Albania Remains Hostage to Its Communist Past

21 May
Balkan Insight

“Albania Remains Hostage to Its Communist Past”

This article is also available in: Shqip Bos/Hrv/Srp

This March marked the 30th anniversary of the first multi-party elections in Albania that followed the fall of the communist regime, which, according to Neil Kritz, researcher at the American Institute for Peace, was one of the most tightly closed regimes in the world.

For about half-a-century, this brutal regime built and ruled through the State Security Service, known as the Sigurimi in Albanian, one of the most oppressive secret police apparatuses in the world. By the late 1980s, it is estimated to have recruited tens of thousands of people, while more than one third of the total population formed part of its extensive information network.

Under the leadership of the communist elite, the Sigurimi is estimated to have executed more than 6,000 people, investigated, persecuted, imprisoned for life and interned in inhumane prisons and camps thousands more, while instilling fear in every corner of Albania. This half-century-long regime transformed Albania into a massive detention camp.

That’s why, in the beginning of the 1990s Albania had all political and historical credentials to pursue a radical and transformative model in dealing with its communist criminal past.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tirana in April this year. EPA-EFE/Malton Dibra.

Ruti Teitel, a leading expert on transitional justice, asserts that condemning the crimes of totalitarian regimes, establishing justice, uncovering the truth, and acknowledging human rights abuses is an important precondition for reconciliation and the rapid transition of a post-totalitarian society towards a functioning democracy.

However, 30 years on, despite all the hopes of the people who poured onto the streets of Tirana in the cold days of December 1990, Albania is the only country behind the former Iron Curtain in Europe that has not managed to break away from its criminal, communist past.

Unlike most other former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, even though Albania initiated several legal measures aimed at uncovering and punishing communist-era human rights abuses, it has failed to implement them altogether.

Cynthia Horne, a transitional justice scholar, in her book Building Trust and Democracy, writes that Albania is the only country in former communist Eastern Europe that has such laws on its books, but failed to put them into practice.

This failure is down to a combination of factors.

First, the transition from Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to political pluralism in Albania fits into what Samuel Huntington called “the negotiation and power transfer” transition model.

Lulzim Basha, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party at a polling station in Tirana in April. Photo: EPA-EFE/Malton Dibra.

In the late-1980s, Albania was the only former communist country in Europe that did not have organised political dissidents. This was mainly due to the regime’s brutality; it killed or imprisoned for life both the intellectual elite and religious clergy.

In such circumstances, when the anti-communist revolution swept Eastern Europe and finally reached Albania at the beginning of the1990s, it was practically impossible to cleanse the communist nomenclature from power.

As a result, the new political elite of the 1990s had to coexist and share power with the communist regime’s human political legacy in the public administration, judiciary and party politics.

It is this assemblage that has prevented Albania from making a clean break with the past. For instance, the introduction of the Genocide Law in 1995, intended to hold human rights abusers to account, was amended by the Socialist majority, the successors to the old communist party, when they took power in 1997. Shortly afterwards, in 1999, the law was completely overturned by the Constitutional Court.

Secondly, most of the legal measures introduced in post-communist Albania were poorly drafted and half-hearted. The first court sentences imposed on the former communist nomenclature for economic abuses discredited the reputation of the whole process.

Parts of the legislation were seen as politically motivated, intended mainly to eliminate political opponents; this weakened bipartisan support for these legal initiatives. The combination of the politics of the past with the politics of the present in post-communist Albania turned the hoped-for-reckoning with the past into a futile enterprise.

This communist past continues to haunt Albanian society. The failure to cleanse state institutions of the people who served the oppressive machinery of the communist regime facilitated the continuation of the totalitarian regime’s elite. Some of the highest political and legal institutions are still run by former protégés of the former regime.

Albania’s inability to expose the abuses of its totalitarian regime and establish justice has also led to the downplaying and denial of the old dictatorship’s human rights abuses.

This has nurtured a distorted historical narrative in the public sphere, which keeps portraying communist Albania in schoolbooks as a progressive state, which ensured electrification, provided free health care and education as well as universal suffrage (the right to vote only for the ruling party) – overshadowing the crimes, economic and social misery it brought about to the country. Keeping this narrative alive has made it impossible to build a unifying collective memory of the communist past in Albania.

Lastly, Albania’s failure to reckon with the communist regime’s human rights abuses has had serious consequences for its democratic direction. The controversial past has been harnessed politically to manipulate the public discourse with anti-political rhetoric for electoral benefits, and to excuse misconduct in office, corruption and bad governance.

Three decades on, Albania continues to float in a protracted transition to nowhere, still hostage to the ghosts of its communist past that haunt the present – and its future.

Altin Gjeta holds a Master of Arts in International Relations and Politics from the University of Westminster, London. He is a research fellow at the Albanian Centre for Good Governance, a Tirana-based NGO.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Note: “…while more than one third of the total population formed part of its extensive information network.”

Except how do you cleanse or bring to account that one third?  I guess just behave as if there’s an unspoken amnesty.  When I go to my father’s village in southern Albania, I know that a good percentage of the people happy to see me and all friendly and chummy with me were people who informed on my family and extended clan, landing people in internal exile, in hard-labor prison camps like the one my grandfather died in and cut off from correspondence from the rest of the world.  I guess mass forgiveness is the only way; if you were asked to inform on others and refused, then it was you who went to the prison camp. And I don’t know I’d be so brave in the face of that decison.

Finally, the real reason for the lack of change is people’s indifference, like all over the eastern bloc mostly. “oh, what’s the point in dwelling on the past?” Younger people just think that the Albanian diaspora is obsessed with the suffering of the communist past. On the other hand, old and young have created a hilarious, satirical narrative and jokes about the absurdity of the old system. One way to face the bitterness.

Wanna know more about my family under Albanian Stalinism, check out: Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather

My father and my grandparents


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