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 që Shqipëria të jetë si pjesa tjetër e Evropës’ [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.