I think the thing that most struck me about Albania is the sheer degree to which it’s forgotten by the rest of the world.
This is a country that is next door to Greece. It’s a two-hour flight from Berlin. The only way its remote is in the popular consciousness.
I’m reading a history of communism at the moment. In an 800-page biography of an ideology, there are literally four mentions of Albania. Albania was hardcore communist from 1941 to 1990. Four mentions! Even the former Yugoslavian countries must be like ‘damn, Albania is invisible.’
It’s even more surprising when you consider that Albania has all the features that make a country interesting:
Until 1990, Albania was ruled by one of the world’s purest, weirdest communist-dictator footnotes. Enver Hoxha was such a diehard Stalinist that be broke off relations with the Soviet Union and then China because they weren’t communist enough.
As they were Albania’s only source of foreign investment or aid, the country then languished in complete isolation for 30 years. Foreign emigration, immigration and investment were banned until 1990. To this day, Albania is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe.
Albania has a population of 3.5 million—about the same as Berlin. The tricky part is that its national borders were drawn such that there are another 3.5 million Albanians living in bordering countries. Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece all have significant Albanian minorities.
To add to the complexity, Albania is majority-Muslim (it took me a few days to figure out why many of the taxi drivers have Malcolm X car fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror). But there’s also a sizable Christian population, and the neighboring countries with big Albanian minorities are Orthodox. As you can imagine, Albania’s foreign relations have been nonstop tense since independence in 1912.
Half of Albania’s labor force at any given time lives and works in other countries, mostly Italy and Greece. These people send home enough money to account for 15% of Albania’s GDP, but have denuded the country of its educated, healthy working males. The fact that most of these emigrants are illegal adds yet another challenge to Albania’s foreign relations.
Basically all of the consumer goods in Albania are imported. Even stuff like tomatoes and squash, which you could easily grow in Albania’s climate, are boated in from Italy. According to Oxfam, Albania has the lowest agricultural productivity in Europe. All it would take is an injection of EU money to bring Albanian farming up to Italian (ok, maybe just Greek) levels. Albania’s the only country in Europe that had a rise in GDP in 2009.
Albania also has rampant organized crime, a thriving women’s civil rights movement and significant internal migration. It had a major financial crash in 1997 when the entire country got involved in a giant pyramid scheme.
Seriously, everywhere you look, you find something fascinating about this country. Why isn’t anyone paying attention?
That said, I have no right to talk shit. I decided to go to Albania by literally opening Google Maps and following a warm-looking latitude. What’s that country there next to Greece? Oooo, it’s on the water! It has mountains!
That was all I knew about Albania before I went there. Next time I go, I feel like I should bring an EU delegation with me.