The most successful Albanians, or those that are best known around the world, have all developed their careers outside their birthplace. From architect Karl Gega, to critic and diplomat Faik Konica, actor Aleksander Moisiu, writer Ismail Kadare, soprano Inva Mula, actress Eliza Dushku, to more contemporary artists such as Rita Ora or Dua Lipa, all of these figures have proven that Albanians have given more to the world from outside of their country of origin, than from within it.
The contribution of our fellow countrymen and women who live abroad has also influenced the condition of Albanians in the motherland. The “Vatra” (Hearth) movement — also known as the Pan-Albanian Federation which mobilized Albanians in the U.S. under the leadership of Fan Noli and Faik Konica — influenced U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to support Albania’s independence and enabled Albanians to have a voice in the Paris Peace Conference (1919).
The diaspora also gave a priceless contribution in efforts to liberate Kosovo and solve the conflict in Macedonia and the Presheva Valley, through financial assistance, lobbying and raising awareness among international opinion, but also through direct engagement in the war and efforts to protect civilians.
Albanians who left their motherland for different reasons (often against their will) were labelled immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the countries they fled to. Most of them, despite their reasons for leaving, maintained their ties with their home countries . This fact, namely their engagement with their country of origin, makes them members of the diaspora, and not simple immigrants.
According to Gerard-Francois Dumont’s definition, they constitute “a community of individuals living together on the same territory and having in common the conviction or belief of belonging, themselves or their families, to another territory with which they maintain regular relations.”
The difference between being a member of the diaspora and being an immigrant is that (dis)engagement with the state of origin and the maintenance of relations with it. This issue, namely the definition of diaspora, is very important to note before we speak of them as a social group. Naturally, the notion of diaspora does not include all Albanians who live in different parts of the world, at least not the ones who do not maintain ties with their birthplace or have no sense of belonging to it.
The term diaspora is being used more and more. It is used to describe immigrants and their descendants as actors and agents of development. This gives them a political, social and economic role.
Albanians have a comparative advantage in relation to other nationalities. In addition to having a diaspora with huge potential, they also enjoy strong ties between members of the diaspora and the homeland. However, despite its positive history, the Albanian diaspora has not managed to influence the development of its origin state to a great extent.
The demands and potential of the diaspora are deeply disproportionate to the state’s engagement for utilizing them. Although Kosovo has institutionalized actions regarding the diaspora, it still lacks a clear vision for channeling the diaspora’s potential to develop the state.
Although diaspora remittances are estimated to comprise a total of over 700 million euros, a figure equal to 16 percent of Kosovo’s GDP or around 30 percent of its annual budget, most of the money is spent on consumption and are not translated to efforts which develop key sectors, such as the economy, health care or the education system.
Meanwhile, Albania has only just started to create state mechanisms for the diaspora, as has Macedonia. Whereas Albanian municipalities in Montenegro and the Presheva Valley lack any kind of institutional mechanisms for the diaspora. The diaspora are not to blame for this. This is more so a result of the lack of vision and state organization in these countries.
The platform Diaspora Flet (Diaspora Speaks) has documented over 200 organizations and over 300 activities and events which have been conducted on a voluntary basis. This shows not only the potential and complexity of the diaspora, but also the lack of ties between the origin state and this potential.
In a conference of the same name, Diaspora Flet, held in Prishtina between 17-20 May this year, it was proven once again that the diaspora does not provide only financial remittances, but also intelectual, business, scientific and political capacity.
Speaking at the conference, Kingsley Aikins, founder of Ireland’s Diaspora Matters, one of the biggest diaspora organizations in the world, referenced terms coined by US political scientist Joseph S. Nye, highlighting that the diaspora is the soft power of a nation or state.
Every diaspora is comprised of political and intellectual values, business networks and organizations of culture, sports and science. All these comprise influential factors in politics, the economy and other sectors. Countries across the world are using them more and more in their interest.
But despite its huge potential, the relationship between the Albanian diaspora and its motherland leaves one wondering what could have been. The Albanian diaspora is yet unable to realize its political rights, to elect and be elected equally. Kosovo citizens who live abroad have the right to vote, but because of the difficult process, most of them do not manage to, thus are left unable to realize their rights. On the other hand, citizens of Albania who live abroad have no right to vote.
The Kosovo diaspora still waits in line to pay an insurance tax which is considered by many as a ransom. In many countries, the third or fourth generation is not offered opportunities to learn the Albanian language and culture. This represents a serious risk, as it can lead to a loss of the sense of belonging and cultural identity — one of the key elements of being a member of the Albanian diaspora.
At the Diaspora Flet conference, members of the diaspora raised concerns related to the lack of literature and schools which offer lessons in Albanian in their respective countries. They complained about having no support from their country of origin regarding these issues.
Moreover, the Albanian diaspora faces many difficulties in their efforts for social remittances, sharing ideas or implementing projects in their countries of origin.
Diaspora organizations in other countries, although many in number, are more chaotic than they are harmonized. Whereas organizations in countries of origin happen only during tourist season and are more carnivalesque — concerts with no artistic values, titled “Welcome compatriots.”
Communicating with the institutions from the countries of origin is also outstandingly difficult; even in cases when members of the diaspora want to invest in their motherland, they are faced with dozens (if not hundreds) of bureaucratic procedures.
The fact that the first conference for the diaspora was organized by Germin, a civil society organization which works for diaspora engagement, and not by state institutions, shows the level of interest that countries of origin have for engaging their biggest social group.
Engagement – the way forward
Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albanian municipalities in Montenegro and Serbia, must coordinate and open doors for the Albanian diaspora. We must not expect the diaspora’s potential to be manifested only in the form of financial remittances that are spent on consumption. It must also be manifested in social remittances, in the exchange of ideas and goods. The diaspora’s potential is the help that its professionals can offer. We can even include them in decision-making positions in state institutions.
Through its political and cultural influence in countries of residence, the diaspora harbors a diplomatic dimension, one which must be supported and utilized. At the Diaspora Flet conference, Mark Cosmo, leader of the Massachusetts Albanian American Society “Besa” (Boston, USA), mentioned the idea of creating a National Council of the Diaspora.
This council, comprised of members of the diaspora from around the world, would address all problems related to the diaspora and the development of origin states, and would ultimately transform into a powerful body of Albanian culture and values. As the biggest Albanian social group, the diaspora must be transformed into a catalyst for development.
More than ever, the three Albanian ministers of diaspora in three different countries have the opportunity to engage the diaspora’s potential and build interinstitutional bridges of communication, so that state structures can build ties with members of the diaspora, regardless of who is in power.
As Kingsley Aikins said in the 4 day conference held in Prishtina, “the diaspora is the soft power of a nation”. Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and the Presheva Valley, must recognize and utilize this powerful ‘weapon’ that they have.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.