“I accepted the story I heard on foreign media: that the [1997] Albanian civil war could be explained not by the collapse of a flawed financial system but by longstanding animosities between ethnic groups… its plan could be disrupted only by outside factors — like the backwardness of our community norms — and never beset by its own contradictions.”

Lea Ypi Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, p300. 

Five Questions about the Economy and Politics of Tirana Albania

On our last morning in Tirana, we crossed Skanderbeg Square and turned down a street jammed with cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and small one-item shops.  We stopped a block from the bus station at a cafeteria serving sweet breakfast fare, drank tea, and shared a cinnamon-rich nutty cake while watching young men greet each other cheek to cheek and hand to heart. The exchange did not seem perfunctory, but full of feeling, and I wondered what effect this daily exchange of affection among men had on the male sense of well-being.

The bus station was a parking lot with nowhere for waiting passengers to sit or escape inclement weather, but it was a sunny day, so we were happy.

Bus station surrounded by Hi rises of two eras.

Our distance to Podgorica, Montenegro, was 120 miles. It took two hours to get out of the Tirana/Durres metropolitan area, one hour to get to the border and one more hour to get through the border checkpoint. We entered Podgorica through tiny back roads going eight mph. Another hour.  I had plenty of time to think about our stay in Tirana. Because I like basic math, the five-hour ride, contemplating five weeks in Albania, coalesced into five questions.

Q1. Who is paying for all the new buildings and renovations? Who are they being built for? For a week we watched from our apartment window as three men replaced the roof below us. Their method was low-tech. They stood on the roof edge without safety equipment. The younger men passed red clay shingles to the elder who did all the placing and plastering. From our fifth-floor perch, we could also watch the progress of a 140-foot crane as it demolished the skeleton of a once-large structure.

Every block in Tirana was undergoing small repairs and grand building projects.  Everywhere, construction sites were obscured by giant computer-generated utopian depictions of shiny new buildings and happy people enjoying clean uncrowded public spaces surrounded by trees. How different would Tirana be in a year if all those trees actually accompanied all those new buildings?

I hope the financing for all this construction is on the up and up–not some other Ponzi scheme, like that suffered by Albania on a mass level in 1997, or like that building in Los Angeles that cost billions, was abandoned mid-build, and is now a canvas for graffiti artists across the world.

I hope that what gets built will be accessible to the Tirana public, making this a livable city for those who already live here, who make $600 a month, not just for those from richer countries whom they are trying to woo.

UPDATE: Two days after I post this, the New York Times answers:   

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald J. Trump, confirmed on Friday that he was closing in on major real estate deals in Albania and Serbia, the latest example of the former president’s family doing business abroad even as Mr. Trump seeks to return to the White House. Mr. Kushner’s plans in the Balkans appear to have come about in part through relationships built while Mr. Trump was in office. Mr. Kushner, who was a senior White House official, said he had been working on the deals with Richard Grenell, who served briefly as acting director of national intelligence under Mr. Trump and also as ambassador to Germany and special envoy to the Balkans.One of the proposed projects would be the development of an island off the coast of Albania into a luxury tourist destination…..These first two projects both involve land now controlled by the governments, meaning a deal would have to be finalized with foreign governments.A third project, also in Albania, would be built on the Zvërnec peninsula, a 1,000-acre coastal area in the south of Albania that is part of the resort community known as Vlorë, where several hotels and hundreds of villas would be built, according to the plan. Mr. Kushner’s participation would be through his investment firm, Affinity Partners, which has $2 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, among other foreign investors. In a statement, an official with Affinity Partners said it had not been determined whether the Saudi funds might be a part of any project Mr. Kushner is considering in the Balkans.

“We are very excited,” Mr. Kushner said in an interview. “We have not finalized these deals, so they might not happen, but we have been working hard and are pretty close.”

Mr. Kushner set up his investment company after he left his White House job as a senior adviser. He capitalized on relationships he had built in government negotiating in the Middle East, which included a close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.


Q.2 What is the waste management scandal? Garbage is a tragedy the visitor to Tirana with a sense of smell, a pair of lungs, and fair eyesight will pick up on without research. We noticed when we got off the plane. The air smelled acrid. On cloudy days it hurt our lungs.  From our apartment window, we could see the pollution line on the horizon. Some days opening a window was not refreshing.

When we went to take our trash out to the bins on every street, we carefully put our separated recyclables in the green bin, though its contents included the complete mix of waste. A few days later we learned why this made sense from the consumer perspective when we saw the garbage truck arrive, pick up all three bins, and dump them together in the same truck.

One day, as we walked the three miles from our place to take the Dajti Ekpres Cable Car up Dajti Mountain, our search for quieter streets, took us through a neighborhood of apartment buildings where trash piles filled what should have been shared public space for trees and children.

View of Tirana from top of Dajti Mountian.

Finding out where the trash goes, requires a bit of research. The news stories of a waste management corruption scandal involving politicians high up in the Edi Rama administration were not hard to find,. This source, which compares several case studies of waste management corruption is still dependent on opposition party sources but provides analysis within a larger context.

In 2014, Edi Rama created a Waste Management Committee that included himself and five deputy ministers. They declared a “state of environmental emergency,” and initiated a public/private partnership to build an incinerator that would dispose of waste, create energy, and provide a source of revenue for Albania. Win, win win.

In reality, 150 million Euros came out of citizen pockets, 2/3 of which went into the pockets of a couple of businessmen, with a side hustle of hush funds to politicians. Last September the former Environmental Minister got a six-year sentence for corruption. The Albanian people got no treatment plant, no energy source, and no tax revenue. Lose, lose, lose.

And lose some more.  Now municipalities have started to “burn their municipal waste in open pits to reduce the volume of the waste… the amount of waste being recycled has decreased…. There is no separation of different waste streams at the source… the environmental impact can be assumed to be considerable.”

The people of Albania have a right to breathe, to drink potable water, and to trust their politicians to protect them from the privations that come with the privatization of basic human needs.

Q.3 When and how will Albania tell its history of the violent revolt and chaos of 1997?

In the US, where I am from, state governors ban the study of whole people’s experiences: Mexican American history in Arizona, African American history in Florida. I come from a city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, that had a revolt in 2020, after the city police murdered George Floyd. This happened ten blocks from where I lived. Much of our city burned, we had tanks in the streets, and for a moment our institutions did not function. Now are in a struggle over how the city and the country will mark that historic tragedy. I am interested in how governments and people deal with hard histories. I have written here, about Portugal’s reticence to deal with its colonial past and Spain’s pact to forget its fascist past. 

In Albania I visited The Bunkart2 Museum in Tirana’s center, which tells the history of Enver Hoxha’s police state, and the history museum in Skanderbeg Square, built in 1981, takes visitors from the earliest human settlement, through the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Albanian Monarchy, Italian Fascism, and the triumph against fascism. New, post-1991 exhibits include a room with religious icons, a room that mimics the Bunkart, focusing solely on police terror during the Hoxha era, then jumps to the modern day with a vacuous display of Albanian soccer players, their faces, and jerseys.

Italian fascists invade Albania, April 7, 1939. Photo in National History Museum.

Missing is a full history of the Hoxha era. How did people live, work, shop? How was life different in the cities and the countryside?  What changed from the Soviet era to the break with the USSR and alliance with Maoist China, to the period when Albania was completely isolated from the world, at ideological war not just with Europe and the United States but also the Soviet Block, its Yugoslav neighbor, and China. That is some interesting history.

And then there is the great silence about 1997. I know that is not a distant time.  But imagine a German history museum in 1972 that said nothing about the Nazi era. Or an Argentinian history Museum in 2005 that said nothing about the Mothers of the Disappeared.

In 1997, hopes that capitalism would bring prosperity crumbled. Over 60% of Albanians lost everything they owned in a grand neo-liberal Ponzi scheme. In the aftermath, institutions of civil society shut down, streets were run by gangs, and thousands lost their lives. Isn’t that a Never Again story that needs to be unpacked, analyzed, and taught as a cautionary tale? I understand that the problem is that the system that failed in 1997, is still, in some form, the era of today. But then, all the more reason to analyze what happened. Maybe if the tale was told, the waste management corruption crisis of 2022-24 would not be happening.

Mosaic in front the the History Museum on Skënderbej Square.

Q4. Where do those beautiful double bunches of 50-cent fresh spinach sold on the street come from? How about those collections of knives or watches sold by one seller on the sidewalk? How can three pharmacies survive on one block, or seven shoe stores, or thirteen storefronts that sell only iPhone cases? There is a café for every three citizens in Tirana. How do they survive, selling coffee for 80 cents a cup, and inviting their customers to spend the entire day with them?

I don’t understand the Albanian economy, but I know that beyond the corporate headquarters and halls of government, the people of Tirana find myriad creative cooperative ways to survive. I am in awe of them for that.


Q5 Why did Tirana have me thinking in cliches?

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, I murmured to Dave every time we passed a couple of canines sunbathing.

Babies and Bath Water, came to mind when we saw the remains of Enver Hoxha’s train trestles, or agricultural cooperatives.

Watching old Hoxha Era high rises come down to make room for new Capitalist Era high rises, I couldn’t decide if reinventing the wheel was the appropriate aphorism or if this was a case of If You Don’t learn from Your Mistakes you are Bound to repeat them.

Frying pan to Fire I assumed, as I learned the details of the 1997 fiasco that followed the Enver Hoxha era.

But then I reminded myself: Assume will make an Ass….

Albania has gotten under my skin, I found myself saying by the fourth week. I’m not sure what that phrase means, but it came to mind when I felt an unfamiliar gurgle (happiness?) rise from my chest as I walked the streets of Tirana.

In Skanderbeg Square, there is a twelve-foot red heart with an I on one side and a T on the other.  I Heart Tirana. “Cheesy cliché” I responded to Dave when we first arrived and he suggested we take a selfie in front of it.  But when we walked by it the last time—crossing the Square on our way to the bus station— I thought.  “I do!”


Other related Aging on the Run posts

Mr. Blinken came to Albania

Scruja, North Macedonia. To The Lake: A Journey for Peace, during a time of War.

Berat, Albania: City that Opens Windows to the Sky and Doors to the Stranger

Tirana, Albania, Minneapolis, Minnesota. If we build it, will they come?

Shqiperia (Albania). First impressions.