Following the death of Enver Hoxha, Albania's long-time (1945-1985) dictator in April 1985, Ramiz Alia (born 1925) became the dominant political personality in the country.
Ramiz Alia was born on October 18, 1925, into a poor working-class family from the northern Albanian city of Shkoder. His parents subsequently moved to Tirana, the capital of Albania, where Alia was a student at the city's Gymnasium (academic high school) at the time of the Italian occupation of the country in April 1939.
Like many of his contemporaries, Alia joined the Fascist Lictor Youth Organization. By 1941 he had severed his ties with this group and had become a member of the Albanian Communist Youth Organization. Two years later he abandoned his studies and was admitted to the Albanian Communist Party. The following year he was appointed political commissar with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Fifth Combat Division of the Albanian Army of National Liberation. His competent performance in this capacity brought him to the attention of Enver Hoxha and marked the beginning of what was to become a close relationship between the two Albanian leaders.
After the end of World War II in 1945, Alia resumed his duties as a member of the Central Committee and Secretariat of the Communist Youth Organization. In November 1948 at the First Congress of the Albanian Party of Labor (APL), the former Communist Party, Alia was elected to its Central Committee and assigned to the party's agitation and propaganda department. The following year he became president of the Communist Youth Organization, a post he held until 1955. In 1950 Alia was sent to the Soviet Union to study Marxist-Leninist theory, and he continued his studies there with several interruptions until 1954.
At this point he began his rapid ascent within the Albanian ruling elite under the patronage of Hoxha. By 1955 Alia was minister of education and the following year he joined the APL Politburo as a candidate (nonvoting) member. In 1958 Alia relinquished his post as minister of education to become the Central Committee's director of agitation and propaganda, a position he held until his appointment in September 1960 as Central Committee secretary for ideology and culture. At the Fourth APL Congress in February 1961, Alia was promoted to full membership in the Politburo.
Alia's rise to the inner circle of the leadership during the mid-1950s and early 1960s occurred at the time when Albania's relations with Russia had soured after Tirana had resisted Soviet pressures to de-Stalinize, improve relations with Yugoslavia, and abandon its industrialization program. Hoxha had rejected these demands on the grounds that they represented a "betrayal" of the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism and posed a threat to Albania's sovereignty. Alia was staunchly loyal to Hoxha during this critical period that culminated in the rupture of Soviet-Albanian ideological and diplomatic ties.
Similarly, Alia supported Hoxha's alignment with China during the 1960s. When tensions developed in the Sino-Albanian relationship following Beijing's rapprochement with the United States and Yugoslavia in the early 1970s, Alia again supported Hoxha's determined opposition to the new Chinese line. Relations between China and Albania reached the crisis stage following the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976, and two years later economic ties between Tirana and Beijing were suspended. The Sino-Albanian break resulted in the loss of a significant source of foreign assistance for Albania's economic development plans and underscored Albania's diplomatic isolation.
It was against this background that the events leading to Alia's ascent to power unfolded. As Hoxha's health deteriorated following the heart attack he suffered in 1973, the Albanian leader began to give increasing thought to the selection of a successor. It was generally assumed that Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu, the second-ranking member of the leadership, would succeed Hoxha. It appears, however, that differences over both domestic and foreign policy issues had arisen between Hoxha and Shehu and that Hoxha had misgivings about Shehu's temperament and competence to govern effectively. In December 1981 the Albanian press reported that Shehu had committed suicide in "a moment of nervous crisis." Given the massive purge of Shehu's supporters and the arrest of members of his family following his death, it is not improbable that Hoxha had engineered Shehu's demise to pave the way for the succession of Ramiz Alia.
In November 1982 Alia was appointed president of Albania while he continued to hold his important party positions. Upon Hoxha's death in April 1985, Alia was elected APL first secretary without opposition.
After assuming the leadership of Albania, Alia displayed considerable realism and sensitivity toward the problems confronting the country and the discontent these had fostered among the masses. By 1988 he had introduced a modicum of decentralization in economic planning and management, eased restrictions on Albanian intellectuals, and attempted to end Albania's isolation by improving ties with Western Europe and the Balkan states.
These measures, however, did not succeed in solving the nation's economic problems or curbing domestic unrest. The overthrow of the Eastern European communist regimes in 1989 intensified the demands for more radical changes. In response to these pressures, Alia in January 1990 announced a 25-point reform program that provided for the further liberalization of the structure and management of the economy, the legalization of private enterprise and foreign economic investment, significant expansion of civil liberties, and the strengthening of diplomatic and economic ties with other nations. This initiative elicited a mixed reaction from the people. While many Albanians welcomed the promised changes, others expressed their skepticism by fleeing the country or participating in demonstrations against the regime.
To underscore his determination to transform Albania into a "democratic state," Alia purged conservatives and incompetents from leadership positions, disavowed Stalinism, and drafted a new constitution. Bowing to popular pressure, he ended the political monopoly of the Party of Labor by sanctioning opposition parties and calling for free elections in 1991. Irrespective of the outcome of these elections, it appears that Alia's reforms ushered in a new era in the country's history. He set a personal example by resigning all his positions in the Communist Party on May 5, 1991.
Alia resigned as president of Albania on April 3, 1992, after his loss in the March election to Sali Berisha. Berisha subsequently became Albania's first non-Communist president since World War II. Alia may have been ousted from the government regardless of the outcome of the elections, because, even though some Albanians believed that Alia had steered them through a basically nonviolent transition, he had become very unpopular.
Alia was charged with political corruption and placed under house arrest in September 1992. The charges against him included misappropriating government property and funds, misusing power, and abusing the rights of citizens during his five-year term. His detention was converted to imprisonment in August 1993. He and nine other personages were put on trial in April 1994. Although Alia pleaded innocent and expressed the belief that his arrest was politically motivated, he was found guilty on July 2, 1994, and sentenced to nine years in prison. This term was later reduced to five years. Alia had served only about one year of his time when he was released on July 7, 1995. His release was granted by the Court of Appeals because of a new Criminal Code that exempted him from serving his term; however, many believe his release was part of an effort to strengthen European relations, which were strained by the accusations that his imprisonment had been politically motivated. Albania had been admitted to the Council of Europe directly before Alia's release.
Alia's freedom was short-lived. In 1996, he was charged with committing crimes against humanity during his term and imprisoned in March. His trial began on Februrary 18, 1997. However, during a riot on March 1997, during which guards deserted the prison where Alia and other former communists were being held, Alia escaped. On June 9, 1997, the trial of Ramiz Alia was adjourned when he failed to appear before the court. Alia's whereabouts remain unknown.
There is currently no full-length biography of Alia available in English. An excellent recent account of Albanian politics and diplomacy since 1945 is found in Elez Biberaj, Albania: A Socialist Maverick (1990). This work includes a useful discussion and interpretation of the policies of the Alia regime between 1985 and 1989. Information on Alia's political career up to 1961 appears in Who's Who in Eastern Europe: Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Yugoslavia (1961). Ramiz Alia, Our Enver (1988), provides some interesting insights into the relationship between Enver Hoxha and Alia along with details of Alia's rise within the ranks of the Albanian political leadership. Another book that includes discussions of Alia's activities is The Cold War: 1945-1991 by Benjamin Frankel (1992). Many of Alia's speeches have been published in English translation in pamphlet form, e.g., "Democratization of Socio-Economic Life Strengthens the Thinking of People" (1990) and "The Continuation of the Process of Democratization Is Vital for the Progress of the Country" (1990). The magazines New Albania and Albania Today are also useful sources of information about Alia's policies and activities. Also see Business Europa Briefing (Winter 1995), Chicago Tribune (March 14, 1997), CSCEE/EECR (Summer 1995), Current History (November 1993), New York Times (March 16, 1992; April 4, 1992; May 22, 1994; July 8, 1995), and RFE-RL Research Report (July 22, 1994).