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Next morning I breakfast with Blendi Fevziu, Albanian broadcaster, journalist and writer, before setting out for the historic Ottoman town of Elbasan, also the site of a vast Chinese-built steel works, now mostly closed. The journey along a new highway depresses me. Hardly a square yard of the countryside is cultivated. The odd subsistence smallholding is dotted about, hay haphazardly piled up around a central pole. The occasional cow or goat grazes lazily on rough grass. Yet this land looks fertile. Olives, fruit and vegetables could surely be grown in abundance. Why is this not happening? The answer lies in Blendi’s recently published life of Hoxha. Astonishingly, in the latter days of Communism ownership even of livestock was outlawed. Not only could peasants not own their land, they were even forbidden to own the chickens that pecked the ground outside their hovels. To take and eat an egg from under a hen was stealing, punishable with prison. No surprise then that the half-starved villagers lost interest in farming. They feared the land, and when Communism ended and they were at last free to travel, they abandoned their villages and crofts and left for a better life in, well, England for a start.

Emerging from a brand-new tunnel, the highway reveals the town of Elbasan ahead, situated in a broad, open plain with snow-capped mountains beyond. And there too, stretched out across the plain is the rusting remains of the huge steelworks. Gaunt skeletal structures are scattered across the landscape; great piles of debris litter the ground; rows of huge roofless sheds stretch out in every direction, railway lines choked with weeds snake hither and thither. Stray dogs roam the ruins. I notice an enormous abandoned heap of what appears to be coal: thousands of tonnes of the stuff, just lying on the ground.

In the town, crowds of people, mostly young, mill around, apparently with little to do. Presumably their parents were once employed by the steelworks. Open-fronted clothes stores line the scruffy streets, their drab wares hanging in densely-packed rows. I am reminded of a typical provincial town in, say, Pakistan or Bangladesh. The local mosque adds resonance to the dominantly Ottoman atmosphere.

“What can one do with this place?” I ask myself. At breakfast the following morning with Arben Shkodra I answer my own question. “There must be 50,000 tonnes of scrap metal in that steelworks. Demolish it, and use the remains of the railway to ship it out via Vlore. Put the proceeds towards modernising the railway. Then make the site into a free-trade zone. Follow the model of Jebel Ali in Dubai. There they have only sand. Here you have much more. You are in the heart of Europe and close to Russia. You have a nearby port at Vlore and another at Durres. You still have the railway. You have the new motorway from Tirana only 50km distant and there you have a good airport. Most of all, you have a well-educated ruling class to make it all happen, and a workforce right here with nothing much to do.”

Returning to Tirana, I meet Edi Rama, now in his second four-year term as prime minister. The Communist-era building where his office is located is paved throughout with Italian marble, demonstrating that even Hoxha was not averse to using the products of the decadent West to adorn his palaces. I am escorted to the PM’s office by a smartly-dressed urbane apparatchik fluent in English, French, German and Italian. He hands me over to his boss, a middle-aged equivalent of himself. Numerous plain-clothes security men provide a hangover from the Hoxha era.
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February 4th, 2018
3:02 AM
Refused an entry stamp by a typical public servant. If it had been somebody in commerce who realised he/she depended upon the goodwill of customers, it would have been "How many?". But no, your typical public servant has neither the imagination nor flair for doing such a small task for a tourist who would then possibly talk the place up and who knows, encourage more tourists, foreign exchange and wealth. Nope, the opening sentence sums up public servants (sic), they who have no concept of making their own country better but serving themselves.

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