Country Profile: Albania

After years of tumult, warfare with the Balkans and a Maoist cultural revolution in the 1960s, Albania is tentatively embracing democracy and a bit of stability.

The transition for the tiny, scenic country on the Adriatic Sea has been difficult. High unemployment, widespread corruption and shaky political connections and elections have made the region's newfound stability fragile. Efforts to establish a free-market economy have caused severe trouble for some, with a high number of Albanians suffering from poverty and unemployment.

Geography has left Albania exposed to neighboring regions' troubles. Macedonia is to the east, Yugoslavia and the province of Kosovo lie beyond its northern border, and Greece lies to the south.

Albania moved toward multiparty elections after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. While the first free elections returned the former Communists (who had changed their name to socialists) to power in 1991, a subsequent election brought the Democratic Party to power under the leadership of Sali Berisha.

The elections in 1992 ended 47 years of communist rule. Albania signed a military agreement with Turkey in 1992 and joined the Islamic Conference Association in a move to counter Greek territorial claims to southern Albania.

Since the early '90s, Albania saw a series of quick changes in prime ministers and presidents as the new democracy stumbled and nearly collapsed. Many Albanians left the country in search of work, mainly to nearby Greece and Italy.

By 1993, Amnesty International condemned increasing human rights violations associated with a crackdown on suspected communists in the country.

In 1997, following the collapse of a pyramid scheme in which thousands of Albanians lost their life savings, the Albanian police force and army disintegrated. Citizens helped themselves to guns and mortars from arms depots.

When NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, nearly half a million ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo spilled over the border into Albania.

Free markets have opened the road for Albania to obtain vast amounts of aid from developed countries. As Albania gets on its way toward integrating its politics and institutions with the West, Albanians, who have historically viewed their cultural and geographic home as part of the west, may soon be able to integrate with its western European neighbors.

Traditionally, Albania has been 70 percent Sunni Muslim, 10 percent Roman Catholic (mostly in the north) and 20 percent Albanian Orthodox, making it the only European country to have a Muslim majority. From 1967 to 1990 it was also the only officially atheist state in the world, and many churches were converted into cinemas and theaters. But new churches and mosques are springing up all over the country.

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