Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the Serbo-Croat web portal Bilten.Org
Several days ago the European Court of Human Rights reached a verdict on contests between three property owners and the Albanian state. It held that the Albanian state owes the property owners 12 million Euros in compensation for not returning the properties that the Albanian law acknowledges as theirs. In the recent years the same court has imposed other financial penalties on the Albanian state for breaching what it considers basic human rights. It should be stressed that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights does not extend to taking sides on the political and ideological struggle over the notion of property. It just sues the Albanian state in the basis of the latter’s own legislation, which recognizes property rights, even privileges, of some of its citizens.
Putting the issue in historical context is needed in order to understand what is going on with land property relations in Albania. After liberation from the Nazi occupation in Second World War, the Communist-led government of Albania took several radical measures in terms of property relations. Basing itself primarily on the poor and landless peasants during the antifascist resistance, the post-resistance government issued an Agrarian Reform, which expropriated big agricultural landowners and redistributed land possession to the poor peasants. In towns, the government expropriated entirely those considered Nazi and Fascist collaborators, especially owners of merchant capital and nationalized their industries. Other big merchants were heavily taxed as war speculators, leading almost all of them to bankruptcy or stock requisition for not meeting the government’s requirements. The forced Stalinist collectivization of agricultural land, which the Agrarian Reform had distributed to poor peasants, followed in the 1960s.
In 1991 the old state-socialist regime collapsed especially due to the resistance of workers and students in the main cities of Albania. Class-based political relations were more complicated. In the first pluralist elections of March 1991, the Labour Party of Albania (which had ruled Albania from 1944 onwards) won a crushing victory. They lost in the main cities, but had the fidelity of the peasantry (almost 60% of the population). The peasants, despite their plight during forced collectivization, feared more ex-owners (some of them latifundists) taking back the land who were represented, at least ideologically, by the Democratic Party. What followed was a stalemate where the workers in the main cities, backing the anti-communist Democratic Party, started a general strike, which made the situation ungovernable. The Democratic Party could break the power of the Labour Party, but could not rule unless it won the support of the peasantry. That’s why in June of 1991, a historical compromise was reached between the Democratic Party (representing the urban masses and the pre-socialist economical elite) and the Socialist Party (ex-Labour Party): land law no. 7051 redistributed agricultural collectivized land equally to peasant families.
Having relinquished its fear of the peasantry, the Democratic Party managed to win an overwhelming victory in the general elections of 1992, on whose basis it started the neoliberal restructuring of the Albanian economy. Pre-socialist landowners have since felt a betrayal by the Democratic Party. But land claims proved stornger in urban areas. The central place that the main cities would play in the Albanian economy (due also to the infrastructural and technological abandonment of agriculture, which created a bulk of small, usually economically struggling, peasant owners, that has been thwarted with capitalist relations in agriculture), shifted the property contest in urban areas. Here ex-owners were more numerous, and not all of them ex-big merchants or rentiers. The expansion of the construction industry, whose effective demand was based on the remittances from working class emigrants in the West, was a big opportunity for any kind of ex-owner, even middle-sized or small, who for structural and contingent reasons had been expropriated during state-socialism. Legally claiming a plot of land could become the fastest elevator in class terms: the owner of a small plot could transform, after selling its plot to the construction businessmen, into the owner of several apartments and stores in the building raised on the land he owned. The expectation of this situation led the Democratic Party government to pass a law on urban land which disqualified all expropriations during state-socialism, except those properties expropriated from the Nazi and Fascist collaborators. Where the land was occupied by public facilities, it had to be compensated financially or the owners offered alternative land especially in the Albanian Riviera.
A brief parenthesis is needed here. Even though public facilities were disqualified for property return, former owners, in collaboration with the mafia and state administrators, have managed to win back even schools or museums built during state-socialism on their property. Others have managed to evict people from houses or apartments where they’ve been living for sixty or seventy years, claiming ideologically that these tenants were ex-communists.
In theory, the above-mentioned scheme could have worked without major social frictions, but from the 1990s onwards Albanian society has experienced major transformations. The peasantry had gained land, but for most of them it was economically useless, or could have been used only in a subsistence economy. That’s why hundreds of thousands of peasants fled the countryside, some of whom emigrating to Greece and Italy to become part of the lower strata of the working class, while many others migrating to the suburbs of the main cities, Tirana, Durrës, Vlorë, Shkodër etc., where they just occupied the land, built poor houses and became part of the plebeian mass of precarious workers, unemployed, or small craftsmen. They constructed illegally entire neighborhoods, based on clan relationships. Coming primarily from poorer northern Albania, which lagged behind during the forced modernization of state-socialism, these internal migrants became the major social pillar of the Democratic Party, who has not only tolerated but also triggered implicitly this process of land occupation. This development has made the right-wing Democrats an interesting and contradictory political party. On the one hand, it has been the major representative of the expropriated elites of pre-socialism, making itself ideologically the spearhead of anti-communism and leading the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. On the other hand, having built a social and electoral base on the new plebeians who occupied peripheral urban lands, it has accommodated their interests in legalizing the newly occupied properties. The Socialist Party has followed the Democrats in this process of legalizing new owners, having very few historical connections with the former landowners.
This has meant that the only way to answer the legal claims of the former owners has been to compensate them financially, shifting the social conflict between new owners and former owners to one between former owners and governments. It might have worked if the cost of this process wouldn’t have been so enormous that the entire social structure would collapse. There are estimations which tell that what the Albanian state owes to former landowners reaches 50 billion dollars – seven or eight times the annual budget of the Albanian government. What has happened instead is that the number of the owners compensated financially has been very small, and the amount of money given them very far from the legal claims they have. That’s why, after a new land return law was passed in 2004, under pressure from the European Union, former owners have sued the Albanian state in the European Court of Human Rights, almost always winning. What is interesting in the 2004 law is that the clause of the 1993 law, which excluded Nazi and Fascist collaborators from compensation or land return, was dropped. Naturally it has been legitimized by rehabilitating implicitly the Fascist past, or by claiming that those considered collaborators were simply genuine nationalists who understood before anybody else the catastrophe that the motherland would endure if the communists won. The financial burden imposed by the European Court of Human Rights was so disastrous that the current Socialist government has passed a new land compensation law in 2015, trying to change the rules of the game retroactively. It acknowledges all legal claims of pre-socialist owners to urban land (and some rural land), but acknowledging that full financial compensation based on current market prices couldn’t be an option, it has imposed a new method of land value estimation. The land price will not be based on current market prices for building plots, as former laws had put it, but on far lower prices of nearby agricultural lands. It justified its decision with the fact that most of what is nowadays considered urban land, was agricultural land at the time it was expropriated, whose function changed due to the modernizing and urbanizing processes of the socialist and post-socialist decades.
Of course, this new law was strongly opposed by the representatives of the former owners, and has raised doubts if the European Court of Human Rights will accept this drastic change in the compensation terms. We will soon know. What is socially and politically crucial in this story is that a very small minority, albeit an ideologically aggressive one, has managed to impose its interests, those of a permanent rentier class, onto the Albanian state and the rest of the population.
Arlind Qori works as a lecturer of political philosophy in the University of Tirana, Albania. He is also an activist at the radical leftist organisation Organizata Politike.