A Look in the Mirror

07/15/2015 11:29 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2016

In Modern Albania, Fred Abrahams has managed to put Albania's past, current, and future leaders under one roof and monitored their deeds for 25 years. In first-person narrative, Abrahams turns the tables from Big Brother watching you to us watching the Big Brothers. Modern Albania begins in 1990 when Albania's Stalinist system begins to collapse and the democratic movement takes form. Like the TV show, Abrahams sits on the sidelines and monitors the cast of characters as they vie for control of the house. The cast is led by Sali Berisha, a communist loyalist who quickly self-anoints himself the Spartacus of Democracy; Fatos Nano, a communist by convenience and a fat cat by choice; Ilir Meta, a wheeler-dealer with a reputation for never letting a financial opportunity pass; Edi Rama, with the heart of an abstract artist but the temperament of Max Weber; and the ghost of Enver Hoxha, Albania's dictator who for 50 years held the Albanians captive, mentally and physically.

In 1991, Albania became the last Stalinist domino to fall. Soon thereafter, Westerners began to arrive in droves, compared to the handful who were allowed to enter the previous year. At first the visitors were astounded by the thousands of bunkers that dot the countryside and the lack of development. The country's roads, schools, hospitals, hotels, water facilities, and electricity net were in shambles. Albania's natural resources, mines and oil and gas fields, stood in disarray. The new visitors were surprised that so many Albanians could speak Italian and English despite such isolation. Meanwhile, the floodgates to Greece and Italy had opened. Within the first five years of transition, more than one million Albanians (a third of the country) left the country in search of work and opportunity.

Amidst the chaos, a magic wand was waved and a democratic movement sprung to life. Such popular Communist slogans as Long Live Marxism-Leninism and Proletarians of the World Unite were replaced with calls for democracy and freedom. The hammer and sickle banners got replaced by U.S. and European flags. Much needed foreign aid poured into the country.

Abrahams takes a front seat to Albania's turbulent democratic development. Through eyewitness accounts and newly declassified documents, we watch how the West and Albania's newly elected democratic government, led by Berisha, cement their symbiotic relationship to renovate and build a modern country. We observe how Albania takes the wrong path with its international friends. Berisha quickly becomes the darling of Washington and Brussels, and the West's sympathy for the ruler blinds them to his crass with-me or against-me style of rule. Berisha clamped down on the press, harassed and imprisons his opponents and eventually turned to violence. In 1997, Edi Rama, a critic of Berisha and the current prime minister, was brutally clubbed in the middle of Tirana by Berisha's goons. Other victims were Nertan Ceka and Arben Imami, founders of the democratic movement, who challenged Berisha's style of rule but, unlike Rama, both of them left and then returned to Berisha's fold.

At the same time, Berisha awarded his loyalists with contracts and kickbacks. This led to a malfunctioning corrupt system in which massive pyramid schemes were able to grow and thrive, bolstered by money laundering and oil smuggling to Yugoslavia during the war-time embargo. Those eventually crashed, in 1997, throwing Albania into a chaotic tailspin that ended with Berisha losing power.

Berisha's successors, most notably Fatos Nano, differed in the degree that they used strong-arm tactics against their critics but, as Abrahams chronicles, they expand and reinforced a state that serves its leaders rather than leaders who serve the state. After billions of dollars spent by the West to help rebuild Albania, the most visible change was the political leadership's personal's wealth and their understanding of public relations. With money in their offshore bank accounts, Albania's political elite turned to Washington DC-based lobbyists and public relation firms to spin their images domestically and internationally. They began spending millions on top political consulting firms for their election campaigns, making it all back, plus some, upon their election win. With the assistance of Western PR firms, a new cult of personalities was born that still conceals the country's ills.

In Modern Albania, Abrahams holds a mirror to the Albanians. What they will find is that Albania had no dissidents and no heroes during Communism and the early years of transition. International aid was viewed as an entitlement, and most Albanian intellectuals are corrupt both in the financial and ideological sense: eager to sell their ideas and principles for power and money.

As Abrahams notes, unfortunately the book is mostly about men. Maybe the problem with Albania is that it has been run by men who received too much attention and far too much love from their mothers when they were young. As Boris Pasternak wrote, "All mothers are mothers of great men, it's not their fault if life disappoints them later." In Modern Albania the story of the men who ruled Albania may disappoint but the book is an achievement in telling a complex story of how and why opportunities were missed by both Albania and the West, and why Albanians became content in failure.

Fron Nahzi specializes in international development. The views expressed here are his own.