Explosive politics

Observations on Albania

The Gerdec munitions dump explosion that killed 22 people on 15 March sounded, says a Tirana resident, "like Hiroshima", but the political shock waves are only now rattling the government's cage.

The explosion has lifted the lid on a patchwork of relationships between the government and "business", and on a profitable enterprise to supply the Afghan army with arms and explosives that are well past their sell-by date. It may even scupper long-awaited Nato membership - and prove the undoing of the Democratic Party prime minister, Sali Berisha.

First described as a tragic accident, the blast occurred at an unlicensed factory for processing Albania's vast weapons stockpile; it employs untrained women and children and has dubious safety standards. Questions have since been asked about who stood to benefit from the processing - in particular, whether Berisha and his colleagues benefited from sales of the arms to the Afghan army.

Everyone blames everyone else.

The mainstream opposition Socialist Party cites the blast as explosive proof that the state has, in effect, been "captured" by quasi-criminal elements or, at the very least, as evidence of negligence by Berisha, who denies he even knew of the factory.

Even darker rumours are circulating. One high-ranking Democratic Party member told me, over a poisonously strong coffee in Enver Hoxha's home town of Gjirokastër, that he suspected reactionary elements within the security forces, hell-bent on wrecking chances of Albania joining Nato.

An inquiry is promised, but Albanians say that whatever intricate business deals or relationships are thus laid bare, the whole system stands indicted and threatens to hold the country in decades-long isolation.

Albanians are all too aware that their international image rests largely on the country's reputation for organised crime, human trafficking and dire poverty. They do not want state-sanctioned gunrunning added to the list and would rather be known for their hospitality, their tolerance of religious differences, and for Albania's tourism potential.

Kosovo's declaration of independence in February is seen as rightful reparation for pre-First World War international summits that handed swaths of Albania to neighbours. "It is like welcoming a long-lost family member back into the fold," one Tiranan told me. The declaration also briefly focused world attention on the prospect of Albania expanding its influence in the Balkans.

Tirana already shows signs of becoming the sleek and glossy capital some of its citizens want. Boutiques and restaurants attending to the needs of well-travelled, cosmopolitan professionals charge prices that are modest by London standards, yet far from negligible.

But as Drago, a friend who has spent much of his working life in Germany and Slovenia, says: "When you're hauling yourself out of the shit, you don't care what kind of a mess you're making."

Take the wrong turn or head out of town, and a poorer and more brutal reality is apparent. Every other building is either a half-built or semi-dilapidated concrete monstrosity. The sprawl is indicative of exuberant, but unregulated growth.

Albania's roads, largely unmetalled, are fringed with household debris, and refrigerator graveyards are almost as numerous as the country's famed 750,000 bunkers. Electricity supply is sporadic and unemployment entrenched, among the educated and the untrained alike. One man in the Socialist Party told me that "things were better in Hoxha's day" - a reference to the Norman Wisdom-loving leader who died 23 years ago. He pointed out that good jobs still go to well-connected party members, and that payment of bribes - to teachers or university professors for good grades, to doctors for treatment, and to judges to swing court decisions - remains endemic.

This grey, fuzzy logic also explains how, in a country that has its sights set on membership of Nato and the European Union, an illegal munitions dump employing untrained children can explode, directly implicating even its highest elected official.

"It's a mess," said my Tiranan friend, "a real mess. If we don't learn from this, we won't learn from anything."

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.