'Greater Albania': A Threat to Europe Simmering Along the Adriatic?

'Greater Albania': A Threat to Europe Simmering Along the Adriatic?
AP Photo/Hektor Pustina

A version of this article first appeared at EastWest.eu. Translated from the Italian by Joel Weickgenant. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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In an interview with Politico last April, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama raised a dangerous prospect for the Western Balkans: the project for a “Greater Albania.” The idea cited by Rama would unify under a single flag all of the ethnic Albanian enclaves peppered across the various modern states in the Balkans and separated by borders in a decades-long state of flux.

Specifically, as Rama highlighted in his interview with Andrew McDowell, “[n]o one would like to turn [in] on themselves and look for smaller unions, everyone would like to unite in the big union. But if there’s no hope, no perspective, no space, then, of course, little unions may happen.” Feeding into the growing polemic a few days later was Rami’s Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci, who said that without the EU as an objective, ethnic Albanians would want to live unified in a single country.

We always seem to know too little about the Balkans, and still less about Albania, despite the mere 46 miles that stand between that country and the Cape of Otranto in Italy’s south. My own knowledge was fairly limited on the eve of a journey to the Balkans this summer -- my second such journey, but this one undertaken from the south, where the ferry let out at the Albanian port city of Durres. Starting from the south Adriatic like this, the Balkans lose their Serbo-centric geographical organization and appear under a new perspective, draped in the red of the Albanian flag. Even once you’ve crossed the border into the territories of the former Yugoslavia, Albania shouts at you from all corners. I was especially struck by the road in Macedonia from Ohrid to Skopje: The entry to one village after another was greeted by blatant displays of Albanian banners -- this despite being fully within FYROM borders.

In learning about Albania I had turned to the author Antonio Caiazza and his book In Alto Mare: viaggio nell’Albania dal comunismo al futuro. (In High Seas: A Journey Through Albania From Communism to the Future.) The book masterfully marries Albania’s history to its culture, examining the painful dramas of its recent past and the surprising voices of politicians, intellectuals, and common people. High Seas builds a solid foundation from which to gaze at Albania -- at its future along the road it has decided to travel since it struggled to emerge from its 40-year sociopolitical isolation. And to understand the real sense of Greater Albania, I spoke to the book’s author, a journalist for the Trieste office of Italy’s RAI television, one of Italy’s top experts on Albania.

Mr. Caiazza, first of all what does “Greater Albania” mean?

Antonio Caiazza: The idea of a Greater Albania was born during the Italian occupation [during World War II], when all of the Albanian-speaking areas found themselves gathered within a single contiguous space. Obviously it was administered first by Italy, and then by the Axis powers. Fascist Italy considered Albania the beachhead it could use to break Greece. At the time, the borders of the protectorate included present-day Kosovo, the south of Montenegro, northwest Macedonia, all the way to Presevo Valley.

But the concept of a Greater Albania, or as they call it, “Ethnic Albania,” precedes this phase. It goes back to that epoch when all of Europe was shaken by the surge of movements formed around the idea of the nation-state -- of states unified by a single language, with a shared culture, and not dominated by a foreign power.

How do we interpret the statements made by Rami and Thaci on the subject?

Beyond statements made by politicians -- each of them suited to their own political purposes, issued at a time when both countries were soon to vote -- what remains and what helps you understand the intentions of a people are the cultural movements. I start from further back: The idea of a nation is inversely proportional to the appeal of the idea of great agglomerations, of great confederations. Europe, the concept of European Union, risks failure, and new candidates to its membership cannot fail to account for its instability. Public opinion takes this into account as well, with rising skepticism toward Brussels when the duties imposed seem superior to the expected benefits. Such a circumstance gives free rein to nationalist movements, and those have always existed in the Balkans.

The words of Rama and Thaci thus become a weapon, a way to hold Brussels hostage: “If you don’t let us in, if you don’t accelerate the bureaucratic processes, the legislative adjustments, we’ll go ahead and make our Greater Albania.” Why is this a threat? Because it means undermining and destabilizing an entire area. Consider that Greater Albania means first of all unifying Kosovo and Albania, but do you think those ethnic Albanians living in that borderland between Albania and Macedonia would sit and watch? Or would they jump in too? And what about the area in the north of Greece, in the south of Montenegro? There would most probably be revolts.

If you then take Macedonia as an example … those Albanian flags you saw in Macedonia are located in a territory that for 20 years has felt like its own state entity. An Albanian university was founded in Tetovo, and the students there receive a degree to which the Macedonian state accords no value. It’s fully staffed and has its own docents, but Tetovo’s Albanian university is clandestine, just as the entire state apparatus erected by the Kosovo Liberation Army was clandestine when Kosovo was still formally part of Serbia, with Serbian police still in charge of law enforcement. It was a parallel state, and Albanians paid taxes to the KLA. After the war this parallel structure became a state.

Are there risks for Macedonia too?

In Macedonia we see the same phenomenon: The parallel state right now is somewhat dormant, but when Kosovo was born, the fervor of the moment spread to Macedonia as well, and there were clashes. Were this Greater Albania to be born, Macedonia would set off, immediately -- the whole area would be destabilized. This is why I say that the political statements you mention are nothing more than a way to pressure the European Union, to hold it hostage. They are meant to say: Let us in, while you still exist. After all, you guys have your problems, too.

What would be the immediate benefits for Albania of EU membership?

The benefits are financial -- funds more ample and better structured than the episodic funding Albania and Kosovo already enjoy from Europe. The advantages tied to the removal of border controls, visas, or increased mobility are really minor advantages, especially since Albanians and Kosovars already won the right to come and study in Europe. In Italy, we have more than 11,000 Albanian students in our universities, and who knows how many more there are in the rest of Europe.

If on one side Greater Albania is a provocation to Europe, the risk of destabilization on the borders with Greece, Macedonia, and Montenegro is real. What is the biggest fear for Albania’s neighbors? And what is the role played by separatist entities who in the past, and I’m thinking about Kosovo here, have operated in the area?

Kosovo’s KLA has become a state, but it was born as a guerrilla group. In the era of the Kosovo War, the KLA had bases in Macedonia too -- mostly logistical bases. Attacks weren’t launched from Macedonia, but the groups there functioned as a rearguard, and you had arms deposits, munitions and supplies passed from there. Macedonia is fertile terrain from this point of view, and just as in that era Macedonia was the rearguard of the war in Kosovo, in a future conflict Kosovo could serve as the rearguard for a war in Macedonia. And the fact that these two countries eventually might be EU members would not be enough to stop Kosovars and Albanians from supporting a separatist movement in Macedonia.

Which effectively already exists.

Oh sure, in Macedonia everything is ready to go.

We already had the sad episode of the attack on parliament in Skopje…

The Macedonians try to do what they can. Macedonia is a “little Yugoslavia,” just like Bosnia-Herzegovina is. Macedonia is no “pure” state from a national point of view. There are Macedonians, but also Roma, Serbs, Bulgarians. And then there are the Greeks, and then there are the Albanians. All of them represented in healthy proportions. Macedonians tried to placate Albanians’ aspirations for autonomy or a greater role by giving them the presidency in parliament, and what happened, happened. Macedonia is on the brink, just as Bosnia-Herzegovina is on the brink.

Europe knows this. The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is stretching the very limits of stability -- Serbs would like to unite with Serbs, Croatians think of unity with Croatians -- we can’t forget the ideas of a Greater Croatia or Greater Serbia.

The reality is that the solution of a tripartite Bosnia doesn’t seem to be long-lived. It served to stop the massacre. But in the context of nationalism that is not latent but rather explosive, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a state out of the world and out of history -- it’s outside of any cultural context. It would be nice if in the schools of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbian were taught and spoken in areas with a Croatian majority and vice versa, but it is not so. Nationalism still wins out.

In this context, the pan-Albanism we’re speaking of could be the spark that sets the Balkans alight?

It can beyond a doubt be that. The Balkans immediately forget the tragedy of war and start another one. Balkan wars have been an infinity. I see no lucid strategy behind the hypothesis of a Greater Albania, one elaborated coldly at a table between Tirana and Pristina; I mean, we don’t have two ruling classes sitting down and saying “all right, let’s create this great state because it’s useful to our people.” I don’t buy it. It can be pushed as a way to hold Brussels hostage; it can exist because they no longer feel protected by an absent European Union, one that is weaker all the time. So they harmonize in an anti-Serbian key, they unify in order to count more, to reassure themselves. But a single Albanian state could play a role in its first year of life, after which it would be lacerated and eaten alive from the inside by the differences between Kosovars and Albanians -- differences that exist and are profound. We can in other words arrive at Greater Albania as an accident of history, where it starts as a way to threaten the European Union, only to result in the actual emergence of a Greater Albania. But from that very moment the real problems would begin. If there was no need to hold Brussels’ feet to the fire, why then would Kosovo’s ruling class ever consider such a political suicide? Which is exactly what it would be.

In what sense?

A Greater Albania would be commanded by Tirana, certainly not by Pristina. Right now in Kosovo there is a state. There is a president, a prime minister, ministers, undersecretaries, deputies, and other functionaries at every level. Under a Greater Albania all of this disappears. It’s pointless to envision power shared half-and-half -- Tirana would take over everything. Today Albania functions as the “mother” of the Kosovar state, it holds Kosovo’s hand. All moves on the international scene are undertaken under Albania’s protective wing. It’s normal that it should be so, because Kosovo is a pristine new state -- it has no international experience -- while Albania has long existed. It has structure, and it has a diplomatic history to which Kosovo has no analogue. Today it holds Kosovo’s hand, but as a unitary state Tirana would say “we’ll take care of this now.” And why would Pristina accept this, knowing full well that it is exactly what would happen?

At the end of the day these two countries already have their own internal problems.

Certainly. And union would merge those problems and create new ones. Diffidence, lack of trust, of relating substantially different realities. The rapport for instance with Serbs (not just the Serbian state, but the people and their culture) is very different for Albanians than it is for Kosovars. In short, I don’t believe in Greater Albania. It doesn’t seem to me like it would simplify anything; it would only spur greater chaos.

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