The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania
The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania
Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?
Albania: Pan Albanianism: Myth or Threat to Balkan Stability?

The European Parliament flexes its muscles-in Albania

On June 24 the Albanian parliament elected retired general Alfred Moisiu as the country’s new President, ending a period of political uncertainty that had lasted since last year’s disputed parliamentary elections. The European Parliament’s role in resolving Albania’s political difficulties has been more significant than most observers realise.

Last year’s parliamentary elections in Albania were not a completely untroubled event. Voting was originally scheduled for two rounds on 24 June and 8 July 2001, but repeated polls called as a result of electoral disputes lasted until 19 August. The OSCE/ODIHR report on the elections, finally released on 11 October, found serious flaws in the running of the elections and blamed the Socialist Party-led government in particular. However, it concluded that the government had nonetheless won re-election, even if the extent of its victory remained a matter of dispute.

International attention at the time was concentrated on containing the conflict in neighbouring Macedonia, and the preliminary reports from ODIHR after the early stages of the vote had been relatively positive. Because the elections were relatively peaceful compared with previous campaigns, and because the many disputes were sorted out with varying degrees of efficiency and neutrality by the system, most observers concluded that the vote could be considered as a modest success.

In addition, the Prime Minister, Ilir Meta, had an exceptionally good reputation as a reformer in western capitals, and his victory was welcomed as a sign of stability – the only reformist government to have won re-election in the Balkans to date. It seemed entirely credible that Albania’s progress might be recognised in the shape of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union; such agreements had already been signed with Macedonia and Croatia.

Once all the counting had finished, the Socialist Party and its coalition allies had won a total of 87 seats of the 140 up for election. The vital factor here was that the President of Albania is elected by the Parliament, and a successful candidate must have the support of 60% of all MPs. The fact that the government coalition had managed to get a few more than 84 out of 140 seats meant that, other things being equal, they could expect to easily impose their own candidate when the election came in June 2002.

The opposition, led by former President Sali Berisha, therefore boycotted the new parliament when it met in September, arguing that any president elected under such circumstances would lack legitimacy because of the tainted nature of the government victory, and demanding fresh elections under new legislation. Berisha claimed further support from the OSCE report when it finally appeared. However it was apparent to Berisha’s supporters that the tactic was not working, and that rather than damaging Prime Minister Meta’s reputation, it was in fact reinforcing the perception that Berisha was unreliable and a sore loser. The OSCE actually called on Berisha to end the boycott.

The gloomy political landscape shifted again toward the end of 2001, when an open dispute broke out between Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party, and Prime Minister Meta, with each accusing the other’s supporters of corruption and bitter words being exchanged at party and parliamentary meetings. It became apparent that neither faction within the Socialist Party could rely on the full support of the governing coalition, and it suddenly seemed a very real prospect that there might be two Socialist candidates for the position of President, with Berisha – if he were to participate in the parliament – wielding a casting vote.

At this point the European Parliament became an actor in the process. A number of Albanian politicians were invited to participate in a meeting of its Foreign Affairs Committee on 24 January 2002. The event was a stormy one, with MEPs led by rapporteur Doris Pack sharply criticising both sides for their lack of responsibility and political maturity. Sharp divisions were apparent between the Albanians present, with the Minister for European Integration visibly bruised from a physical assault the previous evening. The visitors were told that unless they got their act together there was no chance of further European integration, or of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

This meeting was of crucial importance because it brought home to Berisha the extent of the international community’s lack of sympathy for his boycott. He declared on his return to Albania that he would lead the opposition back into parliament; the Foreign Affairs Committee had given him some political cover by endorsing his demand that the government enact the recommendations of the ODIHR report on the elections, enabling him to retreat with some dignity.

By now relations within the Socialist Party had broken down and Meta resigned as Prime Minister on 29 January. His predecessor, Pandeli Majko, who like Meta is in his early 30s, was persuaded to return to his old job and brought in a new government balanced between supporters of Nano and Meta. Nano formally declared himself a candidate for the post of President. Berisha rapidly discovered that he was able to use his supporters in parliament to exploit the differences within the government, on occasion supporting one faction against the other. He was also very aware that if the parliament was unable to elect a President with 60% support, new elections must follow.

At this point the European Parliament again took a hand. During April and May, Doris Pack navigated a resolution through the Foreign Affairs Committee urging the leaders of both government and opposition to find a joint candidate for the post of president. (The incumbent, low-key physics professor Rexhep Meidani, quietly indicated that he was available, but nobody seemed interested.) The message delivered in public by the European Parliament was also delivered in private by European diplomats; the General Affairs Council expressed the hope that the “presidential election would be conducted in such a manner that would preserve political stability”.

Faced with external pressure as well as the impasse within his own party, Nano finally gave in and on Friday 21 June, three days before the election was due, agreed on a joint candidate with Berisha and duly announced their choice. The lucky man was Artur Kuko, Albania’s Ambassador to the European Union, who is a familiar figure in Brussels since he previously served as Ambassador to NATO during the Kosovo bombing in 1999. Nano and Berisha had however not done their background work. Kuko very much enjoys living in Brussels, is preparing intensively for serious negotiations with the European Union, and therefore declined the offer, causing some embarrassment for the political classes in Tirana.

A substitute candidate was quickly found and duly elected with 97 votes out of 140, well ahead of the 84-vote threshold and with support from both government and opposition. The new President, 74-year-old retired general Alfred Moisiu, had served as defence minister under both communist and anti-communist governments, and is regarded as someone who can revive Albanian’s faltering aspirations of joining NATO in the near future. For the country as a whole, the civilised if not completely transparent conduct of the election is an important milestone.

But the affair also marks an interesting development for the European Union. At the time of the last presidential election in 1997, Albania was emerging from a year long political crisis caused by the hotly disputed parliamentary elections of 1996 and the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes. Europe’s institutions had failed to provide the necessary peace-keeping force, which had eventually been scraped together in a coalition of the willing led by the then Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi.

In 2002, the European Parliament, which is far from the most powerful organ of the EU, has successfully intervened twice, once in providing a forum for the resolution of the boycott issue, and a second time in giving an institutional voice to the international pressure to find a single presidential candidate. The last few years have seen significant interventions from the much more visible personality of Javier Solana as the High Representative for foreign policy, notably in Macedonia in 2001 and in brokering the agreement between Serbia and Montenegro in 2002. The Albanian episode shows that less powerful institutions, in a less obvious way, can score their successes as well.

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

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.