Tirana, capital of Albania, has been transformed — a bustling, revitalised city, far from the repressive dictatorship of the past
Under Communism, this was a grey concrete apartment block. Today, it is brightly painted (© michel Setboun/Corbis via Getty Images)
The music throbs. Dressed all in white, their instruments also a gleaming white, the pianist, guitarist, cellist and drummer belt out a catchy tune at full volume. Tall slender girls, beautifully dressed and made taller still by their sky-high stiletto heels, glide among the smart male guests. Groups of elegant men and women chat animatedly. Waiters discreetly hover, bearing trays of wine and delicious-looking delicacies. A grand party is in full swing beneath the tall columns and glittering chandeliers of a fine hotel. Is this Monaco? New York? Rome? Well no, actually. It is Tirana, capital of Albania, until 25 years ago one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. Cut off from the West and dominated by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was universally regarded with horror and fear. A state-sized prison camp, where travel was forbidden, food and clothing were in short supply, and torture, imprisonment and death greeted the slightest protest. Friendless apart from Mao’s China, the very mention of the words “Tirana” and “Albania” could cause a shudder. “Am I in the same place?” I ask myself.
Even as my plane approached I could see the “greater Tirana” spread out beneath me was not as I expected. Motorways, traffic jams, tall buildings, advertising hoardings; the urban sprawl characteristic of every major Western city was readily apparent. Communist Albania had been characterised by the complete absence of private cars and consumer products. Clearly, all this had changed. Whisked through the modern airport terminal building, I was disappointed that despite my request the immigration officer refused to stamp my passport. I had hoped at least to acquire a double-headed Albanian eagle stamp as evidence of my visit; but no, this is no longer necessary. Twenty-five years ago visitors to Albania, assuming they were ever able to obtain a visa in the first place, had to walk across one of only three recognised border crossings, much the same as between British Hong Kong and Mao’s Red China. But these days, EU citizens move freely in and out of Hoxha’s former hell-hole. Admittedly I have the good fortune to be the guest of Mirela, an Albanian-born and naturalised Italian lady whose native tongue, local connections and organisational skills mean I have only to follow and observe my surroundings. But even if I were alone, I would have no difficulty. Signs are all in English, and smart taxis are drawn up awaiting arriving passengers, as are airport cafés, tourist offices and money-changing bureaux. A 50-euro note produced several thousand lek, the local currency.
A black Mercedes and driver appeared and we were whisked along the highway through the gathering evening dusk towards the city. We might just as easily have been entering Düsseldorf or Dresden. Familiar brand names adorned the skyscraper buildings. Traffic lights, buses, shops, restaurants, and people all gave the appearance of a thriving Western capital. With no sign of drabness and depression, the city seemed to exude prosperity.
What brings me, an English industrialist, to this one-time Balkan backwater? Well, first, curiosity. I have always been fascinated by this part of the world. It is a true historical melting pot. Most great powers of history have left their mark. In ancient times Rome and Athens each carved out swathes of territory. Then came Venice and Constantinople — La Serenissima and the Sublime Porte in 16th- century diplomatic parlance — vying for trade, land and influence over hundreds of years. Next were the Habsburgs, battling tirelessly and risking all in their ultimately doomed efforts to extend their empire from Trieste to Salonika. All left their mark. More recently, Communism’s ugly jackboot held sway until its overthrow ushered in a brief though bloody period of intra-regional war. But since the early 1990s peace has taken hold throughout the Balkan peninsula, and for this due credit should be given to the European Union. For the Balkans, for all its oddities, is firmly part of the European continent. The region’s rulers have seen how the EU brings prosperity and peace to these once backward and often troubled parts, and how it offers a path to the modern world. First Slovenia joined, then Croatia. Today, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro are all candidates for membership. Will Albania be next?
Second, I have been invited. Maybe it’s something to do with my former and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to persuade the British electorate not to vote “Leave”. Maybe I am viewed as a potential investor. Whatever the reason, I have jumped at the opportunity to see a country which less than a quarter of a century ago was shrouded in mystery and completely inaccessible to the Western tourist.
Back to the party. It is to celebrate the opening of a new extension to the Imperial Hotel. All Tirana’s great and good are there. I meet Nikolin Jaka, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Arben Shkodra, his vice-president, the Minister of Health and other dignitaries. All were born in the Hoxha era and all speak fluent English. And therein lies one of the answers to how this once backward and depressed nation has brought itself out of isolation and into the western community of nations so successfully within a single generation.
Hoxha realised he could not run the country alone. He had to create a ruling class. Every nation needs one, whatever its political ideology. Following the Stalinist model to create a nomenklatura, special schools and an elite university were established and the brightest pupils selected to attend them. My guide Mirela was one such pupil. There she learned English and Italian, Italy being the nearest thing Albania had to a former colonial power. She and her family received modest privileges. Some foreign travel was permitted. Even before the collapse of Communism, she had secured herself an exit permit, a visa and a plane ticket to Rome. With $70, a fine intellect and an iron will, she built a new life in the Italian capital. Her less ambitious but still intelligent and able colleagues were left behind to pick up the pieces when the time came. Which it did, in 1991, when Communism collapsed and they immediately went to work to turn Tirana into a thriving, modern European capital with all the hallmarks of comfortable life that we fortunate people from the West are accustomed to.
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.
Mr Rama is welcoming and gracious. I congratulate him on the success he is making of his country. “It is difficult,” he replies with a sigh. He asks solicitously after his friend David Cameron, expressing regrets at his resignation and hoping he returns to politics. We discuss Brexit, which we both regard as a disaster. He looks forward to the day when Albania will join the EU. I am surprised when told this could be as long as seven years hence. Surely it should be sooner.
Later I visit the Hoxha “bunker”, a museum to the dictator and his atrocities located in a complex of bomb-proof concrete cellars constructed beneath Tirana’s main square to house the Ministry of the Interior in the event of nuclear attack. I am so sickened by what I see and read that I have to leave before the tour is complete, vowing that if it ever comes within my power, I will drag Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow-travellers through these crepuscular catacombs of infamy to show them just what evil deeds their fellow disciples of Marx perpetrated in furtherance of their perverse ideology.
Dinner that night is at Sofra e Ariut, literally “The Bear’s Table”, an elegant restaurant in the grounds of the palace of the pre-war King Zog. The meal is excellent and the Albanian wine equally so, especially the red. I ask for the bill. By now I have worked out that there are approximately 120 lek to the euro. We are five, and the bill is 10,000 lek. Despite the effects of the wine I calculate this to be 80 euro, one quarter of what the cost would be in France or Italy. I am so astonished I check it again. I was right the first time.
Next day I set out for Durres, Albania’s main port and gateway to Italy via daily ferries to Bari and Ancona. Deciding to go by train, and the station only being a short distance from the hotel according to the map, I set out on foot. Tirana’s traffic lights are the best I have ever seen. Both pedestrians and vehicles have not only red and green lights to rely on, but also a second-by-second countdown to when the lights will change. Drivers and walkers alike have no excuse to be impatient. The countdowns, in red for “wait” and green for “go”, tell them exactly how long they have before the lights change. It is a superb system, which should be adopted in every European city, especially London.
I check myself. “Hang on, isn’t this country notorious for its gangsters? Am I safe, walking the streets of Tirana?” Well, in truth, I have never felt safer. There are no shady individuals hovering in doorways and alleys. I am not jostled by threatening youths in baseball caps. I don’t feel the need to clamp my hands to my pockets, lest crones creep up from behind to pick them. Indeed, I’d rather be strolling in the streets of Tirana than in parts of London or Paris.
I reach the site of the station, only to find it has been demolished to make way for a vast boulevard redolent of the Communist era. A hoarding states this is to be built by a Kuwaiti company at a cost of 26 million euro. I can’t help thinking that such a sum would be far better spent on improving the railways. The new “temporary” station is 12 kilometres away. I take a taxi there — a shack in the middle of an industrial estate — only to learn the one and only train to Durres departed four hours earlier. “You must sort out your railways and connect them to the European network,” I advised Mr Shkodra presciently earlier that day. Railways are essential to a European nation and, if not addressed quickly, the lack of a good rail system will be a major handicap to Albania’s future development.
Durres bears hallmarks of the pre-war Italian occupation in some fine buildings, especially churches, both Orthodox and Catholic. Otherwise it is as unimpressive as any other port city. But as I board my flight home, I am already looking forward to returning to Albania, and doing what I can to help these brave and deserving people iron out the remaining creases in their country, bringing it finally into the premier league of smaller countries. It hasn’t far to go.