Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Communist Legacies in the Albanian Landscape

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Communist Legacies in the Albanian Landscape

Article excerpt

THE elements of the socialist landscape are disappearing fast, and documenting them is important to discern the legacies of communism. Unlike other East European countries, Albania chose a nationalistic or self-reliant approach to modernization and shut itself off from the rest of the world for several decades. This circumstance makes it even more important to analyze the geographical aspects of social change. Between 1944 and 1985 Albania may have made considerable economic progress under Enver Hoxha, but it remains the most backward country in Europe (Pano 1992). Examination of the current landscape reveals four significant legacies from the communist regime: reclamation of the Myzeqe Plain, establishment of forty-one new urban centers as focal points of economic development, transformation of the Drin River as a source of hydroelectrical power, and promotion of Tirana as a socialist capital.

As a student in France during the interwar years, Hoxha became aware of the extent to which Albanian underdevelopment resulted from Turkish and Italian exploitation (Biberaj 1990, 17). Alter 1945 Hoxha embraced a Stalinist program of forced industrialization that depended on economic aid from other communist countries. However, his obsession with overdependence on external powers and his rigid Stalinist ideology led to rejection of aid successively from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China, with heavy economic consequences for Albania. His nationalistic emphasis justified not only the hardships of isolation and self-reliance but also a rural-development program that stabilized urbanization at approximately 35 percent. He also reduced the fragmenting effects of tribal and religious loyalties. Most significant was the attempt to integrate the northern Gegs and southern Tosks, whose differences in way of life and dialect had long been divisive forces in Albania.


The Myzeqe Plain, the largest on the eastern Adriatic coast, illustrates the transformation from malarial swamp to irrigated fields that has been characteristic of the northern Mediterranean coast since 1945. Two factors are important in explaining the patterns in Albania. The first is the misuse of land that started in antiquity (Semple 1931, 289-291; Braudel 1972, I, 67). Landscape deterioration was noted as long ago as 1920, when an Austrian geographer described the plain as "a desolate wasteland covered with spreading water areas and impassable swamp forests . . . inundated in winter and dried up in summer" (Veith 1920, 77). The cycle of deterioration included overcutting and overgrazing followed by loss of soil from the steep, bare slopes during winter rains; this transported sediment then filled the beds of the main streams as their gradients were radically reduced on reaching the plain; and the result was flooding, swamp conditions, and malaria. The deposits of the Shkumbin, Seman, and Vijose rivers eventually expanded the plain outward into the sea.

The second factor was land tenure, in which the consequences of Ottoman rule and its decline were paramount (Stavrianos 1958, 138). With the weakening of Ottoman power during the eighteenth century, serfdom was introduced as fiefs were converted into private, heritable estates. Rather than accept the new status of serfs, many peasants fled to the mountains and left areas of potentially productive land abandoned and untilled. A result was the paradox of an underpopulated plain of swamp, fallow, and pasture next to overpopulated mountains. An analytical framework for this pattern is devastation theory, which holds that physical factors, hydrographical in this case, are inseparable from human ones, in this case the exploitive Turkish land-tenure system (Busch-Zantner 1938, 124-134).

Little improvement in the conditions of the plain occurred in the interwar period, when Albania was not a viable state. Italy, which initially dominated and then occupied the country, was not interested in land improvement and left the large estates mostly intact. …

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