CWIHP and Its Partners Seek Greater Access to Albanian Cold War Files

Nov 22, 2004

By Christian F. Ostermann, Director, Cold War International History Project (CWIHP)

Isolated from the rest of the world throughout much of the Cold War, Albania's role during the Cold War has remained shrouded in mystery to its citizens and the outside world alike--and a mere footnote in most Cold War accounts. Yet this tiny and remote Balkan country found itself at or near centerstage during crucial moments of that confrontation. In 1948, Albania emerged as a central issue in the politics of the Stalin-Tito split that shook the Communist world. Little over five years later, the regime of Communist dictator Enver Hohxa saw itself the target of a major attempt at "rollback" by British and U.S. intelligence agencies, who in vain tried to topple the regime by infiltrating agents by sea and air. After its own break with Moscow in the late 1950s, Albania entered into a close alliance with China. Hohxa also maintained unusually warm relations with North Korea in succeeding decades. For Cold War historians, Albania thus offers an important archival vantage point, well beyond the Balkans: Albanian archives promise significant insights for the study of the Sino-Soviet relationship and the evolution of North Korean foreign policy, among others.

At the invitation of the Albanian Cold War Studies Center (ACWSC), I visited Tirana for discussions with Albanian scholars, archivists, and government officials in early November 2004. Hosted by Dr. Ana Lalaj, the director and spiritus rector of the ACWSC, the trip was designed to further foster cooperation between CWIHP and Albanian archivists and scholars.

Established in 2001, the Albanian Cold War Studies Center has been at the forefront of efforts to promote access to records in the central state and foreign ministry archives in Tirana. CWIHP and the Center have been closely cooperating in furthering the declassification, translation and publication of documents on three subjects: (1) Albanian-Yugoslav relations; (2) Albania & the Warsaw Pact; and (3) Albanian relations with China and North Korea. Working under difficult conditions, Lalaj and other scholars have made significant inroads into the archives. Visiting Washington on a Fulbright Fellowship earlier this year, Lalaj presented first findings on "Albania and the Warsaw Pact" at a meeting held at the Library of Congress. Highlighting the close relationship between CWIHP and like-minded scholars around the ACWSC, Dr. Hamit Kaba, a member of the Center, spent a stint at the Woodrow Wilson Centeras as the most recent CWIHP Scholar. ACWSC and CWIHP are planing a series of publications of translated documents from the archives.

I was joined in Tirana by Jim Hershberg, Associate Professor of History at George Washington University and a member of CWIHP partner GWCW. In the course of a few intense days, we met with Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Namik Dokle; Roland Bimo, secretary-general of the Albanian Foreign Ministry; Shyqyri Dekavelli, director of the National Security Authority at the Albanian Council of Ministers; Prof. Shaban Sinani, director General of the Central State Archives of Albania, as well as Albanian archivists, scholars and university students interested in Cold War research and archival openness. (For the intense media coverage of the discussions, see links below.)

Thanks to Dr. Sinani, we were able to look at tantalizing samples of records on the Soviet Union and China, including memoranda of conversations, many of which remain formally classified. We were able to review finding aids for the Albanian Labor Party's relations with the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and request more than a thousand pages of materials (including copies of records of conversation with such figures as Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev, and Zhou Enlai) to be submitted for declassification review.

Since 1991, documents from the Communist Party and foreign ministry files have increasingly become available. A succession of archival laws, most recently the 2003 archival law (Law No 9154, 11 June 2003) established a general directorate of archives, strengthened the authority of individual archive directors, and reinforced the right of access in certain aspects. Under the energetic leadership of Pranvera Dibra, the director of the foreign ministry archives, foreign policy records have been catalogued and declassified through 1951, and a team of archivists and former diplomats is working hard to make available the next tranche of documents through 1955. The Central State Archive (Address: Rruga "Jordan Misja", Tirana, Phone number: ++355-42-279 59; Fax number: ++355-42-279 59 Email: dpa@sanx.net or dpa@albarchive.gov.al), headed by Director-General Shaban Sinani, author of "Open Archives for an Open Society" (2003), has also begun to provide access to its riches, including the records of the Albanian Labor (Communist) Party responding in part to the considerable and continuing media interest in the communist period, claims to the contrary by some archivists notwithstanding. The archives have addressed critical preservation problems—no small feat given the constant problems with electricity and other basic infrastructure that continue to beset this country. We were impressed with the expertise of the archivists, who went out of their way to allow glimpses at the archive's most secret vaults and make our time in Tirana as productive as possible. All senior officials we spoke to--including the vice premier, foreign ministry director-general and head of declassification commission--seemed supportive of a faster opening of archives on the communist period and of cooperation with Cold War international history scholarship.

To be sure, such support is vital given the difficulties Albanian (and international) Cold War researchers continue to face in this country. Implementation of the post-communist archival laws, historians complained, has been undercut by a 1999 law on "state secrets" (Law no 8457, 11 February 1999). Reflecting the pervasive uncertainty as to the status of the documents--for archivists and researchers alike--we were told by an archivist at the Central State Archive that in some cases the same material could be opened according to one law (on archives) yet kept classified according to another (on state secrets)--and the stricter law usually prevailed. The declassification of important records is progressing slowly, hampered in part by shortages of staff and other resources, but also by the practice of reviewing files item-by-item, even those fifty years old and older. Unlike other former Communist countries, Albania does not yet differentiate between Communist Party records (declassified up to the end of the Communist Party in most other countries) and government/state records (often declassified in bulk under a 25-30 year rule). Even the findings aids for the Communist Party files (including Enver Hohxa's records) at the Central State Archive are still classified; scholars interested in researching the documents are dependent on the advice of the archivists (unless they have special clearances). Officially, decisions on declassification are made by a declassification commission that meets a few times a year, but the actual role and influence of the commission is not fully transparent. Compounding the challenge for researchers and archivists is the fact that documents are not marked declassified even after they have been released; instead, the status of each document is captured in a bibliography that is not publicly available. Albanian researchers also voiced concerns over the high price of Xerox copies and the fact that they were not allowed to obtain copies of entire files, with decisions on the number of photocopies left to the archival authorities on a case-by-case basis.

To further archival openness, encourage further research in the largely untapped Albanian archives and highlight the Albanian dimension to the larger Cold War narrative, the Albanian Cold War Studies Center and CWIHP plan to sponsor an international conference on "Albania & the Cold War" within the next 12-14 months. We are eager to hear from interested researchers and experts who would like to become involved in the project and in turn might be willing to contribute items on Albania's role in the Cold War from Albanian and other sources and archives. For further information, contact Dr. Ana Lalaj (alalaj@albmail.com) or the CWIHP at coldwar1@si.edu.

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  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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