Giving its Soul

On June 10, 1991, the Party of Labor held its 10th congress, which it called “The Congress of Renovation.” The goal was “to create a party with a new physiognomy,” explained Xhelil Gjoni, who had became First Secretary after Alia resigned, adding that it was important “to preserve all good values that have been achieved.”[i] When 1,400 party delegates converged on Tirana, it remained unclear which of Gjoni’s statements would have the upper hand—change or preservation. Berisha predicted the party would split into hard-line and reformist factions, like a “two-headed monster.”[ii]

Gjoni opened the congress with an ambiguous two-hour speech. He criticized Hoxha’s self-reliance, which led to splits with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China. He condemned the extreme collectivization of land and the persecution of intellectuals. At the same time, he stressed that “Enver Hoxha is an indispensable part of our history.” The delegates rose to their feet shouting “Party-Enver!”[iii]

That night saw nine hours of heated debate: how much of the old to keep and what from the new to include? By morning, the Alia-backed reformers had prevailed. The congress expelled a host of former Politburo members from the party and barred others from the Central Committee for having abused their privileges. Alia ordered them to leave their government villas.

The next day, Albania’s well-known writer, head of the writers’ league and member of the Central Committee, Dritëro Agolli, gave a stinging speech that shocked the conservative wing. Although not stronger than the attacks coming from the DP, Agolli’s critique of the party was unexpected from such a high-ranking member, and it set the congress aflame.

“A serious renovation of the party will take place when we fundamentally recognize the mistakes, and when a new world view and mentality is born,” he said, as Alia watched from the balcony. He implored the delegates to “discard all frozen dogmas and principles of the past, and close the pages of this chapter.”[iv] Mostly reading a prepared text, the white-haired and bespectacled Agolli, with a passion for early-morning olives and raki, criticized the “iron dictatorship” of Enver Hoxha, which forbade “any free thought that was contrary to those he had himself.”

Whispers and murmurs filled the hall.

“The class struggle as an instrument of the top leadership’s dictatorship created three cults unheard of in the history of Albania: the cult of Enver Hoxha, the cult of the party and the cult of the Sigurimi,” he continued. “The fear of these three cults began to destroy and erode the people’s morals and the humanism of society: sprouting from the acres of the dictatorship came anti-humanism, hypocrisy, servility, fraud, corruption, abuse, bribery, favoritism, theft, rumors and, above all else, it destroyed the personality of humans and the impoverishment of their spirit occurred.”

The murmurs grew to boos.

“The high officials of the party, the members of the Politburo, had glistening skin due to food selected and controlled by security specialists, and even had a special farm in Kamez planted with a special grass to give fragrance to the meat and milk they chewed and swallowed.”

The boos turned to shouts.

“At a time when Albania did not have enough places to rest one’s head, not enough modest apartments, these high officials of the party greedily added rooms, bathrooms and toilets to their villas, for a symbolic price, like the sheikhs of Kuwait.”

“You’re a traitor!” someone yelled from the audience, as the delegates sprang to their feet, clapping rhythmically, chanting “Enver—Enver!”

Agolli continued above the shouts while Alia sat and watched. When he finished the speech, he looked at the delegates from the lectern.

“Your reaction has confirmed my hidden thought that the Party of Labor cannot be renovated,” he said. “Your shouting in such an uncivilized way is the mirror of a party that is lying in bed and giving its soul. I tried in vain to save it. I’m going because I can’t stand the smell of death.”[v]

Despite the delegates’ vitriol, Alia and the reformers pushed ahead. A day after Agolli’s speech, the Party of Labor renamed itself the Socialist Party and took as party symbol the red rose of the European left. After initially refusing, Fatos Nano accepted the nomination and was elected party head. Agolli became a member of the Steering Committee. The reformers manipulated the voting to ensure the presence of more liberal views in the leadership, according to Agolli and other members of the Socialist Party. On June 13, 1991, the party’s newspaper, Zëri i Popullit, published the decision to change the party name. For the first time in the paper’s 47-year history, the front-page did not feature the communist hammer and sickle.

[i] “We Must Create a Party with a New Physiology; Interview with Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party of Labor or Albania Xhelil Gjoni with our editor Petrika Grazhdani” (in Albanian), Zëri i Rinisë, June 8, 1991.

[ii] “Marxist Icon Criticized in Albania; Ruling Party Blames Hoxha for Problems,” by Jim Fish, The Washington Post, June 11, 1991.

[iii] “Speech of Xhelil Gjoni, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party of Labor” (in Albanian), Zëri i Popullit, June 11, 1991.

[iv] “Democracy Demands a Catagorical Break With the Mistakes of the Past” (in Albanian), Zëri i Rinise, June 12, 1991.

[v] Dritëro Agolli, The Sneeze of Freedom. (Tiranë: Botimet Dritëro, 1997), p. 24.

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