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The nation desperate to join the EU

Credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images


June 12, 2019   4 mins

Former interrogation rooms, secret surveillance labs and nuclear bunkers are now open to the public in Albania, exposing horrors long hidden from view. The Balkan state is determined to show Europe how much it has changed, as it seeks EU member status – and some institutions have adopted a brave, beguiling approach to confronting the nation’s demons.

“For most Albanians, it has always been our dream to join the European Union,” says Etleva Demollari, director of a new museum, House of Leaves, housed in the building that was the ‘Sigurimi’ (secret police) headquarters during the Communist dictatorship. Her own yearning to be included in the European project began when she was growing up in 1980s Tirana. Her city had become the poorest capital in the world: Communism’s biggest economic failure and a reflection of self-defeating isolationism.

Demollari used to watch Italian TV stations through a reception ‘inverter’ her family had acquired. She was convinced it was the closest she’d ever come to experiencing another country, another way of life. International travel remained illegal throughout the 1980s, a hallmark of Enver Hoxha’s unique dictatorship. Each mile of the Balkan nation’s borders was enforced with bulbous barbed wire.

“Hoxha,” Demollari tells me, “was paranoid that any Albanian who travelled abroad could be recruited as a foreign agent.” Even the revered missionary Mother Teresa – canonised as a saint in 2016 – was considered a security threat in her home country: the Catholic nun was barred from returning from India to visit sick relatives. Meanwhile, some 6,000 Albanians (from a population averaging just two million) were executed for attempting to emigrate or challenge the state. A further 70,000 were interned as political prisoners.

Free elections failed to arrive when Hoxha died in 1985; six years later, then a university student, Demollari was part of a movement that went on to topple a seven-metre-high bronze statue of Hoxha. “We chanted as one: ‘Ne duam qĂ« ShqipĂ«ria tĂ« jetĂ« si pjesa tjetĂ«r e EvropĂ«s’ [We want Albania to be like the rest of Europe].”

Demollari’s museum conceals chilling insight into the methods of surveillance, interrogation, torture and faux justice employed in Albania from the 1940s – when some assert that the Nazi party’s Gestapo also had a base here – right up until 1991. “It’s for Albanians,” she says “but it’s for foreigners also; to show how Albania was, so they can understand better this part of our identity. The history of Albania is different to the rest of Europe: more harsh, more power [abuse], more isolated.”

The museum was conceived by Albania’s ministry of culture, part of a published mission to achieve cultural integration with Europe. It represents the ultimate soft power play for a government desperate to finally open concrete EU entry negotiations in July, after 10 years of sustained effort to Westernise through condemning past sins.

A charm offensive has been building since 2006, when the government first accepted and passed a resolution from the European Council that the crimes of the nation’s Communist regime should be “held equivalent” to those of Nazism. Within three years, Albania had formerly applied for membership to the EU. But it took five years for the nation to be officially recognised as a candidate. Until 2014, EU leaders weren’t persuaded that Albania was committed to tackling a problem that the nation seems unable to shake: corruption.

The election of the current government in 2013 was persuasive. The Socialist Party made stern pledges to enact a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption. And six years on, the European Council has recommended fresh assessment of whether the Balkan outpost now recognises the democratic standards it expects of members. A verdict is due this month and formal accession talks are expected to commence in July.

But has Albania’s progress been significant enough? Last year, the US Department of State identified “rampant corruption” in the nation. And just this weekend, thousands of protestors turned out in Tirana, calling for Rama’s resignation – accusing the man who was supposed to save the country from corruption of perpetuating it. In response, the Albanian president, Ilir Meta, cancelled the local elections due to take place on 30 June. He stated that the current politic chaos did not provide “the necessary conditions for true, democratic, representative and all-inclusive elections.”

The huge demonstrations that have been taking place in the capital for weeks now were born out of long-standing frustration about endemic corruption and cronyism in day-to-day living. These demonstrations began when grievances about the education system came to a head.

Some students are angry about classmates being able to buy better grades. Others fear missing out on jobs to rivals from richer families, who they say they will bribe their way into employment.

Sara Kureta, a 19-year-old philosophy undergraduate, believes the prospect of joining the European Union could help her country to become a truly meritocratic society.

“I don’t have much money and my parents don’t have rich friends so corruption could be damaging for me,” says Kureta. “My friend’s mother paid to get a job as a nurse, which is really scary because you shouldn’t be able to do a job like that if you aren’t qualified to do it.”

“To be in the EU you have to have some common values and for us that will be really positive progress… I see the potential progress in an ethical way, and not in an economic way.”

At the moment, it is not just an alliance of nationalist parties in the European Parliament that is against further expansion of any kind. Broader scepticism remains elsewhere.

Marsida Turku, a medical student who works in ‘BunkArt2’ – another museum commemorating the victims of the Albanian dictatorship – has experienced international hostility. “I’ve been to Italy, Germany and Greece,” she begins. “Many people in these countries think we are still ‘in’ Communism and some that we are in some kind of war.”

“I don’t know why there is this opinion all over the world,” Turku continues. “We are maybe not the most developed country in Europe, but we are trying.”

Plenty of Albanians feel their fate should not rest on validation from the EU. “Some of us think it is unnecessary,” says Turku. I am among them. If we want to do something for our country, we can do so even if we are not part of the Union.”

Which could be just as well. Accession talks are an infamously drawn-out process, and Albania’s image is damaged by every fresh corruption claim. The nation has largely transformed since the grim days of Hoxha. But this month, a decade after Albania’s first bid to join the EU, will it be deemed democratic enough?


Barney Cullum is a journalist and writer covering international and social issues.

BDOCullum

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Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
3 years ago

We need to destroy the myth that the NHS is the envy of the world – it isn’t. Most Europeans I know cannot believe that we tolerate the NHS and are more envious of the BBC! French, Canadian, Dutch and German systems are routinely rated well above the NHS for both efficiency and outcomes (I shall ignore the US system!)

Although the concept of the NHS is fine and laudable it was designed to avoid the need for people to die alone in pain in a gutter. It cannot now provide a range of 21st century care, including cosmetic and palliative care, without significant change. It needs to be freed of bureaucracy and political interference and then removed from its pedestal and properly managed.

Penny Gallagher
Penny Gallagher
3 years ago

Oh how I pray you are right. I have had a Chinese student living here all year, even she has had a Damascene conversion from worshipping glitzy megacities, & despising the poor who work the land, to understanding the opposite point of view. When I took her out around Somerset and Wiltshire her reaction was “but your country is so livable!” Other countries might decide differently but for us I’m sure this is the way to go, & judging by the reluctance of workers to return to city centre offices perhaps there is hope.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Improve it by either introducing an opt-out system so that we can use the tax windfall to buy insurance, or have a voucher system giving us the cost of care in the NHS so that we can add to it (if necessary) and seek private care, or if completely insane, hand it to the NHS.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

We have an economic crisis, not created because of a virus, but created by our government. Expecting them to solve a problem they have created is unlikely to achieve anything except more decline.

Britain was a world leader at the time of the industrial revolution, and this was because geography and science came together at the right time. We had coal and iron and the scientists to develop steam power. Now there are no favourable conditions to get us out of the hole we are in.

Our history of commercial nuclear reactor development has been abysmal. The emphasis on gas cooling and onload refuelling resulted in Magnox and AGR developments that were expensive and unreliable, and nobody wanted to buy them. They were forced on electricity consumers by the nationalised industry. In the end we bought in PWR technology. Where is the research on fusion reactors? It has been replaced with research into expensive and unreliable renewable technology with horrendous problems of recycling the equipment when it comes to the end of its short life. I doubt that anybody could be convinced to work in coal mines again, even if they can be reopened. Oil and gas are running out and fracking is getting nowhere. Compare this to America where fracking has made them energy self-sufficient. We need cheap energy for any economic recovery, and we do not have it.

Geography served us well in the industrial revolution but not anymore. We do not have the materials for the modern world. All we can do is import energy and materials and hope to add enough value and be competitive with other countries. That is not going to be possible. Geography more than anything has determined which countries can be successful. The UK and Europe are finished.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago

My own experience with French and other foreign health services is far better than my experience with the NHS. And remember the Olympics opening supposedly celebrating the NHS, but actually celebrating Great Ormond Street, a hospital founded privately which certainly would have continued as a free charity hospital if there had been no NHS. This strange faith in the NHS helps no one.

robboschester
robboschester
3 years ago

Well done, Henry, spot on again.

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
3 years ago

I occasionally come across people in the NHS who are gems. A nurse who looked after me & another gents through a long night post op; my temporary lady GP, who followed up personally after my diagnosis of chronic (neuropathic) pelvic pain. She was right to judge that I was ready to take that leap of a motorway bridge.
The rest can go eff themselves. At 39 I experienced total urinary outflow obstruction. Shortly after, three large stones were removed from my bladder. There was no follow up to learn why I had stones. I was given a drug for BPH, though I didn’t have it, nor do I now (at 60).
My medical notes said “BPH”.
I now know that there are v few ways to develop bladder stones & all involve poor & incomplete bladder emptying. You can’t tell this as a patient.
If follow up had been done, they’d have learned I had an inborn error, primary bladder neck obstruction (PBNO).
Anyway, at 56, one day I found I couldn’t pee. The next morning I went to A&E, obviously obstructed. 1400ml taken out by indwelling catheter. Left 25days like this, which was due to messed up scheduling by the hospital, I developed very severe UTIs. I failed ‘trial without catheter’ & sent home with a box of 42cm long self catheters.
I was given ten courses of antibiotics, failing to clear the infection. Eventually I demanded my microbiology report. 15min later I found the problem. All drugs they’d given had no spectrum at all against the last cultured bug. Now on the right drug, UTI cleared & I was scheduled for a bladder neck incision (BNI). They didn’t want to do it as “men your age rarely benefit”.
Anyway, the BNI was a success & despite a completely failed bladder, I can usually void by ‘abdominal straining’. No catheters!
Another UTI post op took another 8 weeks to clear.
But for whatever reason, the pain in my bladder / prostate/p***s tip never went. It’s thought that months of infection & inflammation caused permanent changes in nerve traffic. I’m in permanent moderate to severe pain & use opiates round the clock.
All thanks to our lovely NHS.
Both our prematurely delivered children would have died if I’d not been present. First, heart rate collapse with only me able to see & interpret the monitor. Second, cooked under the heating lamp in the SCBU. If we’d not popped in at 2am, she would not have made morning. Core temp 40.5C. They were so apologetic.
I recommend you not to get ill.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Wouldn’t a “greening” revision of industry and commerce require new, vast retooling and reconstructing of the old pollutive infrastructure?
. . . and thus generate a wiser, smarter system with a new set of job opportunities!

billwald123
billwald123
3 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

In the US Pacific North West, I am optimistic because my grand kid’s generation seem smarter than their previous generations.

Mark St Giles
Mark St Giles
3 years ago

The NHS is a good example of ‘lions led by donkeys’ . Individual doctors and nurses do their best in a constant struggle against the system. I was once told by a cardiac surgeon that the attempts of heart specialists in his area to ensure that one of them was always available 24/7 (since early intervention in the case of heart attacks is vital) were thwarted by the central bureaucracy. Their reason given was that it might result in uneven levels of treatment in that area compared to others.

billwald123
billwald123
3 years ago

In the US, solar and wind are “cheaper” because they are government subsidized. Is it different in GB?

john h
john h
3 years ago

IT is an appalling service. Hormone replacement treatments are the future for an aging population. Live a fuller, fitter and healthier life for longer, but not suffer with as many ailments and be a burden to the system. Sounds good and hormones are cheap as chips because no one can make money from them.

Does anyone in the NHS look at this area ? We are terrible when it comes to testosterone replacement. You have to be super low in the levels to even get an appointment with the endocrinologist. Then it might be a grudging trial of a type of testosterone which is administered 6-12 weekly. IF you live in America there are a whole host of TRT centres for men (and women) and they are leading the world with applications. DAILY injections are the best way to supply external testosterone.

IF you have had testicular cancer you are very likely to be someone who may well need TRT therapy as you age. Every man should really be on some TRT by the end of the 40’s. Read the Ageless Man by a french endo. It’s on amazon and is very eye opening in terms of how to maintain good health into an old age with testosterone. DEMENTIA is strongly related to low testosterone levels !

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
3 years ago

Reposting this as it was invisible for days. I should clarify that I’m an experienced bioscientist, but not a medic.
I occasionally come across people in the NHS who are gems. A nurse who looked after me & another gents through a long night post op; my temporary lady GP, who followed up personally after my diagnosis of chronic (neuropathic) pelvic pain. She was right to judge that I was ready to take that leap of a motorway bridge.
The rest can go eff themselves. At 39 I experienced total urinary outflow obstruction. Shortly after, three large stones were removed from my bladder. There was no follow up to learn why I had stones. I was given a drug for BPH, though I didn’t have it, nor do I now (at 60).
My medical notes said “BPH”.
I now know that there are v few ways to develop bladder stones & all involve poor & incomplete bladder emptying. You can’t tell this as a patient.
If follow up had been done, they’d have learned I had an inborn error, primary bladder neck obstruction (PBNO).
Anyway, at 56, one day I found I couldn’t pee. The next morning I went to A&E, obviously obstructed. 1400ml taken out by indwelling catheter. Left 25days like this, which was due to messed up scheduling by the hospital, I developed very severe UTIs. I failed ‘trial without catheter’ & sent home with a box of 42cm long self catheters.
I was given ten courses of antibiotics, failing to clear the infection. Eventually I demanded my microbiology report. 15min later I found the problem. All drugs they’d given had no spectrum at all against the last cultured bug. Now on the right drug, UTI cleared & I was scheduled for a bladder neck incision (BNI). They didn’t want to do it as “men your age rarely benefit”.
Anyway, the BNI was a success & despite a completely failed bladder, I can usually void by ‘abdominal straining’. No catheters!
Another UTI post op took another 8 weeks to clear.
But for whatever reason, the pain in my bladder / prostate/p***s tip never went. It’s thought that months of infection & inflammation caused permanent changes in nerve traffic. I’m in permanent moderate to severe pain & use opiates round the clock.
All thanks to our lovely NHS.
Both our prematurely delivered children would have died if I’d not been present. First, heart rate collapse with only me able to see & interpret the monitor. Second, cooked under the heating lamp in the SCBU. If we’d not popped in at 2am, she would not have made morning. Core temp 40.5C. They were so apologetic.
I recommend you not to get ill.

sandylibling2
sandylibling2
3 years ago

I can personally compare the Australian and UK systems. Like the UK the best emergency care comes in Australia from the public health system. However all Australians are encouraged to take out private health insurance by the tax system so that if you earn over c$100000A it is tax advantageous to do so. This reduces pressure on the public system enabling better care for those less well off if you have a disabling long-term condition than if the system had no private hospitals. . All GPS are paid per consultation rather than per enrolled patient. Private and public hospitals formed cooperative and innovative arrangements here during the pandemic allowing the health system to scale up quickly. The health care in the cities in the public hospitals is excellent though health care outside the cities is less so due to lack of specialists etc partly compensated for by Telehealth services and for the very remote by the Flying Doctor Service. My mother had kind and permanent care from the local hospital services in North Wales though she was put into a holding pattern rather than have a focus on cure for her ailments. However there was a different tone – she required a lot of care and that was a burden to her GP who was underpaid and discouraged visits. It would have been better to compensate the UK doctor fairly for her many needs. In Australia a doctor can decide to bulk-bill (no cost to the patient) or charge an extra fee – which discourages unnecessary visits if the doctor considers them so. The patient can of course shift to a different doctor at any time. I believe the pragmatic approach of the Austealian system and its egalitarian tone leads to a more desirable culture.

Barbara Bone
Barbara Bone
3 years ago

If the Trades Description Act covered the NHS they would be prosecuted. How can you call it a “National” health service when there is a postcode lottery as to what treatment you can get. I, personally, have always had a healthy scepticism about the organisation probably due to my father who always said “doctors bury their mistakes” The fact that it is impossible to get a face to face appointment with a GP is particularly galling considering how much they are being paid. My brother in law has COPD & has been told that his next appointment with the clinic at his surgery will be done over the telephone. Seriously? How the hell they’ll be able to listen to his chest I don’t know but they’ll be able to mark his records as having “seen” him. I, meanwhile, received a form for a blood test through the post shortly after lockdown ended. No explanation as to why I had to make an appointment but I can only assume that it was because my medication review (I’m epileptic) was due during lockdown. As this is the first blood test I’ve had in about 8 years I assume they checked my records & went “oops”. I didn’t bother phoning for the results. I care as much about the NHS as they care about me & the rest of the population.