The display of the Albanian flag used during the communist regime, complete with a gold star above the central eagle, at a music festival has sparked polarising debate throughout the country between politicians, the artist involved, and those who were persecuted or lost family members to communist violence.
Albania’s communist regime was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen, led by dictator Enver Hoxha. Over almost 50 years, the country was cut off from the rest of the world; thousands were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and internally displaced, and most of the population was spied on. Furthermore, citizens were stripped of their land and possessions, with many struggling to get any compensation 30 years after the regime fell. As of 2022, over 6000 people are still missing, and their bodies’ location is unknown.
Sunny Hill festival took place in Tirana over the weekend and drew several thousand revellers over two days. A group called “Nothing Like the Sun” displayed the flag during a video clip for their song “What is better than being Albanian.” The video, including the flag, has been on YouTube since 2014.
The photo, posted on social media with little context and without the rest of the video, caused widespread outrage as many said it was an insult to those who were murdered, tortured, and persecuted by the communists.
Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, said the video was a satire and meant to mock the regime, echoed by the artist behind the song, Alban Nimani.
“The display of the national flag with a star has nothing to do with the glorification of communism; on the contrary, in the video clip, communism collapses,” said Nimani.
“We are very aware of the persecutions, crimes and suffering that communism has caused in Albania because we also belong to persecuted families,” he added.
But not everyone is convinced.
“Decommunization must be carried out to face the communist past in a dignified way, restoring human dignity to the victims and healing the wounds of the totalitarian-communist dictatorship through the prohibition of symbols…” wrote Enriketa Papa, a historian and specialist in communism crimes.
The star symbol was removed from the Albanian flag by law in April 1992, a year after the regime fell.
The controversy comes a week after a statue of Stalin appeared in the garden of the former communist prime minister Mehmet Shehu in the centre of Tirana, with a statue of Lenin and a ZIS car once belonging to the Sigurimi also nearby.
Questions as to why they were being displayed were answered with the explanation that they are part of an installation bigger than that of just the statue alone. The Ministry of Culture clarified they are part of 100 works from the National Art Gallery, which is currently being reconstructed, and they are being kept there for “safe keeping”.
Simon Mirakaj, whose life was marked as an ‘enemy of the people’ and who spent 44 years in exile, considers the return of objects that glorify communism very sensitive.
“Their exposure is very sensitive for us and for all Albanians, as they are two people who have caused a lot of wounds in their countries and in other countries that were dependent on the former Soviet Union,” Mirakaj told BIRN.
Çelo Hoxha, director of the Institute of Communism Studies, sees the display of statues in public with no explanation as wrong.
“There are two practices for objects of this nature; be destroyed or preserved and exhibited in special museums for communism with certain clarifications or specific galleries, but they cannot be exhibited in public spaces,” Hoxha told BIRN.