Game on for Kosovo?

On March 5, Kosovo played its first international – a friendly against Haiti. Here’s my When Saturday Comes piece on Kosovan national football. 

England? Belgium? Albania? Which international side Adnan Januzaj will declare for has become a minor back page obsession this season. Last month (Note to Ed: January), a new name was added to the list: Kosovo.

On January 13, FIFA announced that Kosovo – the country the Manchester United winger’s parents fled in 1992 – will be allowed to play international matches after years in the footballing wilderness. FIFA had earlier given the go ahead for Kosovo to participate in friendlies in 2012, but reversed the decision under pressure from the Serbian football association.

This time around Kosovo seems certain to finally field an international side, almost six years since declaring independence from Serbia. A fixture has been pencilled in for March, with opponents to be confirmed. Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci hailed the FIFA decision as, ‘the first step in creation of a superb national team that could potentially be one of the strongest in Balkans.’

Kosovo teamBut the FIFA ruling places significant limitations on the new outfit: National symbols and anthems will be banned at Kosovo games. The team will take the field in jerseys bearing only the word ‘Kosovo’ and a star. Kosovo can only play friendlies and will not be allowed to face club sides or states from the former Yugoslavia until further notice. Footballing authorities in Serbia will have to be given 21 days advance notice of any Kosovo home matches.

International stars such as Januzaj, Bayern Munich striker Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami are unlikely to switch allegiance to a national team that cannot participate competitively, but the Kosovan FA hopes that situation will change.

‘We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment,’ said Eroll Salihu, general secretary of Kosovo’s Football Association. ‘But once Kosovo becomes a full UEFA and FIFA member, it will be our moral obligation to open the doors to players who were either born here or have Kosovo origins.’

FIFA’s decision follows the most significant rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia since the war ended in 1999. The Brussels Agreement, signed last April, was widely hailed as a breakthrough in relations between Pristina and Belgrade, granting the Kosovan government more control over the restive, Serb-dominated north in exchange for more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Although Serbia still refuses to recognise its former province’s independence, Kosovan officials are hopeful that international friendlies could mark the first step on the road to membership of UEFA and FIFA. (Kosovo is recognised by over a hundred states but does not have a seat at the UN.)

‘FIFA recognizing the right of Kosovo to play international friendly matches is the very first step towards full inclusion of Kosovo in the global football family, 23 years after dictator Milosevic annulled Kosovo’s native football league and closed the stadiums for Albanians,’ said Petrit Selimi, deputy foreign minister.

Not everyone inside Kosovo is happy with the decision. Around 90 per cent of Kosovans are ethnic Albanians, and Kosovo provides the backbone of the both the Albania national team’s players and support.

Some Kosovans cleave to the belief that there should only be a pan-Albanian national team (‘One Nation – One National Team’), not separate Kosovan and Albanian sides. Already supporters groups from FC Pristina and Vllaznimi (from the western Kosovan city of Gjakova) have announced that they will not recognize the Kosovo national team and will only support Albania. The Albania FA has said it does not believe Kosovo-born players, such as current captain Lazio’s Lorik Cana, will switch allegiance.

Others have questioned whether playing international friendlies is the best way to develop football in Kosovo. The country is woefully short of infrastructure, something the current government has failed to redress.

The City Stadium in Pristina, the main ground in Kosovo, needs major renovation work. Recently it was reported that Rasunda stadium in Stockholm had donated second-hand seating and lighting, but these have yet to be installed.

Despite a wealth of Kosovan talent in leagues and national teams across Europe, local football in Kosovo struggles, in part because of a lack of external competition. FIFA’s decision will not change the fact that Kosovan teams are not allowed to play in qualification rounds for the Europa League and the Champion’s League.

As for Adnan Januzaj, there ‘a slim chance’ he will choose to play for Kosovo, says Pristina-based journalist Xhemajl Rexha, ‘but people here would be very happy to see him play for England’.

This piece originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of When Saturday Comes

LRB Blog: In Tirana

The Palace of Culture in Tirana has housed Albania’s national library, opera and ballet companies for almost 50 years. Khrushchev laid the first stone, in May 1959, during what one American newsreel described as a ‘lengthy visit with mysterious overtones’. These days the ground floor of the opera is a count centre during national and local elections. At around 10 p.m. on Sunday, 23 June, three hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections, a queue of officials carrying clear plastic ballot boxes snaked up the steps outside the opera. Policemen in wide-brimmed hats formed a porous cordon around the votes. Party loyalists, with pens and notepads to tally the votes as they were counted, hovered on the terrace, waiting for the lobby to open. Counting had been scheduled to start at eight.tirana-4

One of the tallymen was Erad, a 25-year-old economics graduate. ‘I could be here for two days, maybe three,’ he said, lighting a cigarette. What mattered was that his party, the recently formed nationalist Aleanca Kuq e Zi (Red and Black Alliance), won enough seats to be kingmaker in the new parliament. ‘I think we will do well. If we get three or four seats I’ll be OK,’ he said.

Horns blared from the cars on Skanderbeg Square. Young men festooned with flags for the ruling Democratic Party leaned out of windows and shouted: ‘Sali Berisha, Sali Berisha!’ Berisha, a prominent figure in the Albanian Party of Labour under Hoxha and president of the republic in the mid-1990s, was aiming for a third straight term as prime minister. ‘Corruption is our biggest problem. The system is corruption and corruption is the system,’ Erad said. Transparency International ranks Albania 113 of 176 countries in its corruption perceptions index.

Counting started at 4 a.m. on Monday. Later that morning I returned to the opera. Screens relayed scans of every ballot to around fifty tallymen and women. They looked like punters at a greyhound track. I found Erad leaning against the wall at the far end of the room . ‘How’s it going?’ I asked. ‘Keq,’ he said. Bad. His page was almost blank. He looked exhausted. I asked why he didn’t sit down. ‘I am more vigilant if I stand up.’

The opposition Socialist Party disputed the results of the previous general election, in 2009, boycotting parliament for 18 months and claiming Berisha had stolen the vote. In January 2011, four protesters were shot dead in Tirana. Later that year, in the capital’s mayoral elections, the Socialist incumbent, Edi Rama, lost by 81 votes. He had been declared the winner, but it was then decided that ballots that had been placed in the wrong boxes could be included in the final total. Ahead of this year’s election, one Albanian activist told me he expected the result in ‘a week or two, maybe more’.

Polling day had begun inauspiciously. In the north, an opposition activist was shot dead and a ruling party candidate seriously injured in a gunfight outside a polling station; a TV crew were attacked, their equipment destroyed. But the rest of the day passed in relative peace, and, despite numerous reports of vote buying, especially in crucial marginal constituencies, the OSCE declared the vote ‘quite fair’. By Monday afternoon it was apparent that Rama was on course for a crushing victory.

I paid a final visit to the opera that evening. A fug of smoke hung heavy in the lobby; there were men sleeping on the floor, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes and empty Red Bull cans; someone was running his fingers over the piano. I found Erad where I had left him, still tallying the Red and Black Alliance’s invisible votes. The previous night he had been exuberant – offering to get me ‘whatever I wanted, girls, drugs, guns’ – now he was silent. His friend was also counting for the Kuq e Zi. I asked if I could see his notebook. The thin dashes in the Socialist column outnumbered those for the Democrats by almost two to one. I asked Erad if he would leave Albania. ‘That is a hard question… In 1991, everyone just left. They went anywhere. But things are different now.’

Albanian politics certainly looks different. On 26 June, Berisha publicly conceded defeat, taking full responsibility for his loss. Rama will be the next prime minister: his coalition won 84 seats out of 140. There was no violence, only more cars, this time decked out in Socialist purple, circling Skanderbeg Square. The Red and Black Alliance, like most of the 60-plus parties that contested the election, won no seats. The European Commission is expected to recommend EU candidate status before the end of the year.

Arguably the biggest winners were not the Socialists, who gained only one seat, but their junior coalition partners, the Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI). Until April, when they joined forces with the Socialists, the LSI were in government with the Democrats. The fatal demonstrations in 2011 were sparked by a video of the LSI leader (and former Socialist prime minister), Ilir Meta, appearing to discuss accepting a bribe. His career looked as if it might be over. But he was acquitted of corruption, and now leads a party whose representation has jump from 4 to 16 seats.

As the count closed at the opera in Tirana, I fell into conversation with Besar, a young man tallying for the LSI. He told me that he supported Meta’s party ‘because they support me’. As we talked, a hard-faced man came over and tugged on Besar’s shoulder. ‘He told me to watch closely,’ Besar told me when the man had gone. ‘To stay focused. Not to miss any chances.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/07/15/peter-geoghegan/in-tirana/#sthash.k0EJlHyR.dpuf

Albania: Can one of Europe’s poorest countries change its ways?

HAJMEL, Albania — Wine production has a long history in the northern region of Zadrima: The first recorded planting of its signature grape Kallmet took place in 1555.

Today, rows of well-tended vines filling the neat fields around this small village bask under a hot sun. It feels as if nothing has changed for centuries.

But appearances are deceptive.

Under the old hard-line Communist regime, the authorities ordered these lush vineyards 45 miles from the capital Tirana be ripped up for planting tobacco and wheat.

After the Communists were toppled in 1991, huge collective farms were split into hundreds of thousands of tiny individual holdings. But they have struggled under Albania’s ineffective, corruption-addled politics.

Last week, however, Albania’s Socialist opposition led by the colorful former Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, ousting the government of Prime Minister Berisha, who had dominated politics for two decades.

That gave people here high hopes that one of Europe’s poorest countries may finally change its ways and put itself on a path toward coveted European Union membership.

Among them is Zef Pashuku. A farmer under dictator Enver Hoxha, he emigrated to Greece before returning in 2000 to take over the family farm.

He quickly realized its success would depend on something that still makes Albanians wary these two decades since the communist collapse: going into business with his neighbors.

The farms are too small to make it on their own, but “if we join together, we can compete,” he says. That led Pashuku to establish Albania’s first post-communist cooperative farm in 2005, with the help from the British charity Oxfam.

Now he hopes Tirana’s new government and the promise of kick-starting a stalled drive toward EU accession will be a boon for his and other fledgling cooperatives.

With a membership of around 60 farmers across three villages, the Zadrima collective specializes in wine and oil olive sold locally and internationally.

Sharing equipment enables farms to maximize productivity, Pashuku says, liberally topping up his interviewer’s glass of 2011 vintage Kallmet, which retails at around $4 a bottle.

albaniaAlthough cooperatives make sense here, where the average income is the equivalent of $330 a month, convincing people of their value has been difficult.

“A few years ago, people used to say that sounds like communism,” says Pashuku’s son Jurgen, who is studying agricultural economics at Tirana University and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps. That’s now changing, he adds.

Agriculture is important here.

It contributes a quarter of GDP to Albania’s struggling economy, according to official statistics. And with almost 50 percent of the population of 2.8 million living in rural areas, encouraging small-scale farmers to form cooperatives is vital, says Geron Kamberi of Quodev, a social enterprise program in Tirana that’s the successor to Oxfam’s mission in Albania.

“Working together as a single unit is really important,” he says.

However, changing mindsets will be only part of the task if new ways of cooperation are to flourish. The government, which passed a new law on cooperatives only recently, has been slow to encourage collaboration.

Last week’s elections made news when a political activist was shot dead in Lac, near Zadrima, as polls opened. Still, the vote was by far the most peaceful since Albania emerged from Communism.

Conceding defeat on Wednesday, Prime Minister Berisha stepped down as leader of the Democratic Party — the first smooth change of power in the divisive, often violent world of Albanian politics.

Although the country has been a NATO member since 2009, political strife following the previous elections the same year has suspended EU hopes. Last year, the European Commission said fair and democratic elections this time around were a sine qua non for granting the country candidate status.

The EC could now recommend Albania for candidate status as early as December, which would bring significant funds, and, many believe, impetus for reform.

There’s much to be done. Endemic corruption has hollowed out institutions. Bribes are common, particularly in higher education. Few believe that the legal system is fair and transparent. And jobs are nearly impossible to find without money and connections.

“Joining the European Union is our last hope,” Jurgen Pashuku says, taking time out from tending vineyards at the farm at Hajmel. “Even if we know it’s a risk.”

Paradoxically, the ongoing euro zone crisis has helped Albanian farmers. Many of those who emigrated to nearby Greece and Italy are now coming home, bringing new expertise. Cooperatives have recently opened in Saranda in the south, and near the northern city of Shkodra.

For Zef Pashuku, the contrast with life under Communism already couldn’t be starker. “Before I didn’t have a shirt to wear and this field was abandoned,” he says. “Now everything is changing.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post. 

Polls to test turbulent Albanian democracy

Tirana, Albania – Under the secretive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Blloku was the most restricted district in Albania. Only high-ranking apparatchiks in the ruling Party of Labour were allowed to reside in the tight grid of tree-lined streets located in the centre of the capital, Tirana. In the middle of “the Block” stood Hoxha’s own private residence, an opulent Italianate villa with a swimming pool in the garden, completely at odds with the poverty that most Albanians lived in.

More than two decades after the fall of the hardline Communists, Blloku has been transformed into the busiest location in this picturesque Adriatic state. Formerly austere government buildings are now shopping emporia and luxury flats. Hoxha’s old house is still there – but now it’s a popular open-air bar.

Currently, Blloku features something else unimaginable in Comrade Enver’s authoritarian time – election paraphernalia. And lots of it.

Coalition politics

It’s hard to walk more than a few metres in Blloku without coming across a poster for the ruling Democratic Party, a billboard for a the small LSI party, or even a stencil in support of the main opposition, the Socialists, spray-painted on a wall.

On Sunday, June 23, Albanians go to the polls in parliamentary elections for the first time since a contentious vote in 2009. The choice is essentially the same as four years ago: incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party – in power since 2005 – or the Socialist party led by the former mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama.

Electoral coalitions are the norm in Albanian politics. Rama is leading the “Alliance for a European Albania”, which includes the Socialists, LSI, a Greek minority party and four small Communist groups. Berisha’s “Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration” – led by the Democratic Party – includes the Republican Party and a party for the Chams, a group of Albanians originally from near the Greek border. Most polls put the Socialist alliance ahead – but the result is far from certain.

‘Everything we need’

“This government needs to change,” said architect Lindito Ziu, as she waited for a friend less than a hundred metres from Hoxha’s former home. “In eight years, they haven’t invested anything in this country.”

Edi Rama is the leader of the Albanian opposition and Socialist Party candidate for the Prime Minister post [EPA]

Earlier this month, Berisha cut the ribbon on a new highway linking Tirana and the industrial city of Elbasan to the south. An hour and a half journey on dangerous mountain roads has been cut down to just 40 minutes. But Ziu is not impressed. “They say they have done the roads but they will only last a year or two. They were not built properly,” she said.

Not everybody is dissatisfied with Berisha. A little further down the street, shopkeeper Fatos Kume said he will be voting for the craggy-faced northerner and former cardiologist who has dominated Albanian political life for more than two decades. “Everyone can see the difference he has made,” he said.

Originally from the southern city of Vlore, Kume contrasts the bustling shop he has run for the past seven years with life under the Communist regime. “Under Communism, a man had just one suit – and even that he would have to borrow. When I got married I borrowed my brother’s suit,” he recalls. “When I first went to Tirana with my wife, I bumped into my sister-in-law and she recognised me by her husband’s suit.”

“Now it is different. Now we have everything we need.”

Competing platforms

Many Albanians are not so fortunate. Average monthly salaries are around $330 dollars. Unofficially, unemployment is around 30 percent. The economy has avoided recession but is struggling to grow, while public debt has risen sharply. In February, the World Bank criticised the Berisha government for breaking a self-imposed public debt ceiling of 60 percent. Corruption is a fact of daily life.

Rama has attacked Berisha for his failure to tackle Albania’s economic problems and the endemic corruption. “We are in a deep economic crisis, with high unemployment, bad services, (and) a very poor social situation, especially in suburbs and rural areas. Corruption and crime are big problems,” the Socialist party leader told Al Jazeera.

“The core problem of Albania has to do with the fact that our economic model has exhausted itself. It has been based for many years on wild exploitation of resources, on constructions and on the remittances of emigrants, no job creation and no productivity. It is time to turn the page and build a new economic model,” Rama said.

Both the Democrats and the Socialists have committed to creating upwards of a quarter of a million new jobs. Berisha’s party plans to attract more foreign direct investment by establishing a 10 percent flat rate on all personal income and corporate taxes. Rama has promised to lower taxes for low-and middle-income employees at the expense of higher income earners.

“In terms of substance, it’s a fiscally irresponsible campaign,” said Lutfi Dervishi, executive director of Transparency International Albania. “They promise pie in the sky – raising salaries, raising pensions, reducing taxes – but where is the money coming from?”

“The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”

There has been little thought given to how “Albania is going to face these turbulent economic times”, said Dervishi.

A muddled election process

As is often the case in Albanian elections – and those elsewhere – the campaign has been dominated more by personalities than policies. Berisha and Rama have a long and acrimonious history. After the 2009 vote, the Socialists boycotted parliament, accusing Berisha and the Democratic Party of stealing the election. Two years later, four people were killed in Tirana when police opened fire on protesters at an opposition demonstration.

The beleaguered country also has a chequered election history. Previous votes have been marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation. This time around there have numerous reports of vote buying, particularly in the key marginal districts that will decide the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

“We have reports coming from poor citizens of being offered money in exchange for their vote, or young voters who are thrown parties and [offered] excursions by candidates to win their favour,” said Aranita Brahaj, project coordinator for ZaLart, a website which collects reports about alleged electoral fraud from across Albania.

The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

Lutfi Dervishi, Transparency International Albania

Brahaj said that, in the Kamza district of Tirana, voters were being offered anything from $30 to $100 for their ballot. Elsewhere in the country there have been reports of voters being offered food, money, and even cows in exchange for their votes.

“I think it is not a democracy, as some citizens cannot have a vote because they are poor,” said Brahaj.

There are question marks, too, over whether the result can be verified after Sunday’s vote. Following a split in Berisha’s ruling coalition in April, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) has only four sitting members – one fewer than the five required to declare the result of the election.

“There is no clean way for the results to get out, which doesn’t look good,” said Skye Christensen, an international election consultant. “You could find a way to get around it but you would have to break the law. The question is who breaks the law and where.”

All the main parties support membership of the European Union. But the accession process has stalled badly in recent years and the EU has warned that it will be watching Sunday’s vote closely. The election must be “in line with international and European standards”, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in April.

Given Albania’s turbulent electoral history and the machinations around the Central Elections Committee, few are expecting a quick result.

“Albanian elections are interesting not prior to the election but the day after,” said Dervishi. “It’s a question of political will whether both parties want to proceed at speed [with the count and declaration] or put the brakes on the election process. It could take a while.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera. 

Kosovo’s Footballing Allegiances

A recent match between Switzerland and Albania included players whose home nation is not yet recognised by FIFA

With less than a quarter of an hour to go in Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Albania in Lucerne, Granit Xhaka was presented with a glorious chance to put the home side 3-0 up. With the goal at his mercy, the usually clinical Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder shot tamely at the keeper. ‘Shqipëria! Shqipëria!’ (Albania! Albania!) sang thousands of flag-waving Albanian fans behind the goal.

After the match, which finished 2-0, Xhaka, who was born in eastern Kosovo, was asked live on Albanian television if his miss was intentional. Xhaka demurred, offering only ‘no comment’, but the player was less circumspect on the demands of playing against a nation most ethnic Albanian Kosovans identify so strongly with. ‘It is not easy,’ the 20-year-old who left Kosovo for Switzerland as a youngster said, ‘we have the same blood. My father and mother are Albanian and all the other Albanians that know us here know what we are.’

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo does not have a fully-fledged national team of its own. Despite the 2008 declaration of independence being recognised by over 90 countries, Kosovo is not been allowed to apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA. For Kosovan players and fans alike, the makeshift Kosovo national side that has played a handful of low-key matches against the likes of Monaco and Saudi Arabia is no substitute for competitive international football.

The Switzerland clash was probably the most eagerly anticipated game in Kosovo’s history. In the run-up to the match, Kosovan state television incessantly ran adverts for ‘Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia against Switzerland’, a reflection of the number, and diversity, of ethnic Albanians in both line-ups.

No fewer than nine players of Kosovan extraction played in Lucerne, including Albanian captain Lorik Cana – once of Sunderland and now with Lazio – and, for Switzerland, Bayern Munich hitman Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami. The Swiss also boasted two Albanians born in Macedonia, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Xhemajli.

Switzerland’s Kosovan players have made no secret of their allegiance to both their homeland and Albania. Shaqiri plays with three flags sewn onto his boots: Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo. Behrami has said previously that he would like to play for an independent Kosovo national team. In the build-up to the game the head of the Albanian FA Armand Duka described ethnic Albanians playing for Switzerland as ‘traitors’ for not opting to play for Albania. Gianni De Biasi, Albania’s Italian coach, concurred

If Duka’s comments were intended to provoke the Albanian fans, which made up around two-thirds of the 15,000-strong crowd in Lausanne, they had the desired effect. Missiles, including coins, rained down from the stands, with Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami singled out for special abuse.

After the game Shaqiri, who pointedly did not celebrate after opening the scoring, said fans that called him a traitor ‘do not know the reality’. The statement was widely interpreted as a reference to long-standing allegations that Duka demanded bribes from the families of expatriate Kosovan players that wanted to be considered for the Albanian national team.

Albanian football is already benefitting from Kosovan footballing prowess. As well as Cana, Vorskla Poltava’s Armend Dallku and onetime Burnley signing Besart Berisha are among a number of Kosovans that regularly turn out for the Albanian national side. Attendances at Albania games have been buoyed by coach loads of Kosovan fans coming down the newly-minted $1billion ‘patriotic highway’ connecting Pristina and Tirana. Upwards of 5,000 Kosovans regularly make the four-hour journey for internationals, often outnumbering local Albanians inside the moth-eaten Qemal Stafa stadium.

The qualifier in Lucerne took place on the same day as a high-level conference in Pristina to mark the end of the international community’s supervision of Kosovan independence. Under the banner of ‘Chapter Closed in the Balkans’, a host of politicians and diplomats discussed Kosovo’s future. Football is, belatedly, being recongised as an important part of integrating Kosovo internationally. Without United Nations recognition, Kosovo cannot apply for FIFA or EUFA membership. In May, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play non-competitive games against FIFIA members (much to the chagrin of Serbia, the antagonist in the 1999 war).

As Pristina’s relations with Belgrade slowly improve so too do the prospects of a Kosovan national side. Ahead of a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich in September, all nine Kosovans that appeared in Lausanne signed an open letter to Blatter in support of Kosovo playing full internationals. Kosovo certainly has the talent, as the young Kosovans making names for themselves across Europe attests. Whether Europe’s newest state gets the opportunity remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes magazine www.wsc.co.uk

Albania watches as bunkers become bunk-beds

Concrete totems to Communist rule made into hostels and cafes or blown up – but should they be kept as reminder of past?

For some, they are an ugly, podlike reminder of Albania‘s paranoid past that should be allowed to disappear unmourned. For others, the communist-era concrete bunkers that litter the small Adriatic state are a piece of cultural heritage that should not be lost.

Decades on from the heyday of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, the domed bunkers are vanishing fast. Once upon a time there were as many as half a million of them, built to protect the isolated communist state from “imperialism and revisionism”. Now most have gone.

But some are determined to save the architectural oddities, with a range of creative solutions for reusing them. In Lezhë, 30 miles north of Tirana, a joint German-Albanian tourism venture is in the process of transforming a bunker into a no-frills hostel. At Tirana Ekspres, a vibrant arts centre near the capital’s dilapidated train station, a stage has been fashioned from three reconditioned bunker heads. Keq Marku Djetroshan, a tattoo artist, has gone one better, transforming one of the myriad bunkers built along the border with Montenegro into a tattoo parlour.

A new book featuring step-by-step guides for converting derelict bunkers into everything from hostels and toilets to cafes and gift shops was feted at the Venice Biennale, where it was recently launched. Elian Stefa, one of the authors of Concrete Mushrooms, estimates the cost of repurposing a triple bunker for campers at just €150 (£120). “The potential is huge, especially for tourism,” he said.

The dilemma – to destroy or refashion – splits Albanians. “There used to be bunkers in every town, every neighbourhood, but most have gone now,” said the veteran Albanian journalist Llazar Semini. “They [the Albanian government] have just closed an eye and an ear and let people destroy them slowly. Most people are happy for them to just disappear.”

Reputedly inspired by France’s interwar Maginot line and Vietcong defences against the US army, and erected with assistance from Chinese and North Korean engineers, Albania’s “bunkerisation” strategy accelerated in the mid-1970s. An increasingly paranoid Hoxha – who severed ties with Moscow in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms – feared attack from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as “the imperialist west”.

Though the bunkers were officially the purview of Albania’s ministry of defence, after the fall of Communist party rule in 1991 many farmers simply dug them up. More recently, impoverished Albanians have taken to blowing them up for their steel, typically worth around £100-150 for a large bunker for about 10 people.

“The technology for destroying the bunkers is spreading rapidly,” said Dorian Matlija, a lawyer who has defended a number of Albanians accused of blowing up bunkers. Explosives, typically ammonium nitrate, are often prepared in family homes. Bunker-busting is a dangerous business, but with average monthly incomes in Albania about £200, the lucrative explosions are unlikely to abate soon.

While many, particularly older Albanians, are unconcerned about the gradual obliteration of the concrete reminders of a brutal, highly militarised regime, others believe the igloo-shaped pillboxes and spacious underground shelters should remain.

“They are a testament to Albania’s past. They should be protected as cultural monuments. You cannot destroy them,” said Fatos Lubonja, a writer who spent 17 years in prison under the communists.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 26 September.