Ramiz Alia: Politician who oversaw Albania's transition to democracy

Ramiz Alia, who has died of a pulmonary embolism, was the hand-picked successor of Albania's Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha and the man who presided over the country's transition to multi-party democracy.

Ramiz Alia was born in 1925 into a poor family in Shkodra, in the north of Albania. While he was a pupil at high school in Tirana he embraced communist ideas and, after Albania had been invaded by Italy in 1939, he became active in the National Liberation Movement as a founder-member of the Communist Youth Section. He joined the Communist Party of Albania (later to be known as the Party of Labour of Albania) in 1943.

During the National Liberation War he took an increasingly important part in the organisation of Communist Youth, and at 19, in 1944, he was given political and military responsibilities in the 7th Shock Brigade and, afterwards, of the 2nd Shock Brigade. He was acting as Commissar of the 6th Shock Brigade when the Commander-in-Chief of the National Liberation Army, Enver Hoxha, ordered them to pursue the retreating German forces on to Yugoslav soil, where they were finally defeated.

He was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania at its First Congress in 1948. He served as Minister of Education and Culture from 1955-58.

Alia was particularly interested in the Marxist-Leninist education of communists and workers. Critical of some of the more extreme forms of the fight against self-interest in the Cultural Revolution in China, Alia pointed out that ''self-interests are objective interests, entirely legitimate and rational. Society is not something abstract but composed of people (with all their individual needs), just as general interest is not something abstract but is made up of all the vital interests of workers. Therefore our fight is not against the very existence of self-interest but against placing it above general interest.''

Something of this same realism in the application of Marxism-Leninism to the problems of socialist development characterises his approach to changes in Party organisation and economic planning in 1989 and 1990, when eastern Europe was in turmoil.

Alia was in complete accord with Hoxha over the necessity for Albania, a country the size of Wales with a population at the time of only a little more than two million people, to apply Marxist theory with a practical understanding of the nature of the country and the material and spiritual heritage of its people, rather than copying blindly the Soviet Union or China. He became Chairman of the Presidium of the People's Assembly (equivalent to State President) in 1982. When Hoxha died in 1985, there was no question of Alia's not being made First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour.

It was no easy task to take over from someone who had enjoyed such popular acclaim. Many would have expected Alia simply to preside over the Albania Hoxha had created, but in breaking with the Soviet Union and China, while maintaining a hostile attitude to the west, Albania had become too isolated for its own good.

Alia took extensive measures to increase democracy and openness. The managers of enterprises, plants and factories and heads of clinics and institutions could only be appointed after the workers had discussed the candidates and given their approval, and they retained the right to remove managers. In the staffing of all cultural, scientific and educational institutions there had to be elections, and genuine competition between candidates to rule out favouritism.

On the economic front it was proposed that there should be more use of the stimulus of supplementary pay to encourage the development of industries like oil, while maintaining full employment and a basic wage. Similarly, use was to be made of a free market for non-basic goods, while primary necessities would continue to be sold at stable and guaranteed prices.

Alia hoped that practical measures like this would enable Albania to solve the problems of its isolation without abandoning the democratic centralism and socialist planning which, in Alia's words, "were the great victory won by the people in revolutionary struggle". The Party of Labour's big win in the country's first multi-party election, supervised by observers from a number of countries including Britain, made it look as though this hope had some foundation. But the opposition, led by the newly-formed Democratic Party, whose support was mainly urban, no doubt inspired by the collapse of Communist regimes elsewhere, refused to accept the Party of Labour's mainly rural mandate. There were strikes and demonstrations, with statues of Hoxha toppled.

Alia sought to remedy the situation by forming a coalition government at home, while seeking recognition and approval from countries in the capitalist West to obtain political support and aid. But in the throes of a grave economic crisis, Alia faced challenges he could not surmount. After the collapse of the coalition in December 1992 and the Democratic Party's landslide victory in 1992, he resigned as president.

He was put under house arrest in August 1992 and formally arrested in September 1993. In May 1994, along with other officials, he was charged with abuse of power and misappropriation of state funds. He claimed he was the victim of a show trial, but he and his nine co-defendants were found guilty; he received the heaviest sentence, nine years, reduced on appeal to five, and later to two. He was released in July 1995 but in 1996 was returned to jail on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He escaped in 1997 with thousands of others when guards, furious after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes fueled by citizens' savings, abandoned their posts amid chaos. Later that year the charges were dropped.

Ramiz Alia, politician: born Shkodra, Albania 18 October 1925; married Semiramis (died 1986; two daughters, one son); died 7 October 2011.