Communist Legacies in the Albanian Landscape

Dean S Rugg. Geographical Review. Volume 84, Issue 1. January 1994.

The Albanian landscape reveals four legacies of communism: reclamation of the Myzeqe Plain, new urban centers, use of the Drin River as a source of hydroelectricity, and the creation of socialist Tirana. These legacies evolved under a policy of self-reliance and rural development that was unique in Eastern Europe. Nationalism led to refusal of aid from other communist countries, but the influence of the former Soviet Union on ideology and planning models is undeniable. In a wide context these legacies raise questions about a socialist landscape and aspects of equity, environmental quality, and modernization in them.

The elements of the socialist landscape are disappearing fast, and documenting them is important to discern the legacies of communism. Unlike other East European countries, Albania chose a nationalistic or self-reliant approach to modernization and shut itself off from the rest of the world for several decades. This circumstance makes it even more important to analyze the geographical aspects of social change. Between 1944 and 1985 Albania may have made considerable economic progress under Enver Hoxha, but it remains the most backward country in Europe (Pano 1992). Examination of the current landscape reveals four significant legacies from the communist regime: reclamation of the Myzeqe Plain, establishment of forty-one new urban centers as focal points of economic development, transformation of the Drin River as a source of hydroelectrical power, and promotion of Tirana as a socialist capital.

As a student in France during the interwar years, Hoxha became aware of the extent to which Albanian underdevelopment resulted from Turkish and Italian exploitation (Biberaj 1990, 17). After 1945 Hoxha embraced a Stalinist program of forced industrialization that depended on economic aid from other communist countries. However, his obsession with overdependence on external powers and his rigid Stalinist ideology led to rejection of aid successively from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China, with heavy economic consequences for Albania. His nationalistic emphasis justified not only the hardships of isolation and self-reliance but also a rural-development program that stabilized urbanization at approximately 35 percent. He also reduced the fragmenting effects of tribal and religious loyalties. Most significant was the attempt to integrate the northern Gegs and southern Tosks, whose differences in way of life and dialect had long been divisive forces in Albania.

The Myzeqe Plain

The Myzeqe Plain, the largest on the eastern Adriatic coast, illustrates the transformation from malarial swamp to irrigated fields that has been characteristic of the northern Mediterranean coast since 1945. Two factors are important in explaining the patterns in Albania. The first is the misuse of land that started in antiquity (Semple 1931, 289-291; Braudel 1972, I, 67). Landscape deterioration was noted as long ago as 1920, when an Austrian geographer described the plain as “a desolate wasteland covered with spreading water areas and impassable swamp forests … inundated in winter and dried up in summer” (Veith 1920, 77). The cycle of deterioration included overcutting and overgrazing followed by loss of soil from the steep, bare slopes during winter rains; this transported sediment then filled the beds of the main streams as their gradients were radically reduced on reaching the plain; and the result was flooding, swamp conditions, and malaria. The deposits of the Shkumbin, Seman, and Vijose rivers eventually expanded the plain outward into the sea.

The second factor was land tenure, in which the consequences of Ottoman rule and its decline were paramount (Stavrianos 1958, 138). With the weakening of Ottoman power during the eighteenth century, serfdom was introduced as fiefs were converted into private, heritable estates. Rather than accept the new status of serfs, many peasants fled to the mountains and left areas of potentially productive land abandoned and untilled. A result was the paradox of an underpopulated plain of swamp, fallow, and pasture next to overpopulated mountains. An analytical framework for this pattern is devastation theory, which holds that physical factors, hydrographical in this case, are inseparable from human ones, in this case the exploitive Turkish land-tenure system (Busch-Zantner 1938, 124-134).

Little improvement in the conditions of the plain occurred in the interwar period, when Albania was not a viable state. Italy, which initially dominated and then occupied the country, was not interested in land improvement and left the large estates mostly intact. Landuse proportions derived from the 1928 H. Louis map at the scale of 1:200,000 were 10.4 percent in lakes and swamps, 19 percent cultivated, 57 percent in pasture, and 13.6 percent in forest and brushwood (Zavalani 1938, 58).

The estate system of land tenure is rarely visible in the current landscape. Drainage and irrigation of the plain were among the most impressive accomplishments of the communist regime and reflect improved relationships between people and environment. Between 1946 and 1990, 52,200 hectares of land were reclaimed from lakes, marshes, and swamps; a further 200,500 hectares were improved. Together the area amounts to 36 percent of the total arable land in Albania in 1990 (Statistical yearbook 1991, 243-245). In 1938, only 29,000 hectares, or 10 percent of the arable land, were irrigated; in 1990, 423,000 hectares, or 60 percent of the arable land, were under irrigation. The latter figure is the highest in Europe, surpassing the Netherlands. A comparison of maps at the scale of 1:200,000 for 1928 and 1990 for the Myzeqe Plain shows the extent of the transformation. Where swamps and marshes existed, drainage and irrigation canals, reservoirs, and pumping stations now operate, and large fields of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops dominate landuse.

A complementary legacy to reclamation and irrigation, these large fields may now be disappearing as privatization proceeds. Collectivization of the countryside into large mechanized farms was a standard communist method of controlling rural populace and of providing surpluses of foodstuff, labor, and capital for industrial programs. Between 1947 and 1967 the Albanian government assigned land either to collectives, which were cooperatives, or to state farms, which had salaried workers. As part of the process a certain amount of migration occurred from the mountains, but later this was reduced in an attempt to handle growing imbalances in large natural increases (Borchert 1975, 180-185). In 1987, two years before the communist regime was overthrown, collective farms controlled 70.4 percent and state farms 29.6 percent of the total land. There were 417 collective farms, with an average size of 1,205 hectares. Other legacies of communist agricultural modernization are the nearly doubling of cultivated land and large increases in labor and land intensities.

New Urban Centers

A second legacy of communism in the Albanian landscape is the forty-one new urban centers established as focal points of economic development. This number is greater than the total of new centers in all other East European countries combined. The purpose of the centers was not only extraction of the impressive metallic mineral and energy resources of the country but also roles in administration, agriculture, and education (Berxholi and Qiriazi 1986, 85-102). The distribution of the centers confirms their active role in a self-reliant development policy. Twenty-two of the twenty-six districts in the country have new centers; they are absent from the districts of Lezhe, Lushnje, Permet, and Gjirokaster. Although exact data on population are not available, all the new centers with the exception of Kukes, Lac, Patos, and Kucove had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in 1990. Thirty-four of these centers are in the mountains, which illustrates the attempt to utilize the resources and population there. Twenty-four of the centers are associated with extraction of metallic mineral and energy resources, eight with agriculture, four with administration, four with industry, and one with education.

Electrical lines and shops are visible in many new centers, but good railway and road facilities are lacking. The total length of roads increased from 3,100 kilometers in 1938 to 7,250 kilometers in 1989, but only three east-west roads cross the country, so large areas like the upper valleys of the Devoll and Osum rivers are isolated. The first railroad in Albania was built in 1945, but only two lines–one to the Mat River valley and one to Pogradec–are in the mountains.

The founding of new urban centers in the mountains had both advantages and disadvantages. Located nearby are resources of copper, chrome, nickel-iron, coal, and oil. With mining and processing often occurring in the same center, savings are realized on transportation of bulky, low-value raw materials, which was an important principle of industrial location in socialist countries where an ideological goal was regional equity. The regime used these centers as nodes of employment in a rural-development policy that was to disperse large surpluses of rural population. In addition, great potential existed for hydroelectrical power as energy in the new centers. Disadvantages included inaccessibility in a region where relative relief was the greatest in Europe and where transportation facilities were limited.

Eleven of the new centers are associated with mining and, in some cases, processing of ores. However, refining of copper and iron ores occurs in the old cities of Shkoder and Elbasan respectively. Copper production exhibits great dispersion, but extraction of chrome and nickel-iron ores is more concentrated. Perhaps the most impressive new center is Kukes, associated with copper mining. It also serves important regional functions. When the Drin River was dammed for a hydroelectrical installation after 1970, old Kukes and seventeen villages were inundated by a reservoir; the new Kukes and twelve villages were built at higher elevations (Lienau and Prinzing 1986, 245-249). Kukes, with a population of more than 11,000 in 1985, exhibits a typical socialist layout and functions, including a cultural center, a tourist hotel, an industrial zone, and residential apartment blocks with shops, a school, a hospital, and recreational green space. A gypsy area lets one know that the past is not far away.

Thirteen new centers are associated with energy and power production. By 1987 Albania not only was self-sufficient in energy but also exported electricity. Oil and gas production, which rose ninefold between 1950 and 1989, is concentrated in the southern hills at Kucove, Patos, and Ballsh. Pipelines connect them to main cities of the south. Three main refineries are at Kucove, Ballsh, and Cerrik. The Selenice area has long been the center of asphalt mining, but the current town is largely new. Coal mining is the function of Valias, Memaliaj, Krrabe, and Alarup.

Seventeen other new centers were established. Four were founded for industry on the plain: Lac as a chemical center, Fushe-Kruje for cement, Shijak for clothing, and Vore for bricks. Eight new centers for agricultural processing were significant additions to the landscape. Maliq was created in the 1950s on swampy land in the Korce basin that had been drained for sugar-beet cultivation and refining. Mamuras and Rrogozhine on the plain and Roskovec, Corovode, and Bajram Curri in the mountains were places to process agricultural products. Lukove and Ksamil evolved as centers for new state farms on terraced landscapes with citrus fruits near the sea in southern Albania where there is no coastal plain (Hall 1987, 49). Four new centers are administrative in function, and one is for education.

Transformation of the Drin River

Albania’s electrical-power industry is widely distributed, with eight thermal plants in the central part of the country and more than eighty hydroelectric plants in the north and south. Albania is similar to Norway in that more than 90 percent of its electrical energy comes from hydropower. The largest of the hydroelectrical projects, the dams at the new centers of Vaui Dejes, Koman, and Fierze, has transformed the Drin River as the third legacy of communism. Generating almost 1.5 million kilowatts of electricity, these dams are backed by three large, east-west-oriented reservoirs, which are also used for transportation and tourist excursions. Two other dams are planned for the upper Drin River, but their future is now uncertain, owing to the present state of the Albanian economy.

Socialist Tirana

A fourth legacy of communism in the Albanian landscape is the modification of existent urban centers. Changes were superimposed on places with the imprint of previous civilizations. Coastal centers like Durres, Shkoder, and Vlore display Venetian characteristics. The presence of the Roman Catholic religion in northern Albania is strongly indicated by churches, including the cathedral at Shkoder. Byzantine influence is revealed best in the square layout and dome profile of Eastern Orthodox churches in the south (Sherrard 1966, 138). The imprint of Turkish control is even more evident, with mosques, bazaars, and inns being the most evident features.

The housing landscape now differs totally from that of the past. More than two-thirds of all urban housing dates after 1945 and is dominated by apartment blocks. Many houses, often rebuilt and preserved by the communist regime, are outstanding historical relics. Gjirokaster and Berat were declared museum towns by the communist regime because of the large amount of outstanding architecture in each. In these places housing reached its most advanced stage at the end of the eighteenth century. Structures in Gjirokaster are tall and give a fortification image; those in Shkoder are known for verandas. Houses called konaqi were the residences of the Muslim absentee estate owners. By contrast, in Greek-influenced areas like Korce, large houses were residences of craftspersons and merchants.

Tirana reflects these multicultural characteristics of Albanian urbanism before 1930, although relics of the past landscape are relatively few because the communist regime tried to transform the city into a socialist landscape. Founded in 1614 during the Turkish occupation, Tirana bore the marks of an Islamic urban center: features included mosques, bath houses, and a theological school (Carter 1986, 270-272). Tirana benefited in later years from a location near the port of Durres and the Roman Via Egnatia, the primary route to Elbasan and the central Balkans. By 1803 the city had 4,000 residents, and an English visitor described the oriental character of the place (Hughes 1820, 213). In 1920 the city was designated the capital of Albania; the site was selected because of its reduced exposure to foreign threats that prevailed during and after World War I. In addition, the location was central between the Gegs and the Tosks.

During the 1930s Italian influence and aid partially transformed the city by modernizing its layout with several straight, asphalted boulevards. Skanderbeg Square became a planned core with governmental buildings in Renaissance style (Robinson 1941, 19). The Italians constructed the Dajti Hotel, still the best in the country, and other structures that no longer stand. In 1940 the population was 25,000, and the city was soon to undergo vast changes under communism.

Data on the socialist intraurban structure of Albanian urban centers are difficult to obtain. Albanian geographers told me that the socialist characteristics of Soviet planning were applied in their country even after Soviet influence waned in the early 1960s. Some of the principles included emphasis on the political-cultural role of the capital city and central cores of cities at the expense of commerce, regulation of city size, importance of urban historic heritage, use of squares and boulevards as organizing foci, self-contained residential neighborhoods with services and workplaces, standardization of architecture for a classless society and to reduce costs, and adequate provision of green space (Fisher 1962, 252-254). These principles, though often used in capitalist societies, were more effective under socialism because greater enforcement powers allowed planners to ignore site-rental values and transportation costs in locating enterprises. The socialist planners could appropriate land at any site and keep transportation costs low by subsidizing public-transit systems. The land-value surface of socialist cities remained flat; the urban layout assumed a star shape along axes of public transportation; and retail trade was not an emphasis.

Authorities in each Albanian town prepared structural plans that incorporated results derived from these principles: a central core of political and cultural functions, a main square and one or more boulevards lined with public buildings to display the accomplishments of socialism, residential neighborhoods more or less self-contained with services to reduce commuting, and strong stress on access to factories, schools, health-care facilities, and cultural sites.

Main cities like Shkoder, Durres, Vlore, Elbasan, and Korce exhibited some of these traits, but Tirana, as the capital, became the most socialist in appearance. Tirana is the primate city in terms of political, cultural, industrial, and service functions (Sivignon 1975, 341-343). The population was 240,000 in 1990–a tenfold growth in five decades. The political-cultural core is Skanderbeg Square, which until 1990 contained a statue of Hoxha. The socialist axis is Heroes Boulevard, formerly part of Stalin Boulevard, that runs north-south through the square from the railroad station to the polytechnic university. Residential neighborhoods line the northern section of the boulevard; to the south and west are typical socialist parks and other structures housing public institutions; on the east are buildings for the arts, education, and government, as well as the Dajti Hotel. Immediately south of the square is the district with the governmental structures constructed during the Italian occupation. Soviet influence is most prominent in the Palace of Culture and the television building. Commercial and artisan shops occupy the site of the old bazaar behind the cultural palace.

The old irregular street pattern has disappeared, and for the most part the alignments are fairly straight. Axial boulevards extend in a star-shaped pattern representative of the socialist city; a new circular boulevard has been created. Main streets with bus lines flank residential areas that consist chiefly of four-to-five-story tenements, though some old detached housing exists. Several factories are located in the western sector of the city, but some are also found elsewhere. An electrical-power station and a barracks are on the western side of the city. The main airport is at Rinas, twenty kilometers to the northwest. The Lanes River is channelized. On the forested hills overlooking the city on the south are a large park, residences of chief governmental officials, and a cemetery for World War II victims as well as the grave of Hoxha.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1990 the socialized, partially modernized landscape had little evidence of religion (Luxner 1992). Albanians had traditionally been divided among three religious groups: Islam, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. Under the communist regime religion was actively suppressed, and Albania was officially declared an atheist state in 1967. Nowhere else in the world was the pressure on religion so brutal and sustained. By May 1967 more than two thousand places of worship and other religious institutions had been closed, converted to other uses, or destroyed. A recent large-scale map of Tirana shows only three churches. About thirty of the most famous in the country survived because they were placed under the historic-preservation program, whose director saved many such buildings from destruction and probably prevented their eradication from the landscape.

Since 1990 freedom of worship has been allowed, a change evident in Tirana now that the Muslim call to prayer is heard again. Churches are slowly being restored. For example, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Shkoder, for twenty years used as a basketball-volleyball arena, is being renovated with funds from the Vatican. By contrast, the small Roman Catholic church in the mountain village of Boga is being completely rebuilt with local resources. Religion again reflects the persistent split of Albania between East and West.

Theory and Reality in the Socialist Landscape

The legacies of communism provide evidence for what in theory might be called a socialist landscape and place the Albanian example in a wide context. There are arguments for and against the concept of a socialist landscape (Turnock 1978, 10-11; French and Hamilton 1979; Rugg 1985, 256-257). One of the few references to the Albanian example identified both spontaneous or precommunist and planned or communist elements, the latter resulting in state-induced change by technology (Blanc 1961, 8). The changes in reclamation, hydropower, urban centers, and Tirana illustrate the planned transformation of the landscape in which a break with the past was ideologically justified. Perhaps it is a mistake to emphasize an element of uniqueness in a socialist landscape that can never be isolated or proved, but the crucial point is that Marxism dominated for forty years in Eastern Europe, including Albania, and scholars must deal with it in explaining landscape patterns found there.

In ideological theory the communists emphasized at least three main advantages of socialism that would influence the landscape in a Marxist society: social equity among regions, improved environmental quality, and significant degrees of modernization. The Albanian constitution of 1976 stresses all three, and many specialists believe that centralized planning offers advantages in realizing these goals. To what extent does reality match these theoretical expectations?

Although all socialist countries stress equity in development, specialists agree that the goal is not realistic. As an ideology it serves the purpose of justifying extreme measures in planning (Bornstein 1966, 74). Regional development in Albania reveals large, existent inequities: the plain districts are much ahead of the mountain districts (Sjoberg 1992, 106). Even in the mountains development was based on the exploitation of resources, and the new urban centers and settlements reflected that pattern. Isolation, rugged topography, an exploitive history, and an expanding population erected barriers to any form of social equity. The continued polarization of development seems to agree with an earlier conclusion that the process is inevitable at low levels of development (Mihailovic 1972, 35-37). Nevertheless, by 1989 all sections of the country were more interactive than had been the case before World War II. This achievement is in line with the interpretation that Marxist planning sought better access to an improving quality of life, not strict regional equity (Ludermann and Heinzmann 1978, 121-124). Perhaps the contrast with the past, when Turkish and Italian exploitation had been so pervasive, makes the progress under communism appear greater than it really was.

Environmental quality in socialist countries should theoretically be excellent. These countries had important advantages in dealing with environmental problems such as control of the economy, a lag in production of automobiles and disposable products, availability of cheap labor to collect waste and to clean urban areas, a minimum of littering and graffiti, plentiful parks, and excellent historic preservation. Article 20 of the Albanian constitution stressed the duty of the state and each citizen to protect the environment. However, thirty-five years of travel in Eastern Europe allowed me to see many aspects of poor environmental quality, which certainly was the impression in Albania between 1991 and 1993. For example, pollution from the new iron and steel plant at Elbasan blankets the city, and the copper smelter at Kukes severely damages vegetation in the area. Sewage-treatment plants are lacking in most towns, and water is not safe for drinking. In addition, one notes the poor quality of construction: the drainage and irrigation canals, terraces, factories, and apartment blocks all need repair. Salinization is apparently a problem in some of the irrigated sections of the plain (Hutchings 1989, 331).

To what extent has Albania been modernized? Modernization varies in socialist and capitalist countries, because Marxist-Leninist ideology has as its goal the remaking and even equalization of society in terms of class differences and economic and social opportunities (Aspaturian 1974, 12-13). A comparison of the two types of modernization is difficult. In Albania certain accomplishments such as education and health care were more evident than economic ones. Agricultural employment fell from more than 80 percent in 1938 to 55 percent in 1989. However, upward mobility from blue-collar to white-collar worker was less evident, seemingly because of the limited emphasis on retail and service sectors.

Barriers to modernization in Albania were vast–poor accessibility in a mountainous environment, rapid population expansion, stifling control of political and economic activity, and dependence on a self-reliant system that isolated the country economically and technologically. Albania provides a lesson in the dangers of a country on a narrow nationalistic line without accommodating relations. The presence of approximately one million concrete bunkers, built in the 1980s as defense against foreign invasion, not only wasted resources but also symbolized the nationalistic attitude. For the future, opportunities exist, but reform will require more decentralized, coordinated decision making.