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Albania, Then and Now: Background information when reading Free

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A Child and a Country at the End of History

by Lea Ypi

Free by Lea Ypi X
Free by Lea Ypi
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    Jan 2022, 256 pages

    Jan 2022, 304 pages


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Albania, Then and Now

This article relates to Free

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Map of AlbaniaLea Ypi's memoir Free charts the author's coming of age in a family of dissidents in Albania in the 1980s and '90s, before and after the fall of communism. Albania is located in southern Europe in the Balkan Peninsula, with the Adriatic Sea on its western border and Greece, North Macedonia and Kosovo to the east. The earliest recorded inhabitants of the area were known as the Illyrians, one of three core population groups in the region, the others being the Thracians and Greeks. Along with the rest of the Balkans, the area that is now Albania was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE, and over the following 2,200 or so years, it saw multiple empires come and go, including the Ottoman Empire which controlled the region from the 15th to 20th centuries AD.

Albania became an independent country in 1912, but this freedom was short-lived; during World War I, it was invaded and occupied by armies from Austria-Hungary, France and Serbia. In the aftermath of the war, negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference nearly caused Albania's land to be annexed and divided up among the neighboring countries, but it maintained its independence, due in part to the intercession of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson.

In the 1920s, efforts were made by progressive factions to westernize Albania and institute democracy, but a conservative faction opposed them. World War II brought further destabilization, as Italy invaded and occupied Albania until its surrender in 1943. During this time, the Albanian Communist Party was founded by a former schoolteacher named Enver Hoxha and solidified in the crucible of war. The Party took control of the Albanian government in 1944, going on to hold power for decades after. Through diplomatic relationships with other communist countries, including Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China, Albania received aid for various modernization projects and the standard of living in the country improved.

However, the communist government in Albania was oppressive, particularly to those deemed dissidents. Around 200,000 (out of a population of under three million) were sent to prison camps that resembled the gulags of the Stalinist Soviet Union. It is believed that around 6,000 were killed by the state between 1944-1991. In 2007, Albania passed legislation guaranteeing reparations for survivors of the camps (the equivalent of $19 per day spent imprisoned), but many have still not seen the money owed to them. In 2012, formerly imprisoned dissidents launched a hunger strike to protest, and one self-immolated and later died in the hospital.

Enver Hoxha ruled the country for 40 years as the chief of state, from the end of WWII through his death in 1985. After the deaths of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, Albania floundered without foreign aid. Before his death, Hoxha chose his successor, a member of his inner circle and former minister of education Ramiz Alia. However, many Albanians, the working class and intelligentsia in particular, were growing weary of communist rule, and the sentiment was exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Under increased pressure, Alia began making concessions, allowing Albanians to travel freely for the first time in decades, adopting economic elements of capitalism, and, crucially, allowing for the creation of non-communist political parties. Alia resigned in 1992 after an election that ushered in leaders from Albania's Democratic Party. The country is now a parliamentary constitutional republic led by a president who serves in an executive capacity and a prime minister who acts as head of government. The current prime minister is Edi Rami of the Socialist Party, who was elected to a third term in April 2021. The president is Ilir Meta, founder of the Socialist Movement for Integration Party.

Albania has had a low unemployment rate and fairly robust economy in the 21st century, though an earthquake in 2019 coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic have hindered growth. It does not rank particularly high on quality of life indexes, with poverty/income inequality being a significant factor in residents' dissatisfaction.

Map of Albania, courtesy of Geology.com

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This article relates to Free. It first ran in the February 16, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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