Post Communist Stress Is Rife...But Open Stacks May Open Minds

There are two types of bunker in the Balkan nation of Albania: small, beetle-shaped units designed to protect one or two riflemen and larger, tortoise-shell-shaped ones intended to hold artillery pieces.

Dotting the countryside like a million cement warts, they are the most tangible reminder of the paranoid isolationism of the repressive Maoist regime of Albania's late dictator, Enver Hoxha.

But while the outside observer can apprehend the sinister bunkers, it is harder to comprehend Albania's bunker mentality during its four decades of self-imposed isolation from the rest of Europe. This Rip Van Winkle of a nation got a rude shock when it opened its eyes to the rest of the world after Hoxha's death in 1985 and communism's collapse in 1991--and tried to join it.

The symptoms of post-communist distress disorder--greed, jealousy, and social irresponsibility--are everywhere to be seen in the new Albania. A crime culture based on stolen and smuggled goods now dominates the economy: Some 8,000 trucks disappeared last year in southern Italy, a mere 75 km across the Adriatic from Albania, and many of the stolen goods, from ice cream to fax machines, grace the shelves of the new shops in Albania's capital and largest city, Tirana. Many of the cars now screeching down rutted roads that recently knew only bicycles and donkey carts are believed to have been stolen. The resulting traffic free-for-all produces the wrecks that dot the roadsides.

"I offered President Sali Berisha a deal," says a senior U.S. diplomat in Tirana, chuckling. "The U.S. would give up its nuclear arsenal for the sake of world peace when Albania gives up the automobile for the sake of local safety."

Although privatization of farmland has moved quickly and food is now plentiful, closed factories have resulted in a high unemployment rate--and have led many Albanians to seek their fortunes as migrant workers by paying smugglers to sneak them across the Adriatic to Italy or illegally crossing the mountains into neighboring Greece.

TINY GROUP. Although Albania was isolated from its Balkan neighbors, it has the classic Balkan problem: ethnic kin across two borders in Serbia and Macedonia who demand that Tirana take a more active interest in their fate. It also has a growing problem with Greece. Athens regards the Orthodox Christians in Albania--about 600,000 people--as ethnic Greeks of what it calls Northern Epirus. Tirana retorts that all but a tiny group of 30,000 Greeks are in fact Albanians who did not convert to Islam like the majority of the ancient Illyrians, whom Albanians claim as their forefathers.

The issue came to a head early last fall during Albania's treason trial of five members of the ethnic Greek OMONIA organization. After they were convicted on lesser charges, Athens expelled some 60,000 illegal Albanian day-workers. Most were obliged to leave their savings behind and returned penniless and embittered, blaming their own government for their misfortune.

For the first time in 40 years, foreign influences are not only allowed in Albania, they are encouraged. Possibly the most unusual symbol of Albania's opening to the world is a 300,000- book, open-stack library being set up in Pogradec, population 20,000, donated by the New England Albanian Relief Organization (NEARO). "The library has nothing to do with charity," says 70-year-old retired librarian Mary Andre Hunter, the point person on the project. "We Albanian-Americans call it sharing with family."

Predictably, there has been criticism of the project, and the Tirana newspaper Drita compared the project to building an Olympic stadium in a village. But locals are insistent that it stay. Looking forward to more visitors, Lorenc Nolini turned his grandmother's one-room house that she shared with a cow into a restaurant specializing in the local freshwater salmon.

"It is not like the other sort of aid everyone is trying to pump into Albania," he says. "It is substantial, it is lasting, and it is symbolic. It is exactly what we did not have during the recent past: a means to open up the bunker in our minds."