Tirana, Albania — Years ago, the columnist Charles Krauthammer joked about what he called “the Tirana Index.” This was a way of measuring how unfree a country was. For example, election returns out of this capital would tell us that the Communist dictator, Hoxha, had received 98.6 percent of the vote. (You had to wonder about the other 1.4 percent.) The greater a dictator’s vote, the more unfree the country was. That was the Tirana Index. Of course, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, improved on Hoxha by securing a full 100 percent of the vote.
They don’t do things like that in Albania anymore. I am in this country with a group monitoring elections. It is headed by Congressman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, who is America’s foremost politician on Albanian affairs. This is his fifth visit to the country; he will undoubtedly make more. He has long been concerned about Albanians wherever they live: be it in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, or Albania itself. This is of a piece with his general commitment to human rights. He observes that, if Bill Clinton can be “the first African-American president,” he, Engel, ought to be the first Albanian-American congressman.
He has with him a delegation from the National Albanian-American Council, which includes men and women born throughout the Albanian diaspora. They have prospered in America, and wish to help less fortunate people in their ancestral lands. They lend political support, make business investments. They are proud, and in some cases amazed, to see Albania spring back to life.
This country endured just about the worst of Communism, for 45 years. The only situation that compares to Hoxha-ruled Albania is North Korea. Compared with Albania, such Communist states as Poland and Hungary were Gardens of Eden. Hoxha broke with the Soviets in 1968, and with the Chinese in 1978 — they were dangerously liberal. No contact with the outside world was permitted. Private use of automobiles was forbidden. In the last five years, there was near famine. This was Stone Age stuff.
Albania is a famously pro-American country — some might say it is notoriously so — and when Secretary of State Baker visited Tirana, when the country first opened up, they kissed his car. Seven decades before, President Wilson had insisted on Albanian independence; many have never forgotten that. And then, in the ’90s, President Clinton bombed Serbia, saving the lives of countless Kosovar Albanians. On my first visit to this country, three years ago, a writer said to me, “We are so pro-American, our neighbors sneer at us as ‘the Israel of the Balkans.’” I replied — what else? — “Wear it proudly.”
And Albanians are quick to point out that they are in Iraq, with the coalition. They may not be committing many troops, but the number is a significant percentage of Albania’s forces, and they are “the cream of this country’s youth.” Not long ago, the prime minister made it clear that Albania will never imitate Spain, and reverse course.
Since the fall of Communism, Albania has struggled to become a democracy. It is succeeding, in fits and starts. For several years, we said that it was the poorest country in Europe, but now Albanians note that Moldova has passed it in poverty. This reminds me of what used to be said in America: Alabamians are grateful for Mississippians. Crime is a serious problem in Albania, and a new threat casts a shadow: that of Muslim extremism. This is a majority-Muslim country, and the Saudis have been throwing some money around. For now, however, Albania stands as an example of a predominantly Muslim country that is willing to fight terrorism and pursue democracy.
In the three years since my previous visit, conditions in Tirana have obviously improved. Decrepitude has been lessened, and enterprise is more apparent. It may be my imagination, but I think the people have a healthier aspect. Even the dogs in the street seem less skinny. Women in gay dresses walk down boulevards, carrying parasols. For a block or two, this could be Rome. Around every corner, construction is taking place. Greater Tirana can appear one vast construction site. And the old, drab Soviet-style buildings? Albanians are painting them in bright colors, sometimes pastels — you get a touch, I kid you not, of South Florida.
The main aim, politically, is to join first NATO and then the EU. All parties agree on this. There are lots of parties, too, some 50. The dominant ones are the Socialists, now in power, and the Democrats. They are led by two larger-than-life political bosses: Fatos Nano, the Socialist (and current prime minister), and Sali Berisha, the Democrat (formerly in power). One Albanian says to me, cynically, but perhaps not inaccurately, that the Socialists and the Democrats are like two great mafia families. The Socialists are regarded as center-left, the Democrats as center-right. The Socialists have campaigned on Continuity and Progress. The Democrats have campaigned on Reform and Clean Hands — also a 50 percent tax cut.