The Last Battle of the Cold War: Democratic Transition in Contemporary Albania

A Review of Fred Abrahams Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe


In the last few decades, the U.S. has arguably possessed no stronger ally in the Balkans than Albania. Albanian troops have fought in the U.S.-led War on Terror in the Middle East, the Albanian government has remained complicit in the illegal rendition of terror suspects, the country has housed former Guantanamo detainees, and one Albanian town even boasts a statue of former U.S. President George W. Bush, the first U.S. president to visit the country.

Posed against the everyday realities and political rhetoric of Communist Albania and its leaders, such a situation would have appeared beyond implausible for much of the 20th century.

How did we arrive at this once-unimaginable historical juncture?

In Modern Albania: From Democracy to Dictatorship in Europe, Fred Abrahams traces the general trajectory of Albanian politics from the end of the communist period until the present-day leadership of Edi Rama, a member of the Socialist Party (SP). In doing so, he underscores the importance of a cast of political characters, many of whom continue to wield influence within their respective political parties and over the contemporary political scene in Albania.

Abrahams begins by outlining the path from Enver Hoxha through to his successor, Ramiz Alia. With glasnost unfolding in the Soviet Union and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Alia recognized the inevitable, but remained committed to the Albanian political-economic model. Although journalists and historians have often described Albania as more sheltered than contemporary North Korea, the reality is that foreign media and alternative ideas had already begun to cross the increasingly porous Albanian border and circulate throughout the country by the time of Hoxha’s death in 1985.

Following the death of Hoxha, Albanian citizens had begun to engage in much more risky forms of social protest – for instance, desecrating monuments and disrupting sporting events. Albanian secret police could control some local irritants, and Alia certainly made use of state forces, but by the end of the 1980s citizen concerns were reaching a crescendo. Amid an economic crisis and extensive shortages, police and military members had also become increasingly sympathetic towards their counterparts’ concerns, dampening Alia’s thoughts about using force against civilians. Like Gorbachev, Alia sought to loosen some restrictions on Albanian civil liberties and release some political prisoners, but, just as in the Soviet Union, this crack eventually burst into a full-fledged opportunity to bring the communist regime to its knees.

Indeed, Abrahams identifies Albanian university students as the ultimate source of resistance that catalyzed democratic reform within the country. Following their extensive mobilization and resistance in the streets of Tirana, Alia caved to pressure for the permission to form independent organizations – and, by extension, political parties. For his part, Alia could not bring himself to brutally repress the students that had converged upon Skanderbeg Square. He knew it could only further isolate his regime and eventually secure his demise.

This series of events, perhaps more than any others, generated the beginnings of democratic reform within the country and, shortly after, the famous toppling of Enver Hoxha’s statues across the country throughout 1991.

Most notably, Alia’s reforms allowed for the open organization of the Democratic Party (DP) and the rise of Dr. Sali Berisha, a heart surgeon formerly aligned with Hoxha and his party. Despite the exuberance for the DP and the rejection of Hoxha, though, Alia and his party still succeeded in the country’s first formally democratic and pluralist elections in since World War II in March 1991, and Alia remained the country’s foremost leader.

While the U.S. would play little role in influencing this initial election, this would be the exception in the newly free Albania, in contrast with the ensuing decades.

Abrahams demonstrates that following a visit from Berisha – still a relative unknown to U.S. elites – to the U.S. Congress in May 1991 that the U.S. put all its support behind the DP largely for years to come. In doing so, the U.S. primarily utilized the efforts of its democracy assistance community to help the DP defeat Alia and his party. The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which both receive their funding from the U.S. government, supplied the DP with training and resources, such as automobiles, in order to outcompete the DP. And, as a result, the DP indeed succeeded at the polls in March 1992, defeating the newly named SP.

Over the next several decades, Abrahams presents the political struggle between the DP and SP as largely centering around robust personalities: Berisha, Gramoz Pashko, and other Democrats, on the one hand, who have allegedly preferred power above all, and individuals like Fatos Nano, Edi Rama, and other socialists, on the other hand, who have allegedly preferred financial rewards above all.

Throughout his initial rule, Berisha targeted opponents, generally permitted illicit financial schemes that ultimately generated a near civil war, and intermittently sparked diplomatic rows throughout the Balkans. Although Berisha irked some U.S. foreign policy elites in Washington, Abrahams points out that the U.S. generally looked the other way when Berisha behaved in an anti-democratic manner and only intervened to modify his behavior when he upset regional stability efforts. He writes that from “the perspective of Washington … what happened inside Albania was of little consequence, so long as Kosovo and Macedonia stayed calm” (143). Above all, he shows that the U.S. wanted stability – even if democracy and human rights suffered: a familiar foreign policymaking trend that the U.S. has pursued elsewhere.

For several years following the violence that erupted surrounding illicit financial schemes and Berisha’s failures, the Socialists won parliamentary elections and maintained the helm in Albania. Similar to the DP, Abrahams illustrates how the SP colluded with the U.S., allowed the CIA to operate within the country, and even allowed the U.S. to operate illegal rendition efforts from within the country. Much of this period, though, remained galvanized by Serbian attempts to control Kosovar liberation efforts. While the Socialists generally took their lead from the U.S. on foreign policy, despite some disagreements, they were also able to weather the politically polarizing climate at home and maintain power through the end of the Balkan conflict.

By 2005, however, Abrahams asserts that Albania remained characterized by poor infrastructure and a rather bleak economic situation, and, as a result, citizens elected the Democrats back into office, with Berisha leading the way. Berisha, again, aligned with U.S. national security interests – sending Albanian troops to the Middle East and enthusiastically welcoming George W. Bush into the country in 2007.

Still, Abrahams points out that dismal political-economic dynamics persisted: unemployment, rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, and political disenchantment with the ruling party. Once again, the electorate flipped – this time bringing the country’s current leader and former Tirana mayor, Edi Rama, to power, where the story, for now, ends. And while Abrahams attempts to end his work on a note of optimism, you cannot help but sense that Albanian politics might ultimately feel like a back-and-forth contest between two parties ill-equipped to rectify the serious problems that have plagued Albania since downfall of the communist regime. And that the present is, perhaps, no exception

As a historical trip through the contours of Albanian political life, Abrahams adds to the English-speaking world’s minuscule collection of works. The reality is that Albania has been hardly engaged with at all within, at least, the English-speaking world. Albanian language courses are nonexistent, English-Albanian dictionaries remain few, and there remains very little scholarship within the Anglophone world that seriously examines Albanian life.

In the end, Abrahams account is best when he examines the immediate transition towards democracy and the initial contention between Alia and the Democratic Party. In addition, the biggest highlights of the text are the snippets from interviews with domestic and foreign political actors that helped shape Albanian politics into what they are today – particularly from former Albanian politicians and U.S. foreign policy elites, including former U.S. ambassadors that wielded significant influence over Albanian political life.

Yet, gaps and deficiencies loom.

The reader never really gets a sense of what it is that Albanian politicians have sought to accomplish on the domestic front. Have they made any efforts towards infrastructural repair? Have any of these efforts worked? Are there any discrepancies between the Democrats and the Socialists when it comes to their economic ideas for the country, or do they solely run on ambiguous platforms that promise a basic change in politics?

In addition, have social issues played any role in Albanian politics since the transition to democracy? How about the importance of contemporary relations with other prominent global actors within and beyond the region: China, Russia, Italy?

The power struggles between people like Rama and Berisha are real, but readers might crave more substantive discussions beyond their personalities. Unfortunately, we’re not left with much more concerning these substantive discrepancies, as the book stands. In fact, in several instances, we’re only left with motivations of jealousy, anger, and so on, as if Albanian politicians remain only either beholden to threats from abroad or their own unreasonable, emotional states. Even worse than an emotional captive, Berisha is even likened to “a child drifting to the deep end of the pool” in one moment (144).

As a final point of critique, despite Abrahams many years spent in Albania, the text sometimes lapses into an ethnocentric depiction of the apparent “backwards yet romantic nature” of Albanians and their way of life. Edward Said termed this particular depiction of non-Western-European others – particularly those that inhabit Muslim-majority societies – as Orientalism and, in fact, Abrahams even stunningly describes Albanian music as having “an oriental flair” (10). I’m particularly stunned that passed by the editorial staff.

At other times, Abrahams says that “Albanians have a cadence, a rhythm fueled by cigarette smoke and olive oil,” and he describes Albanians as rambling onwards and only rarely getting to “the point, if a point is ever made” (11). What is more, he purports that “Albanian myth is stronger than fact” (181). And, elsewhere, he describes Gramoz Pashko as “more modern looking” than other Albanians, because he maintained “the appearance of an Ivy League professor” (127).

The juxtapositions here are clear: Albanians/un-modern, the U.S. and its Ivy League schools/modern.

Surely, I don’t doubt that a contrast existed in style of clothing, but the depiction of that contrast exhibits some deep-seated understandings of who is exactly “modern” and who is precisely not. And these words hold meaning.

If you would like an overview of the Albanian political scene from someone who has indeed spent a considerable amount of time within the country, you may enjoy Abrahams’ book, that is, if you are someone that can look past the often-ridiculous, and borderline offensive, generalizations. It truly is a shame, because amid the absurdities, there are truly some nuggets.

For more concrete discussions, though, of what transpires beneath the surface of political personalities, you will need to pay attention to the day-to-day reporting of journalists and citizens that remain active on-the-ground in Albania and the broader Balkan region. This, of course, won’t enable you to quickly fill in all the historical gaps, but it will provide you with a better grasp of what substantive issues are actually at play in Albania: efforts to join the EU, efforts to manage and control drug cultivation, and efforts to rejuvenate the economy, just to name a few.


Cover photo credit: SarahTz/flickr/some rights reserved

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Timothy M. Gill

Timothy M. Gill (@timgill924) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he teaches courses on political sociology, globalization and development, and sociological theory. He holds an M.A. from Cleveland State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. He has published in several academic and public outlets, including the Washington Post - Monkey Cage Blog, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and World Politics Review.