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What brings me, an English industrialist, to this one-time Balkan backwater? Well, first, curiosity. I have always been fascinated by this part of the world. It is a true historical melting pot. Most great powers of history have left their mark. In ancient times Rome and Athens each carved out swathes of territory. Then came Venice and Constantinople — La  Serenissima and the Sublime Porte in 16th- century diplomatic parlance — vying for trade, land and influence over hundreds of years. Next were the Habsburgs, battling tirelessly and risking all in their ultimately doomed efforts to extend their empire from Trieste to Salonika. All left their mark. More recently, Communism’s ugly jackboot held sway until its overthrow ushered in a brief though bloody period of intra-regional war. But since the early 1990s peace has taken hold throughout the Balkan peninsula, and for this due credit should be given to the European Union. For the Balkans, for all its oddities, is firmly part of the European continent. The region’s rulers have seen how the EU brings prosperity and peace to these once backward and often troubled parts, and how it offers a path to the modern world. First Slovenia joined, then Croatia. Today, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro are all candidates for membership. Will Albania be next?

Second, I have been invited. Maybe it’s something to do with my former and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to persuade the British electorate not to vote “Leave”. Maybe I am viewed as a potential investor. Whatever the reason, I have jumped at the opportunity to see a country which less than a quarter of a century ago was shrouded in mystery and completely inaccessible to the Western tourist.

Back to the party. It is to celebrate the opening of a new extension to the Imperial Hotel. All Tirana’s great and good are there. I meet Nikolin Jaka, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Arben Shkodra, his vice-president, the Minister of Health and other dignitaries. All were born in the Hoxha era and all speak fluent English. And therein lies one of the answers to how this once backward and depressed nation has brought itself out of isolation and into the western community of nations so successfully within a single generation.

Hoxha realised he could not run the country alone. He had to create a ruling class. Every nation needs one, whatever its political ideology. Following the Stalinist model to create a nomenklatura, special schools and an elite university were established and the brightest pupils selected to attend them. My guide Mirela was one such pupil. There she learned English and Italian, Italy being the nearest thing Albania had to a former colonial power. She and her family received modest privileges. Some foreign travel was permitted. Even before the collapse of Communism, she had secured herself an exit permit, a visa and a plane ticket to Rome. With $70, a fine intellect and an iron will, she built a new life in the Italian capital. Her less ambitious but still intelligent and able colleagues were left behind to pick up the pieces when the time came. Which it did, in 1991, when Communism collapsed and they immediately went to work to turn Tirana into a thriving, modern European capital with all the hallmarks of comfortable life that we fortunate people from the West are accustomed to.
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February 4th, 2018
3:02 AM
Refused an entry stamp by a typical public servant. If it had been somebody in commerce who realised he/she depended upon the goodwill of customers, it would have been "How many?". But no, your typical public servant has neither the imagination nor flair for doing such a small task for a tourist who would then possibly talk the place up and who knows, encourage more tourists, foreign exchange and wealth. Nope, the opening sentence sums up public servants (sic), they who have no concept of making their own country better but serving themselves.

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