A changing landscape in Albania
Visually, Albania seems very close to Italy: on the map, the Adriatic Sea that divides Albania from Italy is only a little blue puddle. But once in Albania, one can feel that this country is not yet part of the European Union (EU), despite its geographical proximity to one of the founders of the European Institutions. Like some of its neighbouring Balkan countries, Albania is keen to join the EU, but the specific history of the country complicates the situation.
Since the opening to the outside world in 1991, Albania has been in continuous transformation. Some key moments in the Albanian history are crucial to understand the political, social, and economical changes this small country has undergone in the past 20 years.
After the Second World War and for over 40 years the country was closed off and no exchange with the outside world was possible. No foreign influence penetrated the country and no information was allowed to travel beyond its borders. Paranoia and poverty was part of daily life for most Albanians, who were ruled over Enver Hoxha.
Isolated Albania went through the decades of the Cold War, “missing” the fall of the Berlin wall and the turning point this represented for almost all of the communist countries. Albania found itself at the beginning of the 1990s being one of the few nations still believing in the communist dream. However, in 1991 free national elections punished the communists and saw the start of a new phase for Tirana.
Religion comes in to complicate the case. Religious practice was completely forbidden during the communist years and atheism was imposed throughout the country. Ever since 1991, faith has witnessed an important revival. Islam, Catholicism and Greek Orthodox Christianity have drawn a specific mosaic that has come to overlay the already complex political structure.
Since 1991, the progressive and deregulated opening of the country has allowed much space to a market economy that has completely transformed the organisation of society and the landscape. New products and foreign capitalistic values have been imported, in exchange for a large number of emigrants that have exported themselves to what they believed were more prosperous lands.
In recent times many have come back to the country with savings accumulated to build new homes and businesses, while others have preferred to return as they found no opportunities in countries like Italy and Spain. Many have also kept one foot in Albania and one abroad, migrating to the rhythm of the seasons of economic booms.
Twenty years after the end of the communist regime, the “country of the eagles” is still searching for its identity. Winds blow in many directions and the country hesitates between a future angled towards the West and a past of Oriental flavours often denied but which are now finding a way to re-emerge in the most unexpected aspects of daily life.
The continuous rivalry between the two major political parties and the accusations of failure in the fight against endemic corruption by the opposition have escalated into episodes of violence and the killing of three protesters in January 2011 after the presidential elections.
Today Albanians are dreaming of joining the EU, geographically so close but still so distant in political reality. Albania is not even yet an EU candidate country and its efforts in meeting the EU requirements for the Instrument of Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) still need to be fulfilled.
As Blerta Hoxha, policy researcher of the European Mouvement in Albania, points out: “Many challenges remain to transform the Albanian society into a European oriented society concerned with civil rights.”