A Political Story of Post Communism

A Political Story of Post Communism 

Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

By Albert Rakipi 

In October, 2010, I suggested to Elez Biberaj to republish his book Albania in Transition. The timing had a significant element. Coincidentally, at the same time he and other well-known scholars of Albanian matters, had been invited to the conference “20 years after the fall of communism: Reflections on the state and democracy,” organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies; which had the purpose of evaluating the progress of Albania’s post-communist transition— the theme of Biberaj’s book. Biberaj eagerly welcomed the idea of republication and even proposed writing a new chapter to assess the developments of the last fifteen years. 

In 1998, at the time of Westview Press’ initial publication of his book, politics, economy and society in Albania continued to function—if they were “functioning” at all—more in a chaotic manner, rather than according to a clear political order. 

I believe that chaos is an inevitable fragment of all transitions, including transitions from communist dictatorships to liberal, democratic regimes. However, in 1998, Albania experienced one of the most dangerous crossroads of its entire existence as an independent state. At the time, Albania was still in search of a way out of one of the most serious crises in its entire modern history—the crisis of 1997—that emerged after the fall of the pyramid schemes which led to the failure of the state. 

A number of important reforms undertaken after the crisis of that year essentially were the same reforms which had been interrupted by the anarchy and fall of the state; whose content and aims categorized them as being typical of a transition period. 

Theoretical debate over the post-communist transition has been rich, dynamic and controversial over a number of issues including the critical question: when, exactly, can one say that the transition, as an intermediary phase of the state’s political and economic transformation, is over? 

These theoretical dilemmas regarding when post-communist transition can be considered complete, began to appear especially in the mid 1990s. In most cases, the states which were considered as having completed their transitions were hinted at in Central Europe, referring to countries which inherited historical liberal and state traditions. Albania, on the other hand, considering the chaos that the country faced in 1997 and 1998, certainly remained in a state of transition, with little, and occasionally threatened stability. 

From this perspective, Biberaj’s idea to include in the transition book the political Albania (and not only) of the post-1997 period was entirely natural and perhaps even indispensable. 

In the international conference on post-communism which took place in Tirana, there was no lack of debate over the dilemma of whether or not, after two decades, Albania’s post-communist transition is through.1 

If, even in 2010, twenty years since the fall of communism— when Albania is a member of NATO and is seeking EU membership— the issue of an uncompleted transition still exists, then it is only natural to consider that the history of transition published in 1998 is incomplete. 

On the other hand, it is critical that we agree on a definition of post-communist transition. Michael Mandelbaum suggests that post-communism is a term which refers more to the past than the future.2 One can think that the transition in Albania is not yet finished; but what has happened in this country during the last decade has nothing to do with the past or transition. To this end, Michael Weichert states that he is not in favor of the use of the term transition. The term simply marks the beginning of Albania’s endeavors in 1990 but fails to assist us in determining where Albania wants to arrive: whether it is a functioning state and democratic society, European integration or other alternatives.3 

If we suppose that transition is complete when a country has arrived at the metaphorical target of “getting to Denmark,”4 then I believe that Albania’s transition will not be ending anytime soon. The same can be said even for other countries with similar short termed state traditions and few democratic experiences. The issue of attaining a liberal functioning democracy and a functioning state in Albania, as well as countries similar to Albania, will go on for generations and does not pertain solely to a post-communist transition. 

The contradictory advancement of Albania— and not only Albania— with large steps forward accompanied almost chronically by frightful steps back, can and should be understood and explained outside the transitional paradigm. 

If we rely on this perspective, and recall that not only the magic and spirit of Albanian post-communist transition (and not only in the case of Albania) but also its substance, happened in that intermediary time, when the old regime and its suppressive system crumbled, when the centralized economy came to an end, and a new political system emerged, without necessarily including the consolidation of the latter; then Elez Biberaj’s 1998 book on the Albanian transition, and most certainly this publication that features a portrayal of the years up until 2010, is a book which is absolutely critical to understanding, explaining, and analyzing the political history of Albania’s transition from a communist dictatorship to a liberal democratic system. 

Here stands the primary importance of Biberaj’s book. First and foremost his book, Albania in Transition is a political story of post-communist political transition. It’s the best political history that has been written until now about one of the three most important periods— if not the most important— of the one hundred years of Albania’s modern history; a history which began with the historical establishment of the Albanian state and consolidation, was followed by the triumph of the communist regime at the end of World War II, and then culminated in the collapse of the dictatorship in the early 1990s. 

The second important aspect of Albania in Transition lies in the fact that the author has established this political story of post communist Albania in a full historical and geopolitical context. The long, iron-fisted isolation of the communist period interrupted Albania’s much-needed cultural and scientific exchange with the rest of the world. As such, western communications and publications pertaining to Albania were either non-existent or were very few. By 1990, Albania was a place that practically did not exist. Such a situation made it necessary to place the new developing story in a historical context. This approach, apart from facilitating an understanding of Albania’s historical transition, is valuable and beneficial in itself because it provides a dynamic contrasting picture of Albanian history, state, people, culture, and especially of the political Albania under communism including the international relations during that regime. 

The first non-communist opposition in Albania strongly supported the state’s political and economic transition, in the foreign affairs and international relations. The break from the old regime could not begin, or be as successful, without the emergence from isolation and reestablishment of relations with the Western world. However, before analyzing, for example, the role of foreign policy and international relations played in Albania’s transition, Biberaj presents a historical context of these relations, which, in addition to providing an overall understanding of the changes, is beneficial in itself. 

At the same time, Albania’s historical political transition would not be complete without a geopolitical context in which Biberaj explains the change of the regime in Albania— a state so small that as Robin Alison Remginton noted, is only slightly larger than Maryland with a strategic importance the size of China5, but has a critical role in the future development of the Balkan region. 

As the Albanian transition was taking place, the Balkans was heading toward one of its darkest periods, marked by bloody wars reminiscent of World War II— appearing evermore like a theatre of extreme violence and a field of collision/collaboration with the Great Powers of the time. Apart from the history of Albania’s transition, Biberaj’s book is a must-read for each international relations student who is interested in the modern-day relations of the Balkan region and the powers beyond. 

Thirdly, it can honestly be said that Elez Biberaj’s book on Albania’s transition has, in fact, helped the transition itself. The book has served not only to clarify the Albanian transition, but also to foster international awareness of a small place like Albania, as well as the entire region— contributing to a sparking of Western interest for peace and stability in the Balkans. 

Albania in Transition is a political story of transition, but it is not the only or the exhaustive one. This book was written while the transition was happening itself. Such a situation does not allow for the reflection or distancing which comes only with the passing of time, necessary to acquire a neutral view of circumstances and actors. 

Last but not least, I would like to underline two facts: 

First, this political history of Albania’s transition is written by a person who has made a significant contribution to the Albanian transition. Elez Biberaj’s voice on the Albanian program of Voice of America— which shook the hearts and minds of Albanians and prepared them for a great change— will remain engraved in the memories of Albanian people. Furthermore, apart from other factors which led to the ousting of the dictator in Albania, Remzi Lani suggests that the “Biberaj Factor,”6 as exhibited by his efforts on Voice of America, should be considered as an invaluable contribution as well. 

Second, Elez Biberaj with this book, as well as previous books, continues to remain one of the most successful Albanian political scientists and historians; and more importantly continues the remarkable and unparalleled tradition that developed and continues to thrive only in the United States of America. 

1 See Karl Kaser Transition has ended formally, but practically not yet , Albania needs a catharsis period ‘ Tirana Times December 2010 at www.tiranatimes.com 

2 Michael Mandelbaum Post Communism: Four Perspectives, A council on Foreign Relations book, 1996 

3 See Michael Weichert, Impressive economic development. But state and institutions still lacking behind, Tirana Times December 2010 at www.tiranatimes.com 

4 The issue of establishing political institutions has been described as the issue of becoming like Denmark. “Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions; it is stable, democratic peaceful, prosperous, inclusive…” See Francis Fukuyama The Origins of political order From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p.14 

5 See Robin Alison Remington: Foreword to “Albania in Transition: The Rocky Road to Democracy”, Westview Press, 1998. 

6 Remzi Lani, presentation at International Conference “Albania twenty years after the fall of communism- Reflections on state and democracy”, Albanian institute for International Studies, Tirana: 2010. 

Elez Biberaj has been Director of Voice of America’s Eurasia Division since 2005. He is responsible for planning, directing, and developing VOA’s radio, television, and Internet programming in Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. He has authored three books on Albanian affairs and contributed chapters to several others. He has also published articles in Encyclopedia Britannica, Conflict Studies, Problems of Communism, Survey, The World Today, East European Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal/Europe, etc. Dr. Biberaj joined VOA’s Albanian Service as an international radio broadcaster in 1980. From 1982 to 1986, he worked in the Press Division of the former U.S. Information Agency as a Senior Writer/Editor, specializing in Soviet and East European Affairs. Dr. Biberaj returned to VOA as Albanian Service Chief in 1986, and, for the next 18 years helped transform the service into one of VOA’s most successful broadcasting units.