Shkoder - city in expectation

Mustafa NANO

FRI, 10 MAR 2000

Tirana, 22 February, 2000 - owadays, Shkoder, the traditionally most important city in the north of Albania, does not make a special impression at first sight. It is an ordinary city which offers nothing that would distinguish it from other urban zones of the country of eagles. Damaged roads, ugly kiosks on pavements which are a symbol of the kind of capitalism which bears the exclusive stamp of Albania, not very heavy traffic but certainly unorganised (no traffic lights at cross-roads) and numerous cafes, bars and restaurants, people who trade on stalls put up on pavements, shooting from various types of firearms during the night, although less frequently than two years ago - this is the visible part of modern Shkoder. For those who have previously visited Tirana, Durres, or any other Albanian city, this is not such a disturbing sight; on the contrary if one adds interruption of electric power or water supply, it becomes clear that Shkoder with its 100 thousand inhabitants, is nothing more but a true banal part of dramatic Albanian reality.

What distinguishes Shkoder, the city by the lake with the same name, which is about 40 kilometres from Podgorica, from the rest of Albania?

Weak state power and public order completely out of any control made the people take justice into their own hands, which is the other name used as a pretext for the revival of medieval canon of Leka Dukadxini which was for many years after formation of the Albanian state in the beginning of this century (1912) used as the only respected constitution by the inhabitants of Albanian malesias. The Albanian monarchist regime (1928-1939), but especially the communist dictatorship (1944-1990), managed to impose themselves on the highlanders unaccustomed to state authority, and for more than half a century, the cruel law of revenge, or, in other words, taking justice into one’s own hands institutionalised through the canon of Leka Dukaxhini could not be practised. The Albanian malisors learnt to subject themselves to the state. However, the initial anarchy and institutional vacuum created after overthrowing of communism was sufficient for them to go back to the old rules. The 1997 crisis which brought about total collapse of the state, breaking into armament storehouses and arming of the population complicated the situation even further. During this period, whole families of malisors were forced to leave their homes and move towards the cities.

Being a comparatively large city, Shkoder was the safest refuge for them. In this way, this phenomenon moved from the mountains to the centre of Northern Albania, where public order and safety have, for this reason, additionally been endangered since March 1997. Nowadays, a big number of families, whose safety the state cannot ensure, are nowadays imprisoned in homes rented to them by the inhabitants of the city. The most dramatic part of this phenomenon are the children who have no possibility for education, entertainment, not even for free movement.

The other wonder that Shkoder surprises with is of quite different nature. A European would stare with astonishment when he saw in the very centre of the city, a mosque built next to the Orthodox church and 500 metres away a Catholic church. The former two religious buildings were constructed after the fall of communism, and the latter is in fact a building which is more than 100 years old which was turned by the regime of Enver Hoxha, seized by atheistic fever in the sixties, into a sports hall. After proclamation of pluralism and after reconstruction, it got back its previous status.

The presence of two or three religions in a single city is not a special phenomenon, least of all in the Balkans. What impresses in Shkoder is not in the least problematic co-existence of these three religions. This is a tradition in this city, one of the oldest and the most celebrated ones in the Balkans, where marriage among persons of different creed has not been surprising for anybody. It still is not.

At this point it should be said that in Albanian history of this century, political, cultural and every other development in Shkoder constantly exerted influence on the rest of Albania. Nowadays, Shkoder has lost its force of radiation and conditioning the course of development in Albania. During communist rule, repression was especially cruel there, primarily against the Catholic clergy which was the main representative voice of Shkoder culture, regardless of the fact that the Catholic community formed not more than 40 per cent of the city population. Only a part of the intellectual elite lives and works here, but it does not have the possibility to be heard and to impose itself on those who are exercising power and who politically represent modern Shkoder. This is one of the dramas of this city.

The other misfortune of Shkoder in the second part of the 20th century is geographic isolation. This isolation has become even more painful after year 1990. The south of Albania had the possibility to immediately feel the advantages of opening of this country. Greece has become the favourite station for more than half a million Albanian emigrants majority of whom were inhabitants of southern regions of this country. Citizens of Shkoder and other northern regions, stimulated by poverty greater than in other parts of Albania, turned their eyes towards the coast on the other side of the Adriatic. But just a small part of these people, most frequently illegally and after taking one thousand and one risk, managed to reach the promised land - Italy.

Another big group of people, during the years of the war in former Yugoslavia used the embargo and UN sanction against Belgrade, as well as the intentional indifference of the authorities in the period between 1992 and 1995 and organised very profitable smuggling of oil derivatives, transported them to Montenegro and further on to Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia - to feed the military machinery of the conflicting parties. Smuggling of cigarettes was organised in the same way, and the regional mob has lately managed to take control of the trade of prostitutes coming from the countries of the former communist East, mostly Russians, Bulgarians and Moldavians. In the chaos which followed after the 1997 Albanian crisis, Shkoder turned into the main destination of prostitutes arriving from Montenegro. From there they moved further on towards Durres and Vlore, and Albanian-Italian mafia transported them by small boats further on to the West.

However, smuggling, illegal trade and other illegal activities brought wealth just to a small number of the citizens of Shkoder. By 1997, the citizens of Shkoder had invested considerable effort to build legal and honest business firms. Among them were not just local people, but also foreigners - mostly Italians who had the courage to start serious investments. The general confusion which was created after the collapse of the state in 1997 cut the resoluteness of these businessmen and discouraged them. The firms which had already existed were either burnt down, destroyed or robbed by gangs criminals or were shut down by decision of the investors. Nowadays the situation is dramatic. The city is spending its capital it has saved. The trade with prostitutes has already been interrupted by Albanian police. Smuggling and smugglers are looking for a war, but there is no war.

Opening of the border with Montenegro would pull Shkoder out of isolation and turn it into a great centre of commerce. Shkoder would again take over the role it played before. This is the happiest solution inhabitants of Shkoder are waiting for.

The end of NATO air strikes against former Yugoslavia which also marked the beginning of solving of the issue of Kosovo has already created a different regional reality. On the other hand, the initiative of the Stability Pact in the beginning gave rise to certain collective optimism which still has not died down despite the slow steps that are being made. The Balkan is still turbulent, of course, and hardly anyone here believes that peace has already become the reality, but all things considered, chances are bigger than ever. Contacts between Tirana and Podgorica are intensified and they have finally raised hopes of the people in Shkoder. Two weeks ago deputy minister of foreign affairs of Montenegro paid a two-day visit to Shkoder and Tirana. Immediately after that, Montenegrin government issued an information about its decision to open three border crossings. Easier passage across the border is just the beginning. Other moves in the direction of inter-state and cross-border co-operation are expected in the future.

If there is a city in the Balkans which is especially interested in having the region stabilised, in which countries will co-operate with each other, it is the city of Shkoder. Its position (it is almost in the geographic middle of the western line of the peninsula) is very convenient to turn it into a significant road for the whole region. The Stability Pact, the projects of North-South and East-West corridors, the stimulus of regional co-operation, are all primarily a chance for cities like Shkoder.

Besides, free communication in the Balkan places Shkoder in the geographic centre of the territory where the Albanians live. In such conditions, it does not remain an insignificant city on the margin, located on an impenetrable border like today, but turns into a city that breathes and perhaps acquires significance it has never had in history.

Original article