“It looks like we’ve found that lost consignment of Easter eggs. Yes, sir, pretty sure… Well, sir, it would be good news, except that the eggs have hatched.”
Return of the Living Dead (Courtesy IMDB)
While Yugoslavia self-destructed violently with front-page coverage, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania went through first the fall of communism in 1991 and then an even more dramatic implosion in 1997, when a proliferation of pyramid schemes destroyed Albania’s economy and any semblance of government and social order followed suit, with minimal attention from the wider world. This may be owed, in large part, to the preceding government of Enver Hoxha (pronounced “Ho-Ja”). Where Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito was a virtual cosmopolitan, opening his country wide open even to the capitalist west, Enver Hoxha’s radicalism and paranoia made Albania increasingly isolated even from other communist states. Thus, it is fair to say that, by the 1990s, the wider world was used to ignoring Albania. It is also noteworthy that contemporary coverage took a very different tone than for the Yugoslav wars: Where Bosnia and Kosovo were covered as the humanitarian crises they certainly were, Albania’s collapse was treated almost light-heartedly, as in humorist P.J. O’rourke’s account of his visit in Eat the Rich. Even more tellingly, the coverage from “serious” venues gave a disproportionate amount of attention to just one aspect of the collapse: the massive looting of guns from Albania’s large military stockpiles.
The gist of the story is this: Depending on estimates, somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million weapons were looted from Albania’s military arsenals during the 1997 collapse. Street prices for AK47s reportedly dropped as low as twenty American dollars (which, under the circumstances, was probably a fortune to the Albanians). As of September 2000, CNN reported that half a million were believed to remain in civilian hands. The horror!
A number of considerations have rarely been mentioned. First, the by all accounts, looting occurred on a massive scale throughout Albania. P.J. O’Rourke at least went to the trouble noting more examples, up to and including the theft of a railroad: That is, not a robbery or hijacking of a train, but the wholesale plundering of the very components of the tracks. Second, personal ownership of weapons is greatly valued in Albanian culture, including the profoundly influential traditions known as the Kanun of Lek Dukaigjin. In Kosovo: A Short History, Noel Malcolm goes so far as to note that “the history of Kosovo and North Albania are punctuated by a series of revolts caused by ill-starred official attempts to disarm the population.”
Third, the stolen weapons were not, by any appraisal, particularly good weapons: Typical specimens, if not the actual majority, were Chinese copies of the AK47, an iconic weapon best known for phenomenal durability and marginal accuracy, most likely manufactured in the 1970s if not earlier. Factor in the variables of storage and maintenance, and it seems likely that quite a few had approached or exceeded even the AK47’s legendary tolerances for neglect and abuse. While fears were aired early on (as in a 1997 Chicago Tribune piece) that stolen Albanian weapons would be spread to other conflict zones, in 20/20 hindsight, the Albanians’ arsenal would offer little that the war zones of the rest of the world did not already have in abundance. Indeed, even far more formidable hardware from Hoxha’s arsenals proved hard to market: According to a 2002 BBC report, when the Albanian army tried to sell its tanks as legitimate “surplus”, they met with complete failure. According to a cited Albanian representative, “No one has shown interest in the tanks and at least 500 of them will end up as scrap.”
Curiously, the same report mentions that the military was considering selling assault rifles to their own populace as “hunting” weapons. This begs an interesting question: If the military saw any possibility of interest, than what had happened to all the weapons stolen in 1997? Quite possibly, many of the thieves had followed the presumable example of the looters who plundered the raw materials of the railroad, and simply had “their” weapons melted down for scrap!
That brings us to the likely end of the saga of Albania’s stolen guns. But then, in the new century, a whole new situation emerged. Here are relevant excerpts of the story as told in 2005 by The Washington Post:
Near the end of his 40 years in power, Enver Hoxha prepared his tiny country for an invasion he warned was sure to come. The Marxist dictator built 750,000 concrete bunkers in the 1970s and 1980s and imported large quantities of weapons to repel an expected attack… But his most prized weapons acquisition was a state secret known only to the Albanian leader and his closest advisers — a secret that only now is coming fully to light.
In the mid-1970s, U.S. and Albanian officials now believe, Hoxha arranged the purchase of several hundred canisters of lethal military chemicals to be used in weapons against invading armies… This deadly stockpile was hidden in one of Hoxha’s bunkers, then forgotten after Hoxha died in 1985… The current Albanian government’s surprise discovery of the canisters, acknowledged to U.S. and U.N. officials several months ago… Albanian officials recently allowed a reporter from The Washington Post to view the stockpile…
Inside the building are row after row of containers and bottles of various colors and sizes. Most are red cylinders roughly the size of a propane tank. Numerals and, in some cases, Chinese characters are clearly visible on the outer casing. The Chinese writing identifies the contents of each container but not the origin. Altogether, the bunkers hold nearly 600 vessels containing about 16 tons of what is known in military jargon as “bulk agent.”…
Albanian defense officials, who now are preparing to destroy the (chemical weapons) with help from U.S. and U.N. agencies, say they are confident that all of Hoxha’s canisters are safely locked away.
“We have searched everywhere, and I can declare to you that Albania has no more such weapons,” said Albanian Lt. Col. Muharrim Alba, a senior arms control specialist with the Albanian Defense Ministry.
But Alba also acknowledged that Albania had been unable to find a shred of documentation describing the original purchase by Hoxha three decades ago. The investigation has turned up no letters, receipts or inventories, or even a single officer of the former government who is willing or able to recall how the chemicals were obtained.
Reading between the lines, the “arsenal” is far from a high-tech terror threat. The main chemical mentioned, sulfur mustard or yperite, is the same substance used as “mustard gas” in World War 1. Thus, if vintage is used as a measure, Enver Hoxha’s WMDs make his arsenal of rusty Kalashnikovs look state-of-the-art. But then, like the “mediocre” AK47 that can sling lead just as indifferently after being run over by a truck, what mustard gas lacks in sophistication can be made up for in shelf life. Where “advanced” sarin gas has a shelf life of no more than a few months, recently recovered mustard gas shells from World War 2 have been reckoned still dangerous.
“Easter eggs”, indeed…
David N. Brown