Albania Twenty Years After: People on State and Democracy

Albania Twenty Years After: People on State and Democracy 

Tirana Times -

By Albert Rakipi 

The post-communist transformation – widely known as the transition –has been theoretically and practically thought of as an endeavour with two basic, closely-related components: replacing the totalitarian/authoritarian regimes with democratic governments and moving from a centralized socialist economy to a free market economic system. Both these components were fundamental goals of political elites that came to power following the collapse of communism in 1989 and 1991 in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.2  

But while the goals were similar in most countries in transition, success in achieving them was determined primarily by the legacy of the economy and politics not only under communism, but also by the tradition of the state, the level of economic development, the degree of industrialization and the scale of the country’s modern society. 

The success stories seen mostly in Central Europe are primarily associated with the existence of somewhat industrial societies and the existence of capitalist practices before these countries fell under communist domination. Such success has also been linked to previous, relatively early experiences of a democratic tradition, including a considerable degree of modernization of societies in these countries. 

Albania has experienced a transition featuring many steps forward and steps backward. It has also been a transition which after two decades cannot be with certainty defined as a completed transition. In the case of Albania, the most likely and most complete explanation behind its long and problematic transition is tied, first and foremost, to the relatively new state tradition. Its low rate of industrialization and the agrarian economy led to a long process of state building. The entire history of the modern Albanian state is tied to events that are no older than 100 years, where capitalist and liberal experiences were sporadic and where the even rarer democratic experiences were left in an embryonic stage before being crushed by the communist domination.  

So when reviewing the Albanian transition, above all, one must take into consideration the country’s pre-communist legacy. 

Second, success and the required time to get through the transition from totalitarian/ authoritarian regimes was influenced significantly by the different forms that undemocratic regimes3 took and developed in the former communist East. Contrary to authoritarian regimes that gradually began to allow a certain degree of liberalism in a number of Eastern countries, communist Albania remained an unparalleled Stalinist dictatorship until the last throes of the communist domination. Initially installing a one-party system, in the last two decades of the regime Albania became a dictatorship under the personal tyranny of Enver Hoxha. It was little more than sultan-like governance.  

The difference between personal dictatorship and a one-party regime is essential in terms of relations between the state and society through a social contract. While a one-party regime can allow for minimal “negotiation” of sorts on the contract between society and the state, in the case of the personal dictatorship in Albania, one could not even talk about a social contract.4  

The above-mentioned factors not only explain the prolonged transition of post-communist Albania, but also suggest the need for a new theoretical paradigm for understanding and explaining transition in countries like Albania. In a considerable number of countries of the former Communist East, post-communist transition meant replacing authoritarian regimes with democratic regimes and planned socialist economies with capitalist market economies.5 In the case of Albania, the transition should be understood primarily as a process of genuine state-building.  

Michael Mandelbaum’s suggestion that post-communism refers to both the past and the future, may at first glance be valid for all countries in transition. This could include Albania despite its different degree of social thinking and behaviour and the political and economic transformation involved. However, it would be difficult to apply it to the degree of the state-building process. Albania’s experience in the last two decades of post-communism suggests the transition was neither an adaptation nor a social, political or economic transformation, but a genuine process of state building.  

While Mandelbaum suggests the idea of continuity - that post-communism refers at the same time to the past and the future - in Albania’s case, there are difficulties in including the country in this category if we bear in mind that Albanian post-communism was not a continuation of what was interrupted five decades ago. Many components of the state, institutions, laws and documents that led to a social contract between society and state, in the case of Albania, were not renewed and adapted, but were essentially started from scratch. This was a social contract that was to be “negotiated” for the first time. But what is Albania like twenty years after the collapse of the communist regime? 

Executive Summary 

To anyone who visited Albania under the communist rule, there must have been a feeling of visiting another planet, and that someone must have turned back time for at least half of a century,6 as Karl Kaser of the University of Graz points out. And in the twenty years since the fall of communism, no country of the former East may have changed more than Albania. 

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of change in the Eastern Block, Albania looks remarkably different. In the main boulevard, only a few meters away from Parliament, and exactly where a huge statue of Stalin stood twenty years ago, there is now an equally large NATO flag, symbolizing Albania’s membership in the alliance.

Undoubtedly, what was once one of the most isolated countries on earth has made tremendous progress through an extraordinary political, economic and social transformation. 

Twenty years later, the giant communist state that not only failed to provide basic political and public goods for its citizens, but also was a threat to freedom, property, life and future of Albanians, has gone forever. The extremely centralized economy and an indoctrinated society have gone together with the harsh communist rule. 

With that giant and repressive state produced by communism gone, with the centralized Bolshevik-style economy gone, and with the society of fear and the indoctrinated individual gone, what are then the state, the economy and society today in Albania? And what is the interplay among them? 

The first and immediate answer is that twenty years after the fall of the communist regime, the state, the economy and society are in transition. Frequently used to describe the first years of democratization, however, the term “transition” is by now reductionist in nature, if not irrelevant in exploring the present and useless in shedding light on the aspired future. 

Many of the characteristics of Albania’s democratization can no longer be called transitional. Weak or failing institutions, eroding legitimacy of political institutions, distrust of political parties, consolidated corruption and sustained political tensions can no longer be considered temporary distortions or symptoms of a transition towards democracy. It is becoming increasingly evident that these phenomena are not characteristics of a transitory period but tangible products that threaten to become permanent features of the Albanian political landscape. The use of the word “transition” therefore obscures more than it explains, and it justifies Albania’s issues away by some sense of inevitability of this intangible force of transition- a process that cannot be controlled, managed, or directed. 

From the state functionality perspective, today’s Albania resembles what some political scientists call the “neo-patrimonial monopoly state,” highly dependent on personal leadership rather than institutions, laws and procedures. The shortcomings of rule of law are among other things a consequence of the existence of a pyramidal structure of trusted collaborators that operates within the formal structure of the government apparatus. This kind of order – rule by telephone – has steadily weakened the functionality of the state. 

The Albanian democracy, still formal and non-substantial, is at best detrimental to political stability and economic development and at worst, vulnerable to severe crises such as that of 1997. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Albania is a NATO member, but it has still not held free and fair elections judged by well-established international standards. 

Albania is a NATO member that has also clearly expressed its aspiration to join the European family. This is primarily a political project of building a functional democracy and state. After twenty years of endeavours, the record is mixed though, and this project remains unfinished. The reasons behind this state of affairs need to be clearly understood and engaged with in order to shape the future. 

Twenty years ago, two great challenges laid ahead of Albania’s economic transformation: first, moving from an entirely centralized system to a market economy, and second, accommodating globalization as the foretold international trend immediately after the end of the Cold War. From the shock therapy strategy pursued at the beginning of the nineties to the neoliberal ideas of the small state, the often controversial and chaotic economic transformation of Albania has had and continues to have tremendous impact on social mobility within the country and abroad, as well as on polarization and the unequal development of the regions. 

Twenty years after the fall of communism, Albania’s social fabric has changed. However, the presence of a dynamic civil society as an ultimate outcome of societal modernization is yet to materialize. Civil society organizations have indisputably contributed to societal modernization, but they have not been immune to politicization, loss of independence and therefore, loss of their raison d’être – to serve as government watchdogs and enable democratic and societal control of the state. 

The problematic and often controversial transition of Albanian politics, economy and society has been mirrored by the transition of the media to today’s rather chaotic and dysfunctional critical stage. Likewise, the opposite is true: malfunctioning within the media has mirrored itself negatively in the democratic development of the country. Twenty years after, the Albanian media can be best described as finding itself in a position where there is freedom of press, but no free press. 

The international community has played an irreplaceable role in Albania’s democratic processes and transformations. The role and participation of the international community in the fabric of democracy in Albania has evolved with time. For a relatively long time, Albania was undoubtedly a negotiated democracy, dominated by external actors, slowly heading towards an exit strategy. Rather than abandonment, exit strategies seek to foster domestic capacities for democratic governance, local ownership of the democratization process, and self-rule. Despite appearances, Albania is far from that point and still cultivates a culture of dependency. The higher trust towards international actors evidenced in the Albanian public indicates the serious democracy and legitimacy crisis of governing institutions. Two decades on, and in the framework of NATO membership and EU integration, the need for debate on the role of outsiders in Albania is clear and clearly related to state functionality and democracy. 

Disappointments observed, but no nostalgia for the past 

Many Albanians believed that, somehow by magic, things would be transformed as soon as the communist regime collapsed. They might have been wrong, but few could have imagined that the transformation would still be an ongoing process, twenty years later. Across the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, there were expectations that democracy would act as a medicine to cure all ills in the early nineties. But in Albania expectations following the collapse of communism were even larger because of the extreme isolation, violence and terror perpetrated by the regime on the population. 

The first opposition leaders of post-communist Albania promised too much and were blatantly simplistic with their promises. They told Albanians, who were impatient for change, that democracy was a blank check through which all their needs would be fulfilled.7 

Twenty years later, the great enthusiasm with which Albanians embraced their first post-communism leaders has now been decimated. The majority of Albanians today believes the promises made by the politicians twenty years ago have not been implemented at all and only 33 percent think that these promises have been only partially fulfilled. 

So there is no doubt that the huge expectations led to a lot of disappointment. But many realize how much their lives have changed thanks to a new system of government. Asked how involved the government is in providing good living conditions for its people, most of the respondents say the government is either very interested or interested in providing better lives for its people (27 percent and 39 respectively for a total for 66 percent). That is a big difference compared to the 62 percent who think the government under communism had no or little interest to establish normal living conditions. 

The majority of Albanians, 70 percent, view the communist state as the main threat to the life of its citizens’ and the main violator of human rights. Today, only seven percent think the Albanian state is a threat to life and violator of human rights. It is important to note though, that today’s threats are perceived by Albanians mostly as economic rather than physical. About 56 percent of the respondents believe that they live under some kind of threat. More than 60 percent of this particular group identify the source of this threat as either lack of money, imminent job loss or housing problems. Political violence and violence in the neighbourhood are seen as a threat by only 5.3 percent of the respondents.  

The transition’s weak state 

 Albanians’ main cause for dissatisfaction with the state in these past twenty years is the post-communist state and the fact that the two-decade-long transition produced a relatively weak state in terms of the quality of public services that a state is supposed to provide for its citizens. 

The AIIS study focused specifically on the perception of the quality of two basic services - education and healthcare. 

The quality of education prior to 1990 is highly valued by a large number of respondents. So, 42 percent of Albanians have a positive view of the quality of education during communism, compared to twenty percent that think the same way in 2010. Twice that number, 42 percent, regard the quality of education in 2010 as average, while 25 percent value it little and 9 percent very little. On the other hand, only 26 percent gave little or very little value to the quality of education during communism. 

Albanians’ opinion on the quality of health services for the period prior to 1990 and in the two following decades differs substantially from that on education. About 30 percent of the respondents valued the quality of health services during communism highly or very highly. Another 31 percent of the respondents think the quality of health services was low or very low under communism. This picture is very different in 2010. About 52 percent of respondents think the quality of health services in 2010 is low or very low, while only 23 percent consider the quality of healthcare to be high or very high. 

The fact that Albanians hold a more positive view of the quality of health services and education under communism than under the post-communist transition period must be taken with some reservations. One cannot compare the modernization that has taken place in healthcare and education services in the past twenty years with the almost primitive level of services provided in a totally isolated country like Albania under communism.  

If we look at some key indicators such as infant mortality rates or nearly European standards for education and the thousands of Albanian students who have studied and continue to study in Western universities – the comparison with the previous regime is mute and not appropriate.  

But if this is the case, why do Albanians continue to perceive a better quality of these services under communism than during the country’s post-communist period? There will certainly be a need for further studies to find a convincing answer. However, phenomena such as the widespread corruption in the healthcare and education systems have without doubt had a big impact on these negative perceptions. 

In addition, if the state under communism, though modestly, was able to provide health services to the most isolated villages in Albania, the current state has been unable to keep up the network of health centres at all levels, including regional hospitals. The Albanian education system has suffered a similar fate, and according to experts the rate of illiteracy has begun to creep up. 

Furthermore, the education system in Albania, particularly at the university level, faces a chaotic, almost desperate situation. A dozen or so private universities have appeared like mushrooms after rain. Largely serving as profit sources for the owners, they are undermining the underlying idea of quality private education through entrepreneurship. 

(To continue next week) 

1 For example, a population equal to that of the capital lives just outside the city, in the surrounding areas. 

2 For a number of countries, as in the former Soviet republics, the post-communist transitions, included another goal too: gaining independence and freedom from foreign rule. See Charles Gati’s If not Democracy, What? Leaders, Laggards, and Losers in the post Communist World and Michael Mandelbaum’s Post-Communism: Four Perspectives. A council on Foreign Relations Book 1996 p. 168. 

3 Samuel Huntington observes that regimes that moved towards democracy in the third wave generally fell into three groups : one-party systems, military regimes and personal dictatorship. See The third wave democratization in the late 20th century. 

4 Albert Rakipi State society Relations in Post Communist Albania .Un published paper . Albanian Institute for International Studies International Conference Twenty Years After – Rethinking state and democracy in Albania October 22- 23 2010, Tirana 

5 This does not mean that state-building elements were missing in these countries. 

6 See Karl Kaser Transition has ended formally, but practically not yet Albania needs a “catharsis period” Tirana Times, December 2010 at 

7 Ibid A. Rakipi State Society Relations in Post communist Albania. 

The People on State and Democracy study is based primarily on the findings of a national survey conducted in September and October 2010. It is also based on research AIIS undertook during 2010.  The survey was conducted using face-to face interviews with 1,200 respondents (aged 18 +). The survey took place in 12 main cities in Albania, including respective rural areas, which correspond to the current administrative division of the country’s 12 counties. 

Although the sample of 1,200 respondents was selected at random and is representative of the population, it is hard to find a fully scientifically viable sample in Albania if you account for the high mobility of the population, including the fact that at least 33 percent of Albanian citizens live abroad - mainly in Greece and Italy, but many other countries as well. Meanwhile, population mobility within Albania makes it even more difficult to protect scientific standards in a national survey. There are currently no accurate or uncontested statistics on the population quotas for each region, city or village in Albania. Most of the respondents of this survey, 69 percent, gave a city as their place of residence, while the rest, 31 percent, said they resided in the countryside. But in the case of Albania this cannot be interpreted as the percentage of the population split between villages and cities. Most Albanian villages have been almost deserted in the past twenty years. In today’s Albania there is thus no clarity on the drawing of boundaries between cities and the countryside around major cities, where most of the population has concentrated in these twenty years of transition.1 

An additional difficulty in conducting a national survey in Albania is the risk of the politicisation of findings and the thorny issues this creates. The implementation of this project was based on the work of AIIS’ own experts, who have extensive experience with surveys over the past ten years, as well as on qualified external expertise, which was especially utilised during the drafting of the questionnaire and the selection of the survey sample.