In this era of populists and autocrats, it is perhaps naive to expect our leaders to endorse the cause of justice and freedom. But surely those living in a democracy, no matter how flawed it might be, should expect better of their representatives than the example provided by our Prime Minister, Edi Rama?
In July 2020, when confronted with evidence his father had been one of those instrumental in the death of a victim of the communist dictatorship, he did not express regret nor an understanding of the damage done and the lives ruined by a malignant ideology. He didn’t, like a statesman, embrace and attempt to mitigate the collective pain of a country still attempting to come to terms with the horrors of its past.
Instead, he chose to go further than merely defending his father’s memory, he decided to defend the entire system: “My father, yes, was a communist, like many others, and was on the right side of history.”
Mr Rama is frequently ridiculed by political enemies due to his family links to Hoxha’s regime. His father, Kristaq Rama, was – as well as being an artist – a communist, a parliamentary deputy and member of the presiding Parliamentary Committee.
It was in this last role that he considered appeals from families of political prisoners Albanian Communist courts had sentenced to death. As recently as 10th August 1988, in the face of family pleas, Kristaq Rama signed the death warrant for the poet Havzi Nela. No-one in their right mind, with any sense of justice, would say Rama should be held accountable for his father’s actions.
One can forgive a little family loyalty. However, what one can hold Mr Rama responsible for is his attitude towards the regime to which his father belonged.
So let’s examine the system Mr Rama describes as being “on the right side of history”.
The Communist system
The tens of millions of deaths and decades of misery inflicted on populations across the world as the result of communist ideology – in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and more – are well recorded. Do we really have to educate Mr Rama on the rivers of blood spilled?
At the very least shouldn’t we expect him to reflect on or empathise with the suffering of his own country and fellow citizens? It’s something he clearly struggles with.
The truth is that we, the Albanian people – those not favoured by the regime with their party privileges and apartments in Blloku – were reduced to slaves under the system he lauds. How different was the experience of those worked half to death in collective farms or factories than that of our parents’ generation or those before them under the Turks, Mussolini or Zog – the endless succession of despots who ruled over and exploited us?
And yet, throughout, we maintained our Albanian identity and our desire for freedom. We fought over centuries to retain our language, religions, customs and way of life. We fought our oppressors – because we knew in our hearts that we were free people. But under Communist rule, a government made up of our own, we were denied that freedom for a further, unnecessary, half century.
The justice system
The justice system is the foundation of every civilised society. Without justice, freedom is impossible. How did the communists treat justice? They gave us a system in which the party was above all else: the law made mutable, negotiable, because the only loyalty was to the Communist Party and its acolytes.
As a result, Albanians suffered fifty years of ideologically-driven political and religious purges. If evidence could not be found to justify the prosecution of those deemed a threat, falsehoods and fabrications from party members, Sigurimi, investigators, prosecutors and judges would suffice.
An entire system was built on the suppression of those of whom the state apparatus disapproved; the population defenceless against total power, their lives, freedoms and liberties curtailed. Guilt was assumed, conviction guaranteed. Once deemed an enemy to the almighty party, anyone could be sent to the gulags – enslaved, tortured, brutalized and degraded.
Under communism, law professors at Tirana University, rather than teaching their students principles of a legal system that protects the rights of the citizen, enthusiastically heaped dirt on the grave of human freedom. Pupils were taught the law was for binding the state’s enemies in chains, fastened in the name of socialism. It was a selective freedom, that of the torturer, but not the victim.
Should Rama and his allies, former communist apparatchiks, like Gramoz Ruci, understand this corrupted justice system? I suspect they do, but to admit it pains them, and the Socialist Party they belong to, which emerged directly from the ruins of Hoxha’s Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) (Albanian: Partia e Punës e Shqipërisë, PPSH).
Unfortunately, Rama and the Albanian political class has, for much of the last thirty years, deliberately ignored Albania’s communist legacy. Why? Certainly not because it reflects glory on them, but fear the population will associate them with its crimes and failures.
Rama prides himself on his green credentials and his country’s commitment to supporting the United Nations’ global goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how does communism fare when its record on pollution and the environment is considered? Communism was an ecological disaster everywhere. In Albania, as in other countries, this legacy has proved difficult to repair. The Institute for Environmental Policy states:
“During the communist regime in Albania, the status of the environment was not a government priority, as it tried to lead Albania towards building a heavy industry relying mostly on Soviet and Chinese technology. Therefore, it did not fulfill any environmental protection standards. The result of heavy industry in Albania was air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, extermination of the flora and fauna near the factories, and direct impact on the health of the populations living near the factories, who were affected by respiratory diseases as well as birth defects.”
In one of the most polluted parts of the country, Elbasan, where the vast and now largely redundant industrial complex decays, much of the ecosystem of the Shkumbin river has been poisoned. You can taste the pollution in the air as you breathe.
Whole tracts of the country are scarred by bunkers, vast deteriorating cement factories, abandoned chemical and petroleum refineries, and decaying factories, each with their own particular pollutants from an era in which environmental protection was “not a government priority”.
Albania’s failure to bring those that ran the old system to justice means that those with the same values resist decontaminating and cleaning the polluted environment on the grounds of cost and loss of profit. It’s an irony that old communists seemingly make the worst kind of capitalists. Can our Prime Minister explain, how communism was on on the right side of the history in environmental terms?
The constitution of Albania provides for freedom of religion, and the Prime Minister swore to uphold its values. How does this square with the way religion was treated under communism? The New York Times says:
“In 1967, the Albanian leadership began a campaign to eliminate churches from public life – in a country that was, before World War II, 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Greek Orthodox and 10 percent Roman Catholic – with the declared aim of creating the world’s ‘first atheist state.’ Four Franciscan priests were burned to death in the first year, and as late as 1972 a Shkodër priest was executed because he had baptized a child. Mosques and churches were or the most part turned into secular buildings.”
Albania rightly prides itself on the way its tradition of hospitality, besa, protected the rights of Jews during the German occupation of the Second World War. So how were minorities treated under the subsequent communist system? The same source above reports that Greek and Slavic minorities’ rights were rarely acknowledged stating:
“Athens deplores persecution, especially on religious grounds, of the ethnic Greeks in Albania, who number at least 40,000 and possibly two or three times that”. Reports suggest that persecution and suppression of the Greek minority continued throughout the communist regime, being alleviated only after 1991.
When it came to Kosovan refugees, up to one hundred ended up in Albanian Gulags, the rest betrayed by returning them to Yugoslavia:
“In the wake of riots by the Albanian minority in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, some young ethnic Albanians slipped across the border to seek asylum . . . With very few exceptions they were sent back, telling Yugoslav authorities on their return that they had been kept isolated once inside Albania, as if they might contaminate the people with Western ideas”.
Chams did not escape communist persecution. Luan Rama, a diplomat, scholar, writer and of Cham origin says:
“Chams were a target, accused of having mixed loyalties due to their ethnic origin. The ones risen to positions of seniority in the military or politics were trapped by the state’s paranoid fantasies of betrayal: Teme Sejko, a Navy officer, was arrested and executed, and Tahir Demi; Major Panajot Plaku fled Albania fearing entrapment by the Sigurimi, and all state positions by 1980 gradually reduced to zero”.
As for the Roma and Egyptian communities, they were also viewed as second class citizens. Participation in state activities was denied, their children rarely able to further their education, illiteracy endemic. Romanies were not even recognised as a minority.
Modern Albania has committed itself to improving the rights of women, but despite the communist regime’s much vaunted commitment to equality, life for women was in reality very different.
Hoxha’s obsession was with population increase – a passion he shared with that of Hitler’s Nazi regime. As with most communist aspirations, the state fell short. Clandestine abortions, those not approved by the all-powerful state, were associated with high maternal mortality, no contraception was available. Doctors and nurses suspected of helping women to terminate pregnancies were sent to re-education camps, sentenced up to 10 years imprisonment and lost their right to practice.
Unless allowed lighter duties in the late stages of pregnancy – beyond seven months – women laboured like much of the non-communist population, as slave labourers in the fields, working up to 100 hours per week on average. Despite extreme hardship – seven day working weeks with no paid leave – pay was negligible. This was not an equality to be envied.
So, when Mr Rama claims communism is “on the right side of history” one wonders what he considers the wrong side.
The twentieth century’s lesson is that it was liberal democracy that led the world in improved living standards, human rights and freedoms. There are few moderate left wing parties across the democratic world that would ally themselves with communist states, certainly not in Europe.
The understanding is that even when a communist regime has, like China, some measure of economic success, the price in human freedom and suffering is too great. And the Albanian regime had no such success – its population left starving and oppressed. One would hope that a country’s leader should be held accountable for such a declaration. Albania is on the same side of history as North Korea? China? How would we react if today Angela Merkel stated that despite its defeat Nazism was on the right side of history?
So perhaps critics should focus less on Mr Rama’s family history, for which he bears no responsibility, and more on his opinions. And, if so, then all those committed to democracy should hold him to account. Only then can we ensure we remain on the genuine right side of history; that of democracy and freedom.