Book Review – Enver Hoxha’s Long Shadow: Travels in Albania

John Watkins’ new travelogue offers an intriguing snapshot of a country still scarred by the legacy of its brutal dictator.Over the past 10 to 15 years, it would be easy for someone with only a passing knowledge of history to think that Albania is just another part of what has become known as “the Western Balkans”, or “Western Balkans Six/WB6.” Foreign, and to some extent domestic policy on the non-EU members west of Russia, have in many ways become intertwined with the idea and reality of EU expansion, a post-Cold War process most markedly noted by the accession of ten new member states in 2004, practically and symbolically demonstrating the ascendence of liberalism and reform, and the “magnetic pull” of the EU as both a trading and political values bloc.

Following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and then Croatia in 2013, the focus for years was on the countries of the remaining Yugoslav successor states and Albania, with countries such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine until recently viewed as a separate potential expansion basket. (Turkey has been all but forgotten since the rise of illiberalism ushered in by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.)

As a result, this WB6 construct – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – of countries already surrounded by EU members has become viewed as a territorial and geographical unit.

While this conceptualization eases references to this space in policy and in reports, it can also easily lead to the minimization or neglect of some key differences among these six. Language issues aside, perhaps the most important is their different 20th-century experiences, and the fact that five of these political units had been a part of former Yugoslavia, while Albania was not.

While during the initial fever dream of the post-Cold War reform wave, economists and social scientists may have expected (or fervently hoped) that forward-moving liberal economic and political transitions would follow a similar path, regardless of the structure of the previous state polity, one cannot ignore the impact of these different histories on understanding of the past, or the present.

It is, therefore, helpful to see a number of books coming out explaining various elements of the Albanian experience for experts and interested readers in general alike. Lea Ypi’s Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, in 2021, is indispensable in learning of the Albanian Cold War experience, which was so different to the experience of Yugoslavia until its collapse as to be incomparable. While Ypi’s memoir account is informed by her insights as a political philosopher, John Watkins’ travelogue, Enver Hoxha’s Long Shadow: Travels in Albania, provides another angle, offering an accessible snapshot of Albania today, while also explaining its recent past.

The structure of the book is centered on the author’s many visits to Albania from the UK; the first time in 1972 as a teenage hitchhiker and traveler, and then, having been bitten by the Albania bug, returning in 1987 on a tour organized by the officially sanctioned state tourism agency. During this visit, he took photos of the post-Hoxha but still isolated and unknown country, capturing images in places ranging from street scenes to factory complexes on urban outskirts.

He continued to visit Albania after the end of the Cold War and the country’s subsequent turmoil, including a pyramid scheme collapse in 1997 that impoverished many and nearly drove the country to the brink of civil war. During his visits in the 2010s, he aimed to capture the changes that had occurred to the country’s streetscapes and infrastructure by setting out to find the places where he had taken photos in 1987, and to in turn take pictures of those places today. This approach provides an opportunity for a narrative photo scavenger hunt, while lending visual richness to the author’s own description of what he saw, and his own reflections on the journey.

But the most poignant moments occur when he describes asking Albanians for help in his quest, as looking at the old photos often triggered memories; and when they did not, the unrelatability itself suggested a generational distancing from history. (This “then and now” photographic approach reminded me of Jim Marshall’s similar exercise, on display at the historical museum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a standing exhibit compares photos he took of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, and then again around 15 years later.)

Watkins’ descriptions of his own fascination with the country in the 1970s and 1980s is warming to anyone who remembers a pre-Internet age when there was a possibility for global secrets to be discovered only to those willing to take the time to subscribe to niche printed newsletters, or to find relevant frequencies on a shortwave radio. Even then, the information available was state-cleared and sanctioned, presenting the angle desired by the regime. (Today, only comparisons with North Korea come to mind, and China’s control of places such as Xinjiang and Tibet.) Reading between the lines of the scripts being recited by sanctioned tour guides in 1987 is a part of the puzzle, and a process referenced in his later visits to the far more open country.

As telegraphed by the title, the author is often seeking to understand how citizens grapple with the legacy of Enver Hoxha, whose regime of control, surveillance, terror, deprivation and manufactured suspicion constructed a post-World War II country that was as far from the experience of people living in Yugoslavia as that of people living in Italy. He writes of slogans and monuments extolling Hoxha’s Albania that have either eroded with time, or have been actively painted over or removed as a part of a post-regime memory cleansing of those totalitarian years.

The striking pace of construction is a visible marker of change well conveyed through his photos, and a gateway to a pervasive theme – corruption. (“Unresolved issues about land ownership encouraged corrupt alliances between politicians and developers”). He describes places like Durrës, Shkoder and Tirana that epitomize the urban transformations ushered in by privatization, as construction and cranes abound, while the softer look of renewed pedestrian areas lined with café umbrellas and seating contrast with stark old photos, today’s cafes visually conveying the new possibilities of social openness.

His interlocutors go beyond the concrete to convey the human impact of the transition. “As I showed the photos to more people, a pattern began to emerge. Broadly speaking, young people were more willing to engage. Older people – in other words those with some personal experience of the community regime – were polite, but non-committal, limiting their comments to generalities”. The urge to move beyond the terror and deprivation of Hoxha led to intentional or unintentional forgetting that now crosses generations; one person he spoke with noted not having been taught about Hoxha at all in school in the 1990s, as if he was being “cancelled” from history.

Layered on top of the transition are signs of the impact of globalization and deindustrialization, familiar to people from Zenica to Kragujevac, or from Detroit to Manchester. Old factories that had employed entire towns, whether with or without privatization, have been mostly scrapped for parts. He describes feelings of contemporary marginalization, and of a new need to sell out to foreigners either through investments or hustling. He paints a picture of beauty, history and culture that could be the basis for tourism, including Rozafa castle, silkworms, remnants of thousands of kilometers of irrigation canals, and Skanderbeg sites…. yet on a visit to the historic village of Kruje notes: “You can see how little of that wealth had trickled down”. A young person in Durrës reflected: “Albania has so much money from the EU, it should be like Switzerland. It has the sea and mountain and lakes, but still Albanians are poor.” Under communism, people had not been free to do as they wanted, but under capitalism, it was no better. “Albanians had been cheated; they’d been made promises about better lives, but the promises hadn’t been kept.”

While there is nothing like the Yugonostalgia commonly heard in much of the region (including in “success stories” like Slovenia), certain themes do ring familiar, particularly related to inequality and corruption. Before, everyone was equal, and crime was low. Today there are the very rich and also the very poor, and now we also have organized crime. “The trouble was corruption, people paying bribes to get their qualifications. It was, said Djon, the same people in charge now as it had been during Communism.” Any citizen of the former Yugoslavia would nod in agreement.

Throughout the text, a reader can see the resilience of interlocutors who have had their lives, or the lives of their parents, turned upside down; and the sense that many people were thinking, well, that was communism, and now it’s capitalism. However, while practical economic realities and the freedom to travel were clearly top in mind in terms of the lived experiences of “transition,” it is notable by its omission to see how little his interlocutors conveyed opinions on the non-economic part of transition – democracy, participation, governmental accountability. The issue of corruption seems to be the only way that people think about or interact with the government. One person he met did wonder aloud about the nature of political life then, and now: “…he launched into an attack on modern Albanians. In the old days, he said, the party and the people had always been close…..How can a country function if its people take no interest in politics?” How democratic can a country be if politics are seen as something to sidestep and avoid, if at all possible?

This book can serve as a reminder to policymakers that Albania is different, and should be treated as such, not simply bundled in with the Yugoslav space. This does a disservice to Albania and the Albanian people – a country that is markedly different in having no predatory aspirations towards its neighbors, where there is full agreement that Albania is a state, and where religious differences are not wielded as a tool to divide and conquer – all maladies witnessed in the former Yugoslavia for over a generation now.

Readers, whether they are policy wonks or curious novices, will find that this book may move Albania up a few notches in their “to-visit” list, to capture the feeling and flavor of the country’s coastline, old fortresses, villages and cities – while such uniqueness still beckons.

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