ALBANIA. An impenetrable fortress

The Albanian people hacked their way through history sword in hand. We are now building socialism with a pick in one hand, a rifle in the other.

These words of Albania's leader Enver Hoxha are often seen on banners and posters. The psychology of a besieged fortress and ferocious defiance of and eternal vigilance against unseen enemies permeate Mr. Hoxha's writings.

Two visits to Albania, in 1983 and 1984, revealed a nation profoundly affected by years of self-imposed isolation.

From the city of Shkoder in the north to Sarande in the south, from Tirana, the capital, to Durres and Vlore -- all over this beautiful country of 2.9 million people, there are thousands of pillboxes and sunken sentry posts.

Such concrete beehives with rectangular gun windows for one or two soldiers can be seen not only at the airport and in the coastal plain, but also in the foothills and village streets, in maize fields, and in front of factories and even blocks of apartments.

In and around the city of Shkoder alone, I counted 188 such pillboxes (many overgrown with grass and weeds). When I expressed doubts about the wisdom of such beehives in the space age, I was repeatedly told that ``Albania is a granite island in a hostile ocean'' and that every would-be attacker ``should know that our country is an impenetrable fortress.''

Estimates by Western research institutes that Albania spends two to three times more on defense per capita than even Yugoslavia are credible.

Military training for both boys and girls starts in school. All Albanians, men until 50 years of age, women until 35, are required to do one to three weeks of reserve training every year. One of the few remaining traces of the alliance with China (1961-78) is the absence of designations of rank for the Army and police.

This country, the poorest in Europe, maintains about 53,000 persons under arms, including paramilitary forces such as frontier guards, but excluding thousands of plainclothes secret police agents.

In no communist country have I seen so many soldiers and been under such constant control as in Albania. I was accompanied all the time by at least two government escorts, and shadowed day and night by dour young men, sometimes mounted on bicycles.

Last year around 20 Albanians swam the Corfu channel or escaped through the mountains to freedom. The Sigurimi, the Albanian secret police, is said to operate concentration and labor camps with several thousand (some estimates speak of up to 10,000) inmates. Albanians not allowed to own cars or travel abroad

No Albanian citizen (except a select few on official business) is allowed to travel abroad, own a car, or practice religion. Apart from official meetings with ``licensed contacts,'' neither resident diplomats nor foreign businessmen and guests are allowed to meet Albanians privately.

``We've been here for over three years and I still don't know a single Albanian. I feel like a messenger dispatched to a hostile citadel where I am kept virtually prisoner,'' one Western diplomat said.

Yet Hoxha claims that socialist Albania is ``envied by the whole world'' because it is the only country ``without external or internal debts, without taxes, without inflation, without unemployment.''

And Hoxha himself, a French-educated scion of a well-to-do Muslim family from Gjirokaster, enjoys a cult of personality worthy of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung in their best days.

Hoxha, who is 76 years old, is the longest-serving national leader in the world. He has led Albania's Communist Party since its foundation in 1941 and ruled the country since the seizure of power in November 1944. Following his breaks with Yugoslavia (in 1948), the USSR (in 1961), and China (in 1978), he dealt swiftly and ruthlessly with any Albanian suspected of being a potential ally of his enemies.

What Hoxha likes to call the ``sole beacon of true socialism'' is certainly different from all other countries.

It is a most spartan and most egalitarian society. The director of a glass factory at Vlore earns, for example, 900 leks a month (about $100 at the official exchange rate). The average worker makes between 450 to 600 leks ($50 to $65).

The ratio between highest and lowest incomes has been reduced to 2 to 1. The chancellor of Tirana University (founded in 1957), Prof. Osman Krja, receives a salary of 1,200 leks ($130), while a typical goatherd takes 600 leks home.

The average Albanian has to work a whole day to buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat (if it is available at all), a week for a pair of poor quality shoes, two weeks for a pullover. To purchase a bicycle of the simplest design, a skilled welder has to work six weeks. Black-and-white TV sets (17,000 are assembled yearly from imported parts) or a refrigerator (made in Yugoslavia under West German license) cost the equivalent of six or seven months' wages and are allocated only through an internal distribution system.

Perhaps the most striking impression a visitor receives is the pastoral air of Albanian towns.

A country without private cars and traffic lights, Albania is a virtual paradise for walkers and cyclists. Except for the occasional gleaming black Mercedes of the dozen-odd Politburo members of the ruling party and the more humble cars of ministers and high officials, traffic consists mainly of oxen- and horse-drawn carts and pack-donkeys. In the towns, a few decrepit buses and antiquated Czech or Chinese trucks transport people to work.

Although Albanians are the oldest inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula, descended from the ancient Illyrians, their population is the youngest in Europe with an average age of 26. The nation's birth rate is four times the European average. By the year 2000, Albania's population is expected to jump to 4 million from the present 2.9 million. Abortions are banned. Imported Italian contraceptives at a drugstore in Gjriokaster were available only on doctors' prescription.

The amount of available arable land hasn't increased as fast as the population. Most Western analysts expect that feeding the nation will be a problem by the turn of the century.

Except for two mosques in the city of Berat housing two exhibitions of photos and handicrafts, I could not find one single open place of worship.

In 1967, the mosques and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were either razed or converted into warehouses, granaries, or sports halls. The government escorts said that all priests were ``reeducated.'' But government officials could not produce one single former churchman for me to meet. Grain and tomato output is a state secret

The government claims that industrial production has increased ``164 times since 1938'' and that the country can feed itself. But figures for the grain harvest and tomato crop are as much a state secret as the oil or paper output.

Not even the deputy minister of foreign trade, Pajtim Ajazi, was willing to provide an approximate figure for the aggregate foreign trade. Foreign borrowing is forbidden by the 1976 Constitution.

Albania's policy of total self-reliance was made possible by the country's ample natural resources combined with a rigid Stalinist economic policy and the ever-present threat of terror. (Albania is the world's only self-proclaimed Stalinist state -- with statues, busts, and a large museum of the late Soviet dictator.)

Shquiperia (the nation's Albanian name, standing for ``land of the eagles'') holds a strategic position on the Adriatic, with a coastline of 300 miles. At the port of Vlore it has a modern naval base, fitted with submarine pens. Italy lies less than 50 miles away.

Albania has uneasy relations with its neighbors. In Yugoslavia, some 2 million ethnic Albanians, chafing under Serbian domination, have been clamoring for the right to make Kosovo Province into a Yugoslav republic. Kosovo has emerged as perhaps the most serious powder keg in Yugoslav internal politics.

Minority and border problems have also injected an element of permanent tension in relations with its other neighbor, Greece.

Lately this isolated nation in the Adriatic has shown gestures of cooperation toward Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy. Albania's first-ever rail link with the outside world, through Yugoslavia, should go into operation this year. And ministerial visits have been exchanged with Greece, Italy, and Turkey.

The nation's effective ruler appears to be 59-year-old Ramiz Alia, nominal head of state and No. 2 in the party hierarchy. When the moment comes, the succession to one of the world's most ruthless national leaders is unlikely to be smooth and bloodless. The settling of scores between tribes, clans, and regional strongholds may well lead to temporary turmoil instead of a peaceful transfer of power.

QR Code to ALBANIA. An impenetrable fortress
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today