For much of its 101-year existence, Albania has been a land often mocked by those who know of it but nothing in it. In 1997, the protagonists of the film Wag the Dog fabricated a fake war between the USA and Albania, on the grounds that the American public were ignorant of it, and that it was too small to cause an international incident. Recently, Hollywood has released The Expendables 2 (2012), a film portraying the nation as a largely forested wilderness, despite its rich history (not to be confused with the ancient Albania of the Caucasus).
Dyrrhachium (modern Durrës) was a key port on the Adriatic for the Roman Empire over the course of 1,500 years. The Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, who led a decade-long revolt against the Ottoman occupation, is one of the towering figures of Europe’s High Middle Ages. Muhammad Ali (no, not that one) was an Albanian military commander sent by the Ottoman Sultan to Egypt to fight Napoleon, and founded the Alawiyya Dynasty that ruled Egypt for 150 years.
As an independent country, Albania was a byword for Ruritanian excess. King Zog I was, despite his particularly vivid name, less impressive as a ruler. Liberated from external Fascist domination in 1944, mostly by the partisans of the Communist Party, the quixotic rule of Enver Hoxha was 1984 writ large. Importing the comedies of Norman Wisdom as propaganda (the ‘capitalist ogre’ Mr Grimsdale terrorised Wisdom’s man-of-the-people character) was practically Hoxha’s only harmless policy. He broke with the USSR for the latter’s ‘revisionism’ in 1968, entering into the most improbable (if informal) alliance in human history with Mao Tse-Tung in a Sino-Albanian compact. Intensely paranoid and fearful of invasion, Hoxha left his land a legacy of many concrete pillboxes dotted throughout the country, and a reputation as the poorest country in Europe (superseded in 1991 by Moldova).
But now Albania has embarked on the proverbial road to recovery. One of the lesser-known members of NATO (it joined in 2009), in June of this year the European Union accepted Albania as an official candidate for accession. The incoming leader of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said there would be no additional members of the EU for five years, but this gives Albania the time it needs to catch up, with GDP still only 30 per cent of the EU average.
Its agricultural sector is the single most important part of the economy, generating one-fifth of GDP. In addition to significant amounts of wheat, corn, tobacco, and olives, Albania is the 13th largest producer of figs in the world (maybe a dubious honour). The nation’s ancient wine industry is making a comeback, having survived the communist fixation with volume at all costs – it produces wines that are clean and fresh, and possessing a unique combination of Mediterranean climate and indigenous grapes has allowed further development, usually with the help of Italian expertise.
Still, democratic politics has not always helped economic growth. In 2009, EU member Greece and Albania signed an agreement for an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Ionian Sea, but this was annulled by Albania’s Constitutional Court following complaints by the Socialist Party. Then, in opposition, now in power, the Socialists asked the public prosecutor in late July 2014 to launch an investigation into the deal agreed by the Democratic Party, suggesting political motivations are at the root of the current tensions with Greece, the latter still disgruntled about the 1913 borders that divided Epirus.
Corruption also remains an issue. In 1996-97, the collapse of several Ponzi schemes impoverished a large swathe of the population, leading to mass emigration (a brain drain with which Albania still struggles to cope). Though stronger institutions have since been implemented to avoid a repeat, shocking individual cases still emerge. On 1st August 2014, seven employees of Albania’s Central Bank were arrested on suspicion of stealing around 5 million euros from its reserves over the past four years. Though the Governor of the Bank, Ardian Fullani, said financial operations were not affected by the siphoning, Erjon Brace, chairman of the parliamentary financial committee, called for a ‘deep reform of the organisational system and control of the Central Bank’. It seems jurisprudence still has some way to go in Albania.
Overall, the elected governments in Tirana may interchange (a sign of democratic consolidation as theorised by the late Samuel Huntington, he of Clash of Civilizations fame), but the desire to integrate remains the same after a century on the periphery. This harks back to its status as a key entrepôt in the Roman world. Albania may never get the recognition it deserves, but the drive to become part of the concert of nations – and the organisations that facilitate progress – is encouraging for its future prospects.