Magazine article The Spectator

'Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe', by Fred C. Abrahams - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe', by Fred C. Abrahams - Review

Article excerpt

Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe Fred C. Abrahams

New York University Press, pp.358, £35, ISBN: 9780814705117

Albania is a small country of 2.7 million people, wedged within the Balkan peninsula. Separated from both Greece and Italy by mere kilometres of seascape and shoreline, it borders the European Union, and, with official candidate status as a member country, strongly hopes for closer ties.

As Fred C. Abrahams describes it, the country's transition from cultish Stalinist dictatorship to functioning democracy in only three decades should be a source of debate, intrigue and pride. The principal protagonists in the 'drama' of transition are 'a paranoid dictator, an ambitious doctor, a scheming economist and an urban artist'. Observed by Abrahams himself -- first as a media trainer, and next as a researcher for Human Rights Watch -- the book's action begins in the aftermath of Albania's first democratic elections in 1990, and spans nearly three decades of complex politics leading up to Edi Rama's new Socialist coalition, elected in 2013.

Abrahams's first impression of Tirana -- a city 'where even the light seems old' -- follows his arrival in 1993. The country's cruel dictator, Enver Hoxha -- a failed French student, one-time language teacher and Tirana tobacconist -- has been dead since 11 April 1985. An enormous, pyramid-shaped museum, designed by Hoxha's daughter -- which once displayed a neatly pressed pair of the late despot's pyjamas -- now accommodates a pro-democracy radio station. To Abrahams's surprise, the late dictator's villa houses 'a fast food restaurant with golden arches called McMarriott'.

Hoxha, who was both 'a cultured man, who studied in France, wore dapper suits, knew history and enjoyed literature' and 'a paranoid and brutal dictator', has left an indelible mark on the city. Depicting himself as benevolent 'Uncle Enver', Hoxha forced the people of Albania to endure his 44-year tenure as General Secretary of the Albanian Communist Party. At various stages in his reign he adulated the work of comedy actor Norman Wisdom, sunk British battleships with mines, and purged the ranks of the Party of Labour in pursuit of his opponents. When the rigid framework of rules disappeared, Albania was 'transformed from a country with sealed borders to a smugglers' dream, from the world's only officially atheist state to a playground for religions, from a land with no private cars to a jumble of belching cars, buses and trucks'. …

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