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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Albania > Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?

Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?

Miranda Vickers, Transitions Online  |   1 Apr 2004

A century of shifting borders has left ethnic Albanians scattered across Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece, and contrary to popular belief, they don't share the same goals.

The recent explosion of ethnic Albanian violence in Kosovo has refocused international attention on the unresolved political status of the province. Media allegations of ethnic cleansing and pogroms against the province's Serb minority have given rise to concerns of a new aggressive nationalism among the region's Albanian population. In light of the riots in Kosovo and other recent ethnic Albanian insurgencies in southern Serbia and Macedonia, these concerns are not unreasonable.

There is, however, widespread misunderstanding about Pan-Albanian national aspirations, which are seen by many as a serious threat to Balkan stability. A new study by the International Crisis Group suggests that notions of pan-Albanianism are far more layered and complex than the usual sweeping characterizations of ethnic Albanians simply bent on achieving a greater Albania or a greater Kosovo. Indeed, divisions within the Albanian communities across southern Europe remain pronounced, and the desire to territorially unify the Albanian peoples has long held far more power as myth than as practical political agenda.

BROADER NATIONAL QUESTION IGNORED

A century of shifting borders has left ethnic Albanians scattered across Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece. Due to diverse historical circumstances, each group has subsequently evolved into separate entities, with different levels of socioeconomic development and political status. Albanians are well aware of the historical, cultural, and ideological divisions among them and are therefore content to preserve their separate political entities as long as business, cultural, and travel restrictions are removed.

Since the arrival of multiparty politics in Albania, the country has been struggling to overcome acute poverty and serious internal political conflict. The broader national question has been largely ignored due to a number of factors: unlike the rest of their ethnic kinsfolk, the citizens of Albania have the relative good fortune to live in their own nation-state. This fact has diminished the importance of the national question in favor of the more pressing need to foster internal national reconciliation and to shore up Albania's shattered economy. Albanians are therefore more interested in developing cultural and economic ties with the other Albanian entities in the southern Balkans, while maintaining separate statehood, and successive Albanian governments have opted for a strategic partnership with Macedonia as both aspire toward membership in NATO and the European Union.

On the whole, Albania’s relations with the Albanians of Kosovo and western Macedonia have been far less intimate than the relations between Kosovo and Macedonia. For some in Albania in particular, one of the main obstacles to forging closer political ties among Tirana, Pristina, and Tetovo is the potential clash of elites. Albania’s current Tosk-dominated government is also concerned that too many Ghegs would be incorporated into a unified Albanian state. Despite the tremendous support given to the thousands of Kosovo refugees in 1998 and 1999, Albania has remained aloof from the ethnic Albanian conflicts in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia and Macedonia.

In marked contrast to Albanians in Albania, the ethnic Albanian population of the former Yugoslavia is still struggling to secure varying degrees of national self-determination. Five years after the end of the Kosovo war, the province's ethnic Albanians have remained in a state of political limbo, their demands for independence still meeting strong resistance from both Belgrade and international circles.

While the struggle of the Kosovo Albanians is for independence, the situation of Macedonia’s Albanians is more complex. Theirs is a struggle for economic as well as national and cultural rights. On the whole they have been largely focused on achieving coexistence within the Macedonian state, securing the ability to govern themselves at a local level, and having equal representation at the federal level. Much the same can be said about the Albanian population of southern Serbia, who want the opportunity to develop their own civic life in their own language. Despite progress in recent local elections, the establishment of a multiethnic police force, and plans for a census, there remains a strong desire among the Presevo Albanians for some form of autonomy for the Albanian-speaking areas of southern Serbia, similar to the political status Kosovo enjoyed under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

THE DIASPORA'S VITAL ROLE

Meanwhile, despite recent--and dubious--allegations in the media that a new ethnic Albanian guerrilla group has emerged and is threatening to destabilize Montenegro, Montenegrin Albanians have thus far resisted any type of paramilitary activity. This is the one corner of the former Yugoslavia where Albanians recognize they are an absolute minority, therefore tensions have largely been minimal. In general, Montenegrin Albanians support the government of Premier Milo Djukanovic, while continuing to press for a degree of enhanced autonomy within Montenegro.

Over the past five years, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the National Liberation Army (NLA) in Macedonia, and other groups have waged campaigns of violence in support of enhanced rights for ethnic Albanians. In Macedonia and the Presevo Valley, ethnic Albanian insurgencies were stopped in 2001 by internationally brokered peace agreements, respectively, the Ohrid Agreement and the Covic Plan, which was designed to reintegrate Albanians into Serbian civic life. Yet the International Crisis Group report emphasizes that both the KLA and NLA started to gain popular support in Kosovo and Macedonia precisely when they moved away from their initial pan-Albanian nationalist goals and concentrated on gaining more rights for their own people.

There is clear willingness on the part of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and the Presevo Valley to participate in the peace agreements. However, even widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of implementation of these agreements and the delivery of promised reforms has not led to increased radicalization of the Albanian population. On the contrary, the “Albanian National Army”--which overtly advocated a “Greater Albania” agenda--never managed to gain popular credibility, and the ANA’s attempts to capitalize on local discontent in Macedonia and southern Serbia have so far failed.

That is not to say, however, that there is no longer any threat of extreme Albanian nationalist activity. An important factor to emerge from the report is the degree of influence the large Albanian diaspora communities living in the United States, Germany, and Switzerland have in the current and future economic, social, and political development of Kosovo, Macedonia, and, to a lesser degree, Montenegro. The diaspora plays a vital role in keeping up the pressure on the numerous unresolved Albanian-related issues. For example, just as the Greeks could exploit their dwindling minority in southern Albania, the Chams--a festering wound in Albanian-Greek relations--could easily be used by Albanians seeking to emphasize other aspects of the national struggle, for example, to press for autonomy in Montenegro. For these reasons it would be advisable for the Albanian and Greek governments to try and settle the long-standing Cham issue before it gets hijacked and exploited by extreme nationalists and the Chams’ legitimate grievances get lost in the struggle to further other national causes.

NO PAN-ALBANIAN AGENDA

Among Albanians in general there is a growing intolerance of what is perceived as the international community's inability to accept the new dynamics of the Albanian world. In contrast to the aging and stagnant populations of their Balkan neighbors, Albanians are a young and rapidly growing population. It is this demographic superiority that will eventually dictate the socioeconomic development of the southern Balkans. In the meantime, Albanians want to see tangible progress not only in their political future but also in their general living standards and opportunities.

Perhaps the most important message to emerge from the ICG report is that there is no actual Pan-Albanian agenda but rather a series of ongoing struggles by the various Albanian communities for different political, economic, and cultural goals. There is no doubt that the desire by Kosovo Albanians for independence is supported by virtually all Albanians in the Balkans. Indeed, the independence of Kosovo remains the core of the Albanian national question. But each of the five Albanian entities in the Balkans has its own distinct problems and agendas to address. Collectively, they support the independence of Kosovo and guaranteed political, cultural, and civic equality for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, southern Serbia, and Montenegro. There is also growing pressure from all sectors of the Albanian world for a solution to the Cham issue in Greece. What is clear is that there is no desire or debate in mainstream Albanian society for any form of political unification of Albanian-inhabited territory.

As the recent events in Kosovo have demonstrated, there remains a risk of further conflict in Kosovo, where the question of future status has not yet been resolved. That issue aside, Albanian nationalism can be contained by more fully opening the borders between Albania and its northern neighbors, and increasing economic and educational opportunities across the region. This would allow Albanian aspirations across the Balkans to develop in a natural and organic manner that would enhance the socioeconomic development of the entire region, without posing any threat to the integrity of Albania or its neighbors.

Miranda Vickers is senior Albania analyst at the International Crisis Group and the author of several books on Albania.

 
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