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