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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Albania's Woes: On the Roads, In the World

TIRANA, Albania - Albanians are, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, a nation learning to drive. Under Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist labor camp enthusiast who ruled this poor, rock-strewn land from 1944 to 1985, the private ownership of cars was forbidden. So were other things, such as religion, long hair and the right to say: "Hoxha makes my flesh creep".


But it was the ban on cars that gave Albanian Communism its distinctive flavor. It meant that the most common forms of transport on the country's crumbling roads were mules, horses and carts, bicycles and (for bigwigs) limousines. Since the old system collapsed two years ago, the acquisition of a car has become every Albanian's ambition.


Second-hand, third-hand, even tenth-hand cars from abroad now chug along the streets of Albanian towns, and armed policemen in sunglasses spend much of their time halting vehicles and checking their driver's documents. Inevitably many drivers turn out not to have passed their tests or have no registration or insurance papers.


And Tirana, the capital, with a population of over 300, 000, has precisely three gas stations.


Albania's driving problems symbolize the difficulties that it faces in finding its way in the world at large. Its neighbors, above all Serbia and Greece, do not seem favorably disposed to the new Albania. A nasty row broke out with Athens in late June when the Albanian government expelled a Greek Orthodox clergyman and accused him of inciting the Greek minority in southern Albania to campaign for annexation to Greece.


Greece retaliated by rounding up tens of thousands of illegal Albanian immigrants who had found work in Greece and deporting them back to Albania. This action upset Albania because the immigrants, however poorly paid in Greece, were able to send money to their families grinding out a wretched existence at home.


Relations with Serbia are worse. The takeover of Serbian-inhabited parts of Croatia and Bosnia has been matched by the systematic elimination of the rights of the ethnic Albanian majority in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo.


Serbs argue that Kosovo is a sacred site for them, the cradle of their medieval state. Yet Kosovo holds a unique place, too, in the Albanian national memory. The province is a Balkan Jerusalem, claimed by rival peoples, with a history of conflict whose bloody odor still hangs in the air.


Albania cannot ignore the plight of its compatriots in Kosovo. Yet conversations with Albanian intellectuals and public figures reveal a startling innocence about the impact upon Balkan opinion of demands for the unification of all Albanians into one state.


Such a state would incorporate Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia and, conceivably, small strips of Montenegro and Greece. A Greater Albania along these lines existed between 1941 and 1944, after the Nazis redrew the map of the Balkans. In the region's present explosive climate, this is not the time to raise calls for another Greater Albania.