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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cars: New Kings of Albania

TIRANA, Albania -- Two years ago cyclists' groans could often be heard on the streets of Tirana as they pedaled hard with wife, child and perhaps grandmother on a single bike, often accompanied by the rattle of loose mudguards and chains.

Today, cyclists are quickly becoming a threatened species as thousands of cars of all shapes, sizes and state of repair hoot, toot and weave their way through the roads of Albania.

Life in the streets of the capital has become an adventure for everybody.

Cars surge along with little regard for the rules of the road, traffic lights, rights of way, pedestrian crossings, single lanes or no-parking signs.

Drivers must be constantly on the alert for huge potholes, cyclists weaving through traffic, donkeys loaded with hay suddenly swerving across the road and overladen carts pulled by weary and emaciated horses. Pedestrians cross the road at their own risk. The ineffectual whistling and waving of traffic policemen dodging the onslaught does nothing to sort out the mess.

With the fall of Communism, tens of thousands of Albanians virtually stormed their way out of their impoverished Balkan country, seeking any jobs for any kind of money as long as it was hard currency.

The cash they sent home, together with the money generated in Albania by local speculators, money changers, budding capitalists and racketeers sent the Albanians on a wild spending spree for goods previously denied them.

The first rush was aimed at the supreme symbol of the capitalism Albania was now embracing -- the automobile.

Under the oppressive Stalinist regime, the last bastion of Communism to fall in Eastern Europe in December 1991, private ownership of cars was forbidden by law.

Only the elite enjoyed the pleasure of cruising through the masses of pedestrians and cyclists in one of the estimated 2,000 modern and luxurious western limousines or Soviet-built official cars then in Albania.

Just weeks after the hated regime was swept aside the first private cars appeared on the streets of Tirana, most of them ancient, battered and rusty models bought cheaply in neighboring Yugoslavia, or from shady scrap dealers in the West.

A short time later secondhand dealers, mainly from Greece and Italy, and their local partners, set up shop in the empty lots of Tirana selling vehicles nobody would buy in the West at inflated prices nobody would pay there either.

Cars with their hoods up, belching smoke and surrounded by a swarm of helpers like bees around their queen, became a common sight on the streets of Albania.

By last June a total 180,000 vehicles, including trucks, buses and motorcycles, had been imported and registered in Albania since the beginning of 1991, with 42,000 in 1993 alone. More than half are private cars and the majority are secondhand. In the first three months of 1994 the number of cars imported was 8,000, of which 230 were new, according to Albanian customs.

Accident statistics are hard to come by in Albania, but Arben Beci, 28, finds enough cars wrecked in collisions to turn the scraps into cash.

In a dusty lot on the roadside near Fushkruje, north of Tirana, Beci and the four men he employs cannibalize the wrecks for spare parts which he then sells. Few, if any, used car importers bother about spare parts, which are still hard to find in Albania, and Beci makes a comfortable profit, paying his employees the equivalent of $60 a month, and having enough to purchase more wrecks. The average income in Albania is $35.

In the future Beci would like to earn enough to build himself a workshop and perhaps set up a dealership, he said.

Buying a car in Albania also has other risks. Many of the cars, especially the luxury models, are stolen in the West and brought into the country with forged papers.

Many car owners know about the shady origins of their car, but not all.

A Tirana banker took over a luxury limousine from his predecessor, but when he drove it to Italy for maintenance, it was found to have been stolen. After much explanation and negotiation, he was finally allowed to keep it.