symbol.
Like a rose, its red has thorns;
passionate beauty of Albania.