Bunkers recall Albania's paranoia Structures symbolize Communist past

March 09, 1997|By Laird Anderson

WHAT I REMEMBER most about Albania are the thousands of crumbling concrete military bunkers that dot the landscape. The bunkers are everywhere, an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 of them, scattered across farmlands and plastered against hillsides. These dilapidated structures stand watch today as monuments to the paranoia of one of Communism's most tyrannical and ideologically rigid dictators, the late Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1944 until his death in 1985.

They also are oddly symbolic of the nation's plight today as its first democratic government finds itself besieged by chaos. Mobs armed with weapons looted from government arsenals roamed southwest Albania last week in a rebellion triggered by failed pyramid schemes in which nearly every Albanian lost money. Some of the rebels occupied the bunkers and stood ready to fight government troops that were dispatched to the area.

Five of the investment funds were based in Vlore, a port city on the Adriatic that was wracked by rioting. Albania's opposition is insisting that President Sali Berisha resign to end the unrest, but his party, which controls Parliament, re-elected him to another five-year term on Monday.

The rioters directed their wrath at the government, which was formed in 1992. The government put in place curfews, censorship and roadblocks Monday after Parliament declared the state of emergency. Angry Albanians blame the government for failing to regulate the schemes and warn investors about the potential for financial disaster.

The nation was quiet when I was there in 1994, but the bunkers stood ready to repulse the hordes of outside invaders that Hoxha was convinced were coming. The bunkers I saw outside Tirana, the nation's capital, were various shapes and sizes, and their positioning made little military sense to me, an ex-colonel in the Army Reserve. Sticking out of the tops of many were tall, evil-looking spikes which I learned were meant to impale airborne troops. As a former paratrooper, I could only grimace at that prospect.

Hoxha saw enemies at every turn, including other Communist nations. He eventually concluded that Josef V. Stalin was a flaming liberal and shifted to the Chinese and their more totalitarian brand of Communism before giving up on them. He then decided to zip up Albania's borders to just about all outsiders and commerce. He wrecked the economy, due in no small part to the cost of bunker construction. Albania plunged into near-total isolation from the rest of the world for nearly five decades.

When Albania, about the size of the state of Maryland with a population of 3.2 million, emerged from its long isolation in 1992, the new government introduced a sweeping program to jolt some order into the devastated economy and promote a free market. It was one of the last of the old Eastern European bloc countries to shun Communism in hope of a brighter future.

Today, it is still desperately poor, with a growth rate of minus 3.2 percent and a per-capita gross national product of $1,100. The pyramid schemes to which so many fell victim lure gullible investors to funds that dangle the dazzling possibility of reaping huge returns. New money goes to pay old investors. Eventually, the scheme runs its course, new deposits slow, then stop altogether, and the funds crash. Most depositors are left penniless, with no recourse except, in Albania's case, to vent their fury and take to the streets in protest.

I was in Albania in 1994 to conduct two seminars and hold informal discussions with young journalists under United States Information Agency sponsorship on issues involving press freedom, an idea that was just beginning to stir a slumbering, largely government-controlled media. My topics were the First Amendment, the Freedom of Information Act, and the implications of private ownership of the media, and the public's right to know vs. the government's need for secrecy -- heavy stuff for a country still gingerly feeling its way into a better day after the devastating years of repression.

I was joined in a discussion of the latter topic by some journalists and members of the Albanian judiciary, including the chief justice of the supreme court. There was only one translator and speakers had to pause after a few sentences so he could do his job, but we got the hang of it, and things got lively.

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