International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 2 (April-June 1998)


Socio-cultural Aspects of the Albanian Crisis *
By Roberto Morozzo della Rocca


For the Albanians, the pyramid schemes were not a gamble; they were sure that their money was well invested. They had been invited by political leaders and state television to invest in these financial institutions. Even if they may have had doubts about their reliability, the extraordinary earnings made them reinvest without too much extra thought. For years— not weeks or months— those who had invested $1000 in these financial trusts enjoyed returns of between $100 and $200 per month, a sum far greater then average wages (between $40 and $90 per month), not to speak of the wages in the countryside which are at the African level (between $100 and $200 per year). 1 In the kiosks, which sprang up like mushrooms around the cities, talk revolved around nothing but financial operations and profits. “Work” at the time involved shifting one’s savings rapidly to the financial institution that momentarily promised the best conditions. Regardless of social class, urban or rural residence, cultural background, all Albanians were struck by the investment fever.

Many Albanians were so convinced of the opportunities offered by these financial trusts that they sold their possessions—houses, apartments, land, livestock—keeping for themselves and their families only the income from the pyramid schemes. The constant improvement in the population’s material standard of living, the increase in well-being—new kitchens and bathrooms in homes no better than shacks, some appliances, new used cars, a few extra lek for evenings at the bar and a certain second class consumerism—were due to the flow of money multiplied by pyramid investments.

There have been sarcastic remarks that the real cause of the revolt after the failure of the financial institutions was not discovery of the fraud that had been perpetrated, but the abrupt end brought to the considerable sums of money earned without lifting a finger.

The pyramid phenomenon provides food for thought about the kind of opening toward capitalism that took place in the country. The new president Rexhep Meidani now continuously underlines that affluence is the result of work, in Albania as in every other part of the world. But this concept was not widely appreciated in the early nineties. In fact, suffice it to recall the reaction of the Albanians to the change of regime in 1991-92: men stopped working, convinced that the advent of the free market would solve all their economic problems. Fields were not sown or harvested; work became superfluous in expectation of the messianic liberation from want that capitalism would bring. Only the women continued to toil; they were the only ones in the fields. In the winter of 1991-92, Operation Pelican fed the Albanians. After that, they returned to their labours (they know how to work; they toiled under Enver Hoxha) while waiting for the capitalistic dream to come true— and it did, in the form of the pyramid schemes.


Enthusiasm for the Transition

Ever since the fall of the old regime and its myth of the “new man ”, the Albanians have lived with a new myth: the affluence, consumerism and opulence seen in the advertising on Western television.

As shown in a survey carried out yearly from 1991 to 1995 by the European Commission, in which the Albanians were asked to assess the market economy, the Albanians were the most enthusiastic of all eastern Europeans about the shift to capitalism. 2 They were more enthusiastic than the Czechs or the Hungarians, whose economic prospects were less uncertain. And this enthusiasm of the Albanians continues over time while the initial optimism has faded elsewhere.

Seventy-five percent of the Albanians interviewed in the five years taken into consideration gave a positive assessment of the radical economic transformation undertaken by the Berisha governments, with peaks of 80 and 81 percent in 1992 and 1995 respectively. By way of comparison, positive opinion in the same five year period averaged 62 percent in the Czech Republic, 46 percent in Bulgaria, 35 percent in Russia and 32 percent in Hungary.

In considering these figures, it must be remembered that the Albanian population is the youngest in Europe: 35 percent is less than 15 years old and only 7 percent of the population is over 60. 3 People look to the future rather than turning back with nostalgia to the past. The desire for radical economic reform—and to such an extent—is significant.

Economic well-being was the main aspiration of the average Albanian during Berisha’s reign. The alternatives to the frenzy of economic gain and consumerism, whether ideological, political or religious, are weak and incidental in post-communist Albanian society.

In 1994 and 1995, assessments of the Albanian economy were positive. The Albanian rulers not only dutifully boasted of the performance of their economy in public, but also defended their choice of targeting macroeconomic indicators in private. The author recalls long discussions with the Albanian foreign minister upon the appearance of a special issue of an Italian international affairs magazine devoted to Albania, 4 in which various authors expressed— along with their fondness for the small Adriatic country— strong misgivings (which unfortunately turned out to be founded) about the Albanian economy: an economy based on trade rather than production, in which imports were four times exports, in which the country’s resources went unused and the infrastructure was neglected. Masotti Cristofoli noted that Albania was supported not by the work of its inhabitants, but “by the emigrants, by international aid and by imports ”. And Paolo Petta described Albania as a “melancholy pensioner living on international aid and emigrant returns ”. 5

If compared with the figures for GDP prior to the collapse of the Ramiz Alia’s regime, the statistics disseminated at the time about the growth of the Albanian GDP and published in various fora as proof of the fact that Albania was the Eastern European country with the fastest economic transition revealed no more than a bare recovery of previous positions rather than a great leap forward.

One could go on. At the time, anyone who voiced such opinions was considered a prophet of disaster (the pessimists are always right but never want to be). And yet there were also many Albanians, not only those opposing Berisha’s government, who were sceptical about the economic and social development much brandished by the government.


Pitfalls of the Economic Transition

The lek was stable, it had even become a strong currency. But at the same time, the services offered by the state— health, education, public order, transportation, electricity, water, sanitation— remained in the former state of degradation or worsened. The common people would have preferred less corruption to cellular telephones, “the boom of which was due to the malfunctioning of the normal telephone network 6 of which the lines had been dug up and stolen. People wondered, without any nostalgia for the communist regime, whether anarchy and illegality were the “economic liberalism ” promised by the government. The state’s accounts improved but the only truly Albanian products that could be found on the market were onions and garlic.

In March 1997, the author wrote:

The economic plan pursued in Albania called for rehabilitation on the macroeconomic plane followed by the relaunching of growth. But growth requires the creation of infrastructure: railroads, roads, ports, electricity grids, communications networks, health services, schools, waterlines and sewers. How can growth be achieved if the cranes at the harbour in Durazzo are not working, if the telephones are out of order in hundreds of small towns, if the hospitals are without staff and equipment, if the schools lack didactic materials, if the water and electricity in the cities are strongly rationed, if public sanitation is seriously inadequate, if there are no labour contracts or if those that exist have no value, if the banking system is a pyramid system? Wouldn’t it have been better to limit the imports and the transformation of the cities into kiosk zones? Wouldn’t it have been better to invest more in the human capital turned out by schools? And so on. Finally, it’s a good idea with regard to Albania to reflect on the link between underdevelopment and a burgeoning population, as one does for Third World countries. 7

Should the world institutions charged with accompanying the country during its transition to a market economy not have dealt with the case of Albania with a greater sense of its specificity?



One sector which should perhaps have been given priority was schools and education. Instead, from 1991 onward, education lost value for young Albanians. Public schooling was neglected for years. The funds allocated for schools and universities were ridiculous. The young people themselves did not see education as particularly useful. Dropouts from compulsory schooling were on the increase. Being a university student during the Hoxha era was a great opportunity to escape a life of manual labour. The competition for continuing one’s studies was strong at the time. During the old regime, people who had a diploma or a degree were well educated, even though their knowledge may have been rather out of date in some sectors (the country was hermetically isolated from the rest of the world).

In the post-communist period, being a student was scorned by the majority of the young. In the countryside, children no longer went to school because, unlike the past, it was no longer prohibited to own livestock and someone had to take care of the family’s animals. In the cities, the young people preferred to dedicate themselves to trade and other lucrative activities. Why waste years getting an education when it did not even guarantee a job? Trade was the primary source of wealth in the Albania of Berisha, who opted for a bazaar economy. Other jobs earned less. The young people who studied to become doctors or engineers were considered naive. The country’s cultural level was on the decline.

The difficulties in getting the young Albanians to continue their schooling were understandable. The families were keen on earning in order to achieve the myth of consumerism: all the better if their children made it in small business rather than waste time at school. On the other hand, more widespread granting of scholarships for foreign countries would have created highly specialised personnel, but only in a very few cases would these people have wanted to return. Why should an Albanian who has become a doctor in Italy or Austria go back to the serious inconveniences at home?

In any case, the question of the adaptation of the Albanians to a free market society, which they still desire, is crucial. And the education system is an obligatory part of this transition. The term “adaptation” is used here because Albanian society is very different from those societies in which Western capitalism has prospered.


State, Nation and Clan

For centuries, Albania has been the poorest country in Europe. There is almost no middle class. Prior to communism, there were groups of notables, former feudal lords, known as beys and bajraktars. Today what there is of a middle class is composed of the remnants of the ruling class created by Enver Hoxha, a few descendants of the ancient notables who have, within the confines of the family, inherited a certain savoir faire, and the nouveaux riches (businessmen, importers, smugglers, black market dealers).

In Albania, little or no value is attributed to the state, a great deal to the nation. The Albanians are nationalists, they are proud of their language and their land— it is a kind of primordial nationalism— but they are not interested in the state. Moreover, it is a recent, 20 th century nationalism, born during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Before that, the Albanians, mostly Muslims, felt at ease in the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps it is the late, non-developed nature of their nationalism that makes the Albanians so viscerally exclusive about it. The term “globalisation” means little or nothing to an Albanian.

But held in even greater esteem than the nation, which affects their identity but not their everyday life, is the clan and the family. It is superfluous to mention the superiority of the family over the state. The ethical sense of the Albanians is indifferent to state law. Ethics are linked to the family, not to collective social life. The state is conceived as the power of the strongest, not an entity entrusted with the common good. If anything, the state is an entity to be used instrumentally if it happens to be in the hands of members of your own political group; otherwise, it must be avoided and fought. Albanians’ loyalties go to their family, meaning the extended family or clan.

It is not easy to hold together a state in which the people not only have no respect for the law but consider it something that has nothing to do with them. Outside of Tirana, the only big city in Albania, the kanun, the ancient local codes of customs are still observed to some extent. And in keeping with centuries’ old tradition, the gun, as recent events demonstrate, is held in higher regard than the state.

In order to implement a free market system with some hope of success, there must be some degree of certainty of the law, something which cannot be taken for granted in Albania. More simply stated, civic education is lacking in Albania. In order to strengthen the authority of the state and its laws, a more balanced and correct management of power and less corruption should, perhaps, have been demanded by foreign partners and international institutions. Instead, after 1994, a police state was created, with far too many people in uniform, controlling and levying payments to the detriment of the citizens. On the other hand, Albania is a typically Balkan country as far as social relations are concerned: the Albanians are anxious to establish the roles of leader and led; they like to subjugate the weaker; they are a passionate, litigious, not at all submissive people. This does not favour a sense of the law and the certainty of the law. The uncertainty of life in Albania is also typically Balkan, since all persons feel authorised to fight unscrupulously to assert their particulare (particular interest) and that of their family or clan.

As there is no respect for law, there is no respect for those who do not belong to your clan or group. No one would hesitate to damage the property of another if this could bring the least advantage to him or herself. The common good is not what counts, what is public is of little account.


Social Imbalances

In the few years of freedom, notable social imbalances have arisen. Tirana has doubled its number of inhabitants in five years—and understandably, since the per capita income of the residents of Tirana is over a thousand dollars per year, seven times that of the Albanians who live in the mountains. Previously, the opposite was true: Enver Hoxha had equalised all salaries in a range from 1 to 1.5. In any case, the money made by the people in Tirana in the nineties came from trade, the kiosks, government jobs, the international donations which passed through Tirana and, above all, the financial trusts— while they lasted.

The impression one got from Albania in the period that has just passed was that of a very backward country suddenly projected into a futuristic reality. The Albanians went from the bow and arrow to the computer, from not being allowed to own automobiles to having Mercedes Benzes (there are more Mercedes in Albania than in Italy) from living in an immobile society to organising international smuggling syndicates. One wonders whether the process of adaptation to modernity could not have been more gradual.

For example, would it not have been a good idea to encourage with specific programmes the rebuilding of a class of craftsmen? In many African countries craftsmen exist and there is a professional tradition in that sense. But not in Albania. Here the crafts were scorned and eliminated by the old regime. Those professional capabilities essential for a good quality of life and for development have only been recovered to a very minor degree, thanks to a few Albanians who had to learn them as emigrants in Greece or Italy. How can one think of setting up modern industries in Albania in the future or of attracting substantial foreign investment if there are no craftsmen or specialised workers?

It would probably also have been better to worry about maintaining stability in the rural areas. Albania is still a very agricultural country and three quarters of the territory is rocky and mountainous. No investment had been made in these areas and the extremely small size of plots has aggravated a rural economy that remains at mere subsistence level. Then again, it must be acknowledged that any proposal of bringing people together to work sounded to the Albanians like a legacy from the dictatorship: the term “cooperative”, for example, evoked the old regime and could not even be mentioned. Freedom led to the collapse of the health service in rural areas, as doctors either moved to the city or left the country. Minimum provisions for the rural communities were eliminated, while a radical laissez faire attitude triumphed by which the state became more of a partner for international institutions than the administrator of the country, with the partial exception of management of political and electoral clienteles.


Contradictions of the Free Market System

The Albanians set out enthusiastically on the road to a free market and Western capitalism, as the opinion polls mentioned earlier demonstrate. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to harbour doubts as to the awareness underlying that choice. Unlike elsewhere in Eastern Europe, there are no political or economic precedents in Albanian history for a liberalist choice. And culture and mentality do not change overnight. The Albanians ardently desired to become part of the Western political and economic system in order to achieve affluence and consumerism without being aware of the rules of the game.

The list of Albanian contradictions in this regard would be long. They criticise the old regime but are nostalgic for egalitarianism. They want the free market but consider even the faintest change in prices a crime. They want inter-state borders to be permeable, if not abolished altogether, but are suspicious that their neighbours are intent only on threatening Albanian sovereignty. They loudly invoke foreign investment but then denounce the exploitation of national resources by foreigners, before the foreign firms have even signed the contract. They exalt multi-party democracy but deal with the party in power in the same way as they did with the communist single party, considering it the only intermediary for securing work and a social role. Barely a minority of Albanians has realised that, as the director the Soros Foundation in Tirana, Piro Misha, observed, “capitalism is the price one has to pay for democracy and freedom ”. 8

Before concluding, an hypothesis shared by two English historians will be advanced here. 9 Until 1990, Albania was almost unknown internationally. It was rarely dealt with by the media and was considered something of an exotic, ideologically extravagant country. In such conditions, it was easy to make mistakes and, above all, be fooled. Many Westerners thought they were “discovering” Albania, but it was the assertive image of their country and its development potential that the rulers of the country managed to project to the world.

To the West, Berisha looked like an intelligent, positive, democratic, anti-communist leader, uniting the nation. Articles in the French press took his mastery of the French language as a guarantee of tolerance and modernity. Little was known of his personal history. The fact that he had not moved a soldier during the years of the Balkan crisis made him seem a pacifist. In reality, the Albanian army was totally incapable of undertaking an offensive operation on any front. Berisha also took a fluctuating line with respect to the Kosovo question, but Albania’s pacifism was obligatory, not a choice.


The Situation Today

A year after the most acute phase of the crisis, the political situation in Albania seems to be stable with the Socialist government supported by a large majority in parliament. Berisha, defeated, is leading an intransigent opposition. For a long time, the Democratic Party organised street demonstrations. In the north, members of the opposition tried to foment disorder, in particular in Scutari. But the government in Tirana has been unmoved; it is anchored by a landslide electoral victory and has international support. A vacuum of power is what the international institutions backing Albania’s recovery after the 1996-97 crisis fear above all else.

The economic and social situation is, however, still critical. The government of Fatos Nano decided at the beginning of its term to implement the directives of the International Monetary Fund and to collaborate positively with the international community which became the guarantor of Albania’s reconstruction in summer 1997. Consequently, it agreed to carry out unpopular tax and monetary policies. It has reduced public spending and combated some illegal trafficking which nevertheless brought money into the state coffers or at least the pocketbooks of state officials. For want of cash, it has sharply raised customs duties. With regard to Italy, the country most involved in international aid to Albania, it has radically changed its past policy on Albanian refugees and has accepted the repatriation of those who reached Apulia by sea in March-April 1997.

The promised international aid on which the government in Tirana bases its economic and political planning has been late in coming and has been allocated to only a minor degree. The level of unemployment is alarming. The population has continued to move to the cities, abandoning the mountains which constitute the largest part of Albanian territory. The Draconian laws preventing any change of residence during the communist period, when no one could leave the mountains for the plains (or vice versa), have disappeared. But as a result, Tirana now has 700,000 inhabitants, almost a quarter of the population of the entire state, if emigration is taken into account. Only five years ago, the capital had 300,000 inhabitants. And it is in the cities that the phenomenon of unemployment is dramatic.

There is work for farmers and shepherds, and for a few segments of the service sector (businessmen, teachers, civil servants). But the only industries in Albania are small foreign manufacturing enterprises— often Italian— which use 97 percent female labour to produce a single link in the production chain of some consumer good (parts of shoes, parts of shirts, parts of lingerie, etc.) Albania’s greatest resource is the remittances from its emigrants. 10

The lack of work, especially for the male population, has had heavy repercussions on law and order. Each Albanian family managed to procure arms during the crisis in spring 1997. Initially, the arms were taken from the arsenals by those in revolt against Berisha’s government or by Berisha’s supporters to defend the powers in place. But soon, given the general chaos and the widespread banditry, the families began to arm themselves for defence. The arms trade flourished throughout the country. Each family acquired a kalashnikov to protect its possessions—or its daughters, if young, as kidnapping of young women to exploit them is a current practice by Albanian criminals.

The spread of weapons has in turn been an incentive to banditry. In addition, at the local level, this practice is legitimated to some degree by the fact that the bands are often identified with the clans which are traditionally dominant in an area. This is leading to a feudalization of the Albanian territory, favoured by the weakness of the central state. The police has been reorganised, thanks above all to Italian assistance, but it adequately controls only a part of the territory, which corresponds roughly to the provinces of Tirana and Durazzo, considered strategic for asserting the existence of the state and for relations with foreign powers. Elsewhere, however, the state of law and order is unsatisfactory. People work in an atmosphere of uncertainty and travel at their own risk. The police know that they would be in serious danger is they were to try to organise round-ups, especially in the north, and prefer to be prudent. Fatos Nano tried unsuccessfullly to undertake a cabinet reshuffle in April 1998 in an attempt to deal more effectively with the country’s two crucial problems: the economy and law and order. He failed due to the opposition of the President of the Republic, Rexhep Meidani.

The ruling class in Tirana is rather discouraged about the country’s domestic circumstances. It puts the blame on the Berisha period, in that those were years of laissez faire, rampant individualism, a breakdown of relations between the citizens and the institutions. In reality, Albania under Berisha simply reverted back to its old condition, to an ancient tradition in which the state is irrelevant and the clans, families and regional notables take over. Moreover, it cannot be said that the government of Fatos Nano, the members of which come mainly from the south, is particularly capable of giving the country as a whole adequate representation.

Government officials also point to the lack of international support as a destabilising factor, especially after all the promises of reconstruction. These complaints are founded because Albania’s donors and financiers have examined, earmarked but not allocated resources and loans. The adoption of certain IMF directives has not produced the expected results in the short term. Collaboration with Italy has resulted in the assistance of experts and some humanitarian cooperation, but not large-scale initiatives aimed at economic and social revival. Italian assurances of welcoming a flow of Albanian seasonal workers has remained a dead letter, while the repatriation of Albanian refugees has been carried out. The majority of Albania’s adult male population would like to migrate to Italy or some other Western country to find work. It is no wonder, then, that Albanians continue to cross the Adriatic to enter Italy clandestinely, as in the past.

The case of Albania resembles that of other Balkan countries in the nineties. If and when there are open conflicts, acute crises, huge flows of refugees or emigrants and widespread coverage on the international media, the international community mobilises to handle the emergency. When a semblance of calm returns, the individual countries are left to solve their problems by themselves, in spite of the alerts by observers, diplomats, journalists. Other questions take priority in international politics, and it is forgotten that in situations of latent crisis it is much less expensive, in terms of resources and often also of human lives, to undertake prevention than to await fatalistically for events to evolve.


Roberto Morozzo della Rocca is Professor of Eastern European History at the Third University of Rome.



*: Translation is by Gabriele Tonne.  Back.

Note 1: Albania Country Report, 1997, Economist Intelligence Unit, no. 1, 1997.  Back.

Note 2: Central and Eastern Eurobarometer: Public Opinion and the European Union (Brussels: European Commission, various years).  Back.

Note 3: Ibid.  Back.

Note 4: Politica Internazionale, supplement on “Albania oggi: passaggio in Europa ”, no. 3, 1994.  Back.

Note 5: Ibid.  Back.

Note 6: R. Morozzo della Rocca , Albania. Le radici della crisi (Milan: Guerini e Associati, 1997) p. 46.  Back.

Note 7: Morozzo della Rocca, Le radici della crisi, p. 69  Back.

Note 8: P. Misha, “Dalla dittatura alla democrazia ”, Politica Internazionale, supplement, no. 3, 1994, pp. 7-16.  Back.

Note 9: M. Vickers and J. Pettifer write: “Despite its small size, Albania matters much more to the international community in the post-communist era than it did previously. However, most of those who visit the country for official reasons such as diplomats, politicians or heads of international organisations know little about the history of the curious place they are visiting. As a result the Democratic Party (DP) government has had a unique opportunity in ex-communist Eastern Europe to practise the politics of public relations illusions. The images of disorder in the “Years of Anarchy ” were so strong that any form of ‘stability’ has seemed preferable. The overwhelming view of Western diplomats is strongly favourable to President Berisha and his government on the grounds of what is perceived as the economic miracle and social transformation achieved during his administration, combined with the end of ‘disorder’. Most see Berisha, absurdly in view of his actual ‘biography’, as a leader untainted by past communist associations or mentality. In reality the whole evolution of the DP has been closely linked to that political tradition, and Albania is now a classic contemporary Balkan state, with an over-powerful president, little or no effective parliamentary opposition, and an over-large, privileged and highly politicised police and security apparatus. The real and genuine achievements of the Albanian people, or lack of them, during the transition period and the rich but contradictory nature of the country’s contemporary development is thus largely obscured. ”, Albania. From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity (London: Hurst and Co., 1997).  Back.

Note 10: Albania Country Profile, 1996-97, Economist Intelligence Unit, 1997.  Back.