The weirdest country in Europe
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 October 2008)

SARANDE, Albania - Here and there on the Mediterranean waterfront around Sarande, a little town currently publicized with wan hope as "the southern gateway for tourism into Albania," you can spot evocative relics of communist paranoia: the concrete-and-steel bunkers erected under the personal supervision of Enver Hoxha.

He was the Stalinist who ran Albania for four terrifying decades. He created a society so hysterically secretive that the few journalists who managed to enter were immediately relieved of any potentially dangerous printed material they were carrying. The late James Cameron, a first-class British author, discovered that at the customs office he had to surrender the books he carried with him around the world, his complete Jane Austen.

Hoxha believed that rows of pillboxes on every stretch of coastline, each of them big enough to hold a soldier and a gun, would fend off foreign invaders -- who, in Hoxha's imagination, were forever plotting against Albania. The idea was mad as well as costly, but no one questioned Hoxha. He built 700,000 bunkers, about one for every four Albanians. This used more than three times as much concrete as the Maginot Line, the enormous installation that failed to protect France against Germany in the Second World War.

Hoxha has been dead since 1985, his statue in the capital city of Tirana long ago pulled down. Albania even passed a law making any form of politics that smells of "Enverism" illegal. But even though Enver is gone, his bunkers remain. They are too expensive to destroy and may be there for centuries. A few provide minuscule homes for the poor, a few are painted with the names of football heroes. Young Albanians have discovered that with a certain ingenuity it's not impossible to make love inside them.

They are a melancholy sight but they are by no means the most appalling structures to be found around Sarande. Bunkers speak eloquently of a dead ideology, but elsewhere in Sarande a visitor comes upon graphic physical evidence of post-communism, the era that Albania is still enduring and the nightmare of chaos and incompetence from which the whole nation is trying to escape.

In Albania, corruption became a major industry after the fall of communism. Citizens were no doubt glad to see a version of democracy and a version of private business being born in the 1990s. But, having been taught for 40-some years that capitalism is in essence crooked, they took this description literally and embraced the new era with excessive enthusiasm. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the most extreme of communist states (Hoxha remained a pure Stalinist long after Stalin died) would turn into the most corrupt of post-communist states.

This horror story acts itself out in microcosm at Sarande, just across the Ionian Sea from the handsome Greek town of Corfu. Along the waterfront, not far from the casino named Caesars (in Vegas style, with no apostrophe) and the woebegone little space on the seashore called Heaven Beach, are at least three dozen waterfront buildings, intended to be hotels or condos, that remain unfinished concrete shells with no doors or windows. Pathetically, they are sometimes painted in turquoise, canary yellows or pink, suggesting Mediterranean beach homes. They were abandoned two or three years ago. Elsewhere in town there are many more structures in the same state. Some look so poorly built that it seems likely they'll fall down before they're ready to be occupied.

The disaster of Sarande began with the pyramid schemes that became a national and then international scandal in 1997. Hundreds of thousands of citizens lost their savings in a scam that was encouraged by some government officials. The victims rioted, and at one point ransacked the offices of the national land registry. Many files were stolen, and as a result it became hard to know who had title to which property. Since then, corrupt registry officials have given as many as seven people title to a single lot. Last month, the justice minister, Enkelejd Alibeaj, claimed that an Albanian "land mafia" has made "tens of billions of dollars" in these illegal transactions, helped by civil servants in the registry offices.

In Sarande, lawsuits are being fought over the question of title, over who should finish a building and who will own it when and if it's completed. Many nearby towns and islands love to show off their Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins. Sarande, too, has an architectural style all its own: Unfinished Brutalist Post-Communist.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image