Yesterday, I started a kind of Albanian journal, here. Today is the second installment. I will conclude tomorrow with the third. You see, I am not inflicting Davosian length on you! (Regular Impromptus readers will know what that means.)
Just to refresh: I have been traveling with Congressman Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), his two chiefs of staff–one in Washington, one in New York–and a group from the National Albanian-American Council. Also in this party is the congressman’s college-bound son, Jonathan, an exemplary kid. After visiting and working in Albania and Montenegro, they have moved on to Kosovo. I am writing you from Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro), on July 6.
‐The Albanian elections, as I mentioned yesterday, were on July 3; as of this writing, the results are unknown. I will discuss Election Day in my magazine piece, but, for now, let me make merely these points:
1) Even though these elections are flawed–certainly questionable–it’s a minor miracle that they’re taking place. Maybe not-so-minor. Albania endured the blackest, most oppressive Communism for 45 years; in their very long history, Albanians have scarcely enjoyed self-rule, to say nothing about democracy. And now they are aiming for a proper democratic state. This is almost inexpressibly gratifying. We must remember that, as we note, and sigh over, flaws.
2) At one somewhat remote polling station, we see a young man with a New York Yankee cap. I wish I had a Detroit Tiger one to give him–but I don’t. (Actually, it’s back at my hotel, in my bag.)
3) Some voters–or would-be voters–are very angry not to find themselves on the rolls. They protest that they duly registered. Whether the absence of their names is the result of unfair play or simple incompetence, we cannot say. But I can say this: It’s satisfying to see that these citizens care so much–about casting their ballot, about participating in the process.
‐Albania, you know, is a staunch supporter of the United States in Iraq. And by “supporter,” I mean on-the-ground ally. They may not contribute many troops–but as a percentage of their forces, it’s nothing to sneeze at. I have mentioned this before in Impromptus. The ambassador to the U.S. referred to the Albanian troops in Iraq as the cream of Albania’s youth. And the prime minister has pointedly said that Albania will not pull a Spain–he used almost precisely that language (naming Spain, specifically).
‐We go to the presidential palace, for a visit with . . . well, the president. He is head of state, although not head of government–that is the prime minister. The current president’s name is Moisiu, which I understand is Albanian for Moses. (Moisiu is his last name.) He is a big bear of a man, with a silver-white mane. He looks somewhat like Boris Yeltsin, maybe soberer. Moisiu is a former general, and he makes a father-of-his-country impression. About his rectitude, acumen, or effectiveness, I’m unqualified to comment.
I should tell you something amusing about the guards out front (of the presidential palace). When our party pulls up, they stand at attention, saluting. (Does standing at attention automatically include saluting? You’re asking the wrong guy.) And when they can put their arms down, they shake them, relaxing them, and flash each other looks that say, “Geez, that was uncomfortably long.”
‐I speak with an Albanian about famous Albanian Americans. There’s John Belushi, and his brother Jim, and . . . we cannot come up with a long list. He says, “There’s a rumor that Marisa Tomei is Albanian”–for there are many people named Tomei in this country.
I hereby spread the “rumor.”
‐Our group goes to visit King Leka, at his rented home outside Tirana. The king was in exile just about all his life. He was only a few days old when his family was forced to flee, Mussolini having invaded Albania. Leka–who is also known as Leka Zogu, son of King Zog and his beautiful queen–has lived in many countries, bouncing from host to host. Only in recent years has he been in Albania, trying to participate in political life, heading up a party. He seeks the return of lands belonging to his father and grandfather. And he seeks a civilized, modern Albania.
Leka has had a very rough time of it: His mother died not long ago, and so did his wife. He himself is ill: gaunt, super-thin, ghostly. He wears what appear to be hospital clothes. He also chain-smokes and drinks frequently from a dark cup; I’m later told that it contained whisky–it might act as a painkiller. About him is a striking sorrow: sorrow for himself, and sorrow for his nation. He also has great dignity.
The Albanian flag stands behind him, and the home is full of books and mementos concerning his family. It’s also full of dogs, of which there may be five. (I wish I could identify the breed for you–what kind of reporter am I? They seem to be bulldogs, but not the kind from which we get the Marine mascot. Is there a taller, thinner, less squat variety? I give up.) Among the pictures on the walls is a Madonna and Child.
Asked how his party will do, the king says, “Under the present conditions, we will do well, but not as well as we should do”–he thinks the game is rigged against him. After he makes the remark I have just quoted, he smiles with sweetness and resignation. Asked whether the elections will be “free and fair,” he says, “By international standards, they will not be free and fair, but by the standards of past elections in Albania, they probably will be.”
As it is Election Day, I ask whether he himself has voted. He answers, “I don’t vote. I am above all political parties, even my own.” It is the most kingly thing I have ever heard.
And what could America do to assist Albania? “Help us out of this ping-pong game. If it doesn’t end, we will not advance.” What he means is, political power has shifted between the country’s two chieftains, Fatos Nano of the Socialist party, and Sali Berisha of the Democrats.
Look, it’s easy to snicker at King Leka, or perhaps you’d like quotation marks around that: “King Leka.” Many people scoff at the idea that he is king, a self-proclaimed one. Apparently, the U.S. embassy will have nothing to do with him. But he is as legitimate as anyone in Albania, and he comports himself with a dignity, an understanding, and a disinterestedness that any nation should value.
At least the Albanian government has let him back in. I have remarked before on a curious phenomenon: In recent memory, the Italian government has not permitted Umberto II to die on his native soil, and the Greek government has blocked Constantine. Are these democracies–so long established–so insecure that they say, “Eek, a mouse,” when some old man from a distinguished family knocks on the door? Come on.
‐A couple of additional thoughts: Another noted Albanian American is that really beautiful girl who played alongside Kirstin Dunst in that cheerleading movie. Eliza Dushku, I think her name is. (I don’t have Google.) And do you remember those photos of James Jesus Angleton, toward the end of his life? That’s what King Leka looks like, sort of: although more handsome.
(I have seldom seen a photo of Angleton without his cigarette–that adds to the impression.)
‐I meet a man who worked for years for the VOA and Radio Free Europe. He says that “the radios” were nothing, really, until Reagan came along: He rallied the spirits of those serving them. And he made the radios fulfill their missions. The man confides to me, “I believe Reagan was sent by God”–to confront Communism, and overcome it.
My friend is not alone.
He says that Albanians have some thinking to do: “Why did we allow Hoxha for so long, why was there no real dissident movement, no effective opposition–were we not brave?” There has never been an accounting in this country, he continues, and this has held Albania back. No national discussion has taken place. My friend sounds like our senior editor David Pryce-Jones, who has been making this point for years: The lack of accounting in a post-Communist nation retards democratic progress in that nation.
One problem, of course, is that a huge number of people were complicit in Communist rule–in Albania and elsewhere. Where do you start? As my friend says, people walk the streets of Tirana who ordered the execution of innocents–or who performed the deeds themselves. Those now in power are “the sons and daughters of bad men,” from the Communist era. You can’t expect them to indict their parents.
What can be done?
And my friend tells a fascinating, shudder-producing story, from 15 years ago: He was part of the first delegation from the West to enter Albania–and they, the members of that delegation, had great trouble finding food, in this starving country. They relied on Cokes shipped daily from Greece to Tirana’s lone hotel–a hotel barely fit for human habitation. (We are now staying in the sleekest, chicest Sheraton you’ve ever seen.)
If it was that way for the official delegation–what must it have been like for average Albanians?
‐I don’t like to conclude so seriously, but I think we’ve had enough, for this installment. See you tomorrow, for the finale? Until then.