Leaping To Freedom

The first Albanians to make the leap to freedom knew they were risking their lives. A few desperately crashed through the gates of various foreign embassies in trucks; others ran through police gunfire to reach the safety of diplomatic soil. But gradually the exodus became almost a sport. The police held their fire, and refugees vaulted embassy fences with impunity while friends and onlookers gathered to watch. Eventually groups of Albanians simply strolled through open gates. The people of Europe's last totalitarian state had had enough of hunger and tyranny. Late in the week police reportedly tried without success to break up a major rally in the center of the capital. "We want freedoms," a student told a group of foreign tourists in Tirana. "We want to express ourselves freely. We want enough to eat."

The Albanian government tried to defuse the uprising by promising passports and exit visas to anyone who applied--except those who violated the public order by seeking refuge in foreign embassies. When that failed to slow the tide, Tirana announced that only criminals would be denied travel papers. Still the rush continued. After 45 years under the totalitarian rule of Ramiz Alia and his predecessor, Enver Hoxha, the Albanians know better than to trust their government's promises. By the weekend, as many as 4,000 Albanians were holed up in a dozen or so of the capital's foreign embassies. More than 1,500 had taken refuge in the West German Embassy alone. The Albanian foreign minister told one French editor that arrangements were being made to give the fugitives safe passage to Italy, but there was no assurance they would be allowed to return. "The embassy looks like a railway station," said one West German official. None of the embassies was built for so many occupants, and the city's water supply is routinely shut off for seven hours every day.

Whether or not Alia makes good on the offer of travel documents for all who want them, few Albanians will be able to take him up on it. "The notion of an Albanian traveling abroad is impossible anyway," says an Athens-based diplomat. "They have no money." The average worker (meaning everyone except a few privileged members of the party elite) earns only $88 a month. A man's suit costs a full month's wages. A recent visitor to Tirana recalls meeting a young university student dressed in grimy pants and a torn shirt--the only clothes he owned. "If I had known I was going to meet a foreigner," the student apologized, "I would have borrowed a friend's shirt." Nevertheless, Albanians were said to be queuing up at their country's passport offices late last week, prepared to pay fees amounting to four months' wages for the right to leave.

Although Alia publicly denounced "the aims and actions of these destructive, antidemocratic and anti-Albanian forces," he kept his troops in check. Since taking power in 1985, Alia has cautiously tried to form new ties between Albania and the outside world. In recent months he has even talked about exchanging representatives with the European Community. Some analysts believe he simply doesn't want his efforts wrecked by mass bloodshed. But others claim the unrest gives him political leverage in a power struggle with party hard-liners. Their leader, the 69-year-old Nexhmije Hoxha, is the widow of Albania's dictator of four decades, Enver Hoxha. Like her late husband, she is an uncompromising Stalinist, fiercely opposed to such Aliabacked reforms as the legalization of crucifixes. With the support of many of the country's 8,000 secret police, known as the Sigurimi, Mrs. Hoxha has often managed to frustrate Alia's attempts at liberalization.

Alia seems unlikely to cave in to the demonstrators. He may be willing to tolerate their disturbances as long as they serve his personal aims, but he's no more a democrat than Mrs. Hoxha. Late last week knots of students roamed Tirana, avoiding police checkpoints and looking for foreigners who would listen to their grievances. Without leaders, weapons or organization, the protesters had little hope of toppling Albania's communist government. But Albanians can take courage from some of their European neighbors, who also seemed to have no hope of freedom--and won it anyway.

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