Postcard from…Albania

Albanian communist party head Ramiz Alia, center, meeting students on December 11, 1990, to announce the legalization of political parties. (c) ATAAlbania’s communist regime was orthodox and extreme. When other East European countries liberalized slightly after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Albanian ruler Enver Hoxha held firm, calling the Soviet Union “revisionist.” Albania turned to China for aid. That ended with the Mao-Nixon rapprochement. Albania then embarked on an experiment of autarky and self-imposed isolation as the world’s “only true Marxist state.”

Hoxha died in 1985. His hand-picked successor, Ramiz Alia, inherited a crumbling economy and growing pressure for reform. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Alia introduced the “pluralism of ideas” to discuss the country’s problems, which was distinctly different from the “pluralism of parties.” The Albanian Party of Labor still ruled supreme.

That changed 20 years ago this week, at the meeting depicted in this photograph. Here, Ramiz Alia (seated at front, middle) is informing a group of students from Enver Hoxha University about the Central Committee’s historic decision on December 11 to legalize political parties. “The plenum expressed its opinion that it is for the good of the further democratization of life in the country and pluralism, the creation of independent political organizations in conformity with the laws in effect,” Alia said.

Alia played it well. Albania stood without patron or friend. Domestic calls for reform were growing; the students had been protesting for three days. “If we did not do it, there would have been blood up to the Central Committee,” one Central Committee member said.

The first opposition party, the Democratic Party, was created on December 12, 1990. It lost elections to the Party of Labor three months later but came to power in March 1992.

Enver Hoxha University is now Tirana University. Albanian students study Milton Friedman instead of Karl Marx, cubism instead of Socialist Realism, and U.S. foreign policy instead of Russia’s or China’s. But the revolutionary spirit of 1990 has faded in the democratic dash.

Fred Abrahams’ book on the fall of communism in Albania will be
published next year by New York University Press. An excerpt on the
student movement is available at Balkan Insight.