Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Guest blogger: Eastern Europe is worth your penny 

My yesterday's post about Albania has prompted one of Chrenkoff's regular guest bloggers Dan Foty to give a short history lesson about America's most unusual European ally as well as to argue that each one of us can support the friends of the United States in the region - with our tourist dollars.

I'll admit to some prejudice on this topic, since my grandparents were ethnic Vlach immigrants from southeastern Albania.

There's actually been a long-running reservoir of goodwill among Albanians toward the United States. Modern Albania was resurrected in 1912 out of the ashes of the First Balkan War; this was catalyzed by the 1893 Prizren Declaration, but it was to a large degree a Habsburg project - to prevent Serbia from obtaining a coastal region from which Serbia might become a naval power in the Adriatic. At that time, the Dalmatian coast (which is today's Croatian coast) was part of the Habsburg Empire, and the Habsburg fleet was based there; the Hapsburgs saw the strait between the boot-heel of Italy and the Albanian coast as a choke point that they could not let fall under the control of a potentially hostile power, since that could keep their fleet bottled up in the Adriatic and thus out of the Mediterranean.

During the post-WWI redrawing of the map of eastern Europe, Albania was coveted by basically all of the successor states which were forming around her. It was the personal intervention of Woodrow Wilson which saved Albania as an independent state; otherwise, it might have been added to Yugoslavia - or simply dismembered and the pieces distributed to the adjoining nations (much as befell Poland in the late 18th century). Thus, the existence of Albania itself carries an American stamp, and this hasn't been forgotten.

However, the 20th century was horridly cruel to Albania - and Albania can make a claim to being the most abused place on Earth during most of the 20th century, which is of course quite something to say. Post-WWI Albania was not long independent; during the 1920s, Italy gradually took more and more control of the country until by 1939 Albania had basically been annexed by Italy.

(As an aside, if you've ever wondered what drove a politically-ridiculous entity like "Yugoslavia" together, it was really fear in 1918-19 of Italian designs on the Dalmatian coast - a fear amply confirmed by Italian actions in Albania.)

Things went downhill from there. Eventually, like all of Europe, Albania fell under Nazi occupation. In 1945, Albania was taken over (much like Yugoslavia) by the most successful communist guerilla leaders. Sadly for Albania, these were the worst of the worst of the communists, and Albania was effectively occupied by space aliens for the next 46 years. The communist dictator of Albania was the master Stalin-worshiper Enver Hoxha - a monster who should be consigned to the same lower circle of hell as his mentor. It's little-known that in 1949 Hoxha actually reached an agreement with Tito to add Albania to Yugoslavia as Yugoslavia's seventh republic; this deal fell through at the last minute, as the communists were beginning to fall out with each other.

By 1960, with Stalin gone from the scene and the "Khrushchev thaw" in progress, Hoxha decided that he had had enough of this "revisionism" - he broke with the Soviet Union and became an ally of China. This lasted for 12 years; by 1972, China was talking pleasantly to the United States and showing revisionist symptoms of its own; Hoxha decided that he had to get rid of the Chinese, so he broke that alliance and announced that Albania would go it on its own.

For nearly 20 years, Albania became a North-Korean-like hermit kingdom, completely isolated from the world and continually propagandizing its population that they lived in paradise and were under constant threat from the imperialist west. During that time, the Wall Street Journal published an article on Albania under the sub-heading "Crabby Country." That name was justified, and was amply supported by the laughable shortwave broadcasts that would come out of the country. As a boy back in the 1970s, before we had the Internet and the web and all that, we had shortwave radio as the best method of international communications. I had interest in Albania for obvious family reasons, but Radio Tirana was (on its own) quite a hoot. Despite the poverty of the country, Radio Tirana came in loud and clear - as loud and clear as Radio Moscow, but a lot funnier. The fulminations were legendary; the general one was to rail against "the American imperialists, the Soviet social imperialists, and the Chinese revisionist imperialists." I think my favorite was a blast at "the Soviet social-imperialistic-bureaucratic police state." Wow, try saying THAT three times fast! The broadcasts always ended with a spookily-cheery valediction of "Good-bye, dear listeners" and a tinny recording of the Internationale.

When communism collapsed in eastern Europe, as far as I know it really did "collapse" in Albania. There was no revolution or dramatic event; the communist government simply expired from complete exhaustion, senescence, and the inability to do anything. Albania was a totally wrecked country - starving, impoverished, and beaten into the mud.

If the new Renaissance in eastern Europe has finally reached Albania, we should all cheer heartily. The greatest glory of Albania (and Albanians) has been survival.

I wish I could recommend some targets for a "buy Albanian" campaign, but nothing comes to mind. The most famous Albanian product is "raki," which is a wonderful cognac-like brandy; it is VERY strong (in the same class as vodka) but, when done right, is very smooth. Perhaps one of the New York readers could actually tell us if Albanian raki is available in New York, and if it can be shipped elsewhere.

I haven't been to Albania (yet), but just from proximity it should indeed have tremendous tourism potential. I have been to the Croatian coast, as nearby as Dubrovnik (and will be there again in June on business - there's at least one picture
here), and my short summary would be "spectacular." The coast there is much like the famous regions of southern Italy - mountainous terrain spilling into the sea. If you look at the other end of Albania, you can see that it's very close to Corfu. So my extrapolation is that if you look at Dubrovnik to the north and Corfu to the south, what's in between must be equally spectacular. That coastline isn't a stranger to history - for example, the Albanian port of Durrës takes its name from the older Roman progenitor of Dyrrhachium. The Romans weren't inclined to building Mediterranean port cities in unpleasant places, and I've seen photos of Roman ruins along the Albanian coast. More recently, Club Med has actually opened negotiations to build a resort near the southern end of the Albanian coast, within site (and transport) of Corfu.

The inland mountains are also said to have potential for ski resorts. There is indeed a great deal of tourism potential in Albania, but it will take time to build up the infrastructure. This comment applies in general to eastern Europe, although many places have made great strides in recent years and are certainly quite acceptable to most western visitors.

On that count, I'll just close with a broader piece of experienced advice. I'm in eastern Europe on business several times a year, and can tell you a good story. Many Americans (and other like-minded westerners) would like to visit Europe, but are irked at the idea of engaging in any commerce with the "weasel countries" of western Europe. The general good news is that you can basically find any of the "European" things (things that Americans go to Europe to visit) that you "traditionally" find in western Europe over in eastern Europe - and generally at about a quarter of the price! Medieval charm? You can find that aplenty in Tallinn (one of the best-kept secrets on the planet) and Krakow. Spectacular seacoast? You can skip the French Riviera and head to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Spectacular mountains? The Carpathians aren't quite the Alps, but they are close, particularly in their highest regions; the Tatra mountains on the border of Poland and Slovakia are wonderful and not nearly as "overrun" as the Alps. History? Eastern European history is an order of magnitude more complicated than western European history; for example, last month I was in a corner of Ukraine which, over the past 100 years, has belonged to Austria (Habsburgs), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the USSR, and now Ukraine. Arthur can probably regale us with numerous stories of the glory days when Poland was the largest and most powerful country in Europe. Food and drink? Wonderful and unique cuisine from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and if you want a good drink there are spectacular beers, wines and vodkas all along the way. My personal favorites are Estonian vodka, Polish and Ukrainian beer, Slovakian and Bulgarian wine (the Bulgarian wines are marginal now but wait another 10 - 20 years and they will be excellent), and Croatian raki (pending the arrival of Albanian raki as good as my grandfather used to make).

It's quite a deal. You can have a wonderful "European" experience at low prices while supporting our allies. Right Arthur?


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?