Who will save Albania?

The poorest country in Europe may be hardest hit by the Balkans war.

By David Rieff

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Kosovo crisis is proof, as if proof were needed, of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whatever the outcome of the NATO bombing campaign, post-war Kosovo will have been left in ruins, its people murdered by the thousands and deported by the hundreds of thousands, and the entire south Balkans region will be both economically devastated and in political turmoil. And of all the countries that are going to need global help to recover from this crisis, Albania may be worst off.

Albania will have a lot of competition, of course. The arrival of so many Kosovar refugees in Macedonia, for instance, has destabilized the fragile ethnic and political balance there. The destruction of the economic infrastructure of Serbia and the interdiction of vital commerce along the Danube river is already having a disastrous effect on Bulgaria and a considerable one on Romania, Greece and, as if they needed further economic bad news, Russia and Ukraine. The sense that the whole area is unsafe will gravely harm the tourist revenues expected by Croatia, whose fragile economic recovery depends on them, and even affect Greece.

As for the political effects, at a minimum the conflict will produce a radical reconfiguration of national budgets, from the United States through Western Europe to the Balkans. New moneys will certainly have to be appropriated for defense. Vast sums will have to be found for the so-called new Marshall Plan that the great powers and the international financial institutions agree will be necessary if the region is ever to recover either its political equilibrium or its economic health.

The estimates now run between $30 billion and $50 billion, but it is a foregone conclusion that the cost of stability will be far higher than that. The damage to Serbia alone runs into the hundreds of billions, and while it is unlikely that the great powers will want to repair the infrastructure they have just devoted so much time and effort to destroying, in the long run they will be obliged to do so -- if only because the health of Serbia's neighbors, including Croatia and NATO member Hungary, depends on their doing so. But after the fighting ends and the refugees begin to return to Kosovo, the first priority will be the neighboring countries that have suffered the most in the crisis and expect the most from its aftermath: Macedonia and Albania.

By comparison with Albania, the problems in Macedonia may actually prove to be manageable. Macedonia's distress is chiefly political, and the removal of the ethnic Albania refugees, whether back to Kosovo or to third countries, combined with a sizable aid package, would probably restore at least a fragile equilibrium. The case of Albania is very different. Where Macedonia has good roads, a functioning infrastructure, and at least the first shoots of a consumer society, Albania is a pre-modern country that socially and economically resembles the poorer parts of North Africa and politically resembles those parts of the Russian Federation in which the dead hand of communism gave way, almost overnight, to the post-modern poisons of Mafia and crony capitalism. It is a country in which there is not an honest policeman to be found, a country in which even in villages that lack running water, people have satellite dishes that let them stare at Italian quiz shows.

In the course of only a few years, Albanians made the transition from the smothering totalitarianism of a state in which the Communist Party assigned everything from apartments to university places, and in which ownership of private cars was banned, to a country in which the principal engines of economic growth were financial pyramid schemes, smuggling immigrants to the West and, during the Bosnian war, sneaking banned goods into Yugoslavia. What little development aid came from Europe was badly administered and usually squandered -- an outcome for which officials of the European Union, rather than the Albanians themselves, bear the brunt of the blame. The scandals that rocked the European Commission over the past year have many of their roots in these Albanian programs.

One of the great peculiarities of the Kosovo crisis is that the Kosovar refugees are actually far more prosperous than their Albanian cousins with whom they seek shelter. As one Kosovar put it to me in a refugee camp in Kukes, in northern Albania, "We come from Europe. They come from, well, Albania."

"I was here once, before the war," another man, a farmer named Kadri, told me. Kadri came from just outside the Kosovo city of Prizren. "I thought it was such a catastrophe in Kukes," he said, "I swore I would never come back. Now I live here, maybe for a long time."

The reality is that at least half a million Kosovars, and perhaps many, many more, are going to remain in Albania for years. Even assuming Milosevic eventually agrees to the essential NATO demands, it will be some time before the refugees can return safely. Meanwhile, they have taxed the infrastructure of Albania to the breaking point and beyond. This desperately impoverished country of fewer than 4 million people will need massive outside assistance to assimilate the sudden arrival of what will eventually amount to between one-fifth and one-quarter of its total population.

At the moment, the NATO powers and American and Western European aid agencies are claiming that they understand this crisis and will see to it that Albania gets the aid it needs. Albanians tend to respond warily. Their government sees in the crisis a last chance to get the aid it should have received after the downfall of communism at the beginning of the decade. But it has seen Western politicians come and go -- from then-Secretary of State James Baker in 1991 to the recently deposed head of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, in 1997. None of their promises amounted to anything near Albania's minimum requirements.

This time may be different. Some infrastructure projects are in NATO's immediate strategic interests -- like rebuilding the airport in Tirana, refurbishing the port in Durres, or rebuilding the roads north toward Kosovo and southeast in the directions that refugees being moved out of Macedonia will have to travel. And the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are reportedly planning long-term projects.

But those who doubt that the West will follow through on rebuilding Albania need only point to the U.S. response to Hurricane Mitch last year in Central America. After the disaster struck, the United States did a great deal to help -- but it did not do nearly enough, either in terms of debt relief and continued reconstruction aid or in terms of making Central America's revival an ongoing, 'front-burner' concern in Washington. And the price of this complacency will this summer almost certainly be measurable in the huge increase in the number of Central American immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

The sad truth is that neither the United States nor its NATO partners are good at seeing things through. For all intents and purposes, the future of Albania, and not just that of the Kosovar refugees, is now in NATO's hands. In Albania, as in the Kosovar refugee camps, people are hoping for a NATO protectorate. But whether the great powers are willing to take on such a responsibility, and, even if they are, of discharging it conscientiously, is an open question. The problem is that for Americans, as for the French, the British and the Germans, it is a choice that will not affect them much either way. It is only for the Albanians themselves and, of course, for the Kosovars that it is a question of life and death.

David Rieff

David Rieff is the author of "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," and the editor, with Roy Gutman, of the forthcoming "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

MORE FROM David Rieff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------