Albania and Enver Hoxha's legacy

Albania’s iron communist regime survived until 1990, five years after the death of its great dictator, Enver Hoxha. But the country’s political path since then is full of unburied ghosts, says Bernd Fischer.

When Enver Hoxha, Albania's long-term Stalinist dictator, was buried with honour under the socialist-realist statue of Mother Albania in the martyrs' cemetery in Tirana, the date of his death - 11 April 1985 - was omitted from his tombstone. Ramiz Alia, who followed Hoxha as secretary of the ruling Albanian Party of Labour (ALP), was responsible for the omission; he argued (in a spirit that would find an echo today in Pyongyang) that such a man could never die.

It is arguably Albania’s misfortune that as the country marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hoxha's death - with debate and reflection rather than the enforced festivity of his era - that a plausible case can be made that Ramiz Alia was right.

True, the most brutal aspects of the Hoxha regime (and of the one-party regime that lasted until 1990-91) are long gone: including its state-of-siege isolation, its endless political murders, its prisons, its forced-labour camps, and the hardships of long internal exile. But some aspects of its authoritarian rule live on: the elite’s general disregard for the well-being of the people and for the best interests of the state, brutal and intolerant politics, and the lack of a rule of law. These have obstructed the path to Albania's self-declared goals of establishing a functioning democracy, a sustainable market economy, and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The great leader

The forty years of Enver Hoxha’s rule left a heavy legacy to post-communist Albania. There is a case in his favour: that in face of the grinding poverty of the country he inherited in 1944, he diversified the economy through a programme of Soviet-style industrialisation, raised the standard of living, reduced the influence of divisive factors (such as regional, clan and occasionally religious loyalties) on Albanian society, defended Albania's territorial integrity and independence; and made specific improvements in areas such as health, education, and women's rights.

It can sound impressive, as long as the description stays on the surface and not too many details are allowed to intrude. It also leaves out one of the notable features of Hoxha’s reign: that unlike some east-central European dictators who tended to be become less hardline with age, Hoxha became more extreme and suspicious, and intent on using his extensive security apparatus centred on the dreaded Sigurimi (secret police) to penetrate the minds as well as the homes of Albanians. The citizens survived (except in rare and heroic cases) mainly by retreating into conformism and apathy, taking something of the paranoia of their all-seeing ruler into themselves.

The Albanian Party of Labour and its members fared little better, for Hoxha periodically and ruthlessly eliminated many of his colleagues; no communist regime experienced such repeated purges and decimation. As the process developed, power was restricted to a small group bound together by traditional ties of family or clan loyalty and their shared complicity in the continuing murderous purges. The regime created what has been described as a collage of fantasies; the type of place that would make a surrealist weep with joy. But if it was a fantasy, it was a brutal one.

The last man standing

Enver Hoxha’s death left a vacuum that was filled by his protege Ramiz Alia. The new leader was immediately faced with increasingly serious economic and social problems, the product of a dangerous cocktail: over-centralisation compounded by inept and ideological decision-making, high birthrates, rural overpopulation, and widespread unemployment. These woes were further exacerbated by inefficient enterprises, rampant corruption and constant shortages.

Ramiz Alia, who aspired to be a reforming communist, gradually lightened the most repressive aspects of the regime, and as he did so the most alienated segments of society became bolder. Alia did little more than react, tinkering with the deep structures while fundamentally trying to preserve the Hoxha system. It was already too late. Albanians watched the intensifying change across the rest of eastern Europe; at home, deteriorating conditions led to the the development of an increasingly radical and confrontational street-culture of a random and anarchic character.

The final push towards transformational change came from Albania’s students, particularly those from the country’s only university, in Tirana. They, unlike the majority of intellectuals, were willing to risk showing open defiance of the system. Alia was concerned enough to send Sali Berisha, one of the first insiders to advocate political pluralism and thus assumed to possess some authority among the students, to act as mediator. Berisha skilfully used this role to commandeer and then direct the protests, which forced Alia to surrender Europe's last political monopoly. In many ways, Sali Berisha has dominated Albania ever since.

The new-old president

Sali Berisha, Albania's leading cardiologist, had been both a communist and a candidate-member of the party’s central committee. But by the time he became Albania’s president in 1992, he saw the anti-communist banner as the wave of the future and found revenge against former communists useful in distracting the population from his own record. But leaving Hoxha behind was more difficult than anyone had anticipated.

Berisha presided over profound economic and social change. He adopted the International Monetary Fund’s familiar economic "shock-therapy": rapid privatisations, ending import-restrictions, abandoning price-controls, phasing out subsidies to unprofitable or even marginal businesses. The resulted was mass unemployment and - for the tens of thousands who had become dependent on government subsidies and services - even deeper poverty. The social changes accompanying this upheaval were also profound. Albanians were, seemingly overnight, released from one of the most restrictive and isolated social structures in Europe into the promise (and sometimes the possession) of new-found personal freedoms and commodities. Among the most welcome, with all its attendant benefits and ills, was simple mobility: hundreds of thousands of Albanians fled abroad.

But in crucial areas, Hoxha's hold on his successors remained strong. Berisha and the rest of the Tirana elite shared an authoritarian and intolerant mindset that precluded the kind of compromise and negotiation Albania needed to move towards democracy. Berisha, his singular courage during the last stages of the old regime notwithstanding, seemed unable to distance himself from his inheritance.

Indeed, his Democratic Party became a personal vehicle for his own power as (like Hoxha) he refused to permit internal dissent and struck out against challengers with everything at his disposal (even violence), whatever the cost to Albania's fledgling democracy. His election campaigns recalled communist-era propaganda, with Berisha branding the opposition as “terrorists” and a “red front” subsidised by Albania's traditional enemies, the Serbs and the Greeks. His security forces and thugs were deployed to disrupt opposition rallies, and to harass and assault opposition supporters, candidates and even the press.

The old-new prime minister

The fatal combination of these policies and the inept handling of a scandal surrounding a pyramid investment-scheme, swept Sali Berisha away in 1997 - amid what could be considered Europe's first successful popular armed uprising since the 19th century.

The growing unrest spread into full-scale rebellion while the army disintegrated. Berisha's brutal secret police could not prevent people from raiding abandoned armouries and seizing close to a million Kalashnikov assault-weapons, along with tanks, artillery-pieces and even sophisticated Chinese surface-to-air missiles. The ensuing violence caused thousands of deaths, forcing Berisha to resign in disgrace and hold new elections. The opposition came to power in a process that was a democratic disgrace, but the international community had no choice but to endorse the outcome.

The new premier, Fatos Nano, had been the communist regime’s last prime minister. He too was a creature of the Hoxha era, and immured in Albania's political culture of revenge and authoritarianism. Indeed, in many ways he was the embodiment of that culture: a protege of Hoxha's wife Nexhmije, he had opposed real pluralism and a market economy until the very end of one-party rule.

Nano set his tone early; like Berisha's and indeed Hoxha's, it tended to be dogmatic, confrontational and (initially at least) focused on score-settling. He brought old hardliners into his inner circle, sidelined many dedicated reformers, and suppressed internal party discussion. Nano, again like Berisha, also undermined the idea of an independent civil service by purging the security apparatus, the judiciary and the state administration, and almost all ambassadors and generals.

Nano, after almost being toppled in a coup attempt engineered by Berisha, then settled into overseeing a regime of corruption that could enrich him and pay off his supporters. Once more, work essential to the good of the people was ignored. But when the neglected citizens had their chance to replace him, Berisha appeared the only available choice.

The final defeat

The "new" Sali Berisha, who returned to power in 2005 and has held it since, has abjured much of the violence and extremism that characterised his presidency. Some progress has been achieved, but much of the old Hoxha-ist ways linger. Too much of Berisha's energy is dedicated to enhancing his own rule through increased control of (for example) local government and ostensibly independent administrative institutions. Albania’s elections continue to be surrounded by invective and a degree of violence, often resulting in lengthy political standoffs which postpone work on much-needed reform.

True, the conduct of the parliamentary elections of 2009 was marginally better, but they were still marred by (some) pre-election violence, politicisation of technical aspects, reports of voter intimidation, and widespread counting irregularities. Many domestic and international observers continue to call for urgent action on electoral and judicial reform, increased attention to government corruption and government connections with organised crime, and the strengthening of the rule of law.

The Enver Hoxha years were a story of personal and elite survival, ruthless power, pitiless repression, regular purges, and ideological zealotry. A quarter-century after his death and nearly two decades after the fall of communism, Albania is still struggling to complete its democratic transition. Its fulfilment would be the old dictator’s last and most definitive defeat.

About the author

Bernd Fischer is a specialist in Albanian history. He is the author of Albania at War, 1939-45 (C Hurst, 1999), and Balkan Strongmen: Dictators and Authoritarian rulers of Southeast Europe (C Hurst, 2007). He is writing a biography of Enver Hoxha

Read On

Bernd Fischer, Albania at War, 1939-45 (C Hurst, 1999)
Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers & Bernd Fischer eds, Albanian Identities (Indiana University Press, 2010)
More On

Bernd Fischer is a specialist in Albanian history. He is the author of Albania at War, 1939-45 (C Hurst, 1999), and Balkan Strongmen: Dictators and Authoritarian rulers of Southeast Europe (C Hurst, 2007). He is writing a biography of Enver Hoxha