Albania 25 years after the fall of communism: Rebuilding the state and society

Dr. Rakipi, Ambassador Vlahutin, Director Hantke, Professor Fischer, Mr. Biberaj,

ladies and gentlemen,

In every society there are events for which you ask, “Do you remember where you were when this happened?”  As an American, in my lifetime, these have included landing on astronauts on the moon, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Albania’s modern history has many such moments, but I wanted to ask the question today, “Do you remember where you were the day a young boy climbed atop the statue of Enver Hoxha and the crowd toppled it to the ground?  Do you remember the day when Albanians finally believed that communism could be defeated?”

Of course, it’s crazy that as an American that I am asking this question since so many of you lived through this momentous day of December 11, 1990.  But I always remind myself that this is a young country.  More than half of all Albanians were under 5 years old or not even born when this happened.  Your mayor of this city was just 9, your interior minister just 10, and your foreign minister 13.

If you allow me, I will read from Fred Abrahams’ recent book “Modern Albania”.

“The women marched and the men followed.  The trickle turned to a stream and soon an angry river flowed . . . Green police trucks with hoses and water tanks blasted the marchers with water, forcing them past the state radio and television building, behind the Hoxha museum in the pyramid, and onto the boulevard.  Riot police and water cannons waited there to defend the sacred Block where the political leadership lived and to divert the crowd down the boulevard to Skanderbeg Square.

“Security forces waited in the square.  Thousands of protesters milled about, some throwing rocks, thinking of Tiananmen Square, while looking at the thirty-foot-high bronze statue of Enver Hozha, taller still atop his granite pedestal, standing like a lightning rod in a storm.

“A crowd surged, was repelled by the police, and surged again, gaining confidence as its numbers grew.  Proud and determined, Hoxha looked out over the square wearing a suit and long coat, with his left hand behind his back and right hand at his side.  The crowd pushed.  A boy climbed Hoxha’s coat and hooked a metal cable around the dictator’s thumb.  Men pulled from the left, while others pushed from the right, and the Leader’s body began to tilt from side to side.  Just after 2:00 p.m., it separated from its base and came crashing down, predictably, to Hoxha’s left.”

Ramiz Alia announced, “Irritated crowds, without any sense of logic, committed acts of vandalism.  They have succeeded to topple the founder of our state, Enver Hoxha.  Now it is perfectly clear that the anti-democratic forces have a well-developed strategy.  They want the destruction of the state.”  That day the government resigned and the next day demonstrators toppled Hoxha’s monuments in Korca and Gjiorkaster.

In my year in Albania, I have met many people who were in Skanderbeg Square on that historic day.  They talk of the day when people finally believed that communism was over and that the State could not resist the will for change.

And what does this tell us about the situation now?  I believe that today the will for change in Albania is strong, not for toppling statues or toppling governments, but for addressing the deep problems faced in this society.  The agreement last week between the government and the opposition on decriminalization is the first sign I have seen that fundamental, irreversible change is coming.  I see evidence that even bigger changes are coming.  I believe that we will see many other important reforms adopted in the days and weeks to come, including the most important change of all — judicial reform.

Finally, let me ask you the important question again, “Where were you when Enver Hoxha’s monument was laid flat and people finally believed that communism could be defeated?”  If you were not born yet, or were too young to remember that cold day in December, I ask you to walk to your parents’ house, or pick up the phone and call them, and ask them to tell you the story of that day that would change the future of Albania forever.

It is important to remember the horrors and injustices of communism.  But it is equally important to remember those brave men and women, of all political backgrounds and from all corners of Albania, who had the courage to risk their lives for freedoms and liberties that all Albanians enjoy today.