A View from Tirana: The Albanian Dimension of Kosovo Crisis
Europe Report N°36
10 Jul 1998
Relations between Albanians from Albania proper and their ethnic kin over the border in Kosovo are complex. Despite obvious linguistic and cultural ties, the political division of the past 80 years and Albania’s isolation during the communist period have caused the two communities to evolve in a very different fashion. Moreover, the arrival of Kosovo Albanians in Albania in recent years and their influence in some unsavoury spheres of the economy have caused resentment among Albanians from Albania proper, most of whom are too preoccupied with the daily struggle for existence to devote much time or thought to national questions. The upsurge in violence in Kosovo and the influx of several thousand Kosovo Albanian refugees have, nevertheless, reminded Albanians of the links between the communities and sympathy for their ethnic kin in Kosovo is especially strong in the border areas among the Ghegs, the northern Albanians.
Although the Albanian response to the escalating violence in Kosovo has to date been restrained, the government, which is dominated by Tosks, southern Albanians, inevitably finds itself under increasing pressure to adopt a more aggressive stance. A policy of restraint may win international approval, but it brings into question the administration’s nationalist credentials, both with Kosovo Albanians and within Albania proper, especially among the Ghegs. Moreover, it plays into the hands of ex-president Sali Berisha who is already exploiting the Kosovo conflict to mount a political comeback in Albania. Like the Kosovo Albanians, Berisha is a Gheg and comes from Tropoje on the Kosovo border. This part of the country is largely beyond Tirana’s control and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is operating there increasingly openly. Given the current weakness of the Albanian Army and latent hostility between Ghegs and Tosks, there is a danger that the KLA will in time extend its theatre of operation to Albania proper.
Albania’s attitude towards Kosovo and the Albanians of the former Yugoslavia was largely dismissive during the communist period between 1945 and 1992 when, as today, the country’s elite was largely made up of Tosks. Relations between Albania and the Kosovo Albanians were transformed after the victory of the Democratic Party and the election of Berisha as Albanian president in 1992. Although forced by US pressure to abandon calls for the unification of all Albanian-inhabited regions of the Balkans, Berisha made the national question a priority and forged strong links with the Kosovo Albanian leadership. Berisha was forced to resign last year in the wake of an uprising against his rule following the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes and his party was subsequently defeated in elections in May 1997. In the anarchy of the uprising some 750,000 weapons were stolen from military depots and much of the army deserted, leaving only some 11,000 troops today. Many of the missing weapons have inevitably ended up in the hands of the KLA.
The new socialist-led government of Fatos Nano has plotted a very different course from that of its predecessor, much to the disappointment of the Kosovo Albanian leaders. It has attempted to court the West; it has forged good relations with neighbouring Greece and Macedonia; and it has supported the efforts of the Contact Group to resolve the Kosovo crisis, seeking only the status of a third republic for the majority-Albanian province and the deployment of NATO forces along its borders. That said, Albanian policy is shifting as a result of the on-going violence and popular pressure at home. And the initial restrained response is evolving into overt support for, in Nano’s words, “the people of Kosovo taking up arms in order to defend their lives and property”.
The Albanian government has intercepted some arms supplies intended for the KLA in those regions which it controls. However, the bulk of weapons going into Kosovo enter from regions of northern Albania beyond Tirana’s control around border towns like Tropoje, Kukes and Bajram Curri. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU) have teams of monitors in those border areas. Yet in the remote Albanian highlands it is virtually impossible to detect all the mule tracts over the mountains. And given local sympathy for the plight of Kosovo’s Albanians, the poorly-equipped Albanian border guards can do little but monitor the comings and goings of KLA fighters.
In an effort to ease tension and build stability in the region, ICG urges the following:
- Diplomatic pressure on former Albanian president Sali Berisha to refrain from exploiting the Kosovo crisis for his own political goals;
- International assistance for the Albanian border police to monitor more effectively the Albanian-Kosovo and Albanian-Macedonian frontier;
- Scrutiny of activities of Kosovo Disapora support groups in the West;
- International mediators to keep Albania informed of and, where useful, brought into Kosovo talks; and
- International relief agencies to direct aid for Kosovo Albanian refugees away from border to territory controlled by Tirana government.