International organizations and Albanian officials say Albania, arguably Europe's poorest country, is experiencing a potentially devastating brain drain. Around a sixth of the population -- including roughly a third of the country's intelligentsia -- is seeking work outside the country in an attempt to make ends meet.
Tirana, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Eleven years ago, Albania's foremost writer, Ismail Kadare, while on a visit to France declared he would not return to communist Albania.
Kadare justified his decision as an attempt to accelerate change in Albania, which in 1990 was taking its first shaky steps out of decades of self-imposed international isolation. But as he notes in an interview with RFE/RL, "the collapse of the dictatorship nearly a decade ago went only halfway" and was never completed.
Kadare's public dissatisfaction with the communist regime after decades of having been published and officially sanctioned served as one of several catalysts in unleashing massive waves of emigration in 1991, 1992, and 1997.
The outflow, particularly of the country's intellectuals, has not eased, as Kadare notes:
"Unfortunately, this is an escape and sure, it is a brain drain. But I understand it should function like everywhere else, with people leaving and people returning. But in Albania the dimensions of this phenomenon were exaggerated, so I hope this phenomenon will decline as time goes by."
A sense of despair is pervasive in Albania despite a variety of signs of increasing prosperity, including the presence of new shops and new housing units.
Among the most recent to depart Albania for a new future abroad is one of the country's leading archaeologists, Apollon Bace. In recent years, Bace worked as a senior Albanian diplomat in Germany but quit after a falling-out with Albania's Socialist-led government three years ago. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of a Tirana daily, "Dita." In September, Bace, now in his early fifties, left Albania with his wife for a new life in Canada, saying he has no illusions about life in Albania:
"It's interesting that 2,500 years ago, Aristotle said about Apollonia [in present-day Albania] that it is a town of freedom, in a democratic country with good laws that are well implemented. Today we have good laws but applied badly. I've become disillusioned. I worked as a diplomat in the embassy in Germany and as a journalist.... [But] this has created an identity crisis for Albanians. I don't know at this moment if I'll return [to Albania]. I'm tired and quite pessimistic."
When Albania's Institute of Statistics conducted a census last April -- the first in 12 years -- it found that instead of growing by a projected 22 percent, the population had shrunk by 3 percent because of emigration.
The director of the institute's demographics department, Emira Galanxhi, concludes that over 600,000 Albanian citizens are living abroad. Nearly 400,000 Albanians are estimated to be working in Greece and 200,000 in Italy, with tens of thousands working elsewhere in Western Europe and North America.
A recent report by the World Bank concluded that, "Like many developing countries, Albania is experiencing a brain drain. Many of its best students who move on to universities in the cities do not return home. A significant portion moves out of the country altogether, depriving Albania of some of its best minds."
The World Bank report says the medical system is paying a steep price for emigration as doctors and nurses leave and are not replaced. No precise data, however, is available.
The World Bank report says the chief reasons given for emigrating are unemployment at home, insufficient income, a desire to obtain a better future for one's children, and economic insecurity.
The report says emigration imposes heavy social costs, including stress on the children, parents, and grandparents of those who go abroad to work. And it notes that school standards are decreasing because qualified teachers are emigrating.
Zef Preci is the executive director of the Albanian Center for Economic Research, an independent economic policy institute. Preci served briefly as minister for the economy and privatization in 1999-2000. He says the loss of intellectuals and professionals is severe and must be seen in terms of the money Albania spent to train them in the first place.
"Albanian society, the Albanian government, and international financial organizations spent millions of U.S. dollars to train them, to prepare them for a new type of economy, society, and development. So we are losing not just nowadays, but we are losing the future in this regard. It's a long-run, negative impact on the growth and development of the country."
Nevertheless, there are some benefits to emigration. The International Monetary Fund estimates remittances from abroad may contribute as much as $430 million to national income. The central bank, the Bank of Albania, estimates that remittances total even more -- $530 million, or about 1 percent of GDP.
Albanian President Rexhep Meidani says the remittances help ease social problems.
"These people working abroad are contributing to the development of Albania and also to softening the social problems in Albania and to helping their families. And if we consider that the same situation was happening in Sweden at the beginning of the [20th] century I can say that this is the most positive side of this phenomenon."
But Meidani agrees that despite the income, Albania's intelligentsia is suffering.
"We lose cultivated people. So this is a kind of brain drain which is happening not only in Albania, I think, [but] in all countries in transition. But hoping that having more rapid progress from the economic and social point of view, a part of these people will return with new experience, with a new democratic spirit, and also with different friends in different countries and this will help also the progress of Albania."
Meidani says it is too early to discuss what percentage of Albanian citizens working abroad will return to Albania. He predicts the returns will be a slow process and will accelerate only when conditions in Albania improve sufficiently and salaries are increased.
Meidani's predecessor as president, Sali Berisha, sees no good in the massive outflow of Albania's workforce, especially its intelligentsia.
"This is ruining the nation and this is ruining -- I'm very sad -- because look what happened with the elections."
Berisha says the absence of hundreds of thousands of voters who were abroad and barred from voting and the possibility that the ruling Socialists stuffed ballot boxes in some districts with the votes of absent voters helps explain his belief that the Socialists stole the parliamentary elections this spring.
Berisha says unemployment and the recent departure of foreign investors in the face of what he describes as "the most corrupt, autocratic regime in Europe after Belgrade" are the root causes of the exodus of Albanians.
"The brain is draining and the energy -- the youth -- is draining and the country is [being] ruined. I was surprised when I heard Belarusian opposition accusing this dictator -- a dictator -- I fully agree, this Lukashenka, because Belarus has 300,000 people less than some years ago. Albania has more than 1 million people [abroad]. In 1996 many people had started to come back."
In Berisha's words, "Now they are leaving, and when there is no work they have to leave -- youngsters, intellectuals, they are all leaving."