Margo Rejmer: I want to start with a question related to a very particular situation discussed now in Albania, namely the ketchup attack on the Minister of Education and Sports by a young student, Mirela Ruko. The media are commenting on this event by referring to Ruko’s personal story: lack of funds for studying or her small–town background. But in the end we are not talking just about a poor student, we are talking about a dedicated activist who previously conducted research about the worker’s conditions in Albania, who is engaged in the Movement for the University and who stressed that her act was a conscious political gesture. This comical, even slapstick action was interpreted by many people as an act of courage, as a warning for politicians and a call for justice. Are we dealing with a situation that young people in Albania are becoming an active resistance force?
Fatos Lubonja: This is a good question, but I don’t have a clear answer. I would like to think this way. I fully agree with what you said, the people are fed up with words and promises and denunciations… We need acts. In Albania there is a proverb “Kur mbaron fjala, gjykon palla.”
“When the words end comes the time for the sword.” We are talking about a society that since the communist times hasn’t had a tradition of resistance.
This is the main problem. Because this act wouldn’t be necessary if you had the capacity to put people together and make a real demonstration on the street. I see it as an act of courage, as you said, as a political act of rebellion, but at the same time there is a sort of desperation in it, because people who are protesting are not able to put together many workers and create a sort of a movement. And this is the time for a movement in my view.
What about Organizata Politike? After all it is a small group of activists that created the Movement for the University.
I have supported them, I attended their protests. My concern is that they are very few people. My second concern is that they are few for many reasons, either the lack of tradition as you said, or the fact that many young people are corrupted by the system in one way or another. The best people leave the country. People from Organizata Politike are considered and demonized as leftist, communist, Marxist…
And what we desperately need in Albania is a leftist movement not in terms of communism, but in terms of the European left. Even in Europe and America the system, the establishment, so–called post-democracy, the neoliberal idea that there is no society, only individuals, even the globalization system are in crisis because they have produced inequality and insecurity. The right is more successful, because they appeal for more community, security, more family, tradition, values… So as an alternative we badly need the left. The people from Organizata Politike are the only ones who have any leftist ideas against the Albanian system, but because of the past the people here don’t even dare to declare: “I am leftist.”
Talking about the leftist ideas, I think we mostly have in mind the idea of equality and the proper pay for working people. Albania is constantly constructing chaos and implementing disorder. The people are paying the price for that and now they are fed up. We hear in the news all the time the narration of order, but everything that appears is the opposite, failed from the very beginning, as if there were a mistake in the core of the system.
But talking about poor and excluded people, I see their passiveness toward arrogance of the politicians. People have already lost hope and don’t demand protection, they don’t think they deserve the improvement of the quality of their life. The people here think that only the strongest will survive, so you can’t be weak, and you can’t be sensitive. You can’t look back, you can only move forward. How to live in this country?
Your description is excellent, I couldn’t describe it better. People have found different ways. One way is to escape from the country, that’s why we have new waves of exodus over and over again. Another one is the adaptation, starting from simple things. If you go to the hospital, you have to pay the doctor to be treated. But then in your job you also demand a bribe, so the corruption gets widespread and creates a whole network…
Corruption that makes things easier and harder at the same time. It gets things done quicker, but not everybody can afford it.
It damages the lives of everyone but it is the only way to survive. If you speak about resistance in this condition… Recently a friend of mine told me story about the graduation ceremony at the Faculty of Economics. One of the students took his diploma, came to the microphone, and told to the crowd: “I want to tell you,” he spoke to the teachers, “that you have destroyed our lives, you have made us pay you money, you have made us servile, you have humiliated us.” And surprisingly all the other students were applauding. Everyone thought that, but only he had courage to say it aloud.
He exposed the hypocrisy of the system, the fact that everything is based on creating illusions and making shortcuts.
It is everywhere. With politicians, with Edi Rama above all. He wants just to create images.
I remember watching a short video from an international discussion with Romana Vlahutin, and during the Q&A one of the women stood up and said that the biggest problem of Albania is fear. All the people are scared of something or someone, because in such a small country as Albania in order to achieve something or get a job you need connections, someone of means, and you are completely dependent on the people who are in power. You must act obedient to keep your job or privileges. In some way not much has changed since communism, because people are still scared of the power.
You are right. But there are different kinds of fear. It starts from the authoritarian family structure, and then this authority is replaced by people in power. People are educated to be submissive to the strongest. And this is the culture that prevails. Another reason is that you don’t have any resources of autonomy in the sense of economic survival. Everyone has to find a job to make a living, so you need to go to these powerful people and they will use that. Still another reason is education, we don’t have enough people with good education and personality. If you have your own ideas, have studied, and don’t have the personality or connections, it is very difficult to maneuver.
What does this say about Albanians?
I have described the Albanian character as an empty waiting room. When a guest comes, we make the furniture the way they like, because we have them in the store… When the Turks come, we make the carpets the way they like, when the Europeans come, we prepare comfortable sofas for them, etc. The Albanians have some ideas of their own, but they are always adapting or adjusting them to please the others.
What comes with this is on one hand the sense of inferiority – “they know better,” but on the other hand – “we have our own smartness, so we will pretend that we are doing things their way, while doing them our own way.”
We show this attitude especially in working with foreigners, and we inherited it from the communist times. If you go back to Hoxha, when we had close ties with the Soviet Union, the Albanian politicians were the most servile, telling Krushchev: “You are our father, we are nothing without the Soviet Union.” But when at the end of the 1950s Krushchev wanted to replace Hoxha and the nomenclature with younger people, Albania quickly turned to China and nobody cared about the Soviet Union anymore. When Krushchev improved the relations with Albania’s biggest enemy, Yugoslavia, Hoxha was afraid that his Stalinist crimes would be exposed and punished. This idea was preserved also after 1991, when Berisha kept a submissive alliance with the United States.
When we think about everything that happened between 1992 and 1997, with Berisha’s authoritarianism, purges, the imprisonment of Fatos Nano, rigged elections in 1996, it is surprising that he performed all these maneuvers without losing support of the United States.
Because they needed partners here and they didn’t pay attention to the fact that Berisha was a communist himself, and used the communist methods.
Returning to the question of how to live in the contemporary Albania, one reply repeats itself – to leave the country. But what should the people do who want to stay here?
Resistance, resistance, resistance. Telling the truth, resisting power. But passivity is a dominant trend. Looking back at the past, you can see something tragic: communism in Albania fell not because of the inner opposition, like in Poland, but because something happened on the geopolitical level and Albania remained without any economic possibility for the regime to survive.
Like a person who doesn’t change his situation because he is getting more mature, but because he falls under the burden of his own mistakes.
And I am afraid the same will happen also to this system. We will not have enough energy and strength to get mature, and it will collapse again.
But if this happens, it might be even worse, because it will happen as a result of a collapsing Europe.
New adventures will come and new tragedies will come. I am pessimist but I think this is the most realistic scenario. If the right–wing parties will be successful in destroying the European project, the most tragic consequences will be for countries like Kosovo or Albania, where the state is very weak. We can’t depend for our well-being on the ideology of the nation–state. Our nation–state is very weak, so if we move back and believe in the ideology of the nation–state, we will be very weak.
Does this mean that Albania might repeat the current scenario of Poland or Hungary, where the growing nationalism and increase in social transfers are moving slowly in the direction of limiting people’s freedom? The false sense of security and national pride strengthened to the detriment of freedom?
I’m afraid that if we are out of the European project, even as an idea that the European Union is controlling our democratic mechanisms, we will probably have nationalists in power, who will try to manipulate our nationalist feelings. Just like Hoxha did after he broke with the Soviet Union, when he tried to manipulate people by creating the Albanian nationalism and the myth of resistance. Even on the main Skënderbeg Square there was Stalin’s memorial till 1960, and then Hoxha replaced it with the figure of Skënderbeg, creating a myth of the Albanian power and pride, resisting imperialism.
Constructing the past and building pride…
But I am not sure if this can be repeated on such a scale as before. It will be very fake and weak and people will leave the country even more. Of course even if the European project fails, the European countries will be present here somehow, just to secure their interests or because of the problems in the Balkans. But our politicians haven’t created their legitimacy inside the country. They have created it through Angela Merkel and the US ambassador, pretending that they are trying to integrate Albania into the European project. But this is increasingly becoming an illusion.
People in Albania believe less and less in the European project, and, moreover, they have to deal with two realities: the propaganda construed for the international media and the reality of their everyday life, when you are going out of your house and there is no pavement, no electricity in the suburbs, no water from your tap. And when you see Mayor Erion Veliaj smiling among biking kids on a playground while thinking about the daily experience of Tirana, these two are completely contradictory.
It is becoming more and more what the communist propaganda was like. Creating a virtual world and a virtual reality. I have written an essay about the national communist ideology of Enver Hoxha, entitled “Between the Glory of the Virtual World and the Misery of the Real World.” The virtual world described the glory of the past, Albania’s Skënderbeg defending Europe, the heroism of Albanians during the Second World War, the happy youth of communism. And the real world was pure misery, people had nothing to eat, getting 3/4 kilo of cheese per month per family. People had to speak this language and suffer this reality, and it has remained the same in a way.
I am thinking about the PR action placing posters of the best high school students throughout Tirana, which in an inverted way resembled the communist “fletë–rrufe,” posters hung in streets and on institutions criticizing people for their more or less invented guilt. The posters of these young pupils seemed like a distorted echo of the past.
Yes. I call this the culture of manipulation and simulation. You are trying to manipulate people by lying, simulating the heroes, saying what people want to hear. This culture works very well when you have no properly educated people, without the critical instruments of thinking, ready to accept every idea, especially when it comes from the Big Brother, the US ambassador. Even Edi Rama says: “How is it possible that the Europeans don’t talk about what you are saying, otherwise they would have reacted!” But we know that the Europeans have made many mistakes not only in Albania, but in the whole world. When the war in Iraq broke out, I was the only one who wrote an article against it and then I was censored by the owner of newspaper Shekulli, Koço Kokëdhima.
Nickname “The Destroyer.”
Albanians were ready to send the troops even before the Americans. And then the Americans said: “Wait a bit, the Europeans are going to send peace troops, not military troops.” I made the censorship public and Kokëdhima sued me, using the American myth. The trial lasted two years.
Even if Albanians don’t trust the European Union and the Unites States as much as before, they still have an inferiority complex typical for the former communist countries.
Michel de Montaigne wrote a very interesting essay “On the Education of Children,” in which he says: “the tutor should rather have an elegant than a learned head,” which means that it is better to have the critical tools to understand reality than a head full of facts. Montaigne refers also to the metaphor of bees and honey: the bees are collecting nectar from different plants, but it is the honey, the final result, that really matters. So we need to gather the knowledge from different fields and create something new and our own out of it.
Part 2 of this interview will be published on Saturday.