November 29, 2023

In early 1997, a tiny, semi-literate Roma former shoe factory worker, Maksude Kadena, went to the balcony of her shabby Communist-era apartment in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Beneath her stood hundreds of people who had invested in her company, Sude, which had been offering big rewards: 5-10% returns per month. But suddenly the interest payments had dried up, investors were being prevented from retrieving their capital. And so here they were — baying for her.

In her hand, Kadena held a megaphone. Now, she put it to her lips.

“My game is over,” she told the crowd below. “It was a pyramid game. My company is bankrupt. And you shouldn’t ask for the money.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. In that half a second, the wave of one of history’s stranger financial manias finally broke, tipping Albania towards civil war, and levelling the hopes of a generation. “We didn’t even take the eggs from our chickens to cook for our children,” was how a guard standing outside an Albanian university put it to me, in November of this year. “We just sell them and put the money into the schemes. But what happened after that? Tragedy.”

It was, in short, the Ponzi that ate a country. I had come to Albania to make a documentary for BBC Radio 4, trying to figure out how an entire country fell prey to a con. At their peak, the many different Albanian schemes, of which Sude was but one, had liabilities of £700 million — in a country whose GDP was only £2.1…

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