266. The Albanian National Question and Balkan Stability

By
Elez Biberaj

On November 28, 2002, Albanians all over the world celebrated Albania's Independence Day. President Alfred Moisiu; Prime Minister Fatos Nano; opposition leader Sali Berisha; the Prime Minister of Kosova Bajram Rexhepi; former KLA leaders, now party leaders, Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj; the leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia, Arben Xhaferri; and, representatives of Albanians in Montenegro and abroad, all gathered in the southern port of Vlore, where 90 years ago Albanian patriots declared Albania's independence. Such a gathering was seen by some politicians and analysts in the region as further proof that Albanians are working for the creation of a "Greater Albania."

Whether one takes such statements seriously or not, there is widespread recognition among experts of Balkan affairs that it is the Albanian Question – broadly defined as the nationalist aspirations of some six million Albanians – that posses the greatest challenge to peace and stability in the region. If the Albanian issue is not managed properly, there is a potential for significant violence and upheaval in Kosova, Macedonia and Serbia-Montenegro.

Albanian National Revival

Albanians are witnessing an era of national revival – they have entered a period of greater ethnic assertiveness. There are several factors that have contributed to this growing assertiveness.

First, developments in Kosova, southern Serbia and Macedonia and the significant violence that has accompanied them are part of the bigger, unfinished business in the Balkans – the continuation of the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation. Albanians only now are grappling with some of the same issues that their neighbors attempted to address much earlier.

Albanians in former Yugoslavia had legitimate political, economic and cultural grievances. They were never treated, nor did they view themselves, as equal with other ethnic groups. As a result, they had – and continue to have – a low commitment to the state. Social, religious and cultural differences with their Yugoslav neighbors existed even during Tito's Yugoslavia. There is also a centuries old history of domination and harsh repression by neighbors. This historic experience has molded both Albanians and their Slav neighbors into seemingly incompatible political cultures with clashing belief systems, hopes and fears.

Demographic developments have also played an important role in shaping current Albanian national identity. This is a young, restless population of 6 million, where the average age is 26. Despite being separated for a very long time by international borders and having lived under different political systems, Albanians throughout the region are bound by common cultural characteristics, a shared history and a deep rooted consciousness of national identity. The downfall of communism, the war in Kosova and the rapid advances in information technology as well as the erosion of government control over information, have combined to transform the relationship between Albanians in the region, restoring old ties and fostering new types of community relations. Today's Albanian community is characterized by close relations and increased interaction across all fields.

Strengthening this renewed sense of kingship and adding to the growing frustration and increasing assertiveness of the Albanian community is the fact that the areas where Albanians live are the most economically underdeveloped in the region. Unemployment is very high and large segments of the population, especially in the countryside, are trapped in severe poverty. There is growing economic insecurity, corruption, organized crime, and trafficking. Local public institutions lack the will and capacity to address these problems.

Significance of these Trends

Taken together, these trends make for a dangerous and explosive scenario. So is a "Greater Albania" in the making? In this author's view, a unitary, traditional, sovereign state that would include most, overwhelmingly Albanian-inhabited territories, which would necessitate changes of current international borders and the establishment of a central government in Tirana, is not in the cards in the immediate future. The region in question is under virtual NATO control. Kosova and Macedonia, and in certain respects even Albania, are NATO protectorates. The Albanians are too weak militarily and economically to impose their will, even if they were indeed seeking to create a ‘"Greater Albania," which is not the case.

While there are groups and movements which advocate the unification of all Albanian lands, they are marginalized and enjoy little popular support. There is no well organized, pan-Albanian movement, no Albanian "center" or "leader" recognized by all the others. Elites in Albania, Kosova, and western Macedonia have different priorities and tend to take independent action. Albanian leaders and public opinion seem to indicate an understanding that they could only be marginalized from any moves toward "Greater Albania," while they would greatly benefit from greater regional cooperation, open borders and free exchanges. As a result, there is the emergence of a remarkable consensus between decision-makers and political actors in Tirana, Prishtina, and Tetova: Albanians have laid out a forward looking, pro-Western agenda. Euro-Atlantic integration has become the keystone of Albanian policies.

Nevertheless, there is still a potential for violence and regional instability. Albanians are not likely to give up on their dream of an independent Kosova state or on a greater share of power in Macedonia. This is likely to lead them into open conflict with their neighbors. While Albanian nationalism may not be a powerful force in Albania proper, it remains very strong among Albanians in Kosova, Macedonia, southern Serbia, and Montenegro. There are strong forces at work competing with one another; Serbian nationalism, despite the devastating wars of the 1990s and Milosevic's downfall, has not been defeated. Serbia has yet to resign itself to the loss of Kosova. Some Serbs still dream of Serbian troops marching back into Kosova and perhaps other parts of former Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Macedonian Slavs are on the defensive, under tremendous political and social pressure from the cohabiting Albanians to develop power-sharing mechanisms in the government and society at large. For Albanians in Southeast Europe, these two key issues of Kosova and Macedonia must be addressed to allow for regional cooperation and stability.

Kosova

In Kosova, Albanians are focused on reviving their society and building institutions. There is a broad acceptance that there will be no border changes as well as a general acceptance of Special Representative for the Secretary General Michael Steiner's benchmarks. These are a set of general principles that must shape the future of Kosova and which include rule of law, multi-ethnic society, tolerance, and democratic governance, and transparency.

The honeymoon with the international community, however, is over. Albanians are becoming increasingly impatient and frustrated with UNMIK and they are pushing for a speedy transfer of power from the international administration to local institutions. Albanians are determined to gain independence.

The crux of this independence movement is the desire not for a "Greater Albania" but for an independent Kosova state. The Kosovar elite is less enthusiastic than in the past about unification with Albania. There is self-interest in pushing for an independent Kosova state – the elite recognize that they cannot play the same leadership role in a "Greater Albania." Of greatest concern is the fear that any move toward unification with Albania will lead to the partition of Kosova, especially regarding Mitrovica. Recent trends even indicate efforts to develop a separate national identity – President Rugova has urged that Kosova create its own flag, national anthem, and national day, all different from those of Albania.

Uncertainty regarding final status, however, encourages extreme forces in both the Slav and Albanian communities. There are several options open for the final status of Kosova, but only one that truly addresses, in this author's opinion, the situation on the ground and the aspirations for self-determination of the majority population in Kosova: independence. Other options include the possibility of an indefinite protectorate of the international community – unrealistic given the available limited resources and the refocus of security interests to Iraq and Central Asia – partition, or reintegration with Yugoslavia. Both of the latter two options are strongly resisted by the Kosovar Albanians and, if implemented, could result in the outbreak of another conflict.

Macedonia

Despite the Ohrid Agreement negotiated by the U.S. and the European Union and the recent elections, the situation in Macedonia remains fragile. The Ohrid Agreement provides a formula that seemingly reconciles Albanian demands for greater rights with Macedonians' desire for a unified state. But implementation of the agreement is very problematic. The solution was imposed by the international community; to succeed, it will require continued engagement.

The two communities continue to see the situation in terms of a zero-sum game. Inter-ethnic relations are plagued by poor mutual understanding. Macedonians consider the Albanians as separatists and, therefore, a threat to the existence of the state of Macedonia. Albanians, on the other hand, feel victimized by the government and feel systematically discriminated against.

Macedonia faces daunting challenges. Beyond the immediate feasibility question of the power-sharing state framework, there are several other unresolved issues, including the country's relationship with its neighbors – Albania, Kosova, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria – an economy devastated by the communist legacy and the hardships of privatization and incomplete reforms, organized crime and corruption, and a general absence of law and order. In addition, Macedonia's political landscape has changed dramatically. With the Fall 2002 elections, Ali Ahmeti has dislodged Arben Xhaferri as the main Albanian leader in Macedonia. As part of a coalition government led by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, Ahmeti says he is committed to a unified Macedonia. Thus far, he has proven to be a man of his word, but the future remains uncertain. If both sides make genuine efforts to implement the Ohrid Agreement, and with sustained international assistance, Macedonia has a chance of surviving as a unified state. Until now, however, Macedonia has not shown the institutional or leadership ability to deal with the complex challenges the country faces.

The Role of Albania

Albania has traditionally been too weak and too dependent on the outside world to play the traditional role of a "mother country" to all Albanians in the region. Largely a dysfunctional state, Albania is a poor country with limited resources, which continues to suffer from a lack of rule of law. To add to an already painful transition to democracy and a market system, in 1997 the country was racked by a failed pyramid scheme that devastated the fragile economy and sent it spiraling into violence. Consequently, over the past ten years, Albanians have not been able to guarantee a stable political environment with functional democratic institutions. The country remains heavily dependent on the international community and the donations of the Albanian diaspora. Thus, it cannot afford to alienate the West and it remains preoccupied with internal problems.

Nevertheless, Albania has played a constructive regional role. It has not advocated, or supported, forces which desire a greater Albania. Tirana leaders have always given priority to the interests of the state of Albania over those of the wider, Albanian nation. Tirana continues to have different priorities from those of Prishtina and Tetova. For example, although Albania has been very supportive of international efforts in Kosova, it discouraged the uprising in Macedonia. However, a peaceful resolution in Macedonia is viewed as crucial to Albania's own national interests, since it directly impacts stability and security.

Conclusions and Recommendations

From this brief overview, it is clear that the Albanians in the region do not speak with one political voice, do not have one national platform, and that Albania is not in a position to play the role of a political "mother country." Nevertheless, this author believes it would be a mistake to exaggerate the differences among the three Albanian centers – Tirana, Prishtina, and Tetova. The Albanian national idea is not dead. There is more that unites than divides the Albanians. During the last decade, Albanians have witnessed profound psychological transformations. There has been a significant narrowing of differences in mentality, political culture, and economic and social development between Albania, Kosova, and western Macedonia. In the long-term, we are likely to see a closer relationship and coordination of policies. This should not be seen as a threat, as long as it is done gradually and peacefully.

While future developments will be largely determined by the actions and the choices that the parties involved will make – the Albanians, the Serbs, and the Macedonians – the role of the United States and the international community will remain critical. There are several, immediate areas in critical need of leadership and direction form the international community, especially from the United States. Among these and of highest priority is the issue of the final status of Kosova. This needs to be addressed as soon as possible. And the United States needs to take the lead. The Kosovars need to be given a road map on the process with clear indications as to how a decision will be made on this issue. Benchmarks established by UNMIK still need to be met before Kosova is granted independence, but having a roadmap with a final date would do much to marginalize extremists profiting from the current uncertainty and frustration over lack of status resolution.

In Macedonia, the international community must remain engaged and insist on the full implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Extremist forces and politicians who are no longer in power but who are resorting to nationalist rhetoric and actions, should be marginalized. To succeed, Macedonia will require international persistence and increased assistance. In addition, it will require tough compromises on both sides, including a fundamental shift in thinking and behavior on both sides – a nurturing of new elite that can look beyond the narrow interests of their ethnic groups. The new government of Prime Minister Crvenkovski is a good beginning. The alternative is unthinkable: more violence and, in the best case, silent partition (a national government but with two ethnic-based entities).

For its part, Albania has gradually started to turn the corner after the 1997 pyramid crisis. There has been significant economic growth and inflation has been kept low. There has also been an improvement in law and order. Relations between the ruling Socialists and opposition Democrats have improved significantly following an agreement this past summer on a consensual president – Alfred Moisiu. Democratic progress, however, has been slow and distorted. Corruption is pervasive and it often involves senior officials. Drug-money allegations have become common. There is also a lack of financial transparency.

After the war in Kosova and following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Albania's significance has declined. The country does not seem to be important enough to be the target of significant U.S./EU pressure to make greater progress in establishing the rule of law and in fighting corruption and human trafficking. So far, the government has not demonstrated a real commitment to fight corruption and organized crime. What we essentially have in Albania today is a self-serving, corrupt elite, that cynically advances its personal interests, steals resources from its own people, and is interested only in preserving its positions of power and privileges. The United States and their European allies should stop issuing complacent statements and demand that the Socialist government make greater efforts to undertake pressing domestic reforms. On too many occasions in recent years, the international community has been unusually, and in my opinion needlessly, restrained in its criticism of developments in Albania.

Finally, Albanians overall must be considered as an important part of the U.S./EU vision for the region and included in the international community's efforts for the establishment and spread of democracy; the creations of a multi-ethnic society; the protection of minority rights; and, the promotion of peaceful conflict-resolution. There must be a promise of eventual, full integration of the entire region in Euro-Atlantic institutions. This will provide these lagging countries with an objective to strive for. This promise of eventual integration must, however, be coupled with economic assistance. Here, emphasis should be on regional integration, economic development and open borders, as well as help in establishing the rule of law and building democratic institutions. Only through sustained involvement and leadership by the international community, coupled with economic assistance, a stronger push for regional cooperation and the promise of eventual integration in European institutions can this region achieve stability and make a positive contribution to the continent's security.

Elez Biberaj spoke at an EES noon discussion on December 4, 2002. The above is an edited summary of Dr. Biberaj's presentation prepared by EES Program Associate, Sabina Auger.

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