HUFFINGTON POST
07/25/2015 11:45 am ET

This European Nation Used To Jail People For Listening To The Beatles

An expert reflects on Albania's tragic recent history and how the country has changed.
AFP via Getty Images

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with author Fred Abrahams about politics and the past in Albania.

While it may be little known to many in the West, Albania is a country with a unique and tragic history. Under a brutal communist dictatorship for much of the 20th century, it was almost completely cut off from the world until the regime finally began to deteriorate when the Berlin Wall fell.

After thousands of Albanians stormed foreign embassies in 1990 to seek asylum during the breakup of the Soviet Union, the western Balkan nation's government began to create a path to elections.

Albania's transition to democracy is a case study in the successes and failures of a country emerging from years of isolation. Now, as a candidate for the European Union, the nation still faces immense challenges left over from a legacy of repression and hardship. 

In his new book, Modern Albania, author and Human Rights Watch special advisor Fred Abrahams details the country's struggle and drive for change. The WorldPost spoke with Abrahams about his research into a fascinating transition that is still continuing today.

How repressive was Albania's government before it broke with communism?

Well, it’s difficult to imagine a country being more repressive. I think North Koreans would feel at home there; probably Russians in the darkest days of Stalin would feel familiarities with communist Albania, but almost no one else.

It was totally isolated from the outside world. Almost nobody got into Albania as a visitor. Almost no one except for the most trusted party elite got out of Albania, and [the Party of Labor of Albania] ruled with fierce discipline and control. 

I think North Koreans would feel at home there; probably Russians in the darkest days of Stalin would feel familiarities with communist Albania, but almost no one else.

I say party, but actually what was unique about Albania was that it was really just one man. The dictator of Albania was a guy called Enver Hoxha, whose rule was unbroken from World War II until his death in 1985, and who tolerated no dissent. 

The slightest indiscretion or divergence from his ideology would land you and your family in prison. 

I believe you’ve mentioned that it could be things as minor as playing The Beatles?

Exactly, very minor acts could condemn you and your whole family to lifelong internal exile or prison.

Listening to forbidden music like The Beatles, for instance, or trying to watch television from neighboring Italy, Greece or Yugoslavia. As a result, there was a state of fear and a near total lack of dissidents.

A portrait of former Albanian leader Enver Hoxha.
Gent Shkullaku/Getty Images
A portrait of former Albanian leader Enver Hoxha.

Was there a Stalinist-style cult of personality around Hoxha?

The cult of personality around Enver Hoxha was intense, cultivated and craftily implemented. He was the guiding light, the Big Brother. They called him “Uncle Enver.”

People viewed him as this patriarchal figure, who, in his wisdom and benevolence, would guide Albania out of poverty and into modernity. His image was on every wall, his speeches were cited in every article and his name was literally engraved into mountainsides.

Following the fall of communism, how would you describe Albania’s transition from a fully closed society to a somewhat open democracy?

It’s been chaotic, ad hoc and at times violent -- but also moving towards more openness. Albania is a far better place today than it was before. It’s a place now where people can more or less express their opinions, [and have] freedom of religion and freedom of speech. 

<span>A bronze statue of Albania's Enver Hoxha falls to the ground while under attack from pro-democracy demonstrators in the
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
A bronze statue of Albania's Enver Hoxha falls to the ground while under attack from pro-democracy demonstrators in the Albanian capital Tirana, on Feb. 20, 1991.

You can’t compare the Albania of today to that of [the communist era], but after suffering almost five decades of dictatorship, democracy is not easily built. 

One of the huge mistakes from Western policy was believing democracy comes with elections and free market reform, and Albania is a case study of that not being true. Democracy comes from democratic institutions and
democratic culture, and those are two things lacking in Albania today.

What role has U.S. policy played in Albania’s transition to democracy?

The U.S. played a huge role; it's the most significant foreign power by far in Albania’s transition. After the Cold War, Albanians, in their rejection of communism, swung quickly in the other direction and embraced the United States. The most important thing for an Albanian leader is to visit the White House. It’s the biggest popularity boost you could ever get back home.

One of the huge mistakes from Western policy was believing democracy comes with elections and free market reform, and Albania is a case study of that not being true.

So the relationship is very strong, but the U.S. role in Albania has been mixed. One of the key criticisms throughout my book is how the U.S. fixated on individual leaders in Albania and not on the institutions.

Especially in the first years, U.S. policy supported the new so-called democratic leader, this guy named Sali Berisha. He spoke English, he said the right things in English, he was determined to destroy the legacy of communism, and the Americans supported him 110 percent.

<span>Former U.S. President George W. Bush with Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on&nbsp;June 10, 2007, in the courtyard
Credit: Gent Shkullaku/Getty Images
Former U.S. President George W. Bush with Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on June 10, 2007, in the courtyard of the Council of Ministers in Tirana, Albania. 

But this was a nasty guy who tolerated no criticism, imprisoned journalists, beat up opposition members and kept a fierce control. The U.S. turned a blind eye to all of that in those days, because he was their guy.

I interviewed a lot of U.S. officials from that time, and they said, "What do you expect from a country that is emerging from dictatorship?"

I think that was a huge mistake, because U.S. leverage in Albania was very strong and they could have still supported Berisha, but drawn lines to constrain his power. The U.S. failed to do that, and Albania is still suffering from that mistake today.

What are some of the problems that still plague Albania?

Probably the biggest single problem is the lack of institutions -- the pillars of a society that provide services, and check and balance each other.

It’s the judiciary, it’s the media, it’s the police and secret police that should all operate based on the law instead of serving a political power. 

Albania today is also still terribly corrupt.

Albania today is also still terribly corrupt, both on a petty level and also on a larger level. The connections between business and politics are still very high, and that’s the big challenge for [the country] to move forward and join the EU.

Is there anything that you wish people knew about Albania in general? 

The main thing would be how difficult the history of this country has been. The communist period is the most recent black mark, but prior to that, there was terrible suffering and a legacy of occupation. These are people who have had a rough go of it, and are trying to emerge from all of that tumultuous history.

They were in the icebox of history for five decades, and it's still thawing. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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