By John Dunkelgrün.
Smaller than Belgium, Albania lies with its 400 kilometers of gorgeous beaches just opposite the Southern tip of Italy on the Adriatic sea. It is a young country with an ancient population that is descended from the Illyrians, who built major cities during the heydays of the Greek civilisation.
It’s current language, an independent branch of the Indo-European family, is directly descended from the language of the Illyrians. Conquered or dominated by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Italians, Albanians can be Orthodox, Catholic, Shia, Sunni or atheist.
In all their differences, what binds them is their language. Religion has always been less important than the traditional laws and values of the Kanun, an ancient set of twelve books that includes the concept of ‘Besa’. Besa is Albanian for the word or promise of an honourable person. These values of the Kanun also contain the Albanian’s extremely important sense of hospitality. Living in a multi religious environment, sharing one language and a strong set of mores, has made Albanians very tolerant of each other’s religion.
It also meant that when all of Europe had become antisemitic in the extreme, Albania was a safe haven for its small Jewish population, as well as for the three times larger group of Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied lands. As guests they deserved their protection.
Following World War two, Albania entered half a century of strict communism with a regime as strict as that of North Korea today. During the five and a half centuries of Ottoman occupation the country had missed out on development and the building of infrastructure. Now it entered another half century under the glass bowl of dictatorship, separated from the rest of the world and the post war boom. Its dictator Enver Hoxha even refused the help of the Marshall Plan. When in 1990 President Ramiz Alia changed the constitution and allowed Albanians to travel abroad and, among other things, own a private car, the country was impoverished, its industry small and primitive and democratic institutions non-existent.
The current Albanian ambassador to The Netherlands, Ms. Adia Sakiqi (please pronounce this as Sakichy) vividly remembers her bewilderment when in high school, literally from one day to another, the history books were totally changed. All she had learned was now shown to be false and dogma’s drilled into every child shown as wrong and different.
She finished her high school and got a scholarship for the University of Leuven, Belgium, where she studied philosophy and specialized in EU politics and policies and met her husband. While talking to me, calmly like a docent, in relating the history and geography of her beautiful country, she became fiery and enthusiastic when talking about current developments.
”We are currently an official candidate for EU membership and working very hard to build our administrative and judicial systems in order to comply with the rules for full membership. We have changed about two thirds of the hastily drafted post communist constitution and are building new administrative systems with the help of EU and American experts. For example with the guidance of the American Department of Justice as well as EU expertise, we are building a new judicial machinery. Judges, prosecutors, and police officers are vetted (on professionalism, ethics and physical condition) and trained in the US.”
She explains that while she’d like the development to go faster, from her philosophical point of view, it is the movement that counts, not the speed. The country has gorgeous mountains and lakes, lovely beaches, organic Mediterranean fruit and plenty of natural resources. The ingredients for prosperity for its three million plus people are there. All the country needs is good government, good institutions and integration of its economy with Europe.
Ambassador Sakiqi beams with pride when talking about current developments in her country. When asked about what she sees as its future, she is very firm.
“Albania’s future is European. Albanians are Europeans, we are wedged between Greece and Italy with their millennia old civilisations. We are an integral part of Europe’s history and will be proud to be part of its future.”