My new cousin Greta has 156 Albanian cousins. She's the Albanian wife of my Croation husband's half cousin. The family is spread out all over the world from the U.S. to New Zealand, and bound by blood for all eternity. So when I needed a visa to Albania, a small family council gathered at a restaurant in Zagreb. After delving into the long list of family relations, we discovered that one of Greta's 156 cousins was no other than the pontiff of Albania, an influential pillar of the Catholic Church.
"We can't bother his Eminence with such a trivial request as an invitation to Albania?!" I said.
"Why not?" they answered in chorus. "He's family!" And right there and then, among the bustling waiters and loud diners, they called the pontiff and explained that one of their relatives needed a visa to Albania. A day later, already in Moscow, I received an elegant invitation from the Catholic Church to visit the lovely little country. Albania is the last European nation with a patriarchal tribal society — run by ancient merciless laws — where extended families are intimate units of everyday support.
These are the first words Russians learn in Albanian. "Mirupafshim" means "Goodbye." And as soon as you learn to pronounce the phrase correctly, your friends will tell you: "Whatever you do, don't say, 'Mirusopshim.'" When "Mirupafshim" is substituted with "Mirusopshim," the phrase sounds like an Albanian insult that literally means: "I wish you to be wiped off the face of the Earth." And of course, as fate would have it, I always slip up at the last second and say: "Mirusopshim."
Albanian is a language isolate that complicates life for the police in the EU as they track the Albanian mafia across the continent. Albanians as a people are also an anomaly. In Europe they're often referred to as the "Balkan Jews," masterfully avoiding assimilation at all costs. And regardless where Albanians live today — Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Switzerland or the U.S. — they almost always preserve their language and traditions. Albanian villages still exist in Italy that were founded in the 15th Century. Their residents still speak Old Albanian.
Albania has a population of 3.2 million. The country was part of the Ottoman Empire for 5 centuries and only gained independence in 1912. Albania became a state due to an international compromise. After the First Balkan War, ambassadors of the world's most powerful nations drew up a map of the region — and that's why Albania exists as it does today. However, nationalists claim that Albania was deprived of much of its territorial integrity.
In the 20th Century, Albania survived a monarchy, Mussolini's fascist occupation and dictator Enver Hoxha's paranoid Stalinist regime that isolated the nation from the outside world for 50 years. The Soviet Union seemed like a beacon of democracy and tolerance in comparison. Albania's only brotherly nation was Socialist China. The motto of their friendship was: "The great China doesn't eat for a day and little Albania is full for a year."
After the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the beginning of the war in Kosovo and the collapse of the Communist regime in Albania, locals began to remember the "Great Albania" program in the Balkans. The program started in 1878 when representatives of all Albania's regions in the Ottoman Empire met in Kosovo and Prizren. Their plan was partially realized in the days of Hitler and Mussolini (Kosovo and Metokhnya were annexed to Albania during the Italian occupation) and became a reality with independent Kosovo.
Officially, the flag of the new, disputed Kosovo state has 6 stars honoring the nationalities living in the country. Even the minute Roma population wasn't forgotten. But according to a rumor the stars actually represent the 6 territories of Great Albania (Kosovo, half of Macedonia, Albania, Serbia's Preshevo Valley, Greece's Chameriya region and part of Montenegro) and the hope for their annexation.
I should say straight off that Albanian citizens aren't fanatical about Great Albania. They're more fans than players.
"Listen, we're already in Albania," they say firmly over a glass of rakia. "Why should we fight? Let our neighbors do the fighting and we'll support them if we need to." Although Albania cheered exultantly after Kosovo declared independence and Tirana's buildings were covered in graffiti reading, "There's no Albania without Kosovo and Chameriya," residents are more interested in the possibility of living off their neighbors who the West is promising massive financial injections.
"Of course we want to live together. It's normal," Geegee said, the owner of trendy bar. "All Albanians are nationalists. To speak openly, we don't intend on dying for the idea of the 'Great Albania.' But sooner or later, everything will fall into place. When Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania enter the EU, the borders will be conditional and the merging will be inescapable."
Europe's powder keg
I arrived in Albania in the heat of a corruption scandal. Bombs had recently exploded at the artillery yard in Gerdets village. Nine people were killed and 244 were severely injured. Dirty rumors were already spreading around Tirana.
"Albania is Europe's crazy powder keg," said TV journalist Sokol Bregu. "Since the era of Enver Hoxha, 120 tons of artillery have been stored underground. One match is enough to wipe Albania off the face of the Earth. A major condition of joining NATO is destroying old artillery, and a U.S. company won a profitable contract to execute the work. When their license ran out a year ago, the work was outsourced to a local Albanian company. But the contractor decided it was too expensive to hire professional field engineers and employed women and teenagers from the villages instead. They trained them to deactivate mines with hammers in the course of several days. They opened an artillery yard right by the main road leading to the city near the international airport. The airport's entrance was wedged shut from the power of the explosion. It's impossible to know what actually happened, but one thing is clear. The Albanian powder keg needs to be deactivated quickly."
What hasn't Albania done with its old artillery? Just about everything... The country has sold weapons to Afghanistan, shipped them to Kosovo as "humanitarian" aid, and drowned them in the Adriatic Sea. Vacationers near Vlera describe the surrealistic sight after deep-sea diving — a cemetery of artillery.
If the only option for old artillery is to dismantle it or sell it for chump change, then what will happen to the 700,000 mini-bunkers left all over Albania from Hoxha's days?
"The mini-bunkers were built all over the country," said former Colonel Piro. "We used the best cement, armature and steel. They're not easy to explode and it's quite expensive."
The mini-bunkers have long been a part of Albania's landscape — gray cosmic "mushrooms" surrounded by grazing ram and goats. Trendy restaurants have already started to use images of the artillery houses to give their interiors a Communist flavor.
Welcome to Albania — a curious mix of a totalitarian past and corrupt present and extreme wealth and poverty. Ornate institutions peacefully coexist with slovenly trash dumps. The shore of the Durress resort town is covered in new hotels. But canalization waste leaks into the sea. Construction is everywhere. The skeletons of future skyscrapers stand tall beneath U.S. flags flapping in the wind. It's a sign of thanks. Albania has already caught up with some of the most developed countries in the world in terms of the rate of construction. But where's all the money coming from?
How can they live well without permanent job
The first thing that impresses visitors is the amazing number of Mercedes in Europe's poorest country. They race down the highway with the latest models of BMW, Porsche and Land Rover. When Albanians asked me what kind of car I have, I blushed and said: "Ugh, a Hyundai Getz..." After seeing the slightly patronizing look in their eyes, I added: "It's small, but good."
Albania ranks alongside the EU's richest countries in terms of the number of high-class cars. The explanation is easy. They're driven from all over the EU into the black hole known as Albania where they are sold at half price. The former owners then declare their vehicles to be stolen and receive a sizable insurance check, as well as money from the sale. Everyone's satisfied. The cars are officially registered in Albania and driven there and in neighboring Kosovo problem-free. According to statistics, 470 of 500 vehicles are on the EU's hot list.
The taste for illegal by the Albans is raised since childhood. Although their illegal activities may look frightful from the outside, they seem sweet when you're on the inside. What is considered a crime in a civilized state is called an act of bravery in Albania. Besides narcotics and human trafficking — traditional crimes for the Balkans — all other forms of contraband thrive. Cigarettes are illegally imported from Russia and until recently illegal emigration was also a profitable business. Two hours on a motorboat through the Ortanto Gulf and you were already in Italy. Fake documents and transportation were part of the package. Kurds, Pakistanis, Turks, Arabs and Chinese all made the journey. But the EU recently raised an uproar about the flood of illegal emigrants and motorboats and jet skis were temporarily prohibited in Albania.
However, rules are meant to be broken. Today, illegal emigration from Albania to the EU costs about 5,000 euro. The method is easy. Several motorboats speed off toward the Italian shore in various directions. The Italian police don't know who to chase down and at least two motorboats reach the EU.
Albanian emigration to the EU started out romantically. After the fall of the dictatorship in the 1990s, Albanians drove to the borders in crowds without passports or visas. Rows of ships were anchored at the shore waiting for passengers.
"What a time it was!" Geegee said nostalgically. "Packed buses drove to the harbor and thousands of people boarded the boats, screaming: 'Ciao, Mom! Ciao, Dad! I'm going to Italy!'" The mass wave of emigrants seeking fortune in Europe set the foundations for a worldwide network that aided Albanians in-country (annual remittances amount to one billion euro) and facilitated the development of legal and illegal businesses in Albania and abroad.
The rare sense of unity displayed by the Albanian Diaspora is rooted in a traditional upbringing based on a code of honor dating back to the 15th Century. The code relies on family loyalty, respect for one's father, tribal unity where faithfulness to ones relatives is more important than the law, and the ability to keep a secret and seek revenge.
It seems strange that in the 21st Century people are still living by 500-year-old rules. At modern-day weddings, the groom is given a bullet from his bride's family. The tradition is straightforward. If his wife cheats on him, then he doesn't need to waste time looking for a bullet. There are also about 500 families in Albania who haven't left their homes in years as they fear revenge. The women in the households buy food for their families in town as revenge is only sought on males.
All this aside, though, Tirana must be the safest capital in the world. There is no street crime whatsoever. Foreigners walk the streets fearlessly. Of course, there is always the exception to the rule. But those incidents are usually solved in a matter of days.
When some jewellery was stolen from my bag in my hotel room, the head of staff cornered the maid.
"I didn't do it!" she said. "Call the police if you want to! I'm not scared!"
The manager thought for a second and replied: "Our guest is Russian from Moscow. If you don't return her jewellery, a special Russian police called the KGB will come and arrest you. And then only God will be able to save you!"
After hearing the word "KGB," she started crying and gave me back my jewellery.
Justice reigned victorious.
Stay tuned for the next installment.
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Dear readers! Our translator made a mistake, while translating this article. Instead of “Вкус к нелегальщине у албанцев в крови”, you should read “The taste for illegal by the Albans is raised since childhood”. And the right translation of “Как можно жить припеваючи неизвестно на что” should sound like “How can they live well without permanent job”.
We’re sorry for the mistakes, if they insulted anyone.