Tirana, 16 January 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Every year since 1993, the European Union has sent its pollsters across Central and Eastern Europe to learn which country is the most optimistic about its future.
And every year the pollsters bring back the same answer -- Albania.
In 1995, the latest results available, 79 percent of Albanians sampled told the EU's Eurobarometer survey they were upbeat about the direction their country was taking. The response dwarfed the number of optimists in the region's other transition economies, including its fastest developing ones. In booming Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, an average of less than half as many people said they felt positive about their future.
George Cunningham, Eurobarometer's chief researcher, says his team used to be amazed by Albanians rating themselves year after year as the most optimistic people in post-Communist Europe. After all, the Belgium-sized country is by far the poorest on the Continent. Its per-capita gross national product is ten times less than Hungary's and three times less than Romania's.
But Cunningham says he has come to undertand impoverished Albania's perspective. It had Eastern Europe's most devastated economy before 1989 and still has the longest road to recovery. He says "that means Albanians can still remember the past well enough to believe the future can only be better."
Reminders of the past are always at hand in Albania. The portraits of Enver Hoxha, the dictator who for 40 years progressively isolated Albania from the world until he died in 1985, are long gone. His marble mausoleum in Tirana has become a trade exposition hall. But cigarettes still sell at kiosks by the piece and the most common banknotes -- the lowest three denominations -- are the same ones used before the Communist regime collapsed in 1991. Every government since then has been too financially strapped to replace them.
Outside Tirana, empty state factories dot the landscape, many both closed and gutted. The first were built by the Soviet Union, the later ones by China, until Hoxha spurned each ally in turn as too liberal. After Hoxha -- he was still honoring Stalin with postage stamps in 1972 -- broke with Moscow in the 60s, he planted 400,000 concrete sniper nests across Albania to deter any Czechoslovak-style invasion. When he broke with Beijing, he ordered every Albanian stamps with Mao's likeness in the Post Office to be burned.
By the 1980s, the country was so isolated factories could no longer get raw materials or replace their equipment. They were bankrupt, but did not close until Albania's ruined economy collapsed with the regime, and workers who had been paid for years with overprinted money looted the remaining machinery.
Today, there are signs that Albania's economy is beginning to improve. Emigration has stabilized after reaching massive levels between 1990 and 1995. During that time, some 400,000 people, or about 28 percent of the entire workforce, fled the country in search of jobs abroad. Now, the money the emigrants send home is building Albanians' purchasing power and financing small, mostly import-oriented businesses.
The latest Eurobarometer survey found 76 percent of Albanians saying their financial situation was better in 1995 than the year before, and almost as many saying they expected to be better off in the months ahead. UN development officials in Tirana say statistics bear that out. Inflation has fallen from 226 percent in 1992 to less than 8 percent by the end of 1995, with salaries in both the private and public sectors now well ahead of price rises.
The optimistic mood has made Albanians largely disinterested in the often no-holds-barred rivalry of their two main political parties: the ruling Democratic Party and the ex-Communist Socialists.
Last summer, that rivalry seemed to threaten the country's fledgling democratic system when the Socialists accused the Democrats of stealing legislative elections. The Socialists refused to take their seats in Parliament and Western governments expressed concern over both the poll and the political deadlock it produced.
The political drama remained tense for the West until Albania's municipal elections last Fall, which international observers called fair enough to say democracy was getting back on track. But by then the Albanians themselves seemed less concerned than outsiders with the voting.
Agim Isaku, media director for the Soros Open Society Fund in Tirana, estimates that only 66 percent of Albanian voters turned out for the Fall local elections, or just two-thirds the number for the earlier legislative poll. He says the main reason is economics. The country's financial progress has forced both the ruling and opposition parties to adopt such similar economic platforms that most people now see only differences of personality, not politics, between the party leaders.
Socialist Party spokesman Kastriot Islami agrees. He told RFE/RL recently that even Albania's ex-Communists, once the hardest-line in Eastern Europe, now accept the goal of a prosperous free market. The only question remaining is who leads the Albanians' rush into it.