On November 29th, Albania celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and its liberation from the Nazi forces. The coalition government, made-up of the Albanian Socialist Party (PS) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), took the lead in a series of commemorative events during the weeks and months preceding the anniversary. The high point of this campaign was the public opening of one of the most secretive anti-nuclear bunkers in Shtish-Tufina, a village 1.5 km away from the center of the capital, Tirana. The Albanian PM, Edi Rama, announced a radical break with the past by ‘opening all files’ of the secret security services of the communist regime, and stressed that the purpose of Bunk’Art is to unearth memories of the past and make the bunker a tourist attraction.
The event itself, and the announcement of the opening of the communist-era files, were met with much contention by the opposition. It soon became the setting of fierce competition between the two main, political camps in post-communist Albania (the left and right), which has been going on for two decades. The competition covers the appropriation of the past and, more specifically, the legacy of the National Liberation War of 1939-1944. These two events – the Liberation War and the installment of the communist regime that followed – are easily combined into one event by both political camps. This overlap is also present inside the Bunk’Art, where photographs and objects tell as much about the war as they do about the self-imposed paranoia and isolation of the communist regime.
The opening of the museum was accompanied by two related, yet slightly contradictory events: the promise to open the files of the communist regime and the presentation of the museum as a tourist site. Regarding the latter, this seems to be a trend that the current government is committed to enforcing. It is a smart economic move; yet, as seen in other Central and Eastern European countries, commercialization of the past has followed a process of ‘normalization,’ or domestically coming to terms with the past, before turning it into a product for mass consumption.
Regarding the opening of the communist files to the public, Edi Rama is not the first to promise it; his predecessor, Sali Berisha, had often pushed for the opening of files, but the promise remained unfulfilled. The lustration policies in Albania have, so far, been partial and inconsistent, and lustration has largely been a political issue throughout post-communism, as Arolda Elbasani and Artur Lepinski have rightly pointed out. In addition, lustration initiatives have been tainted by problems related to the enforcement of rule of law within the country. A lustration bill of public figures was passed in Parliament in December 2008 with the majority of votes coming from the governing coalition, led by the Democratic Party. It came into force in 2009, only to be annulled by the Constitutional Court stating it was unconstitutional. Now, the debate on opening the communist-era files is back to full swing with the government announcing it as a priority. Parallel to this, several anti-communist groups (e.g. Albanian Human Rights Group, the Association of the Persecuted and the Association of ‘December Students’) are pressing for a bill on the same issue.
The question on many people’s minds is, “Why now?” The initiative is better explained by the intense campaign of ‘strengthening the rule of law,’ which the current government launched soon after its election in June 2013. Furthermore, the external actors, and particularly the EU, seem to have direct influence on this direction. A key EU member, Germany, has supported this current debate on ‘collective memory.’ In a series of commemorative events, during October of this year, the German Ambassador to Albania, Helmut Hoffmann, stressed the importance of remembrance, awareness and responsibility regarding the past. Were it not for the Germany’s crucial role in supporting EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, this would have been no more than the advice of the representative from a country who experienced first-hand the drama of coming to terms with its difficult past. Additionally, other Western partners played a role in the fine tuning of the current ‘politics of memory.’ The outgoing US Ambassador to Albania, Alexander Arvizu, denounced the appearance of photos of Enver Hoxha that spontaneously appeared during the commemorative, 70th-anniversary events of the Liberation War’s end.
The way of discussing the past reflects the internal dynamics within the Socialist Party. It also meets the current government’s need to respond to the tastes and expectations of the larger part of its electorate, who were born in the eighties and associate communism more with anti-establishment than with Enver Hoxha. This makes it more pressing for this government to find a new attractive aesthetic and cultural language for narrating the past.
Still, this is far from being an example of public deliberation, and a clear plan on lustration is still missing. The current government could use this momentum to put an end to the polarization of the communist past. Transitional justice cannot be reduced to ad hoc gestures of de-communization. For the current initiatives of ‘coming clean with the past’ to have long-term effects and lead to a less polarized society, they must build on a coherent vision and strategy, and be clearly communicated to the public. They would also have to include other non-political societal actors. While it may be too early for the commercialization of the communist past, without a clear plan of transitional justice, the current initiatives might be just too little too late.