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Albanian Renaissance
Youth Park, Tirana. Photo: Alan Grant

The 2001 film "Slogans", based on a short story by Ylljet Alickaj, tells the true story of a teacher who is sent to a remote mountain village during the time of communism. In the absurd situation it portrays, pupils and teachers spend more time arranging rocks on mountains to form party slogans than they do learning. It is a gripping illustration of wasted efforts under Hoxha's regime.

But Slogans is also an illustration that things are in fact changing in Albania as one critic noted:

"an Albanian film, Gjergj Xhuvani's Slogans (2001), was selected to play in the Director's Fortnight, which runs concurrently with the Cannes film festival. It is thought to be the first time that an Albanian film has played at Cannes, and the novelty continued when it was critically acclaimed. … Meanwhile, Fatmir Koçi's Tirana Year Zero (2001) was in the official selection at Venice this August and won the international competition at Thessaloniki earlier this month. Albania, the world now knows, makes films."

Being part of the European cultural scene is a significant change. As the same critic noted about Albania:

"we have become so used to hearing about the country purely in a context of collapse, disorder and dysfunctionality (not only from news, but also from films such as the David Mamet-scripted Wag the Dog), that it is easy to shunt Albania into some sort of sub-cultural, extra-civilisational, "Third World" category in our collective unconsciousness."

After decades of stagnation under Hoxha's brand of extreme communism, Albania has shrugged off slogans and isolationism, and is now developing at a fast pace. The streets of Tirana, virtually devoid of cars 15 years ago, are now as packed as those in any European capital. Tirana has changed its appearance and created an image as a clean city; brightly coloured houses and refurbished parks awaken people's belief that change is possible. The country that had once broken off relations with each of its major allies in turn, becoming a European version of Kim's North Korea, has now been invited to join NATO and aims to become one of the EU's next new members. Civic activism has replaced the violent protests of the 1990s. Politicians and bureaucrats are increasingly held accountable by a young, restless population eager for change.

The political culture is changing as well. Albanian politics used to be known as divisive and confrontational. Leading politicians contested election results, accused their opponents of corruption and eschewed any attempt at compromise. Recent months have been marked by encouraging signs that cooperation might increase. At an event on 28 April 2008 at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Edi Rama., the Mayor of Tirana and leader of the opposition, called for a unified consensus between government and opposition to push Albania towards an application for EU membership:

"We will continue to strongly disagree on what is domestic, but we will continue to push, as the opposition, the government to take the risk, to be courageous and to go ahead with this application submission. […] We have succeeded in creating a climate of cooperation with the focus on NATO integration, […]. It was also the challenge; it was also the visible objective, which helped."

Just one week earlier, a set of constitutional amendments to introduce proportional representation in Parliament were approved with rare agreement between the Democratic and Socialist Parties. This is not only a sign of co-operation: electoral reform might also be a step towards ensuring that Albania's next elections can for the first time be judged "free and fair".

Parts of Albania's industry and infrastructure are an aging reminder of communist under-investment and mismanagement. New projects are therefore a particularly important aspect of the country's modernisation. Albania's one international airport, Tirana International Airport Nene Tereza, named after Mother Teresa, is one such project. In March 2007 the new facilities of were inaugurated, including a brand new passenger terminal. That year saw an 18 % increase in passengers and a 65 % increase in the amount of baggage handled (Tirana International Airport). The construction of the Durres-Prizren-Pristina highway, due to be completed by the end of next year, is another ambitious infrastructure project.

Since its transition from communism, Albania's economic performance has been impressive. The serious crisis following the collapse of the pyramid schemes proved to be a temporary interruption in a prolonged period of growth. A World Bank Labour Market Assessment from 2006 notes that "Albania's cumulative growth since the transition has been among the highest in the region. GDP is now roughly 35% higher than it was in 1990." It also reports that real GDP growth has been between 5 and 10 percent ever since the recovery from the collapse of the pyramid schemes in 1998, averaging close to 8 percent. Such growth has contributed to a decline in the absolute poverty rate "from 25.4 percent in 2002 to 18.5 percent in 2005, lifting roughly one quarter of the poor in 2002 out of poverty" (World Bank).

One promising industry to emerge in recent years is tourism. An Albanian tourism promotion slogan advertises ‘Europe's last secret'. Word of that secret is starting to spread. Unofficial data from the UNDP estimates the number of international arrivals at 1.15 million for 2006 (UNDP 2007). Many of those who visit the beaches around Vlora and Durres are Albanians residing abroad. Nevertheless, in light of the boom in investment seen in other countries along the Adriatic coast, and considering Albania's natural attractions, it is likely that Albania won't be a secret for very long.

May 2008

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