Albania!

Doug Muir here, blogging from Tirana, Albania, where I’ll be for the rest of this week.

Albania is, as we all know, in a dead heat with Moldova for the not-coveted title of Europe’s Poorest Country. But downtown Tirana is surprisingly peppy: coffeeshops, restaurants, tree-lined boulevards, nightclubs, parks. Granted, non-downtown Tirana is concrete blocks and shanty towns. But the center of the city is actually quite nice.

Also, Albania lies on the right side of the line that separates “good Balkan food” (Greece, Turkey) from “horrible Balkan food” (Serbia, Romania).

Albania is nominally a majority Muslim country, but in Tirana they take their Islam lightly. I’ve yet to see a woman wearing a headscarf, never mind a veil, and the bars and coffeeshops are full of people casually drinking raki and the perfectly acceptable local beer. There are also large Catholic and Orthodox minorities; there’s a big Catholic church down the street from me, and when the new Pope was elected last month, bells rang all over the city.

There are a lot of shaven-headed young men driving Mercedes sedans while talking on their cell phones. Albania is supposed to be the stolen car center of Europe. A casual stroll around central Tirana suggests that this is entirely plausible. There are a lot of BMWs and Mercedes. (The high end Volkswagon models are also popular.)

It’s been suggested that some of Tirana’s pep is coming from Italian and Albanian organized crime, laundering their money in a city where oversight is not so stringent.

If work permits, I hope to get outside of Tirana for a couple of short trips. And Albania will have a general election next month, and I hope to blog about that.

Meanwhile, why not make this an open thread for all things Albania-related? Anyone?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Life and tagged , , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

16 thoughts on “Albania!

  1. Shqiperia, the land of both Skanderbeg and Hoxha. If anyone knows more about this enigmatic country, especially contemporary stuff, I am listening.

    PS: Doug, if you could post some pictures somewhere, that would be very cool 🙂

  2. “There are Albanians in Calabria”

    Yes, and as your link points out, the dialect of Italian spoken in that part of the world has distinct Albanian influences.

    “that separates ?good Balkan food? (Greece, Turkey) from ?horrible Balkan food? (Serbia, Romania)”.

    So where does that leave Bulgaria (or macedonia come to think of it)?

    Do they make a ritual out of drinking raki?

  3. Guy, I don’t have a camera, but I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have. If I can, I mean.

    Otto, most young people in Tirana seem to have some English. Italian is also widespread.

    The Albanians of Calabria, in Italy, have been there since Skanderbeg’s day — over 500 years. They fled there to escape the Turks. They speak an archaic form of Albanian. Modern Albanians can understand them, but just barely… it’s like talking to a native speaker of Shakespearean English.

    Edward, I didn’t mention Bulgaria or Macedonia because I haven’t spent enough time in those countries — just a day or two apiece. But there’s definitely a big difference between the southern and northern Balkans. Traditional Serbian and Romanian cooking tends to be very heavy and greasy, with lots of big meat dishes and boiled vegetables. Basically, everything is grilled, boiled or fried in hog lard.

    Greek and Turksih cooking is (relatively) lighter, and most Westerners find it more palatable.

    There are commonalities across the region. Everybody drinks raki or rakia; everybody loves sweet sweet sweet desserts; everybody likes strong coffee. And everybody eats burek.

    Doug M.

  4. from december 2002, so maybe no longer quite so contemporary, but here goes:

    TIRANA, Albania ? The murky trickle of water that flows through the center of the Albanian capital still gives off a foul stench, but the rest of downtown Tirana is getting a facelift.

    Vibrant shades of pastel-colored paint adorn the city?s decaying concrete tower blocks, a legacy of 50 years of brutal Stalinism. Bulldozers have cleared away hundreds of illegal kiosks to create parks and flower beds outside the cafes where stylishly dressed young people sip endless espressos. After dark, blue neon lights outside many renovated buildings bathe the city in a surreal sheen.

    At first glance, Albania looks to have come a long way in the five years since it descended into violent anarchy after a proliferation of pyramid investment schemes collapsed. Even the two politicians who stifled development for a decade with an intense rivalry that bordered on a blood feud have made up, joining forces to elect a president agreeable to both.

    But peer behind the gleaming facades of Tirana?s new Technicolor center and the old Albania is plain to see. Around the back of most buildings, the architecture is crumbling and hawkers are still trying to eke out a living by erecting temporary stalls on any patch of land that remains undeveloped.

    Edi Rama, Tirana?s mayor and architect of its recent transformation, concedes it will take a long time to make the city attractive enough to deter more people from joining an exodus of around one million Albanian emigrants since communist rule collapsed.

    ?Of course Tirana will never become Paris or Rome but that doesn?t mean we shouldn?t make the effort,? he said, surveying the rubble of demolished buildings piled beside the shallow waters of the river Lana, which he hopes to be able to see through one day.

    ?This city has been through a terrible period of chaos: it was in the worst possible shape, so anything you can do will have a big impact and show people you mean business.?

    However cosmetic, the changes brought about by Mr. Rama, a former basketball player and artist by profession, are making a difference. Opinion polls show that more than four fifths of the capital?s residents are pleased with the results of his clean-up operation and the United Nations has just awarded him a special prize for environmental development.

    Not everyone is impressed, however.

    ?The mayor is the pillar of corruption in this city. He?s a charlatan,? said Sali Berisha, 58, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party and Albania?s president for the first half of the past decade. ?If you ask those who?ve had no favors from him, he?s not so popular.?

    Fatos Nano, 50, the other leading figure in post-communist politics and now into his third stint as prime minister, is less scathing about Mr. Rama, who was elected as an independent with the backing of Mr. Nano?s Socialist Party.

    But the 38-year-old mayor believes that both men, implacable enemies for years after Mr. Berisha had Mr. Nano jailed on fraud charges in the early 1990?s, have entered a marriage of convenience to thwart upcoming politicians such as himself.

    ?I could understand it if they were allying to push through unpopular reforms,? Mr. Rama said. ?But instead they just seem to be lashing out at people who annoy them both ? including me. There?s a genuine anger at someone who?s making things happen.?

    The alliance between Mr. Nano and Mr. Berisha, forged under heavy international pressure to prevent their feuding from derailing reforms, has shaken up Albanian politics. No one seems quite sure whether it can last, but most people, Western diplomats included, are giving them the benefit of the doubt, promising to judge the partnership by its achievements.

    ?It seems it was the only way for both of them to survive politically: they were irrational in their hatred and now they?re irrational in their love,? said Remzi Lani, a political analyst and director of Albania?s Media Institute. ?But it?s better that they talk than fight. Whether we like it or not, people are voting for them.?

    The new climate of cooperation may be a breakthrough, but many observers fear that no opposition could be just as damaging as too much. Mr. Rama is particularly forthright on the subject.

    ?They don?t understand that democracy is more important than stability,? he said. ?Instead they are killing democracy in the name of stability.?

    Both Mr. Nano and Mr. Berisha dispute this, saying they only have the country?s best interests at heart. Since Mr. Nano became prime minister earlier this year after elbowing aside another young politician in the shape of Ilir Meta, a former weightlifter, he has made a highly publicized attempt to crack down on rampant corruption.

    Speedboats used by smugglers to zip across the Adriatic to Italy have also been set ablaze to counter Western criticism that not enough was being done to tackle trafficking in people, as well as drugs and other contraband.

    Six months after the European Union ordered Albania?s squabbling politicians to elect a president by consensus, they have been rewarded with a decision from Brussels to begin talks on admitting this impoverished nation to the wealthy Western trade bloc one day.

    Hoping to speed up the process, Mr. Nano is trying to persuade his Balkan neighbors, many of whom still have terrible relations after a decade of wars, to form a regional parliamentary assembly and prove to the E.U. that they can get along.

    ?We all have the same priorities, but real change can happen only if we build a regional authority to lead the way,? he said, echoing the mantra of most international agencies active in the region.

    The same logic appears to have driven his decision to cooperate with Mr. Berisha.

    ?Only real authorities can produce consensus,? Mr. Nano said, declining to be drawn on how it felt to shake hands with a man who locked him up for three years. ?People like Edi Rama want me to be conflictual with Berisha so they can steal my votes.?

    Mr. Rama insists he has no plans at this stage to mount a challenge for higher office, stressing that he has committed himself to a nine-year plan to overhaul Tirana, which would mean standing for reelection to his current job two more times.

    But he is blunt in his criticism of most of the people who have run the country in the 12 years since Albania came out of its self-imposed isolation under communist rule.

    ?There is a total lack of vision,? he said. ?If we didn?t have the Albanian entrepreneurial spirit and financial support from the diaspora, this stupid political class would have destroyed the country by now.?

  5. another slice of hackery from the same era:

    TIRANA, Albania – This may be one of the poorest countries in Europe and its bumpy, winding roads a world away from the German autobahn, but the most popular car in Albania is the Mercedes-Benz.

    More than a decade after communist rule collapsed in the Balkans, most Romanians still drive box-shaped Renault 12 copies made by the local car company, Dacia. Traveling around Serbia, you are more likely to find yourself stuck behind a sluggish Yugo or Zastava than overtaken by a shady looking businessman behind the wheel of the latest B.M.W.

    But Albania is different.

    Touring the dirt roads, mountain passes and highways of this coastal nation of 3.5 million people, it is possible to spot virtually every model of Mercedes produced since the 1970?s. From the plushest new S-Class to battered sedans from a bygone era, they outnumber all other brands by as much as two to one.

    Shacks by the roadside in remote villages proudly advertise ?Mercedes Service? and hawkers at city center traffic lights peddle an extensive range of accessories, from alloy hub caps to leather steering wheel covers.

    Where do all these luxury automobiles come from? Certainly not from the official Mercedes dealership on the outskirts of the Albanian capital, Tirana.

    ?We expect to sell about 50 cars this year,? said Sokol Kodra, the showroom?s chief salesman. ?The people who come to us for a new vehicle are only interested in the most expensive models and they have to pay cash.?

    On average, this means handing over a pile of banknotes to the value of $65,000 – an amount that the majority of Albanians would take a lifetime to earn on their current salaries.

    But for many of those who can afford a car at all, a Mercedes is the only option worth considering.

    ?They?re robust and powerful – ideal for the awful roads in this country – and spare parts are easy to find,? said Ilir Mansaku, a taxi driver from Tirana who owns a 1990 version of the model that evolved into the E-Class. ?They?re also a bit of a status symbol. Who wants to drive anything else if you can have a Mercedes??

    At the main used car market outside Durres, Albania?s second city, the going rate for some of the older sedans is around $4,000. And there are plenty to choose from.

    Several hundred polished Mercedes, mostly with German and Italian registration plates, are parked in formation in a muddy field strewn with litter and the livestock tended by subsistence farmers who live nearby.

    ?Have a look around,? said a man in a leather jacket, brandishing a mobile phone, who declined to give his name. ?If you can?t see what you?re looking for, you can leave us your number. There?s always a good chance something will come in.?

    Most of the used vehicles on sale here appear to have been imported perfectly legally. Many still bear the temporary registration plates that allow cars to be driven out of Germany and sold on abroad, most often in Eastern Europe.

    Back in 1990, when Albania threw off the Stalinist regime that had kept it isolated from the outside world for half a century, the first cars to pour into the country were decrepit old Fiats from Italy.

    But an exodus of Albanians seeking work abroad soon transformed the market. Before long, people were driving back to visit their families in more impressive cars – and leaving them behind when they returned to Western Europe.

    Around one million Albanians emigrated over the past decade as the economy collapsed and the country descended into anarchy at one point. The remittances they send home help keep their relatives afloat and make the dream of car ownership an attainable reality.

    More importantly, the ?migr? community keeps the supply of Mercedes flowing.

    ?Every time I come back to Albania, I bring a Mercedes with me to sell,? said Arjan Bano, who lives in Germany but returns to visit his family at least once a year. ?I can?t afford expensive cars, but you can pick up an older one for a couple of thousand dollars and make enough money to cover the cost of your trip.?

    Such entrepreneurship, more typical among Albanians than most of their Balkan neighbors, does not always respect the law.

    ?Many of the newest top-class cars that you see on the roads have been stolen,? an Albanian government official said. ?But they invariably come with keys and valid papers, usually because the owner has agreed to the theft in order to defraud their insurance company.?

    Once in Albania, almost every Mercedes is registered legitimately with the authorities in Tirana without further checks, making it difficult to trace stolen vehicles. DaimlerChrysler, the German company that owns the Mercedes brand, wants the system changed so that chassis numbers are compared with foreign police databases before a car is issued with Albanian plates.

    ?This system is in force all over Europe – except in Albania,? Mr. Kodra said. ?It destroys our business if people can buy the same car from someone else for a fraction of the price.?

  6. We have a big arbresh community in Sicily too in a little village called “Piana degli Albanesi” with the villages aside… in one of them, called Contessa Entellina, Sazan arrived 12 years ago. He was welcomed by the arbresh community. The Italian Arbresh community helped and put up all the emigrants who arrived in Italy by the “hope boats” during the nineties.

  7. The Albanian political square dance has spun through another measure since that article was written. Nano and Berisha are back at each others’ throats, with Meta the weightlifter possibly holding the balance between them.

    Rama continues as Mayor of Tirana; Tirana continues to get slowly but steadily better. It’s definitely not Paris, but there are some nice bits now.

    I’ll try to post about it in the next day or so.

    Doug M.

  8. I’d like to dedicate a post of mine on the upcoming debate for the general elections to this thread, there’s also a copy-paste of an article on a poll that appeared at RFE/RL.

    Bottom line: Berisha’s PD might get the upper hand on July 4th, but Nano and his PS are fighting back by trying to keep the electorate focussed on the 1997 anarchy. What role can the new party of anti-Nano socialist Ilir Meta play?

  9. Doug, you dismissed Guy’s suggestion to post some pictures with the fact that you don’t have a camera. Honestly, Doug… Go and buy one!

    Text posts tend to get dull, even if you’re an interested reader. Why do you think newspapers have pictures in them?

  10. Does anyone know what day the main auto market outside of Durres is held? Is this the biggest one?