Albania's Hard Road

March 14, 1991

When one remembers that Mussolini's forces invaded and occupied little Albania in April 1939, thus condemning it to half a century of isolation that is coming to its end with the restoration of relations with the United States Friday, the conduct of Italian authorities toward Albanian refugees is an outrage.

Some 20,000 would-be emigres, who commandeered Albanian merchant ships a fortnight ago and sailed the 75 miles to Brindisi, were left to shiver on the docks, go hungry and live amid deplorable sanitary conditions. The slowness of the Italian government to give them succor was rightly condemned by the pope, by opposition parties and by townspeople who tried to get them food and clothing. As a fitting rebuke to Rome, 1,500 disillusioned Albanians voluntarily sailed home.

Life has almost always been difficult for the Albanians. Through the centuries they have been ruled by Romans, Turks, Serbs and Italians, by dictators, fascists and communists, with a golden period only between 1920 and 1924 of relatively benign self-government. Thrown into the caldron of Balkan politics, Albania was inexorably caught up in the two World Wars. Its claim to the Kossovo province of Yugoslavia, populated predominantly by Albanians, creates an awkward mix between its own drive for a more democratic system and the centrifugal forces tearing away at Yugoslavia.

For years, Stalinist regimes in Tirana, the Albanian capital, shunned all their neighbors in Europe, not only the Western democracies but the Soviet bloc after the Khrushchev reforms. Only China at its most repressive was its ally. Later, the breakdown of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, ricocheted from Hungary and Romania into Yugoslavia and then into Albania, the last outpost.

Under popular pressure, the government headed by Ramiz Alia has scheduled supposedly free elections for March 31, says it is releasing all political prisoners and is opening diplomatic relations with Washington and other world capitals. Its aim, however, is to retain Communist leadership.

Americans had great sympathy with the 3 million Albanians after Benito Mussolini took over his little neighbor in a fashion later to be emulated by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. In both instances, the aggressor countries cited historic claims to overlordship. Now that the Albanian people are getting a small measure of democracy and perhaps even the hope of better living standards, they can be sure of the good will of the American people.

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