Back in 1979, the last time a major earthquake struck Albania, the little Balkan country was ruled by a paranoid Marxist dictatorship that considered the United States its greatest enemy.
Floreta Faber, who was only 11 then, remembers how the 6.9-magnitude temblor — centered between her town, Shkodra, and the Adriatic Sea — roused her out of bed that Sunday morning. By the time it was over, the quake had killed 35 people in Albania and 101 in neighboring Montenegro, while flattening many nearby villages.
Forty years later, Albania got hit again — only this time it was much more frightening. On Nov. 26, the ground shook for nearly 40 seconds near the coastal city of Durres and surrounding towns. While the Albanian earthquake of 2019 wasn’t the year’s strongest (at least 10 others around the world were more intense), the 6.4 quake easily ranked as the deadliest — killing 51 people, injuring 2,000 others, leaving an estimated 13,000 homeless and causing at least $500 million in damage, according to preliminary estimates.
Faber, Albania’s ambassador to the United States, first learned of the disaster at 10 p.m. Washington time; shortly after turning on her TV, she watched a four-story house in Durres collapse on camera, killing eight of the nine people inside.
The ambassador faced an immediate dilemma: whether to cancel or go ahead with Albania’s annual National Day reception, scheduled to take place at noon the next day.
“We met first thing in the morning and had to take a decision,” she said. “It was a very difficult moment, even before we knew how many people had lost their lives.”
Recalling an ancient Albanian tradition that when someone dies, windows and doors are opened so that the dead person’s spirit might fly away, Faber said she and her staff ultimately decided “we would leave the doors of the embassy open, and that the best way to overcome such a tragedy is to let your friends in.”
Some 120 people showed up for the event, including the ambassadors of Italy, Kosovo, Poland, Serbia and two dozen other nations. Also attending were officials from the European Union, the Pentagon, the State Department and even the New Jersey National Guard.
“That was my most difficult speech ever,” Faber, 51, recently told The Washington Diplomat. “This year, our National Day coincided with Thanksgiving, so my original speech was going to offer thanks to the United States for supporting us over the past 30 years of democracy. Instead, I had to appeal for help.”
She didn’t have to wait long. Help quickly poured in from neighboring countries and beyond.
All told, the earthquake affected two-thirds of Albania’s 2.8 million inhabitants, according to the Tirana office of the European Union, which immediately pledged €15 million ($16.6 million) in disaster relief. “I have great respect for the Albanian people who’ve remained calm despite the circumstances. I want them to know that the EU is on their side with compassion AND with action,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted from Brussels. (An international donors conference is scheduled to take place Feb. 17 in Brussels.)
Albania, which has been negotiating for years to join the EU, has already received massive assistance from Greece, Italy, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. Its Balkan neighbors were also among the first to help.
“The response from Kosovo was immense,” Faber said of her country’s predominantly Albanian-speaking neighbor to the east. “So many people there opened their homes to those from Durres who lost everything.”
More than $1.8 million in donations came from the Albanian-American diaspora, while Azerbaijan contributed $500,000, and both Italy and Turkey sent trucks loaded with tents, blankets, clothes and toys for children. Turkey also committed to building 500 houses.
In addition, the Israel Defense Forces sent a 10-member specialized team to extract survivors and survey buildings to determine whether they remained structurally sound after the quake.
In all, 780 rescuers — including teams from the Fairfax County, Virginia, and Los Angeles County fire departments — rushed to Albania after the disaster to prevent more deaths, even as aftershocks continued to rattle the country.
“This was a moment of unity, and we all understand that earthquakes are a force of nature that we cannot overcome alone,” Faber said, noting that the death toll could have been much higher. “Our hotel infrastructure suffered a lot, especially in Durres. It was our luck that this happened during the slow season and not many people were there.”
Yet several of those hotels had been built illegally, including two that collapsed after the quake. The owners of both were among nine people who have since been arrested on charges of murder and abuse. Another eight suspects — builders, engineers and officials believed to have breached safety standards — are still being sought.
The arrests represent just a tiny fraction of the human negligence that exacerbated the destruction. Albania, like many of its Balkan neighbors, is especially vulnerable to quakes because of its aging structures, endemic corruption and a shoddy post-communist building boom in which profits often came at the expense of safety.
From Worst Enemies to Best Friends
The Nov. 26 earthquake is the latest setback for Albania, which for years ranked as Europe’s poorest country — a dubious title that now belongs to Moldova. For almost five centuries, Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire. That ended on Nov. 28, 1912, when Ismail Qemali, a leading figure of the Albanian renaissance to establish an independent cultural and political identity, raised the national flag in Vlora.
Albania’s long, convoluted history of relations with the United States dates back to 1920, when President Woodrow Wilson recognized its status as a sovereign nation. Eight years later, it became a kingdom under the rule of King Zog. But in 1946 — in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship — relations were broken and the U.S. Embassy in Tirana was shuttered. Hoxha’s nightmarish rule was considered the harshest in Europe, and second in the world only to North Korea.
Religion was banned, and in 1967, Hoxha declared Muslim-majority Albania to be the world’s first and only officially atheist state. Churches, monasteries and mosques were destroyed, and clerics publicly humiliated; some were even executed. Under the paranoid Hoxha, who died in 1985, Albania built an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers, fearing an invasion by Yugoslav, Soviet or American forces.
“Albania used to be a closed country. People couldn’t travel abroad. They were not allowed to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, believe in any religion, or write or speak their minds,” Faber said. “Everything had to be according to the ideology of the party. We often say Albania was like North Korea without the nuclear weapons. We believed democracy would change things overnight, but the changes did not occur overnight.”
The communist regime began cracking in 1990 — the same year Faber finished her economic studies at the University of Tirana — and collapsed completely the following year. Relations with the U.S. were restored, and Faber went on to earn a master’s degree in international marketing from the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo. She later did graduate work at Washington State University as part of an exchange program.
“I was really lucky to study abroad for two years. For me, it was a game-changer. It not only gave me the perspective of the big world outside, but also that of differences between Europe and the United States,” said the ambassador, who in 1995 helped to open the Deloitte & Touche office in Tirana, working with the firm for five years.
Then, for 15 years, Faber was executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tirana — a job that prepared her well for an even bigger role: Albania’s first female ambassador to the U.S. In fact, when it comes to women in government, Albania has done well; at present, the country has eight female cabinet-level ministers. Key ambassadors besides Faber include Besiana Kadare (United Nations); Donika Hoxha (Bulgaria); Ardiana Hobdari (Greece); Albana Dautllari (Council of Europe); Suela Janina (EU); Adia Sakiqi (Netherlands); Anila Bitri (Italy); Shpresa Kureta (Poland); and Enkeleda Merkuri (Slovakia).
Faber and her cardiologist husband, Edmond, have two children: 20-year-old daughter Kesli and 16-year-old son Klint. In the past five years, she’s managed to visit 31 of the 50 U.S. states.
In April 2015, three months after Faber presented her ambassadorial credentials to President Obama, the United States and Albania signed a strategic partnership document. In addition, then-Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tirana, and both nations work closely together in the global coalition against terrorism.
Faber, who recently shared an iftar table with President Trump, didn’t comment directly on the current occupant of the White House — other than to say “we had an absolutely great year of cooperation with the U.S., especially on the issue of security.” She referred to a Dec. 14, 2018, letter from Trump thanking Albania for its “steadfast efforts to stand up to Iran … by expelling Iran’s ambassador to your country” for planning terrorist attacks on Albanian soil. An unconfirmed report suggested the expulsion was linked to a 2016 plot to attack a World Cup qualifying match in Tirana between Albania and Israel.
“We were taught in school how to fight the Americans,” she told us. “I never thought, 30 years ago, that there would come a time I’d be Albania’s ambassador to the United States.”
‘We’ll Do Whatever It Takes’
A relatively tiny market, Albania (which under communism was one of the world’s only countries where Coca-Cola had no presence) today has only minimal U.S. investment, with about 150 U.S. companies present. Besides its small population, one of Albania’s enduring problems is corruption. In its 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International gave Albania 36 out of 100 points — a two-point drop from the 2017 rating and down three points from 2016.
“The negative trend in Albania is all the more worrying as it is a reversal of a notable improvement in corruption perceptions between 2013 and 2016,” said Bernd Borchardt, a top official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The results of this index show that Albania still has to reform its system of public institutions, which is perceived as more corrupt than in the last two years.”
Faber said Albania is in the midst of enacting major reforms, “including over 40 laws that will make sure everyone in the whole judicial system is properly vetted” — a process that will be monitored by European and U.S. experts. The country has also established SPAK (an Albanian acronym for Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Unit) to keep tabs on public officials, and it has opened its border police to external European vetting.
On Jan. 1, Albania assumed the OSCE’s rotating presidency from Slovakia, which Faber says is “our biggest multilateral engagement since joining NATO” in 2009.
“Even though Albania is economically behind, we have stood up for democracy and our values,” she said. “Imagine, in the 1960s we were one of the first members of the Warsaw Pact. Now, a member of NATO for the last 10 years, we have commitments and troops in a number of countries including Afghanistan, Latvia, Kosovo, Mali and Sudan.”
But one of Albania’s longstanding goals, joining the 28-member (soon to be 27) EU, has yet to be realized, even though the bloc was finally supposed to give Albania and North Macedonia the green light for accession talks last year.
But the road to Brussels has been filled with obstacles, and the latest one came in mid-October when French President Emmanuel Macron effectively blocked both countries from starting membership talks on the grounds that neither country had done enough with regard to economic policy, human rights, anti-corruption measures and the rule of law.
He also said that the EU itself needs to undergo reforms before it should expand and absorb Balkan nations still scarred by war.
“This is a dispute about vision…. The enlargement rules need reform,” Macron said, adding that while Albania and North Macedonia have made progress in some areas, much more needs to be done.
It was a big blow to Western Balkan nations, which had been told since 2003 that if they undertook reforms, they could one day join the EU. While Macron’s concerns about corruption, organized crime and democratic backsliding are valid, some argue that the prospect of EU membership talks — which has now dimmed significantly — is precisely what incentivizes countries to enact tough reforms. There’s also the fear that if the EU turns its back on the Balkans, Russia and China could step in to fill the void.
Macron’s veto was particularly seen as a slap in the face to North Macedonia, which made tremendous sacrifices to resolve a longstanding row with Greece over its name in order to open formal accession negotiations with the EU.
As such, the French president’s anti-enlargement stance generated widespread anger throughout Europe.
“We’ve been taking recommendations to open these negotiations since 2018. We were told we fulfilled our requirements and we have made many changes, so this was a bit frustrating,” said Faber.
Others were more blunt. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said his country is “collateral damage” in an intra-EU power struggle, while Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called Macron’s opposition “a historic error.” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, went further. “It is not a failure, it is a mistake. I feel really embarrassed,” he said. “Both countries passed their exams; I can’t say this about our member states.”
But Tusk also sounded an optimistic note when he tweeted that he had “absolutely no doubt” that Albania and North Macedonia would become full EU members.
Croatia, which assumed the rotating presidency of the EU for the first time in January, has said it will work to revive negotiations by addressing Macron’s objections, and Ursula von der Leyen, who recently took over as head of the European Commission from Juncker, said in a statement that the commission “remains confident” that accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will happen this spring.
But it remains to be seen if the push for further EU expansion will encounter French resistance — or general apathy for that matter, as the bloc focuses on a litany of pressing problems such as Brexit, populism, migration and the troubled transatlantic alliance under Trump.
Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Albania, South Korea, Macedonia and Poland, and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Macron’s rejection of further expansion “has brought a symbolic end to the post-1989 era.”
“Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, Western leaders have consistently maintained that there are no problems on the European continent that cannot be addressed through engagement with the European Union or an expansion of the European project. But that longstanding outlook seems to be changing, owing to a combination of internal EU woes and American indifference,” he wrote in a scathing op-ed piece for Project Syndicate titled “Emmanuel Macron’s Balkan Betrayal.”
Hill said that in the past, one might have expected Washington to step in — but in the Trump era, “the plight of small, distant countries like North Macedonia and Albania barely matters.”
While it’s true that North Macedonia and Albania aren’t exactly priorities for Trump — who once questioned why NATO would come to the defense of a small member state like Montenegro — government-to-government relations between the U.S. and Albania continue to move forward. (Last month, for example, Yuri Kim, a career diplomat who has served in Iraq and Turkey, officially became the U.S. ambassador to Albania.)
One notable success story is the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund (AAEF), created in 1995 with $30 million in initial capital; today, it’s worth more than $245 million. The fund, one of several set up by the U.S. government to catalyze private-sector investment in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, has contributed $2 billion to Albania’s GDP and attracted some $300 million in foreign direct investment. A subsidiary of the AAEF, the Albanian-American Development Foundation, is today the largest nonprofit entity in Albania, with an endowment of over $180 million.
One of Albania’s growth industries has been tourism, with arrivals jumping by 20% annually over the last four or five years; the biggest increases have come from other European countries (particularly Poland) and Israel. Yet American tourists are still a rarity. In 2019, fewer than 2,000 visited Albania, even though visas are no longer necessary for U.S. citizens.
Albania is also looking to the wider region to ensure its economic future.
Less than a month after the earthquake, Prime Minister Rama invited three other heads of state to Tirana — Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic, North Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić — to discuss the eventual formation of a six-nation free trade zone that would also include Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi, refused to join the Dec. 21 summit, arguing that the meetings were “meaningless” as long as the Serbs and Bosnians refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
While the logjam is reflective of the mistrust and ethnic grievances that still run deep in the region, Albania has more pressing problems at home — and, according to Faber, a much more immediate goal at hand: to erase all signs of last year’s earthquake by the end of 2020.
To that end, the country has appointed a “minister of reconstruction” — Arben Ahmetaj — to oversee all earthquake recovery efforts. In its draft budget for 2020, the government has also allocated $63 million (equivalent to 0.4% of Albania’s GDP) to build houses for those made homeless by the disaster.
“The rebuilding will be one more tool to help the economy grow, not one to kick it off balance and hurt it,” said Rama, whose government projects 4.1% GDP growth in 2020, up from 3.4% in 2019.
In late February, during Rama’s planned visit to Washington, Faber will organize a “Friends of Albania” fundraiser at the Italian Embassy. She’s aiming for $1 million in pledges at the event to be chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), with an appearance by former President Clinton. An international donors conference is also scheduled to take place Feb. 17 in Brussels.
Above all, Faber said, past mistakes will not be repeated.
“We will now take extra measures so that all new construction in earthquake-prone zones can stand up to these disasters,” she said. “In the long run, people’s lives are more important than saving money. We will do whatever it takes.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist and photographer Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. He has visited Albania five times.