East European Experiments


Leaving Home, Returning
Art of Losing Things
Ladi's Story
Media Vultures

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III. Ladi's Story

Ladi, (short for Vladimir), my neighbor in the next pallati, once told me a little story. I frequently went over to his house to use the telephone. I think I read somewhere that 1 out of every 70 Albanians had telephones, and in my neighborhood they were particularly hard to find. Surely, a person who had one either was wealthy or had fabulous party connections. Ladi had neither; he was a businessman/actor/minor political figure for an opposition party. Although Albanians were on the whole removed from Western and American culture, it is always surprising to encounter the curious exception. An older woman I once stayed with recalled watching "Happy Days" and the Fonz on Italian TV. Elton, after I mentioned reading a delightful Dorothy Parker poem, recited the whole poem back to me from memory. And Ladi through his travels, had watched many of the world's great film classics. Apparently, during his stay in Romania, he'd picked up enough Romanian to watch dubbed or subtitled versions of films from all over the world. These sort of "intermediary" languages are not uncommon in a state as small as Albania. Most of the English translations of Ismail Kadare's novels (Kadare is Albania's most famous novelist) are translated not from the Albanian but a French translation of the Albanian. Small video stores had begun to pop up, loaded with recent American films, most of them dubbed in Italian. I had wanted to borrow some to do a little video series for the students. I wanted to do "Jurassic Park," (a film I'd never seen) until I realized the absurdity of it: not only could I not understand it (I didn't know Italian), these Albanian students would be watching it in Italian and discussing it in English. Perhaps they should have written the film reviews in Swahili.

Ladi the artist
Ladi was a businessmen, minor politician and actor. Despite Albania's isolation, Ladi overflowed with knowledge about world theatre and art.  

Ladi tells the story like this: A man plays the violin in the forest. Suddenly a pack of lions surround him. Frightened, the man stopped playing until he realized that perhaps the music is keeping them at bay. The lions sit and listen quietly until another lion, a latecomer, wanders near and spying the man, pounces on him and tears him to pieces. One lion, sighing, turns to another and mutters, "It's always the deaf ones that ruin the entertainment."

One critical question loomed over the others during the worsening political crisis: Did the Berisha government create the anarchy it was trying to prevent? All perpetrators of violence deserve condemnation, but did the government cause its own political problems? Albania is a free society without any liberal political traditions; this year it has had to face the consequences.

Let me stress one point stressed by many Albanians over and over again. Despite all the political troubles, Albanians are still freer than they had ever been. They agonize over the government's constitutional problems, but admit that at least they can complain about them. Parliament set forth a series of protections for individual liberties, and even if these liberties are not carefully nuanced, Albanians feel free. There are no more internal passports, no more prohibitions on speaking to foreigners or watching Italian television. As long as a citizen remains relatively law-abiding or honest, he can speak his mind, badmouth the president or Karl Marx. Schools no longer centers around ideology, and teachers can basically say what they want inside class. Albanians can choose from dozens of drinks or clothes to buy, they can work for almost any firm they please. Even so, these freedoms depend more on the goodwill of the governing regime rather than the rule of law. Albania has been unable to agree to a constitution and the recent events show how easily a government can suspend such freedoms for the sake of the social order.

Diana, small but vivacious Albanian who directed the Peace Corps education program, once expressed her envy for the political stability of American society. Americans never have to worry about elections being manipulated, she said, or policeman shooting protesters or people raiding the national arsenals. Americans are safe. Americans love their country and respect their laws. What she said is true. But it ignores the crucial fact that America is perhaps the most violent society in the world. Our murder and suicide rates far outnumber other countries, and in the ghettos citizens live in genuine fear for their lives. We may not have political prisoners, but we incarcerate a higher percentage of people than most civil societies (It is true, however, that we give these prisoners access to exercise rooms, HBO and law libraries to write their Supreme Court appeals). One of the greatest contradictions in American society is between the high level of violent crime and apparent political stability. How can both coexist?

The U.S. incarcerate a higher percentage of people than most civil societies (It is true, however, that we give these prisoners access to exercise rooms, HBO and law libraries to write their Supreme Court appeals).  

The U.S. government has attained a level of political legitimacy arising from the political process. Political power is distributed and calibrated so no one individual or party can wield too much influence. A person can't fight Washington, but he can sign petitions, attend a rally, join a lobbyist group or write his congressmen. Those who don't do these things have no right to complain. An Albanian might want to do the same thing, but the meeting might not receive a government permit, the lobbying group might not received a license or the Parliament member might be more inclined to listen to the Party leader than the opinions of people in his district. A European magazine once lamented that Eastern European countries lack nongovernmental organizations for citizens to join, political or nonpolitical. In many cases an organization in Albania will need to register and wait for some government official to approve or question the application. That leaves only the government, the governing party and foreign organizations to get things started. It is a shame when the only big concert to visit Vlore is one organized by the Democratic Party or that students go to a dance sponsored by the party because there is really nothing else to do. The Democratic Party surely shouldn't be faulted for doing such things, but surely there should be alternate sources for such activities.

Although nongovernmental institutions may be apolitical in nature, they provide a forum for free discussions and constructive projects. They give people another source for funding and logistical support. Although everyone recognizes their value, few are willing to start them. At the university where I worked, for example, students had absolutely no organizations to join. For most of the time, the walls were stripped of club announcements or student activities. Nothing in the university prevented students from starting these things except the fear that they needed to get someone's permission. Better not even to bother.

In my university, never had I witnessed so much dread for a single word: political. The school director exhorted teachers not to be "political" in class. Students sometimes interrupted me in class to point out that something I had said was 'political." Teachers backed away from discussions that might have political dimensions. When I attempted to start a journalism seminar at my university, it was viewed with suspicion by some because some of the speakers might make political statements. Heaven forbid! Teachers were to keep their political opinions to themselves. For a long while I was shocked until it dawned on me that these teachers were still victims. They had endured an overly politicized education and now thought it would be better for future generations if politics never entered the classroom at all. Unfortunately these teachers were banishing one orthodoxy in favor of another. Not to discuss politics was to surrender to its inevitability and ultimately to forces of lawlessness.

hunger strike
2 of the 60 University of Vlore students on hunger strike against the government. Their strike later led to the closing of all Albanian schools. Their strike was declared "illegal" by the government because they didn't obtain the correct permit.  

The only ones willing to resist the government's oppressive regulations were those with no respect for law in general. At first they were labeled "communists" (although this was a society where almost everyone had been one); next, the protesters were labeled as "foreign elements." The Albanian people were confused by all this. They wanted Berisha and his government out, but they also feared the chaos of the rioters. Only 5 years ago young people had ransacked all the major buildings in a senseless display of anger at the toppled regime. Now anti-government forces were burning down symbols of the governing party. In Vlore, they chased all the police out, leaving bandits to roam as they please. An earnest hunger strike by students at University of Vlore sparked violence by Secret Service policemen which provoked a savage response from ruffians. The riots devolved into mobs of people raiding military arsenals, taking what they wanted and making their own rules. The opposition became a dissonant chorus of voices, each with his own conditions and demands.

It is three months later. Many public buildings and universities were set on fire and banks raided. Many international organizations (including Peace Corps) left, as well as multinational companies with plans to invest in Albania. 1500 dead, thousands of Kalashnikovs scattered in the hands of the wrong kinds of people. People in the southern cities of Vlore and Sarande are controlled still by armed gangs. People on both sides are vowing revenge in their minds. While Albania watchers probably agree that a change in ruling party was necessary, many have to wonder if the cure was worse than the disease. Many could use the events as evidence that Berisha should have acted stronger to quell the opposition. His mistake was in allowing the rebels to do what they please and gain a momentum of popular support. If the police had overcome the protesters more forcefully, if Berisha had sent in tanks at the beginning, perhaps the anarchy would never have occurred. The Albanian people have suffered, more through the mafia's rampant control in the south than from the investment schemes.

One wonders if this version of events is true. In every crisis there is a tendency to find a scapegoat, to treat issues in black and white, to ignore the misdeeds on your own side. This was especially true in the local media, which had become polarized and tended to exaggerate every little incident and overestimate their own supporters. While sitting around and waiting for the embassy to decide what to do, I picked up Taylor Branch's "Eyes on the Prize", a fascinating account of Martin Luther King's early years. What struck me while reading this was how strategically King organized his protests to ensure that no side issues would cloud the primary issues of justice. There was no ambiguity in King's protests. King stood for peace and justice, but also a respect for the law itself; the state police stood for maintaining the old system and using any means necessary to preserve it. Getting arrested was something he gladly consented to; he viewed it as simply another cross to bear and relished its propaganda value. One wonders why a nonviolent figure like King never arose in the midst of Albania's crisis. For one thing, the crisis was about money; not social justice. The protesters were demanding that the government pay investors; how ironic that a movement motivated by greed could be accused of being infiltrated by communists.

With the exception of perhaps Ismail Kadare, Albania's most famous writer, no opposition leader had the moral stature of a figure like King. Albania lacked strong churches and mosques to provide the moral leadership. Every side was tainted, and even Kadare himself was tainted by charges of complicity with the former Hoxha regime.

The real tragedy came on Monday March 5 when the Berisha government declared a state of emergency, imposing censorship on media that did not submit its copy to the right official. For about three or so weeks Albania was a state without a press. Of course there was only one channel-the state run channel, but before there had been a healthy variety of newspapers; on that Monday, no papers were published except the Democratic Party one. The Albanian people were left scrambling between Italian TV channels and Voice of America to get the facts. Voice of America, in spite of what cretins like Jesse Helms say, is well worth the taxpayer's money.
Every evening at 8:00, TV Shqiptar presented its version of the news, and every evening at 8:30 every Albanian turned their radio to Voice of America to hear what their government was not telling them.  
Not only did it provide objective reporting on the crisis, it broadcast directly in Albanian. Every evening at 8:00, TV Shqiptar presented its version of the news, and every evening at 8:30 every Albanian turned their radio to Voice of America to hear what their government was not telling them.

Up to that time, Berisha had tried to maintain the facade he was acting on behalf of freedom and rule of law. On the day he declared a state of emergency, the day rioters were overtaking southern cities, the day in which Berisha's popularity was at its nadir, he was reelected president on state TV. The vote was nearly unanimous. Most of these Parliament Deputies were elected the year before in a fraudulent election that swept the Democratic Party into power. The average Albanian on the street felt angry and helpless. The government declared a curfew and set up roadblocks around the capitol city. Strikes were illegal, and any gathering of more than four people in a public place was expressly forbidden. Police vans were strategically located around Skenderbeg Square in the middle of Tirana. Skenderbeg Square had symbolic significance. It was the site of riots during the 1991 revolution and the central point of all the city's roads. A Wall Street journal article once described the Square as one of the most congested and chaotic intersections in the world. Almost a dozen roads fed into it, with traffic lights nowhere near. It was also near the Tirana International Hotel, where all the foreign press was staying. During the time when rebels were overrunning the capitol, a few government patrolled the main square, probably for the benefit of CNN cameras. Indeed, whenever state-mn TV news covered the crisis, it showed a few seconds of Skenderbeg Square, saying, "And there was calm at Skenderbeg Square." During the time when rebels were storming armories around Tirana, the same tranquil images appeared on broadcasts. And there was calm in Skenderbeg Square.

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