THE BROADER PICTURE / From bad to worse

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS CATHOLIC farmer's wife from the wild mountains of north-west Albania usually struggles on pounds 15 a month. Then a cousin in Sweden who owns a fish-processing plant in Malmo sent her an envelope full of US dollars to alleviate her hardship. She spent most of her windfall on a rare luxury in the Balkans: a front-loading washing machine. A sensible choice, you'd think, given that she has a large family with loads of washing. But her house has no running water, so the machine has pride of place with the telly in her living room, its gleaming metal barrel slowly turning to rust.

As Albania struggles to shake off its Stalinist past, life for its three million inhabitants is still short of even the most basic comforts. It is also nasty and brutish. In Tirana, the capital, Mafia-style gangs now flourish unfettered by the police; every newly-privatised shop hides behind thick bars; women no longer dare to venture out after dusk for fear of knife-fights, shootings and rape. Shiny Peugeots, even a Rolls-Royce, have appeared on the streets now that cars are allowed for private citizens - not just the party elite. But no one knows how their owners laid their hands on the money to buy them. The Ministry of Justice reckons there has been a 70 per cent rise in violent crimes so far this year.

Crowds in several cities went on the rampage early this summer, looting factories in search of food. The Italian army's Operation Pelican, distributing lorry-loads of basic foods around the country, has taken some of the edge off their rage and hunger. Nevertheless, agricultural output may be cut by 75 per cent this year. Little wheat has been sown because of disputes over the carve-up of collective farms into private plots. According to a recent private property bill, each member of a farming family is entitled to five dunams (50 acres), but farmers are also claiming land their fathers owned before Stalinist rule. Whatever happens, Albania will be in no position either to grow food of its own or buy it abroad for at least two years.

To add to Albania's afflictions, the undeveloped countryside in the north is now gripped by Balkan tribalism. Family ties are all-important; when honour is sullied, it must be avenged by death. These centuries-old blood feuds - known as gjakmarrje - were stamped out by the communists when they came to power after the Second World War. Now they have sprung to life once more, engulfing even the most distant cousins in a cycle of fear and violence. The peasant pictured top right is one of dozens of male members of a family in hiding.

Another difficulty has been an influx of ethnic Albanians from the small province of Kosovo, which is ruled by Serbia. Though most Kosovars are anything but rich, a few have brought badly needed capital and entrepreneurial skills. One of them wants to invest millions of dollars on tourism in the Albanian riviera - dollars 100m has already been lavished on a Sheraton Hotel complex. But locals resent the newcomers, seeing them as fat cats who prey on their poverty. There is also an underlying pressure on the Albanian government to take up the cause of national unification.

Replete with chrome and nickel, Albania could be rich. What's lacking is the infrastructure to exploit these reserves. Now the OECD says it will take decades, rather than years, for advanced reformers like Czechoslovakia and Hungary to catch up with western living standards - let alone Albania, which languishes at the bottom of the pile. Dr Sali Berisha, a 48-year-old cardiologist who is the country's new president, is meanwhile struggling to restore some form of law and order while setting out on a charm offensive in search of more help from Western Europe and the United States. If aid dries up, Albanians will starve.

'Albania', an exhibition of photographs by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, is at the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, Bradford, to 1 November.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments