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.
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.”
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.
Tirana is decked out with billboards, posters, and banners, promoting the various parties and coalitions. The press seems robust, too. Many papers jostle against one another on the newsstands. An Albanian complains to me, “You can’t trust any of them, they’re all biased.” But this is true throughout Europe. Some may even say it’s true in the United States.
On Election Day, people turn out to vote, in pretty big numbers — estimates will be around 50 percent. People have their thumbs marked, as in Iraq, to show that they’ve voted. When they fill in their ballots, they fold them, and put them in a large box. As Congressman Engel remarks, no chads, hanging or otherwise. There are complaints throughout the day: “Five of us in my family registered, but only three of us are on the rolls, allowed to vote.” “I registered twice, just to be sure, but still they’re not allowing me to vote.” It’s hard to tell what is unfair play and what is simple incompetence, or confusion. What is encouraging is that citizens care so much: They want to participate in the new democracy.
The Democrats and their allies say that the Socialists control the electoral process, and tip everything their way. They also say that the Socialists, who are post-Communists, are really Communists at heart. President Bush used an interesting phrase in his second inaugural address: “habits of control.” The Socialists, according to their opponents, have yet to shed those habits. They have not yet learned to deal and govern democratically.
An Albanian who has no use for either major party is King Leka, son of the late king Zog and his beautiful, Hungarian wife. We visit the king, on the outskirts of Tirana, and he is not in good shape. His own wife died a year ago, a bad blow. He himself appears gravely ill: thin, gaunt, ghostly. He wears hospital clothes, and chain-smokes (elegantly).
Behind his chair stands an Albanian flag. And this rented house is full of books about the royal family, and mementos of them. Leka has an air of tremendous sorrow, but also tremendous dignity. His life cannot have been easy: He was only days old when his family was forced into exile, Mussolini having invaded. He bounced from host country to host country. Now he is at last back in the land of his birth, and he runs his own party, or movement. Some people snort at this sick man who calls himself “king” — but he is probably as patriotic and disinterested as anybody.
When I ask whether he has voted (for this is Election Day), he says the most kingly thing I ever hope to hear: “I don’t vote. I am above all political parties, even my own.” When Congressman Engel asks what America can do to assist Albania, he answers, “Help us out of this ping-pong game,” between Fatos Nano and Sali Berisha. Power has constantly shifted between the two. “Until that finishes, we will never advance.”
As of this writing — the counting is slow, and contested — Berisha and the Democrats appear to have triumphed in the elections, meaning that, for now, Berisha, not Nano, will sit in the prime minister’s seat. But all of us outsiders, and well-wishers, have a single concern: that procedures be democratic.
It should be remembered, in thinking about democracy across the world, that Albania is a very unlikely candidate — an unlikely candidate for democracy. In their millennia-long existence, they have hardly known self-rule, to say nothing of democracy. And they suffered the deepest, darkest Communism imaginable. In the wild north, blood feuds are still in operation, which confines certain families to their homes, unable to vote. Albania is a challenge. But they are making a go of democracy. Their elections have not been perfect, but they have not been disgraceful, either. The people, by and large, have had their say. And if Albanians can achieve democracy, should we be so quick to dismiss the chances of others, even unlikely others?
The Albanian Americans with me rub their eyes that this country can have even imperfect democracy. As recently as 15 years ago, it was only a mocking dream.
– This article first appeared in the August 8, 2005, issue of National Review.