Gjovalin Kolombi recalls a time just a few years ago when fellow Albanians could be executed for muttering the slightest criticism of their Communist government, a time when students could be expelled or imprisoned if they questioned textbooks filled with propaganda.
He also remembers being overwhelmed with hope for his Balkan homeland when then-U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III said two words to 500,000 cheering Albanians in the capital's historic Skanderberg Square in June, 1991: "Freedom works."
Now Kolombi--president of Shkoder University in Shkoder--and three Albanian colleagues are touring the United States to learn how it works.
The Albanian delegation is touring U.S. law schools and federal and state courts so that they can recommend educational and legal reforms when they return to Albania later this month. They will serve as consultants to the parliament officials who are writing laws and drafting the new constitution.
Tuesday, they attended classes at Western State University College of Law. Before they return to Albania, they will have observed law schools and courts in Washington, D.C.; North Carolina; Tennessee; Mississippi, and New York.
Albania, long considered Europe's poorest nation, was one of the last Soviet Bloc countries to abandon its Stalinist regime. After two years of protests, the Communist prime minister and his cabinet were forced to resign in June, 1991, and by March, 1992, members of the progressive Democratic party had captured 92 of 140 parliamentary seats.
Kolombi said Albania, which clung to a xenophobic brand of communism for almost 50 years, is struggling with the sudden transition to the free-market economy and is at times "close to anarchy." He fears that a dictator could come to power if the country does not learn to manage the intermittent chaos.
"But I believe things will come to their place in time, and then we will see the balance of the three branches of government the way it exists in the United States," he said through an interpreter.
In addition to studying the legal system, Kolombi and his compatriots say they are dispelling their stereotypes about America.
"We are always told there is so much crime in this country, but so far we haven't seen any," Kolombi said. "We always say, 'How come nobody is watching that store?' "
Since they are concerned about quelling the uprisings in Albania, the group members said they were interested in learning about American law enforcement. Albanian police "just look at crime and do nothing," and they need to be granted more power, Kolombi said.
"We had this vision that American police can kill you for no reason," Kolombi said. "So it was strange for us to hear that the rights and authority of police here are limited. In our circumstances, it would not be good to follow this."
On Tuesday, though, it was the educational system that took them by surprise.
"I was impressed with how the professor stated his opinion even though it was independent of how the Supreme Court ruled," said Vasilika Barka, who teaches forensic science at Tirana Law School, in Albania's capital. "I was also impressed by how free the students were to ask questions during the lecture."
Kolombi said that, before democratization, "students were educated to serve the government instead of the government serving the people." All the social science textbooks "had the red marks of communism," he said, and facts were distorted for political purposes. "No one could even think of questioning it."
Kolombi said that, above all, the American tour "opens the democratic window" for the group.
"We want Albania to follow the correct and just path," he said, "because democracy (needs) knowledgeable people who know not only their own nation but other nations as well."