“When we see countries that are recovering from Communism, the population often doesn’t believe that the Communists lost all the power. In Albania, that is not a belief, it is a reality,” Dr Lukasz Kaminski told me as we sat in the foyer of the Tirana International.
Visiting Albania for a few days, Lukasz is the President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, an organisation that was formed in 2011 to research, document, educate, support, and raise awareness about totalitarian regimes which befell Europe during the 20th Century.
The purpose of his visit which was organised in collaboration with the Institute of Democracy, Media, and Culture was to meet with local activists, NGOs and the government to raise awareness and encourage dialogue. The delegation also visited Shkodra and Lezhe where they visited different remembrance sites as well as meeting with survivors of the Albanian Communist regime.
“When comparing Albanian communism to communism in other countries, it is really visible that the Albanians’ experience was the most severe. No other European country suffered as much as Albania”, Lukasz said.
He added that over the years, the situation got worse and more repressive, with no periods of liberalisation. This, he said, was a very unique situation and no other European society, including Soviet states, had their entire social system and all structures destroyed in the same way that Albania did.
“It’s not only about repression and the crimes against humanity that happened here, but it was also the problem of the total destruction of all social structures.”
Lukasz believes that this utter annihilation of freedom and systems that society needs to perform, are the key cause of many problems that exist in Albanian society.
As the topic turned to the future, I asked Lukasz how optimistic he feels about Albania making a full recovery from its Communist past.
“Ten years ago I would have been more optimistic,” he tells me. “I used to think that a country needed as much time as it spent under Communist rule, to recover, but I think Albania needs more time than that.”
He then explains how it is difficult to really pinpoint when recovery should start. “Does it start when Communism comes to an end? Or does it start when we have dealt with the past and real democracy begins?”
Comparing Albania to Ukraine, he says that he thinks the real recovery there from Soviet rule only started a couple of years ago. But in Albania, he says, “I’m afraid we cannot count the last 30 years.”
In order to start the healing process, Lukasz explains that not only should real democracy be attained, but that justice should be forthcoming for those who suffered, were persecuted, and lost family members to the crimes committed by the State.
“Investigations into Communist crimes, justice, research, education- all of these need to happen before Albania can move on. There are many big consequences of the Communist regime that need to be dealt with,” he said.
In terms of starting this healing process, Lukasz explains that there are a number of different approaches that need to be taken. Firstly the state must fully support justice for those who were affected and it should work hard to make sure that the things that happened are never forgotten and never repeated. It should also ensure that school children have a comprehensive education on their history and that the Communist past of Albania and the atrocities that happened are included in textbooks.
“If you forget, you are doomed to repeat- this is the reality,” he said.
“People are starting to forget what happened, 30 years have passed and we have this new generation who have little knowledge of this experience. We need to show them what the consequences of Communism are.”
Noting how there is not a single museum in Albania, set in a Communist camp or prison, Lukasz questions; “how will we tell the story to future generations? Witness testimony is easy to dismiss because it is hard to believe that humans can do that to each other, but you cannot dismiss stone and buildings”.
Lukasz also believes that the media have a strong part to play. He tells me how in Poland when excavations of mass graves are found, the media was invited to show the remains of national heroes, citizens, men, women, and children. He adds that the media should play a part in reminding people of what happened and that justice still needs to be attained.
But civil society should also play a part. Organisations such as the Institute for Democracy, Media & Culture, MEMO, the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes and Consequences, and the Institute for the Integration of Former Persecuted People are “big support” but Lukasz says more needs to be done.
“There is no big support from the majority of society in Albania. The government will never do anything unless they are pressed. It is important for society to push to restore the memory of those who suffered” Lukasz explains.
The government has also tried to ban the studying of WWII Communist crimes as well as enforcing a rule that only “trusted people” should have access to the information. Anyone wishing to study the topic must get approval from a department that is under the direct supervision of Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Rama himself has a plan to erase much of the Communist era architecture from the centre of Tirana, calling it a “shame” and an “embarrassment”.
“Whether that is through pressure or elections, there needs to be justice for the crimes that were committed”, Lukasz tells me.
But this justice is hard to comeby. Those looking to locate the bodies of their family members have been stopped from doing so, investigations into crimes have been halted or abandoned, and on several occasions, the government has prevented journalists and citizens from accessing files from Communist times.
Furthermore, the ruling Social Party, a direct descendant of the Communist Party has several ‘ex-communists’ in its ranks. Speaker of the Parliament Gramozs Ruci was the Interior Minister at a time when those trying to flee the country were shot at the border, and President of the Academy of Sciences Skender Gjinushi was the last Minister of Education before Communism fell.
Lukasz states that “Albania has signed a number of international agreements on crimes of the past and against humanity. If they are breaching this, citizens have recourse.”
If Albanians are unable to get justice in Albania, he explains that there are international mechanisms in place where they can file cases against the state and those who committed the crimes, in another jurisdiction.
Lukasz details how many countries, as well as Albania, have failed to adequately prosecute those involved in crimes against citizens. But the first step is, these countries need to admit they failed, something that is unlikely to happen under the Rama administration.
On a personal level, Lukasz explains how he has worked in this area for 20 years but it never stops being tough.
“It is not just visiting museums and hearing stories- I have been to mass graves. It doesn’t get easier. Yes, it is emotional, but it is necessary for humans to remember these things.”