28th November 2012 – A hundred years of Albanian Independence?


Vlora Independence Monument

The Vlora Independence Monument in 2011

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A hundred years of Albanian Independence?

Today, the 28th November, Albania celebrates the 100th Anniversary of it independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The streets and buildings throughout the country are festooned with red bunting and representations of the black, double-headed eagle but how independent is Albania really?

The declaration on independence in 1912 was in many respects nominal. There wasn’t any real agreement on what constituted the territory of Albania and what came to the boundaries of what is now considered Albania was established by the major European powers just before the outbreak of the First World War.

The Balkans were a flash point that contributed to that conflict and there was no way that Albania would be allowed to establish what it saw as its natural boundaries – and which leads to claims for a greater Albania to this day. This means that Kosovo is considered by Albania to be rightly a part of the homeland and if you go to Albania today you will see ‘I heart Çameria’ slogans sprayed on walls all over the country. Çameria is a part of northern Greece that nationalistic Albanians consider to be part of the country. This probably has some sanction from the present government in Tirana as it’s always a good thing to divert a population’s attention outside of the country’s borders in order that internal problems can be ‘forgotten’.

So independent Albania wasn’t that independent at the start. Even their first king was a German and given to the Albanians by the so-called Great Powers, just before those countries got their own people’s to fight against each other in the mindless slaughter of the trenches. This ‘king’ (William) began a trait of 20th century Albanian kings of running away when things got tough and (in the safety of exile) declared he was still head of state and that ‘he deemed it necessary to absent himself temporarily’. He never returned.

Once some sort of stability was re-established ‘independent’ Albania then became a protectorate of Italy as the republicans signed a number of treaties in Tirana in 1926 and 1927 to that effect. Into this mess appeared Ahmet Zogu, a feudal landlord, who with a combination of force and guile became first prime minister, then President and deciding that time was right for another monarchy declared himself King Zogu I, Skëderbeu III in 1928 – with some spurious claim that he was related to the 15th century national hero.

Maintaining the ruling class idea of independence he ran the country for his own benefit and that of the Italian fascists under Mussolini and that arrangement suited them both until April 1939, when war in Europe was becoming imminent, when the Italians decided to take direct control. True to his kingly nature Zogu ran away to England (Albania’s kings were good at running) and left it to the ordinary Albanian workers and peasants to fight for their country’s independence from first the Italian and then the German fascists. This eventually led to the liberation of the country by the Partisan army, under the leadership of the Communist Party.

For the first time since the declaration of independence in November 1912 Albania was truly independent.

This was opposed by the British and the North Americans who talk independence, but only if it suits them and throughout the early years of the new Socialist Republic made numerous efforts to manipulate disputes, overthrow the workers’ government, derail socialist construction and drag the country back into the capitalist fold. A result they finally achieved in 1991 for a combination of reasons that are too complex to go into here but which I hope to address in the not too distant future.

And that brings us to the situation to-day, the 100th anniversary of independence. So how independent is the country now?

For 45 years the country was able to provide the necessities of life (if few luxuries) for its population from its own resources. In the 1990s the nation’s industrial base was either looted or privatised and now the country is littered with derelict factories. Co-operative and State agriculture has been dismantled and now farming is at little more than a subsistence level. A country that has the potential to produce a vast variety of fruit and vegetables doesn’t do so as there is no modern machinery, no proper organisation, no infrastructure to process such products for a national, let alone an international market – apart from a few isolated exceptions.

In the financial sector the major banks have been privatised and now foreign interests have more say than the Albanians do about the future of their currency. Involvement with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund means that even more of the decision-making is made outside of the country. From being one of the very few countries on earth that had no national debt its obligations are growing year on year. This doesn’t effect public spending as there is virtually none to cut. The infrastructure of transport, for example, has been neglected – as is the case with the railways – or being developed in such a haphazard manner that no real improvement are being made – as is the case with the roads. Albania’s imports are more than double its exports and this shows no trend of changing in the near future.

The population is falling, there being little prospect for work in the country and many people who can try to find work abroad. Money from those people enable many to survive in the country but that situation must be under threat with the international financial crisis that is hitting hardest in those countries where Albanians have traditionally looked to work, Greece and Italy in the main. These remittances are so important that they are taken into account as a percentage of GDP. Corruption is rife, with the country coming 84th out of 97 in the list of countries in their efforts to prevent this cancer.

Internationally Albania has virtually prostituted itself to the western imperialist powers. For the same reasons that both Britain and the USA didn’t like the existence of a country, however small, outwith their sphere of influence from the 1940s to the 80s they are happy now to have a foothold in a geopolitically strategic region. There’s a British cemetery in Tirana which had the Prime Minister (Berisha) in attendance on Remembrance Day and there’s even a memorial to the German fascist invaders! Buildings built on the land that used to house the apartments of the Party of Labour officials up to 1991 are named the Twin Towers and the Stars and Stripes abound. Sali Berisha is so far up the fundament of the west you can barely see his feet. The country is a member of NATO and on my last visit was continually bumping into British soldiers on the coast and in the interior.

The present government is trying to give the impression that EU membership is around the corner and this will be the magic formula to develop the country. How this can be a viable option in the near future is beyond me as Albania would be a bottomless pit when it came to funding and I can’t see how the likes of Cameron being able to argue for the country’s membership when he has spent the last few months calling for cuts in the EU’s budget. And how many people would argue that EU membership allows for the independent development of a country – even those in favour of membership.

It seems to me today might well be a 100th anniversary but it’s of an event that occurred in Vlorë on the 28th November 1912, not the anniversary of independence.

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No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball

Lenin and Stalin under wraps

Lenin and Stalin under wraps

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No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball

No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball seems to be the message given out by the pro-Western government in Albania. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin are covered up by the Albanian reactionaries in an attempt to prevent them from spoiling their Independence party at the end of the month.

This being my last full day in Tirana and my walk earlier this morning took me past the National Art Gallery I decided to say farewell to the group of revolutionaries hidden away at the back of the building in the impromptu ‘sculpture park’. It was with somewhat of an element of surprise I arrived to discover that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin had been wrapped in tarpaulins and all you could see of them were their legs or feet. The 3 ‘Albanian’s’ remained on show.

I thought that this must have had something to do with the upcoming 100th Anniversary event of the declaration of Albania’s Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. This was confirmed by the young girl who was playing in the area (I assume the daughter of the family that cares for the building) who reacted to my laughing by saying it was ‘por la festa’.

Every time I think of this I can’t help laughing. The whole idea and situation is beyond ridiculous or farce.

In the first place I’m not sure why these statues are still in existence. In my travels and searches throughout the country I have come across few statues of revolutionary fighters and none of the Marxist leaders. So why this little group still remains is a mystery to me. I will describe the group in more detail in another post.

I would like to know at what level in the government this decree has originated. And is this a normal state of affairs at this time of year or just because it is ‘The Big Anniversary’. I was here at around about the same time last year and there were preparations going on, especially in Skënderbeu Square, but they have definitely pulled out all the stops this year.

As I came around the corner I thought I might have arrived at the time of a kidnapping attempt and was quite relieved that this is only a temporary measure, as I assume it to be.

I just don’t understand the mentality of the people who are making these decisions. If these statues are an affront to those in power (which they are as they represent the antithesis of rampant and voracious capitalism and international toadyism) then destroy them. We can always make more in the future.

Are the ones in power so superstitious that they think that by covering them up they will cease to exist, that the ideas they represent will somehow just go away? Or perhaps they think that Vladimir Ilyich and Joe will be upset by all the tripe that will be spoken next week and they want to protect their sensibilities? Or are they so feudalistic in their thinking that they fear the ‘evil eye’, the dorlolec?

Even though I can’t understand most of what is said in Albanian I think I would be affronted by the fatuous and meaningless statements that will be made to comfort the gullible about the importance of independence. All this at a time when the country is probably lees independent, in a real sense, than it has been in any of the past hundred years.

Just like all the efforts that were made in the UK in 2012 to try to create a ‘feel-good factor’ the economic and political problems don’t go away just because you don’t think, talk or even try to deal with them.

The tactic of covering up these two statues is just a demonstration of the feudal, peasant narrow-mindedness that is the basis for the political philosophy of the rulers of present day Albania. This was shown by the return, last Saturday, the 17th November 2012, of the remains of the self-proclaimed king, Zog, to Tirana. Those in power in Albania have no future to offer the people so they present them with a feudal and subservient past.

Lenin, Stalin and friends behind the Art Gallery, Tirana

Now you see them …


Lenin and Stalin under wraps

… now you don’t.

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Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – Dhermi, Albania

Small altar of the Panagia Monastery Church, Dhermi, southern Albania

Small altar in the Panagia church

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Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – Dhermi, Albania

The rear wall of the Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – in Dhërmi, Himara province, southern Albania, warns sinners of what’s in store for them if they don’t repent.

Over the years I’ve been inside hundreds of churches and Cathedrals, mainly Catholic or Protestant, and each time it’s been on the look-out for something unusual, different from the norm. For example, the huge (unreal) guinea pig on the table of the Last Supper in Cuzco, Peru, or the black Christ and two Marys in a church in Lorca, in Spain.

But Greek Orthodox churches are new to me and its only in Albania that I’ve had the chance to go inside a significant number of them. And for me they are generally not very interesting. The layout is virtually the same: the rood screen at the front, behind which there is the altar; on the screen there will be the same collection of icons, of Christ and the Apostles; and around the walls there will be icons of other saints, depictions of their miracles and/or martyrdom. The only variant seems to be in the wealth or otherwise of any particular church, some having (from where I know not) acquired huge amounts of money to pay for the silver images on the rood screen, the fine painted icons that decorate the walls or the chandeliers.

When I went inside a new Orthodox church in the small village of Dhërmi, which is along the coastal road from Saranda to Vlore, in the southern part of the country, a woman who was something like a caretaker encouraged me to go to the centre of the church and look at all this silverware with the words ‘Buker, jo?’ (‘Isn’t it beautiful?’) Impressive perhaps, but not the sort of artwork that does much for me.

This has been taken to the ultimate in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the centre of Tirana, opened on 24th June 2012.

At the opposite extreme to these clean, almost pristine, new buildings are the ancient churches and monasteries that exist throughout the country. Some of these go back centuries and they are interesting as they are very much in the style of the Romanesque churches that exist in western Europe, a style I’ve grown to like over the years, mainly for its primitiveness, honesty and naiveté.

A couple of those I’ve been able to see were in a really sad state. These were two small churches in the Old Town of Himara. This area had been abandoned I don’t know how many years ago as I’ve drawn a blank when looking for information about when the people decided to live lower down the hill.

These two churches had suffered from damage which I imagine was a mixture of vandalism (the area was always being fought over by different armies) and just simple neglect. In a country which declared itself the first atheist state in the world in 1967 it is sometimes forgotten that churches have been left to go to ruin throughout history, throughout the western world, even in countries that considered themselves deeply and profoundly religious. Therefore not every ruined and abandoned church is as a result of a political act, although political opponents will suggest it is.

In fact, it was the Government of the People’s Republic of Albania that declared these two churches part of country’s heritage in 1963, providing the buildings with a certain amount of protection, indicating that neither the church authorities nor the local populace were taking care of the structures themselves.

One church that I visited that did seem to have had some element of care lavished upon it over the years was in the same village of Dhërmi which I’ve mentioned above. This was Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – perched high up above the old town.

Panagia Monastery high above Dhermi

Panagia Monastery high above Dhermi

When I say ‘care’ that is all relative. Even though in a better state than some of the older churches the space at the back of the church resembled something closer to a garden shed than a church, and the ancient mural that covered the whole of the back wall had a home-made ladder (the sort you see in an orchard) leaning against these fragile images. I’m not one for arguing that these images should be destroyed but at the same time I do believe there’s a certain responsibility incumbent upon the local people not to damage them by carelessness and neglect. If they don’t take care why should the rest of society come in a pick up the bill for restoration?

It was on this wall that I saw some of the most interesting images in a Greek Orthodox church so far.

I’m always on the look out for the unusual, as I said above. What has particularly attracted me about many of the paintings in Romanesque churches is the way that ignorant, frightened, superstitious and gullible people thought of the afterlife. Placing these images in churches was obviously a process of social control. If you were faced with such horrific images of perpetual torture by horrendous, devilish creatures you were less likely to buck against the existing order. The images might be different but religion still plays that pivotal role in most societies – hence the atheist campaign in Albania.

So what is Hell like? I’m always on the search for any clues just in case I’ve got it all wrong and there is a God, there is an afterlife and there is a Heaven and a Hell. Because if I have got it wrong I’m going to Hell for sure – and wouldn’t even contemplate going to Heaven.

If there is a God then these images are not just from the imagination of man – I don’t think many women were painting church murals in the past. They must come from some inspiration from the Almighty and therefore must be an accurate record of the fate to befall all of us sinners.

And that being the case I’m always glad that God has a sense of humour as well as being prepared to cruelly place many of us through torments and agonies for eternity. I particularly like the image that, I assume, depicts what awaits a drunkard when he enters Hell, being forced to drink from a never emptying barrel. I know some people who would rather see that as a depiction of Heaven.

Panagia Monastery - The Drunkard in Hell

Panagia Monastery – The Drunkard in Hell

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