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Albanian Imlosion




I will specifically look into the controversial issue of who planned the destruction of our National Defence, the looting of the Army depots, and the disintegration of the Armed Forces, or, if there was no premeditated plan, what factors contributed to this unprecedented disaster.

What was the aim of the army reform?

How was the reform carried out and who was in charge ?

What were its results?

Before disaster struck in spring 1997, the Albanian Democratic State inherited from the communist-Enverist dictatorship period an army built according to the principle of territorial defence with small units covering the entire land, and with a conventional regular army in the barracks. The regular army consisted of the Infantry, the Navy and the Airforce. In addition there were the tank brigades and the air-defence units, the communications, the chemical and engineering units and all the logistics required for the various services.

We also had an indefinite number of bunkers, tunnels and ammunition depots that covered all the country's territory and were within easy reach of the large formations and small units that used them.

We had a compulsory recruitment system, under which an Albanian male of the age of 18 was required to do an average of three years of service. Although the size of the standing army and the reservists was never made known to the general public, the defence experts could make a rough estimate on the basis of the few and scarce demographic statistics which Tirana published. Albania in the 1970s-1980s had the youngest population age in Europe, which means that the army was never short of fresh recruits.

Our army certainly did not possess any sate-of-the-art, top-of the-line equipment which NATO supplied to Greece.

Nevertheless, we had an industry that catered for the needs of the army, consisting of factories for the production of light weapons, munitions and explosives, as well as repair plants for the armoured divisions, the communications and the air and naval units.

Whether this sort of defence strategy was modern and efficient or not, fortunately for our ill-equipped army and poor country, it was never put to the test during these last 40 years, except in 1949 during a three-day war with the Greek army, which was repulsed. Nevertheless, we should admit that the compulsory National Service was imposed without a problem, and the soldier's uniform was held in respect especially among the country people. The servicemen were well remunerated in comparison with the civil servants.

After the outbreak of the armed uprising this spring in the South, it appeared that we had an immense stockpile of weapons, light and heavy, which never featured in the military reviews. The unknown number of tanks and the unimaginable amount of weaponry, explosives, chemical substances and ammunition, played their own role as a powerful deterrent during the period when Albania sealed itself from the world.

The formidable military arsenal became known to ordinary Albanians only after the armed uprising in February-June 1997 when army depots were raided.

I raised a question: What was the objective of reform in the Albanian Army?

The experts said that the reform was meant to bring the army up to NATO standards. When someone is instructed from the highest governmental level to implement the army reform, I presume that his first concern would be to find out for himself the aim of the reform, the objectives that should be reached, and, later, to understand what the reformed army would stand for, what objectives it would have and, in the end, how safe national security would be upon the completion of the reform.

Always speculating about the events of these last six months, we saw that the army was not reformed as we had assumed, but was totally ruined instead. I am convinced about this, because time has proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that the objective of the reform was not, apparently, to modernise the army.

Even if the reform was left to the care of people ignorant of defence matters, our armed forces would not have been reduced to this plight.

Let's discuss each issue in its own right.

Our army had a definite number of servicemen and women, from the highest to the lowest ranking officer and the recruits, as well as a good number of NCOs. Each of them had a duty to fulfil. A number of them, surely, would have been assigned to do guard duty in objects of strategic importance like ammunition depots, armament tunnels and heavy artillery shelters, as well as the army industrial installations and so on.

When a government begins a reform in order to modernise the army, among other things, they are expected to cut down on the number of the standing army so as to comply with NATO and PfP requirements. The reduction of the size of the standing army is part of an overall cut in the defence budget of the countries aspiring for NATO membership.

According to NATO standards, the defence expenditure should not exceed an average level of 4.5% of the GDP.

The Albanian communist state was not bound by any treaty or international agreement to comply with any rules and publish its real defence budget. The figures which it allowed to reach the public every four years in each Party Congress were heavily doctored. Analysts of specialised military magazines rated Albania's defence spending second only to Israel, which is huge compared with the resources of the country.

Under the conditions of the Partnership for Peace, the ante-room to NATO membership, the size of the army had to be cut down at all costs. But did anyone think about the armaments and explosives depots, the armament factories? Were any provisions made in order to neutralise the side-effects of the reform among the people serving in the army? Did the reformers give any thought to the future allegiances of a large number of enthusiastic supporters of the democratic movement, who were made redundant? As it emerged later during the crisis, many of them became disaffected with the new regime, not to say hostile?

The reform envisaged the reduction of the size of the armed forces and the remaining part was to be barracked according to this new modern concept.

There is nothing wrong with this as far as the concept goes, but what about the safety of the armaments, explosives, chemical substances, etc. which were lying all over the country? Did anyone think of them before the process of reform was started? Our experts and advisers in charge of the reform ought to have known better. When the army was put into the barracks, it should have occurred to the members of the National Defence Council that the military arsenal of the country would be rendered unsafe and defenceless if the men were moved into barracks and the depots were not moved at the same time close to where they could be safely guarded by the army and would be readily available for them in any contingency.

It looks like this aspect of the reform was overlooked. It looks like it was convenient for someone not to mention these irregularities, not to raise them with the National Defence Council. It looks like someone rubbed his hands in glee when he saw that the reform of the Albanian army was competed "with success".

And our Defence Ministert was given a 21 gun salute in the United States of America.

As a result of the reform (ruin) of the Albanian Army and of the national defence (March-June 1997), we have the following situation:

Civilians of all ages have in their hands around 1.5 million light and heavy pieces of weaponry, some 3.5 million hand grenades, billions of bullets of different calibre, chemical and even radioactive material, not mention missiles (even though Defence Minister Brokaj assures us that most of them are now in safe hands).

The death toll reached 2500 dead, scores of thousands wounded, hundreds maimed for life; many of them women and children. There is no end in sight to the shooting sprees which continue to claim more lives.

The material damage to the defence is estimated at about 2 billion US dollars. I wonder whether an exact estimate will ever be published.

The reform of the army delivered a shattering blow to the defence of the country, from which it will hardly recover. We will hear mutual accusations about who caused the catastrophe, but the real culprits will not be brought to justice by the socialist government.


Many well-meaning Englishmen have visited Albania since 1992, amongst them Col. David de C. Smiley, a good friend of mine and of my country, a veteran of WWII and a former SOS man with a distinguished career in many countries. He told me that he met the Albanian defence minister on several occasions and had offered to help with advice on how to rebuild the army.

Zhulali had his own ideas, - the elderly colonel said to me. - He wanted expensive armaments, the same as NATO troops have. But the Albanian military are not as well trained in handling sophisticated weapons. What you need, and I said so to Zhuali, is to reorganise the army with what you've got.
During Mr. Zhulali's working visit in the United Kingdom in December 1995, the British in their quiet way again offered to send a Naval adviser to the Ministry of Defence.

In a moment alone I asked Zhulali whether it was wise to refuse the British advice on Navy matters. He replied he had more American advisers than he needed. I understood what he meant.

Colonel Smiley's idea of a national gendarmerie was left unheeded. The unfortunate thing about it is that his advice which was built on the experience of two generations of war and previous knowledge of the country was spurned. Smiley knew what he was talking. He had a very accurate idea of the social structure of the country. His frequent visits had helped him to understand the changes that had come with the new government and he applauded Berisha's style and vision.

He was right in suggesting the national gendarmerie as a solution for the reform of the army because he understood the inner works of the mind of an Albanian.

Back in the time under the communists most of our standing army was comprised of young people from the countryside. Until before the democratic change, the Albanian population consisted of 65% peasants and the rest townspeople, or as the party statistics put them, 65% co-operative farmers and 35% industrial and office workers. When the young men from the villages were called in for service at the age of eighteen, most of them were glad to go in the army because they said they would have plenty to eat, and wear good stout boots and have a uniform. All these being essentials which they regarded as a luxury. The army officers were also raised mainly from the same peasant population of the country.

People like Colonel Smiley were aware of this situation. They knew that a national gendarmerie would be the answer to our problems in as much as it would re-institute a respected uniform which would be accepted by the country at large, whereas an army in barracks was a novelty and the results of the experiment would take a long time to show, not to mention the expense involved.

When the reform was well advanced, we saw with alarm that it did not work. The conscripts defected, abandoned their duty posts and escaped from the country to Greece or Italy. Young people who should have reported for military service preferred slave labour instead. Parents tried to bribe recruitment officials in order to get fake army certificates for their sons. Army officers were not in a position to stop this from happening. The law was not enforced on deserters. The democratic government tried, as a last resort, to reduce the term of service in the army from three years to fifteen months. But this did not convince the young people to do their duty, either. Something was rotten in core. As early as the period 1990-1991 the Albanian Army was already deeply affected by low standards of discipline, desertion in large numbers, and declining morale.

The event of 10 April 1995, when a Greek commando infiltrated miles-deep into our territory, reached a conscripts' training ground undetected, and killed a number of soldiers in their sleep, speaks volumes about the state of affairs in the Albanian Army and its intelligence branch.

With the angered socialists and old-time communists prowling the country, rallying for and drumming support from the old-party bases, and waiting for the right time to hit the government, the army reform was playing into their hands.

When you know that there is a thief stalking the village, the first thing you do is make sure that the barn-door is closed and the horse is safe. The reform made sure that the door remained open for the thief to steal the horse.

The socialist-communists were not worried about the consequences of their actions. What they wanted at all costs was to get the horse. In the process of stealing the horse they ruined the whole barn.

What the democratic government did by leaving the barn-door open - a fault of omission - the socialist-communists accomplished by both stealing the horse and torching the barn.