Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Column

Albania's post-communist dream has lessons for Ukraine

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In her recent book Free, Coming of Age at the End of History, the Albanian political scientist Lea Ypi describes how she grew up in communist Albania, physically and mentally cut off from the outside world.

Her parents' families had been wealthy and cosmopolitan before the revolution and lost everything. Under the communists, they never got rid of their upper-class stigma — they called it "the biography".

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  • Books about communist delusions can be an interesting read — but the real striking episodes are about the short transitional period after communism, during the 1990s, when Albania abruptly switched from one system to another

Because they did not want to burden their daughter with these problems, she only found out about this later — although she did wonder sometimes why her grandmother insisted on speaking French with her.

When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, Albanians suddenly embraced the West. Ypi, still a teenager, was utterly confused. Wasn't the West supposed to be depraved and evil? But like many others, she soon got used to the mantras of the new era. "There was no more politics, only policy," she writes. "The purpose of these policies was to prepare the state for a new era of freedom, and make people feel they belonged 'to the rest of Europe'."

Books about communist delusions can be an interesting read.

But the real striking episodes in Free are about the short transitional period after communism, during the 1990s, when Albania abruptly switched from one system to another: from a collectivist welfare state to a European parliamentary democracy, based on pluralism and individual freedoms, and a social market economy.

Now, with the war in Ukraine raging, this is fascinating material.

On the one hand, Ukrainians have a similar determination to belong to "the rest of Europe" as Albanians. On the other hand, this war shocks many Europeans because it weakens the belief in progress they were brought up with. Interestingly enough, it is precisely this sense of insecurity and vulnerability that gives them a new sense of direction.

For years, Europeans thought there would never be another war on the continent, or that they even 'above' war. Many were convinced — particularly after the fall of the Wall in 1989, when the West 'won' and the communists 'lost' — that civilisation was a linear process.

Over time, things would only get better. Other nations, including Russia, would follow Europe on this path.

Russia's war in Ukraine partly shattered this belief. Many do not see Western civilisation anymore as a linear process with just one direction — upward — but as a process beset by obstacles and setbacks. Because of this war it becomes clear to many that the ruling elite in Russia, but also in China and other places, reject our political model and try to undermine and destroy it.

In Albania in the 1990s, Ypi writes, Europe stood for a certain way of life that was more imitated than understood.

"'Europe' was like a long tunnel with an entrance illuminated by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. When the journey started, it didn't occur to anyone to ask where the tunnel ended, whether the light would fail, and what there was on the other side. It didn't occur to anyone to bring torches, or to draw maps, or to ask whether anyone ever makes it out of the tunnel, or if there is only one exit or several, and if everybody goes out the same way. Instead, we just marched on."

Is the West doomed?

Actually, it was somewhat the same for many Europeans, although they themselves had long been deep in that "post-historical" tunnel (as the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève once characterised highly developed industrial countries): we too, in our own way, just walked on.

But now, the confidence many Europeans had in the future, and the belief that mankind and the world would get better against all odds, have taken a blow.

The German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz recently wrote in Die Zeit that "the West and liberal thinking are no longer the only game in town, but one of several conflicting parties".

Reckwitz sees three major trends: a gradual de-globalisation, an ever-stronger focus on security and the emergence of new ideological divisions.

We in the West increasingly talk about 'democracies versus autocracies' — or, in the case of Russia, totalitarianism. They talk about national rootedness versus Western decadence that has lost its moral compass and is detached from traditional values.

All this has woken up Europeans. Slowly, the tunnel feeling is disappearing. There is some sense of direction again. Europeans start investing in their own security, in order to protect their way of life (remember the laughter when a European commissioner received this portfolio just a few years ago?).

The enlargement process has gotten unstuck for the simple reason that it becomes more clear who is European and who is not.

Yes, there are still many fierce political fights in Europe, about energy and budget deficits and ballooning debts. But this is what European countries always do when the need arises to cooperate or integrate more: it starts with a crisis, is followed by tense negotiations by member states that all have different wishes and demands, and ends with some sort of imperfect compromise.

The latest example of this is Tuesday's (26 July) agreement on a 15 percent gas cut in all member states

Polls show that Europeans are still not very happy with the European Union — ie the way it functions — but in the face of Putin's brutality they certainly feel happier in the EU. It is telling that even Eurosceptic politicians have stopped talking about exits. Instead, they want to change Europe from the inside.

Lea Ypi is now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, teaching and researching Marxism. She is disillusioned by the broken promises of liberalism and thinks her world is as far from freedom as the one her parents tried to escape.

Many Europeans will disagree with that assessment. But they seem to agree with her, more than before, that "fighting cynicism and political apathy turns into what some might call a moral duty". And this is a good thing.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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