TIRANA, Albania — When the Rev. Shtjefen Kurti, a 73-year-old Catholic priest, was executed in 1971 for performing a baptism, the Communist authorities didn’t bother to inform his family. Only when his brother tried to take food to him in prison did he learn the priest’s fate.
“Don’t come back,” a guard told the brother. “He won’t be needing it anymore.”
Some 6,000 Albanians were taken away by government agents during the Communist era and never heard from again. Their bodies were never recovered, and they are assumed to have been executed, classified as “enforced disappearances” in the language of international human rights law.
Of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, Albania had the harshest and most isolated regime. Enver Hoxha, a hard-line Stalinist, created a repressive apparatus that outlasted his death in 1985 and continued right up until the regime’s fall in 1991.
That is about to change: A new commission has been charged with opening the files of the Sigurimi, Albania’s feared Communist-era state security police, and vetting candidates for public office to see if they collaborated with the repressive machinery of the former Communist regime.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, 52, said that the effort, the result of a 2015 law he supported, will help provide closure and reduce speculation about whether officials today benefited from their Communist-era connections. But critics say the measures have no substance and are mainly designed to improve Albania’s image abroad. They note that most files were destroyed long ago, and that there is no clear process for how to handle former collaborators.
Albania, a Massachusetts-size country of three million, joined NATO in 2009 and in 2014 became a candidate for European Union membership. But this hilly and mountainous Balkan country, which gained independence from the collapsing Ottoman Empire a century ago, is still one of Europe’s poorest. Many Albanians have left to work in countries like Italy, Greece and Germany.
So slow is the pace of Albania’s public sector that almost two years after Parliament passed the law creating the commission, it has yet to start work.
Having grown weary of waiting decades for government action, some relatives of victims have taken matters into their own hands. In 2010, Nikolin Kurti, Father Kurti’s nephew and a retired chemist, borrowed a bulldozer and spent two months conducting his own amateur exhumation of a mass grave on the outskirts of Tirana on Mount Dajti.
Mr. Kurti, 66, said he had unearthed 21 skeletons, put them in black garbage bags and taken them to the Tirana coroner’s office, where they still sit. He paid for DNA testing on one of the skeletons with a deformed leg bone — his uncle had a limp — but there was no match. Two years later, he found a document saying his uncle’s body was given to a medical university for dissection by students.
“This should have been done 25 years ago,” Mr. Kurti said. “Many of the people who know anything about this have died, forgot or left Albania.”
Mr. Kurti also does not plan to request his own secret police file. “So much time has passed, it is now irrelevant,” he said.
Mr. Kurti noted that Hajredin Fuga, the prosecutor who signed the execution order for his uncle for the capital offense of “religious propaganda,” later became a judge on the Constitutional Court.
“If these files had been opened in 1992, he never would have become a judge,” Mr. Kurti said. (Judge Fuga died in 2012.)
The new law does not oblige the government to publicize the findings of the searches or to remove officials from power if they are found to have participated in Communist-era repression.
“Opening the files will help fight the denial of what happened during Communism,” Gentjana Sula, a former deputy minister of social welfare who leads the new commission, said in an interview in her temporary office.
“People say: ‘Communism wasn’t so bad. There was security and no drugs or crime,’” said Ms. Sula, 47, whose grandfather died in prison in 1952, at age 45. “People tend to forget or deny the suffering.”
Most of the Sigurimi files are in the archive of the Interior Ministry. The archive’s former director, Kastriot Dervishi, 45, said he was not hopeful that meaningful insights could be gleaned from the files. During the Communist era, 90 percent of the files were destroyed every five years as a routine practice, he said. Of the files considered important enough to preserve, most were destroyed in the late Communist period by officials who wanted to protect themselves by erasing evidence of their crimes.
Mr. Dervishi estimated that the surviving documents comprised random samples from the files of only 12,000 or so Sigurimi collaborators — roughly 10 percent of the total — between 1944, when Hoxha took power, and 1991. And most of them are from the early part of that period.
“People are only interested in one thing: Who was a collaborator?” Mr. Dervishi said. They won’t find the answers for anyone still alive, he predicted.
A name appearance on the list of informers does not necessarily mean the person aided repression or harmed others, Mr. Dervishi said. About half of the listed informers never provided any significant information. And many were forced to collaborate through blackmail or threats against members of their family.
“Albania is going through a slow, step-by-step evolution toward leaving its past behind,” said Henrikas Mickevicius, a member of a United Nations working group on enforced disappearances that visited Albania in December. He is from Lithuania, which went through its own process of confronting its Soviet past.
The task of finding the victims’ remains is made more difficult than elsewhere in Eastern Europe because Communist Albania never went through the process of “de-Stalinization.”
Josip Broz Tito, the leader of neighboring Yugoslavia, introduced a more liberal form of socialism after breaking with Stalin in 1948. Hoxha cut ties with Moscow in 1961, accusing Stalin’s successor, Nikita S. Khrushchev, of betraying Marxist principles. Decades after Stalin’s gulags were dismantled, Albanians continued to be swept up and tortured, jailed or killed until 1991.
In addition to opening the files and looking for evidence of collaboration, Albania plans to sign an agreement with the International Commission on Missing Persons that would pave the way for an official effort to find and identify the remains of the disappeared. Negotiations are underway to do a yearlong project at two burial sites, Ballsh and Dajti, where the remains will be collected and matched with the DNA of victims’ survivors.
Funded by the European Union, the project will be Albania’s first official attempt to find and identify the disappeared.
Cooperation requires a complex governmental agreement involving diplomatic, legal and scientific issues; establishing a chain of custody for physical evidence; and allowing access to confidential government databases of survivors. Each grave site is treated as a potential crime scene.
“I’m not optimistic,” said Fatos Lubonja, 66, who wrote a memoir of his 17 years in Communist prisons and labor camps, his punishment for criticizing Hoxha in a private diary that the secret police uncovered.
Mr. Lubonja said that if the government truly sought a reconciliation with its past, it could have offered amnesty to witnesses, or even to perpetrators of political violence, in exchange for information about where the bodies are buried.
Instead, Mr. Lubonja said, members of both main parties — Mr. Rama’s Socialists (the renamed Communist Party) and the anti-Communist Democrats — were compromised during the Communist era. Rather than using the files as instruments to establish the truth, he said, the parties have deployed them as weapons of blackmail to attack opponents as collaborators, or to cast supporters as sympathetic victims.
“This is just a fight between bands of thugs using any weapon available against each other,” Mr. Lubonja said.
The efforts might please Western governments, but a true reckoning from the past must come from Albanians themselves, he said.
“In the West, they like these topics which are seen as a sign that something positive is happening in the country,” Mr. Lubonja said. “The shame should not come from abroad. It should come from your own people.”