By Altin Gjeta
This December marked the 30th anniversary of the Student Movement in Albania that ignited the fall of the communist regime, which, according to Neil Kritz, researcher at the American Institute for Peace, was one of the most Stalinist and tightly closed regimes in the world. For about half a century, this brutal regime built the State Security Service (Sigurimi), one of the most oppressive apparatuses in the world which in the late 1980s is estimated to have officially recruited ten thousand people, while more than 1/3 of the population was part of its infamous information network. Under the political leadership of the communist elite, this terrorist mechanism is estimated to have executed more than 6,000 people, investigated, persecuted, imprisoned and interned in inhumane prisons and camps thousands of people, and instilled fear and terror in every corner of Albania. Half a century of communist rule turned Albania into a massive concentration camp.
In this regard, in the beginning of the 1990s Albania had all political and historical credentials to pursue a radical and transformative model in dealing with its communist criminal past. Ruti Teitel, one of the leading scholars of transitional justice argues that condemning the crimes of totalitarian regimes, establishing justice, uncovering the truth, and acknowledging past abuses are important preconditions for the reconciliation and rapid transition of a post- totalitarian society towards democracy.
As the third decade since the fall of Hoxha’s communist regime is coming to an end, despite the expectations of students and citizens that poured into the streets of Tirana in the cold days of December ‘90, Albania is the only country behind the former Iron Curtain in Europe that has not managed to break away from its communist past abuses. Unlike the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, though Albania has initiated several legal measures aimed at uncovering and punishing the communist human rights abuses it has failed to implement them. As Cynthia Horne put it in her seminal book, ‘Building Trust and Democracy’, Albania is the only country in the former communist Eastern Europe that has laws in books, but failed to implement them altogether.
This is due to a combination of multiple factors.
Firstly, Albania’s transition from Hoxha’s dictatorial regime to political pluralism fits into what Samuel Huntingon has coined ‘negotiation and power transfer’ transition model. In the late 1980s Albania was the only country in the former communist world that did not have an organised and genuine political dissidence. This was mainly due to the fact that the communist regime killed or imprisoned for life Albania’s intellectual elite and the rest, namely the religious clergy, were either jailed or interned in inhumane labour camps.
Therefore, in such circumstances when the anti-communist revolution swept Eastern Europe and finally Albania in the end of the 1980s, it was practically impossible to totally overthrow from power the communist nomenclature. As a result, the new political elite of the post-90s was somehow forced to coexist and share its power with the communist political legacy in public administration, judiciary and party politics. It is precisely this assemblage that has kept Albania from making a thick break with the past. The Genocide Law passed in 1995 was amended by the Socialist majority, the successor to the Labour Party, after it came to power in 1997, and shortly after, it was completely overturned by the Constitutional Court. The same fate befell the Lustration law in 2009.
Secondly, most of the legal measures introduced in post-communist Albania were frivolous and legally poorly drafted. The first sentences of the former communist nomenclature for economic abuses discredited the reputation of this process. Meanwhile, parts of the legislation were seen as politically motivated to eliminate political opponents, which in turn weakened bipartisan support for these legal initiatives. Thus, the combination of the politics of the past with the politics of the present in post-communist Albania has turned the reckoning with the past enterprise into a futile political battle for its transformative goals.
The communist past is not only untouched, but it continues to haunt Albanian society. The lack of cleansing of state institutions from exponents who served the oppressive machinery of the communist regime has rendered parts of post-communist political and administrative ‘elite’ merely a continuation of the totalitarian regime. As we speak, some of the highest political and legal institutions are run by exponents of the Hoxha’s regime with dubious past.
In addition, Albania’s inability to expose the abuses of its ancient regime and establish justice has led to the relativism of the dictatorship’s human rights abuses and the perpetuation of the distorted communist narrative, which keeps portraying socialist Albania into school books as a progressive state, which ensured the electrification of the country, provided free health care and education as well as universal suffrage (to vote only for the Labour Party), thus overshadowing its crimes, economic, social and political misery it brought about to Albania. Keeping this narrative alive has made it impossible to build a unifying collective memory of the communist past in Albania.
Lastly, the failure of Albania to reckon with its communist past has brought about serious consequences to its democratic direction. The controversial past has been used politically to manipulate the public discourse with anti-political rhetoric for electoral benefits, and to escape office misconduct, corruption and bad governance. Thus, 30 years later, Albania continues to float into a protracted transition to nowhere. According to Alexander Etkind, if we fail to bring justice to the crimes committed, understand the past in the light of the present, if we fail to mourn our nation’s collective dramas, we remain in the post-catastrophe. In a post-catastrophe period the past haunts us, divides the society and limits our political choice. Three decades on, Albania continues to be held hostage by the ghosts of the communist past, which are haunting the present and its future.
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