(The Times) Albania: the wild frontier



Albania: the wild frontier


A plucky country battling its oppressors or a nation of gangsters? As
Albanians again become the focus of a Balkan conflict, our reporter charts
the turbulent history of a nation whose heroes include Norman Wisdom

You know when you are flying over Albania; the roads in neighbouring
Montenegro and Greece seem to come to a full stop and a ruddy moonscape of
seemingly uninhabited mountains appears below. The bleak, and barren
landscape is largely a legacy of years of isolation when Albania was one of
the most Stalinist and secretive lands on earth at the height of the Cold

The terrain and decades of obscurity have not been matched by lack of
interest from would-be conquerors down the years, however; its location on
the Adriatic Sea has made Albania a bridgehead for various nations and

Churchill once said that the Balkans produced more history than they could
digest. The question now is whether some Albanians who dream of a Greater
Albania will try to bite off more land than their neighbours can stomach.

So do the rebel ethnic Albanians fighting in the Former Yugoslav Republic
of Macedonia and around the Kosovo border have history on their side? The
modern state of Albania was born in 1913, emerging from the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire after the Second Balkan War. Unlike many of its Balkan
neighbours, it has not changed borders since it was established. But after
Natos expulsion of Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999, many expansionist
ethnic Albanians in the region have been spurred to seek more land.

Albanians, who call themselves sons of eagles are descended from the
Ancient Illyrians, who lived all over the southwest Balkans. In Ottoman
times they flourished and were a favoured people who gave the Empire many
grand viziers (prime ministers). But since its birth, Albania has never
been large or economically viable enough to support all the ethnic
Albanians in the region. By the end of the First World War large numbers of
ethnic Albanians were spread throughout northern Greece, Macedonia and what
was then royalist Yugoslavia. Indeed, Britain was among the Great Powers
that handed Kosovo to the Serb-led Yugoslavs, a fact that was to become a
source of friction for decades until the Nato campaign to drive out
hardline Serbs two years ago.

The severe ethnic tensions in towns such as modern Tetovo also date from
the post-First World War period. After 1920, more than 100,000 mostly Serb
colonists moved into Macedonia and Kosovo and formed a ruling elite above
the mostly Albanian Muslim majority. Why did this happen? As always in the
Balkans, Great Power rivalries played a role. Serbia was for decades the
Balkan nationality favoured by France and Britain, while Bulgaria was
linked to Germany. Albanias best friend was Austria; it is possible that
without Austrian insistence in 1913 no modern Albanian state would exist.
But after the First World War, Albania was left friendless.

Chunks of historic Albanian land, particularly Kosovo and Western
Macedonia, with its rich mines, were given to Serbia, so under the
Versailles Treaty about half the Albanian population was left outside the
new but tiny Albanian state. British and French Balkan policy was intent on
building up a strong Serbia as the dominant nationality within Yugoslavia.

That changed after the rise of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and the
break-up of federal Yugoslavia from 1991. Serbia became a pariah state and,
despite the ousting of Milosevic last October, Serbs still have a long way
to go before gaining full international approval.

After the Second World War, Albania became the political equivalent of the
dark side of the moon during the rule of the Stalinist Enver Hoxha, who
died in 1985. It emerged from decades of isolation with the collapse of
communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989 only to descend
into near-anarchy, with a reputation as a nation of bandits. This was
reinforced by the pyramid savings scandal of 1996-1997, which caused
widespread bankruptcy and led to the fall of the Government. Some say
todays expansionism is a direct consequence of this collapse: so many
Albanians were left destitute that they had to look beyond their borders
for economic recovery.

So will the new international orientations bring a change of Albanian
borders and a greater Albania? Although the international community says it
supports Macedonia, it remains to be seen what this really means. The
Albanians have the great advantage of a new economic space, based on the
collapse of the communist borders with Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia.
They also have a young population with hardcurrency income from a diaspora
totally committed to the free market world. Serbia and Macedonia have yet
to show that they really have this commitment.

Albania, for all its terrible infrastructure and social problems, may have
found the key to the future, while the neighbouring Slavs have yet to make
a really decisive break with the communist past.