The Society and Its Environment
EUROPE'S LEAST-DEVELOPED country, Albania is located along the central west coast of the Balkan Peninsula. Albania's Adriatic and Ionian coasts are adjacent to shipping lanes that have been important since early Greek and Roman times. Tiranė, the capital and largest city, is less than an hour by air from eight other European capitals and barely more than two hours from the most distant of them. Yet, in large part because of its rugged terrain and, in recent times, it Stalinist regime, Albania remained isolated from the rest of Europe until the early 1990s.
Large expanses of mountainous and generally inaccessible terrain provided refuge for the Albanian nation and permitted its distinctive identity to survive throughout the centuries, in spite of successive foreign invasions and long periods of occupation. Kinship and tribal affiliations, a common spoken language, and enduring folk customs provided continuity and a sense of community. Foreign influence was inevitable, however. Additions and modifications to the language were made as a result of Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Turkish contacts. Lacking an organized religion as part of their Illyrian heritage, Albanians adopted the Muslim, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths brought to them by their conquerors.
Following the Italian and German occupations of World War II, Albania was subjected to more than forty-six years of authoritarian rule, from which it was emerging, materially and spiritually impoverished, in 1992. Its churches and mosques had been destroyed, the school system was a shambles, hospitals struggled with extreme shortages of basic medical supplies, and the hungry, dejected people had come to rely entirely on foreign food aid and other forms of assistance. With the collapse of communism, a democratically elected government faced the formidable challenge of ending decades of self-imposed isolation, restoring public order, and improving social conditions for the more than 3.3 million people of Albania.
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