Albania, a country which actually is “moving forward”
It was a country that banned beards. Travellers arriving at the border sporting facial hair would be shaved on the spot.
A citizen attempting to leave the country on other than official business engaged in an act of treason punishable by jail or even death.
During the second half of the 20th Century Albania was one of the most isolated countries on earth.
The communist regime of Enver Hoxha, who ruled for forty years, ended up being at odds with the Soviet Union, Maoist China and the West. An overriding sense of paranoia characterised a government which led its people to becoming the poorest nation in Europe.
It is estimated that as many as a third of the population spent time in labour camps at one point or another. In a society governed by fear thousands lost their lives as they were determined without trial to be enemies of the state. It was enough to be a relative of such a person in order to draw the suspicion of the government.
To visit Albania today is to reveal a country which could not be further removed from its relatively recent past. And yet at the same time it is this past which is clearly driving Albania into being one of the most dynamic societies in Europe and a fast growing economy that has enjoyed growth throughout the global financial crisis.
With the death of Hoxha in 1985 and the fall of European Communism a few years later, Albania emerged from the darkness in the early 90’s with a determination to shape a future as an energetic contributor to the global community.
Albania’s number one ally is now the USA. It is an active member of NATO proudly displaying the NATO flag in its official buildings. It is contributing to global missions around the world disproportionately to its size, including in Afghanistan. It has ambitions to join the European Union.
And Albania’s future is bright.
It has mineral resources. A company with Australian interests, JAB, is involved in chromium mining in the north east of Albania.
Its energy requirements are almost entirely met by hydro-electricity. And yet only about a quarter of the country’s hydro resources are currently being harnessed. Hungry for investment, in time Albania sees itself as a clean energy exporter to Europe.
But perhaps the greatest economic potential lies in tourism. Located on the spectacular Adriatic coast with mountains close to the sea, its environment is pristine, thanks to the isolation which has preserved its natural beauty. In 2011 Lonely Planet rated Albania as the most attractive tourist destination in the world.
The contrast between Albania’s past and its future must be the most stark of any country in the world. Not everything is rosy in Albania. As a young democracy it has its problems. But that said, the transition from hermit state to confident global player in only twenty years is a remarkable achievement.
I was visiting Albania to hold discussions on our joint work in the UN, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Australian-Albanian community. As I met with various government players it was amazing to contemplate the times through which they had led their lives.
The Deputy Foreign Minister, Selim Belortaja, talked of having led two completely different lives before and after 1991. The Speaker of the Parliament, Jozefina Topalli, came from a family that had been targeted by the Hoxha regime resulting in a life of oppression and fear.
Now she’s a high profile and popular public figure, travelling the world as the embodiment of the new Albania. And Lulzim Basha, the Mayor of Tirana and former foreign minister at the age of 32, is a polished performer with a shining future who grew up in a world behind walls where the lights were hardly on.
The legacy of the isolation years is a country which is starting a long way behind the pack. Yet modern Albania has managed to create a positive legacy from this appalling period. Having had little or no freedoms for half a century, Albania is now a fervent believer in the value of freedom which has led it to contribute so heavily to international missions aimed at ensuring the freedoms of others.
Albanians do not overly dwell on the past. The former chief prosecutor of the Hoxha era, a symbol of oppression, today walks free but without attention or influence. It’s as if energy spent on him is energy wasted. With such a negative past behind them, Albania is now entirely focussed on the future.
Australia and Albania do have connections.
While the Brisbane Roar striker, Besart Berisha, comes to mind, it is the 14,000 strong Australian-Albanian community which cements our bilateral relationship making Australia and Albania family.
We also now find ourselves sitting on the same side of the table with Albania on almost every international issue and serving shoulder to shoulder with Albanians in the defence of freedom.
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