The Turkey and the Red Herring: Losing Albania

My last visit to Albania in December was tough. Arriving into Tirana on the night bus from Athens early on a Saturday morning I was asleep with Bob Dylan in my ears. I woke up as the bus was turning into the main square of the city. The first thing I saw was the mosaic on the front of the National Historical Museum depicting the victory of the partisans. It seemed brighter than usual – polished. Getting off the bus I was exhausted but somehow in a state of euphoria, so happy to be back in my second home. It was 7am and the streets were clean, with only a few men waiting around. It was raining but in my eyes the city was glowing.

I spent the first day in this state. The rain fell but I was ecstatic. I went up Dajti Mountain on the teleferik with some friends. We couldn’t see anything, the rain lashed down onto the cable car, but it didn’t matter. At the top of the mountain I met friends and friends of friends. We drank red wine and listened to Balkan rock. My mood was light, so glad to be back in Tirana after the sadness of Athens. Tirana felt even more full of possibilities, with a new mayor, plans for pedestrian streets and a new square. The old car polluted urban realm and corruption polluted politics seemed to be transforming.

I stayed in this state for the next few days, going back to Bathore, the self-build neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where I did my research a year before, interviewing mayors, being reacquainted with the old neighbours of the community and working again with my translator and friend Ana. I couldn’t be happier.

And then it stopped. The euphoria left and the mood that sat heavy over me in Athens returned. I felt cheated. I felt lied to. The gleam of Tirana’s streets, the classy Christmas lights, the slick gig in the trendy artist-run space, the ‘new’ politics with all the PR opportunities, the smiles, the kissing of babies, the foppy haircuts, the open shirts, the council chinos was a lie. But it wasn’t that which caused the hurt. You can give and take PR politics, it’s everywhere, our government in the UK is built on PR, on media opportunities, on lies, on red herring research, what Tom Slater calls ‘the production of ignorance’. I get, I understand it, it doesn’t do anything to me. Here the hurt came from my return to the neighbourhood I had lived in. The small internet café on the ground floor of my block had been replaced by a betting chain and a supermarket had opened up across the road. And then driving through Ana’s neighbourhood and seeing a queue on the street on a Saturday evening, I asked her what it was all about. She told me that it was because a new supermarket was opening up and people were excited to be the first to have a look inside. I asked her whether she was worried that it might take business away from the small, local shops. But Ana replied saying that it was a good thing, that people can get more variety, more choice and that the food would be well packaged and clean.

I understood. I felt that perhaps I was being selfish. Maybe I wanted things to stay the same in Albania, like they always were. Perhaps I didn’t want Albania to ‘develop’ the Western norms or consumption patterns, because to me it was more lively, more interesting the way it was. It was my imperial eyes staring down on the country.

Inevitably, gradually things have changed in Albania over the last eleven years I’ve been going there, but this time it all seemed so stark, so fast. Erion Veliaj, Tirana’s new mayor seemed ‘progressive’ – had studied in the west, was young, bright, helpful, laid back. He had cut his teeth in politics fighting on the margins in MJAFT (meaning ‘enough’ in English). MJAFT’s goal was to rid the country of the unfettered political corruption that had blighted the country during and after communism (where the same people had staying in power throughout both periods). Alongside Veliaj in the municipality office are his MJAFT companions whose rise was meant to herald a new generation of politics and politicians – the people who had once fought at the roots were now in office.

But as I saw in Greece with Syriza, and many other places, people and politics move from the margin to the centre. The neoliberal machine twists, turns and keeps moving.

And looking closely people seemed worse off. The country is economically stagnant. People can no longer hope for upward mobility. The educated young people all look to leave – the big brain drain. And there is still cronyism in all walks of life. But it’s the new laws that are really hurting people on a daily basis. The government is making sure that all businesses are paying their taxes and their electricity bills. You might think: ‘And so should they!’ You might ask ‘Why weren’t they in the first place?!’ You might be outraged. But then you start to see the havoc this law is reckoning. A language centre which provided free classes for poor people can no longer afford to light the classrooms, a small, locally grown organic food business can’t afford the taxes imposed on them (couple this with the rise in supermarkets). And on the other side building contracts are given to big companies, and flashy skyscrapers rise above Tirana’s horizon. More office spaces, more luxury apartments, all concrete, steel and glass, ‘chic living’, and still no help for those on the margins of the city.

At the airport on the way home I bought an Albanian newspaper. There was a small article at the bottom of the third page about how the new mayor was banning people from selling live turkeys on the street before Christmas. It was then that I understood that the feelings I was having weren’t coming from a selfish place. Instead I realised that the government and its new politicians are trying to thrust the country and its people unwillingly into some kind of imagined future, an idea of what Albania should look like through the eyes of one elite group of people. This is a type of imperialism so ingrained that we cannot recognise it when we see it. The glow of the cleaned streets, the jolly flashing, ever so classy Christmas lights blinds our vision and our understanding. We get sucked in by the political machine. And so Albanians are told that the country will progress on one line to one future. But the casualties are many, from the man with his few turkeys needing to sell his produce on the street, to the language school teaching English to Roma kids. The small people get hurt.

The maverick social commentator Ivan Illich said that:

“Societies in which most people depend for most of their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another are called ‘underdeveloped’, while those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing store catalogue are called ‘advanced’”

Albania’s new laws are the result of ‘progressive’, ‘advanced’, ‘institutionally defined values’ and ‘professional goal-setting’. However each goal seems to frustrate more people than it satisfies. This goal setting and the ‘growth imperative’ arguably started as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, mobilised through agencies such as the World Bank, the EU and the IMF who set universal standards for the post-communist nations which were taken from the western model. Hardt and Negri write that this is a new form of Empire whereby post-socialist countries have been overrun by a new breed of shock therapists, management consultants, macro-economic engineers, working together to help the ‘transition’ to a new, designer form of capitalism. And while this happened, an ideological vacuum occurred, what Francis Fukuyama referred to as ‘the end of history’ in his 1992 book. Global capitalism had won. There was no alternative.

In a conversation with the deputy mayor I was told that people’s expectations are too high. That the teenager in the informal settlement doesn’t understand why he has to live in a place with no green space, sewerage on the streets and no roads. He sees what people have in Tirana – the fancy bars in the Block, the girls in their small skirts teetering along the streets, peroxide blonde hair, cocktails at dusk and Mercedes lined along the boulevard. He sees this and wants to know why he has to live in a parallel world. He yearns for western goods – iPhones, Nike trainers, but his lot is much less. I am told by the deputy mayor that the government must respond to their economic needs.

But I don’t think Albania needs live in second gear, instead the country must make its own future, not on any prescribed basis, or using any misinformed ideas, but based on the strengths of the country and its own culture. This isn’t an argument for nonsense forms of nationalism but an attempt to reevaluate and reknow the social values it has as a nation. Scotland got this right through its referendum campaign. No silly bagpipes, Wee Jimmy hats, or ceilidh dancing down Sauchiehall Street (not that it wouldn’t be a bad thing) – but they grabbed a hold of a form of nationalism that was about something deeper, about real social and political values, of openness, honesty and egalitarianism. It is in this sense that Albania needs to derail itself from the course set by the global financial and political elites after the fall of communism, which is allowing (now at a much increased rate) the force-feeding of a very regressive and virulent form of neoliberalism.

Florian Bieber (2015) writes that Albania has a “civil society that is not home grown” and this is highly worrying. Western ideals about how society should arrange itself are hurting ordinary people trying to make ends meet. I don’t know how much hope I hold for Albania to take back its values and to reknow itself and its ideals, but hopefully soon things will be MJAFT (enough) for people in Albania.

 

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One comment

  1. carol · · Reply

    Hi Julia – I feel quite disturbed and upset by what you have written, not that I am surprised. My brother has consistently argued that much of the revolution that has occurred around the world is stoked by marketeers who want to establish exactly this agenda. I don’t think I listened carefully enough to him, being too busy with my own personal life. A very sad indictment of the way faceless power manipulates so many of us. While in Australia in my ‘waiting in limbo’ phase I have read a lot and observed so much that makes me furious and sad about friends who direct their anger and frustrations about life against ‘immigrants’, refugees, disabled ‘scroungers’, welfare recipients of any hue etc. Divide, manipulate and rule should be the banner headlines . Keep up the good work Carol

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