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What Albania Wants from the World

Human rights activist Fatos Lubonja on post-totalitarian societies

Fatos Lubonja was a political prisoner in Albania from 1974 to 1991.

After centuries of Turkish rule, decades of communist dictatorship, and several years of corruption and mismanagement, Albania is in rough shape. A pyramid investment scheme sunk the Balkan nation’s economy in the 1990s. Clans still carry out feuds that date to medieval times. Albanians yearn for Western affluence, but exhibit little faith in democracy.

Despite the odds, Fatos Lubonja is committed to promoting democracy in his native land. Lubonja, an activist, writer, editor, and publisher of the quarterly journal Përpjekja and founder of the Forum for Democracy, spent 17 years in prison for “agitation and propaganda” under the brutal regime of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Lubonja will speak today, December 4, at 6 p.m., on Post-Totalitarian Societies: the Case of Albania, in Room 906 in the Photonics Center. Michael Kaufman, author and former New York Times columnist and foreign correspondent, will serve as moderator for the event, which is sponsored by BU’s Institute for Human Sciences.

Lubonja spoke with BU Today about his work and Albania’s struggle to emerge from isolation.

BU Today: Your father was imprisoned for expressing liberal views, after years directing state radio and TV in Albania. How did his experience as a dissident shape your own interest in political criticism?
First of all, the concept of dissidence is a bit problematic for Albania because it’s linked with Stalinist times in Eastern Europe. The slogan of our dictator was, “If you raise your finger, we cut off your hand, and if you raise your hand, we cut off your head.” My father was not a dissident, in a way, because he was purged by the dictator, but he had to play a double game: he was in power at the same time as he was against the regime. I’m very grateful to my father because he was sincere with me, in telling me the truth of what he believed, so he was not playing a double game with me. At the end he was accused by the dictator as a liberal who wanted to open the door to the “degenerate” Western way of life.

You were imprisoned from age 23 to 40. How did your views on Albania’s struggles change during that period?
It was a time of reflection on what happened in Albania, historically speaking, of rereading and rethinking on the past, on the Marxist-Leninist ideology, which was the ideology of the regime. It was a time of reevaluating many important people who were declared enemies of the country. [All while] trying to keep sane and safe in the mines especially — I worked in the mines for the first [seven] years. But I met people who were persecuted since the beginning of the regime — anticommunists and priests, especially Catholic priests, who were the biggest “enemy,” so it was a meeting with religion as well.

You’re now a human rights activist and also the publisher of a cultural and literary journal — how do those interests dovetail?
If I write about my past, my prison life, and all the tragedies we suffer, I think it’s part of my job as a human rights activist. And I write as well for Albanian papers, dailies, making comments on what is going on in Albania during this time. It’s very much linked with my work, my fight for human rights and freedoms.

Why has Albania remained so isolated, even after the fall of communism?

This isolation is inherited from the communist era. Albania was very much isolated because after the ’60s Albania broke with the Soviet camp and for a time had connections and links with China. But then even these connections were broken and Albania remained isolated totally, especially during the ’80s. This was economic isolation, it was cultural isolation, and it created the exodus of Albanians in the beginning of the ’90s. But also, mentally people remained trapped in their past, and they had no economic or cultural instruments to be linked normally with other parts of the world, like Czechoslovakia or Poland or Hungary.

So there’s little interaction between Albania and the rest of Europe?

No. Albania is dreaming of a sort of integration with the Western world. It’s very committed to the idea, but the Albanian politicians have not the critical spirit in order to see, to evaluate, and to interact, really, with the Western world. People very much dream to be part of Europe without really understanding that it means first of all they must build democracy.

So Albania would like to be part of the European Union?
Yes, of course. It’s a utopia in Albania.

What’s holding it back?
First of all, Albania is not prepared economically. It’s far from European standards as far as democratic institutions are concerned. There are not yet really free and fair elections — Albania still needs observers from the West to come and evaluate the elections. Another thing is criminality, mafia, and corruption, which have filled the vacuum of power created by the collapse of communism. And there are geopolitical reasons. Albania is part of an area of the Balkans where there are a lot of things not yet resolved — the status of Kosovo, the problems in Macedonia, Serbia, and Montegnegro. It’s not a very stable area.

You’ve attributed the nation’s failure to grow to the “Albanian individual being at the beck and call of the patriarch and clan.” Can the country move past this?
The Albanian nation state is very recent; it was 1912 when Albania declared independence. It was a society dominated by clans. During the communist regime you could say we had a strong state, but it was a forced imposition of a state that was not really accepted by the people. After the collapse of communism, there was a return of this anarchy of clans. I think Albanians are learning that it’s not possible to live in a country like that.

What are your hopes for your country?
This is a time of disillusion. It’s not like at the beginning of the ’90s, when we had much more hope. Now I don’t think things will change very quickly. But at the same time I think the hopes of Albania are very much linked with the hopes of Europe and even the fate of the world. My hope is that Albanians and Europeans learn from their errors and try to build a better world.

Patrick Kennedy can be reached at plk@bu.edu. Jessica Ullian contributed reporting to this article and can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.