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Saturday, 6 May, 2000, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Picking up the pieces in Albania
Anti government demonstration 1997
Civil unrest contributed to the fall of the government
By Max Easterman in Tirana

It is three years since the now notorious pyramid investment schemes collapsed in Albania, ruining tens of thousands of people, dealing a near-fatal blow to the country's economy, and provoking the civil unrest that eventually brought down the government of Sali Berisha.

The Socialists who replaced him promised to tackle Albania's culture of anarchy and neglect. But they are finding it tough.

Former Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha
Albanians wanted change after Sali Berisha's government
My 12th floor hotel room offered a splendid panorama over Tirana's central square, with its statue of the national hero Skanderbeg, the old Turkish mosque, and the stately, slow-moving, but utterly anarchic traffic that rumbles and weaves across it.

Rather more prosaic was the view of the litter-strewn roof of the Opera House, and of The Hole. The Hole is a huge unfinished building site, one of the less salubrious aspects of the capital, like the packs of dogs that roam the streets after dark. They woke me with their squabbling on my first night, and that was when I heard The Noise.

Albania's civil administration is in a bigger mess than I imagined

The Noise was loud, grating, cackling and puzzling, like thousands of combs being scraped, mixed with demented car alarms. It was far worse than the honking buses and grinding trucks of daytime.

It was only the following evening, as I picked my way across the broken, rutted pavements around The Hole, that I heard it again. At ground level, all became clear. The greenery inside The Hole that I imagined to be bushes, was pond-weed. The Hole was flooded, and home to a highly vocal colony of frogs. Nature had reclaimed it, in spite of the pollution.

'Arcane' land laws

The Hole is one of the sights of Tirana. It was dug almost a decade ago, when the country was still nominally communist, by an emigre Albanian from Switzerland. He was building Tirana's first five-star hotel; it would be a fitting place for international investors to relax in, after long, hard days negotiating the deals that would bring Albania into the post-Communist nirvana of the late 20th century.

It would also, of course, make him a lot of money. Unfortunately, he went bankrupt before either his dream or Albania's could be realised.

Central Square, Tirana
Tens of thousands of people have moved to the towns
No-one since has dared take up the challenge of turning The Hole into an hotel, or anything else, precisely because no government has since managed to devise a workable law to reform land tenure. Albania's land laws are so arcane that all members of a family, where one member claims title to a piece of land, have a say in what is done with it.

The result is that most people just ignore the law, and build wherever they want to.

Poverty has bitten ever deeper in the countryside; so tens of thousands of people have moved into the towns, especially from the north, looking for whatever work they can find. With what money they have, they have built new homes; some of them are remarkably well-built and well-maintained.

But they are all illegal, in illegal settlements which have spread like a rash across the farmland on the outskirts of the towns, mainly Tirana and the nearby Adriatic port of Durres. They tap illegally into the electricity and water mains, and are one of the reasons why the legal residents of Tirana still have their water turned off for much of the day.

'Concrete domes'

I went to one of the settlements just north of Durres - known as The Wetlands, because that is precisely what the houses have been built on. It is as bad as anything you might see in India or Africa. An open stream runs through the centre; one of the foulest I have come across. On one side, the houses give directly onto it, and the owners have built themselves privies, which void straight into the sluggish water. I watched a group of children playing in this evil-smelling mess.

Clearing the beaches and the countryside of these rather sad reminders of Communist paranoia will cost billions

"It's appalling," said one householder. "But it's better than half-starving in a mountain village, where the land's so poor we can't even feed ourselves."

On the other side of Durres, the Adriatic stretches southwards to Greece: mile upon mile of unspoilt beaches - well, unspoilt but for the bunkers - squat, concrete domes, like overgrown mushrooms. They come in three sizes: one-man, two-man and field howitzer, and the former dictator, Enver Hoxha, threw up 600,000 of them, one for every family in Albania, in every place where enemy troops might attack.

Clearing the beaches and the countryside of these rather sad reminders of Communist paranoia will cost billions. But, as I toured the Durres coastline with Franka Paloka of the Tourism Development Committee, she told me the bunkers were the least of her problems.

"We have a tourism plan," she said. "But every time I come here, there are more and more hotels and apartment blocks, till you can hardly see the sea from the road.

"Almost every one is illegal."

I wondered why the government did not stop them.

"It happens so fast, and we haven't enough people, and no-one knows who the land really belongs to," she said.

Albania's civil administration is in a bigger mess than I imagined.

So, it came as a surprise, when Franka explained that the Tourism Committee intended to demolish the illegal buildings that stood in the way of their structure plan for holiday villages and parks. I wondered how the owners would react to such a move.

Franka shrugged: "We will negotiate, but they will have to accept it."

That approach might work with the frogs in The Hole in Tirana, but I rather think Albanian entrepreneurs might get quite violent when they see their investments blown up.

I would not want to be the man who lights the blue touch paper. Perhaps those concrete bunkers along the beach will come in useful after all. Meanwhile, Franka Paloka has applied to emigrate to Canada.

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17 Nov 99 | Europe
Albania moves over power cuts
29 Mar 99 | Europe
Analysis: Albania's dilemma
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