Communist Legacy Still Haunts Albania, 25 Years On

By Fatjona Mejdini, BIRN

Two of those who took part in the historic uprising of 1991 believe the legacy of Albania’s dictatorial and undemocratic past still shapes the present.

On Saturday, Albania marked the day, 25 years ago, when a hunger strike by more than 700 students sparked demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people.

They tore down the statue of Albania’s long-time communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, which at that time still towered over the main square of the capital, Tirana.

This historic event is remembered as one of the first mass civic actions in Albania aimed at forcing the communist regime, which still ruled with an iron fist five years after Hoxha’s death, to accept changes.

The students wanted Albanian society to “demythologize” Hoxha and demystify his reign by removing his name from Tirana University as well as all other communist symbols in the country.

Hoxha’s 40-year reign, which started during World War II in 1944 and lasted until his death in 1985, was characterized by Stalinist brutality. All opposition was eliminated by prolific use of the death penalty and long prison terms.

Throughout this period Albania was both impoverished and separated from the rest of the world by walls of barbed wire and tens of thousands of bunkers, which lined the borders and coastline as well as being scattered all over the countryside.

Following the demonstrations in Tirana and the toppling of the statue, multi-party elections were held in March 1991. These eventually led to the change of the government and to the gradual opening-up of Albania.

However, 25 years on, two of the protagonist of those heady days, Fatmir Merkoci, then a representative of Independent Syndicate of Albania, and Blendi Gonxhja, a student leader, believe Albania has not come to terms with the communist past, and remains subject to a degree to the old dictatorial mentality.

March on the main square:

Wounded students
Fatmir Merkoci wounded at the square | Photo courtesy of Merkoci taken by Ali Begeja
Fatmir Merkoci is now a lawyer who long ago left the world of politics and the media behind him.

But, 25 years ago, as a member of independent syndicate, he found himself leading an angry crowd of around 100,000 Albanians who wanted to take over the city’s main Skanderbeg Square, named after the most famous Albanian warrior from the 15th century.

Hours later, despite violent reprisals by the communist police, thousands of people entered the square and toppled the seven-metre-high bronze statue of Hoxha.

“I was one of the organizers who took the crowd from the students’ building and brought it to the square,” he recalled.

“When we arrived at the square I saw that tens thousands of other people had joined us. I can’t forget that moment of awe and the feeling of responsibility that I had then,” he told BIRN.

During the demonstrations, Merkoci was shot at by the police and lost consciousness, so his friends took him to a hospital.

According to him, these were the only demonstrations in Albania that were a result of people’s spontaneous feelings and were not misused or manipulated by one or other political party.

Merkoci feels disappointed with the democratic changes that have come to Albania since then.

“Albania politics has never had the courage to separate itself from the past, nor has Albanian society, either,” he said.

For that reason, Merkoci said he had turned down a medal from the Albanian President in 2011, offered for his contributions to the fall of Communism.

He explained that he rejected this decoration because the government back then – and today – has failed to posthumously remove the decoration of “Peoples Hero” that Hoxha awarded himself during his reign.

An important day for democracy:

Blendi Gonxhja, who now works as the general director of a utility company maintaining parks in Tirana, was one of the student leaders who started the hunger strike aimed at forcing the communist government to start removing Hoxha’s symbols from public life.

“I feel proud of having been part of the most important day for democracy in Albania,” he told BIRN.

Yet, he also has reservations about how far Albanian politics and society has really gone.

“Hundreds of young and old Envers [Hoxha] still decide the fate of Albanians,” Gonxhja claimed.

In an interview for BIRN in January, the head of OSCE in Tirana, Florian Raunig, agreed that Albania was still in the early stages of dealing with its communist past.

“In 25 years in Albania, there has been very little sincere public discussion of this past, let alone any systematic attempt to foster reconciliation,” he said, stressing that such a process requires “an open and sincere dialogue, free from the interference of daily politics”.

Gonxhja shares that sentiment. “We didn’t draw the right lessons from the bitter past. The methods used under that mentality did not cease,” he said.

“They were just satisfied with the punishment of a statue… without punishing the essence,” he concluded.

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