From the August 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
The dramatic events in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 found at first little echo in Albania, the small Balkan state which had often been described as one of the last strongholds of Stalinism. Over the last nine months, however, political and economic changes have affected Albania too, though, as elsewhere, it remains to be seen just how far-reaching they are.
For many years. Albania was isolated politically as well as geographically. It had diplomatic relations with neither Russia nor America, and was the only East European state to support the Chinese government in the Sino-Soviet dispute. The country was ruled in classic Bolshevik style. The Party of Labour (the "Communists") ruled with an iron fist, and the Party Leader, Enver Hoxha, was a brutal dictator. Industry was state-owned, workers laboured long hours for a pittance, rationing was widespread, there was a ubiquitous secret police, and any speaking out of line was ruthlessly punished.
Relations with China gradually deteriorated in the 1970s, as China became more friendly with the USA and Yugoslavia. A number of Albanian leaders were removed from office after the arrest of the "Gang of Four" in China in 1976, as Hoxha sought to defend his position. He died in 1985, to be succeeded by his deputy, Ramiz Alia.
Hoxha’s policies had in fact become slightly more flexible in his last few years, as the drive for economic development made closer links with other countries imperative. Diplomatic and trading ties were begun with a number of states, and the border with Greece, which had been closed since the Second World War. was reopened. Albania was also linked for the first time with the European rail network. Italian ships were allowed to call at the Albanian port of Durres. Under Alia, these policies were continued, as Albania received valuable foreign exchange through export of oil and iron ore.
These developments proceeded only slowly until last year. Then comprehensive new laws were passed, decentralizing the economy and permitting overseas investment and some kinds of private enterprise. The UN Secretary General visited Albania, and so did a top Chinese leader, no doubt passing on advice about the economic reforms in China. The state-capitalist regime in Albania was being relaxed just a little, its inefficiency being plain for all to see.
At the same time, the Party of Labour was supposedly made more democratic, but it (and its leaders) retained a stranglehold on power. Then last December things began to move faster. There were demonstrations on the streets, and Alia had to concede the formation of opposition parties and "free" elections for 31 March this year. But this did not defuse the situation, and the strikes and demos continued. In February a giant statue of Hoxha in the capital was pulled down—in the circumstances, a highly symbolic action in a country where there were still few ways of expressing political opposition. Another possibility was emigration, and many Albanians hijacked ships and fled to Italy across the Adriatic, though many were forcibly sent back.
The March elections gave the Party of Labour a majority, with two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. But their success was confined to the countryside, and in the towns the opposition (spearheaded by the Democratic Party) won most of the votes. Even Alia failed to be elected in Tirana. But around two-thirds of the population live in small villages where the Democratic Party, which had been in existence for less than four months, could make little impact. The election result was greeted by violent protests in the towns, and at least three protestors were killed by police.
A new constitution was published, abandoning all the spurious claims to being socialist and allowing private businesses to be set up (but few people had the resources to do so). In May a general strike began, and workers demanded pay rises of up to 100 percent, far more than the government was prepared to offer. The Party of Labour was split, with Alia prepared to give more concessions, while hardliners who still revered Hoxha set themselves against any changes whatsoever. At the beginning of June the government collapsed, unable to stop the strikes or restore order. A coalition government took control, run by the Democrats and the "Socialists" (as the Party of Labour has been misleadingly renamed). New elections are to be held next summer, while the government tries to tackle the appalling economic problems and the expectations aroused by the dramatic events of the last six months.
It is too early to know what will transpire in Albania, and clearly a lot can happen between now and next years elections. Popular support for the various parties may fluctuate widely, and the old ruling class will be challenged by the new private capitalists. Ordinary workers have gained some freedom to protest and organise. Yet again the failure of state capitalism has been exposed, and the rapidity of political change has been remarkable. In whatever guise. Albania is likely to be integrated more and more clearly into the world capitalist system.