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II. The Art of Losing Things
3


OMINOUS SIGNS

By 1996 signs were growing ominous. One scheme revealed itself for what it was, but still people continued investing. One firm set up branches in major towns and villages to take people's money. Many arrived simply with bags full of loose change. One must wonder what these investors were thinking while they brought their plastic bags full of loose bills to the banks (which looked like nothing fancier than sno-cone stands). The adage not to throw good money after bad is a lesson not easily learned. The heart of the problem was optimism and wishful thinking. As long as everyone believed the system would work and could encourage their friends it was a safe investment, the pyramid would continue indefinitely... that is, until you run out of people. In a similar way, the old socialist economy depended on the people's confidence in the system to work. If only everyone did what they were supposed to, the planners thought, then socialism would work. Any shortcoming in the economy was a result of the "human element" (corruption, bribes and profiteering) infecting the overall system. But goals were not met, officials took bribes, a black market began to emerge. These things became the economic scapegoats instead of the system itself. The only way for socialism to work was for everyone to invest their full time and loyalty to it.

As long as everyone believed the system would work and could encourage friends it was a safe investment, the pyramid would continue indefinitely...that is, until you run out of people.  

And the only way for the pyramid schemes to work was to maximize the number of people who could invest in it. For someone to refuse was to hurt everyone else. It was almost unpatriotic. Although Albania was close to a free economy, its members easily fell victim to the same groupthink from communist times.

Albanians had their fill was communism. They were almost experts in it. Once, while walking away from a university building that was once the Labor Committee Headquarters, my colleague, Abdyli, said (with a wry smile) that he wished it were possible for the United States to experience communism. Communism was good in theory, bad in practice. Many people had described it that way. And Americans were the practical people. They knew how to get things done. They had computers, military airplanes, Coca Cola, running water, great highways and telephone answering machines. And it was true, to some extent. But Americans are no less susceptible to false optimism. One has only to read J.K. Galbraith's, Great Crash of 1929 to read about finance experts unwilling to make negative pronouncements about an impending crash. To those Wall Street experts, negative predictions about the economy not only were wrong, they endangered business confidence.

January was a peculiar month. The government had wrested concessions from the pyramid schemes to pay out or else. Or else what? Nobody really knew. People hoped that things were not as bleak as they seemed. On New Year's Eve, Albanian TV showed its usual all-night comedy shows; this year the investors in the pyramid schemes were the butt of all the jokes. The whole country was laughing at themselves; it was the first sign that the damage done by the pyramid schemes had seeped into the national consciousness.

In mid January I took a nice trip to Bulgaria to sightsee and visit Elton, an Albanian student at the American University of Bulgaria. He and all the other students (who were mostly business and economics majors) were following the economic developments of Albania through the Internet. Every day we checked the computer postings for the latest updates on the pyramid schemes. We read with astronishment about the protests in major cities, including Vlore where I lived. All of us were clearly nervous and full of dire forecasts. We joked at the hell that would break lose when people realized they wouldn't be getting their money. I half-jokingly mentioned to Elton that there could be a coup or revolution by the time Elton has summer break. But even that seemed like a wild hypothetical. On the ride home, my bus was detained at the border for an ungodly amount of time. By the time I arrived in Tirana, I heard there were more riots and burnings of public buildings. It seemed unreal. The next day I walked to Peace Corps office, passing Skenderbej Square, where dozens of police in riot uniform were crowded around rowdy fellows shouting slogans. Of course, I took a little detour, and five minutes after arriving at the Peace Corps office, some volunteers rushed in, telling me about the stone throwing, the police actions and the water hoses fired at the protesters.

leeks as protest symbol
The Leek, a "poor man's vegetable" became an Albanian protest symbol during the pyramid schemes.  

I returned to Vlore a few days later, passing through the towns whose town hall had been burned. Vlore seemed the same, but the pyramid schemes made the headlines every day. In response to the riots, the government promised to give people the money they lost. That kept the people quiet, especially when the government gave February 5 as the day that people's money would be paid back. It was a dumb thing to say, but the protests forced it out of them. When the Foreign Minister visited Lushnje to speak to the protesting depositors, the rioters kept him hostage in a soccer stadium and (it was rumored) put a leek covered with cowshit in his mouth. There was no telling what could happen, and Berisha made the easy choice: tell the people what they want to hear. But to promise to reimburse investors was absurd. The money was gone, and the government certainly couldn't pay the millions that had disappeared. A few days later, the government said it needed a few more days to analyze the accounting of these firms. Later, the government said that not everybody would be compensated immediately, only small investors. Then, the government said that the people would not receive their money but simply a savings book stating the amount owed them. Then when the government distributed these savings books, the books stated that the money was to be paid not by the government but the investment company. Although, from an economic standpoint, these actions seemed reasonable and appropriate, it made Albanians lose faith in anything said by their government. Protests were called for by opposition parties and newspapers, but the government said that they wouldn't grant them the necessary permit to have one.

By that time, investment schemes were the only things people talked about. At a large family gathering, all the 4 and 5 year olds babbled the names of all the pyramid schemes to their parents' laughter and applause. Once on the sidewalk, I ran into the mother of a teacher I knew well. We made small talk for a while, and I asked her if they'd invested in the pyramid schemes. She looked at me wearily, and said, "Yes, but let's not talk about it anymore." Something about that memory stays with me, the old woman on the sidewalk nodding her head and telling me not to talk about it. I remembered then that I was just a foreigner, that the pyramid schemes no longer were proper subjects for small talk. They were something to discuss in private, arguments better to avoid. After all, nobody liked to publicize their own stupidity.

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