The Myth of Great Albania

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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To the politicians of the Balkans - almost without exception corrupt and despised by their own constituencies - the myth of Great Albania comes handy. It keeps the phobic Macedonians, the disdainful Serbs and the poor and crime ridden Albanians united and submissive - each group for differing reasons.

To reiterate, it is the belief that people of Albanian extract, wherever they may be, regard their domicile as part of a Great Albania and undertake all efforts necessary to secure such an outcome. Thus, to mention one example, Kosovo should be part of this Great Albania, so the myth goes, because prior to 1912, when the Serbs occupied it, Kosovo has administratively been part of an Ottoman mandated Albania. Sali Berisha - a former Prime Minister of Albania - talks ominously about an "Albanian Federation". The younger, allegedly more urbane Pandeli Majko, the current Prime Minister of Albania, raises the idea (?) of a uniform curriculum for all Albanian pupils and students, wherever they may reside. Albanians in Macedonia make it a point to fly Albanian flags conspicuously and of every occasion. This could have well been a plausible scenario had it not been for two facts. First, that there is no such thing as homogeneous "Albanians" and second that Great Albania is without historical precedent.

Albanians are comprised of a few ethnic groups of different creeds. There are catholic Albanians - like Mother Theresa - and Muslim Albanians - Like Hashim Thaci. There are Tosks - southern Albanians who speak a (nasal) dialect of Albanian and there are Gegs - northern Albanians (and Kosovars) who speak another dialect which has little in common with Tosk (at least to my ears). Tosks don't like Gegs and Gegs detest Tosks. In a region where tribal and village loyalties predominate these are pertinent and important facts.

The Kosovars are considered by their Albanian "brethren" (especially by the Tosks, but also by Albanian Gegs) to be cold, unpleasant, filthy rich cheats. Albanians - Tosks and Gegs alike - are considered by the Kosovars to be primitive, ill mannered bandits. There is no love lost between all these groups. When the crisis brought on by Operation Allied Force started, the local Albanian population charged the refugees amidst them with exorbitant (not to say extortionate) prices for such necessities as a roof over their head, food and cigarettes. When the UN mandate (read: the KLA mandate) was established, the Albanians rushed to export their brand of crime and banditry to Kosovo and to prey on its local population. No Macedonian - however radical - will dare say about the Albanians what my Kosovar contacts say. They non-chalantly and matter of factly attribute to them the most heinous crimes and uncivilized behaviour. Kosovars had - and are still having - an excruciating experience in Albania during this crisis. The lesson (being learned by Kosovars since Albania opened up to them in 1990) will not be easily forgotten or forgiven. Albanians reciprocate by portraying the Kosovars as cynical, inhuman, money making terminators, emotionless wealthy predators.

This is not to say that Albanians on both sides of the border do not share the same national dreams and aspirations. Kosovar intellectuals were watching Albanian TV and reading Albanian papers even throughout the Stalinist period of Enver Hoxha, the long time Albanian dictator. Albanian nationalists never ceased regarding Kosovo as an integral part of an Albanian motherland. But as the decades passed by, as the dialects metamorphesized, as the divide grew wider, as the political systems diverged and as the political and cultural agendas became more distinct - Kosovars became more and more Kosovars and less and less mainland Albanians.

This historical, 80 year old rift was exacerbated by the abyss between the Enver Hoxha regime and its Tito counterpart. The former - impoverished, paranoiac, xenophobic, hermetically isolated, violent. The latter - relatively enlightened, economically sprightly, open to the world and dynamic. As a result, Kosovar houses are three times as big as Albanian ones and Kosovars used to be (up to the Kosovo conflict) three times richer (in terms of GDP per capita). Kosovars crossing into Albania during the Hoxha regime were often jailed and tortured by its fearsome secret police. A Kosovar - Xhaferr Deva - served as Minister of the Interior in the hated WW2 government in Albania, which collaborated wholeheartedly with the Nazis. Albanians, in general, were much more reserved and suspicious towards the Germans (who occupied Albania from 1943, after the Italian change of heart). Only Kosovars welcomed them as liberators from Serb serfdom (as did Albanians in Macedonia to a lesser extent). This aforementioned Deva was responsible for the most unspeakable atrocities against the Albanian population in Albania proper. It did not render the Kosovars more popular. In Albania proper, three anti-fascist resistance movements - the Albanian Communist Party, Balli Kombetar (the National Front) and Legaliteti (Legality, a pro-Zug faction) fought against the occupiers since 1941. The Communists seized control of the country at the end of 1944.

Thus, the forced re-union was a culture shock to both. The Kosovars were stunned by the living conditions, misery and lawlessness of Albania proper. The Albanians were envious and resentful of their guests and regarded them as legitimate objects for self-enrichment. There were, needless to say, selfless exceptions to the egotistic rule. But I cannot think of any right now.

Historically, there was never a "Great Albania" to hark back to. Albania was created in 1912 (its borders finally settled in 1913) in response to Austro-Hungarian demands. It never encouraged Kosovo to secede. The Albanian King Zog suppressed the activities of Kosovar irredentist movements in his country in between the two world wars. Albania, mired in the twin crises of economy and identity - had little mind or heart for Kosovo.

But this was the culmination of a much longer, convoluted and fascinating history.

(END OF Introduction)

Go to Part I