Perspectives | North Macedonia

The scapegoat of Greater Albania amid rising tensions in Macedonia

By - 05.05.2017

Nationalist narrative used to stigmatize the minority.

For a long time, state borders in the Balkans have been the subject of ethnic schism and have destabilized the region. The fact that borders of nations do not coincide with the borders of states has been a recipe for conflict that has caused war, human and material losses, and, above all, suffering for all people in the Balkans.

Concepts of ‚Äėgreater nations‚Äô like Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, Greater Albania and even Greater Kosovo clash with one another, especially in terms of where a border should end or begin so that the nation would function, and accommodate the interests of the people living in those territories.

On March 3 this year, in an official statement, Russia‚Äôs Foreign Ministry accused the West of meddling in Macedonia‚Äôs internal affairs and supporting a Greater Albania by backing the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia‚Äôs(SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev‚Äôs potential new government. The coalition led by Zaev aim to pass into law the ‚ÄúAlbanian platform‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ a set of legislation proposed by Albanian minority parties in Macedonia, that have been set as a prerequisite for any of them joining a new government.

Russia, in addition to attempting to assassinate Montenegro’s former prime minister, and continuously providing armaments to Serbia, has been backing Macedonia’s biggest party, VMRO-DPMNE to form the new government in Macedonia. From the Russian perspective, the party aim to create a government that preserves the sovereignty of the Macedonian state. But while VMRO is failing to form a government through the democratic process of creating a coalition that forms a parliamentary majority (and while president Gjorge Ivanov is preventing the opposition from creating a government), the party of the former prime minister Nikola Gruevski has started a campaign demonizing Albanians in Macedonia.

In these circumstances it is important to consider whether the Greater Albania project is actually viable politically, and whether it is supported by Albanians both in Macedonia, and across the Balkans.

Macedonian Albanians are being presented as an ethnic group that allegedly aims to divide Macedonia and create a Greater Albania through their platform, which was mediated by Albania‚Äôs prime minister, Edi Rama. Alongside the demonization of Albanians in Macedonia and their ‚Äúthreat to sovereignty,‚ÄĚ VMRO have decided to use the destabilization card, as the coalition of the SDSM and Albanian parties continue to seek the formation of a government.

On April 26, as Talat Xhaferi was being elected as speaker of the assembly by the coalition, 200 VMRO supporters stormed the Macedonian parliament, injuring around 70 people and attacking MPs, including Zaev and Albanian MP, Zijadin Sela.

In these circumstances, with an ongoing demonization campaign in which a minority group is accused by both the biggest Macedonian party and Russia of attempting to create a Greater Albania, it is important to consider whether the Greater Albania project is actually viable politically, and whether it is supported by Albanians both in Macedonia, and across the Balkans.

Or, is Greater Albania an imagined threat and perpetual paranoia constructed to stigmatize Albanians as a people that attempt to expand territorially (expansionists) or separate from certain territories (separatists)?

If one reads the nationalist media in Serbia, or Macedonian media outlets that support Gruevski, or even if one speaks with an Albanian nationalist, then it is easy to believe that Greater Albania is an ongoing pan-Albanian project that Albanians see as crucial, and inevitable in the future. Recently, even Albania‚Äôs prime minister, Edi Rama, and Kosovo‚Äôs president, Hashim Thaci, have ‚Äúthreatened‚ÄĚ national unification, if EU membership prospects fade for the region.

These circumstances beg the question of the viability of the Greater Albania project, and the support it has in Albanian circles across the Balkans.

Although in principle most Albanians would want to live in one country, rarely do they seek to separate or unify Albanian territories.

But if we move away from both the nationalist anti-Albanian rhetoric and the nationalist Albanian rhetoric, then the matter of creating a Greater Albanian state turns out to not be supported as much by Albanians themselves, at least politically, especially because it is believed to involve violence. Although the national conscience of Albanians in the Balkans exists, and Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece all overwhelmingly identify as Albanians, a very small number would support a war to create a Greater Albania. The political objectives of Albanians in the Balkans are currently more focused on free movement across Balkan states; providing education in Albanian, making their language official, obtaining civil and economic rights, and tightening their cultural links.

In states like Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece, in which Albanians are a minority, the political objectives are usually equal rights vis-a-vis the ethnic majority, education in Albanian, non-discrimination, more autonomy within the state or a higher degree of decentralization, and the right to repatriate refugees in the case of Greece. In the cases of the Presevo Valley in Serbia, and Macedonia, it is the full implementation of the Covic Plan and the Ohrid Agreement, both of which ended the conflicts in the respective countries.

These goals are regular political objectives of many minorities throughout the world. Although in principle most Albanians would want to live in one country, rarely do they seek to separate or unify Albanian territories, as the project is almost impossible to implement politically without going through war, which the majority of people would not support.

Creating some kind of Greater Albania would not have the backing of the international community, who play a crucial role in the Balkans. Furthermore, it would seriously jeopardize Albania’s and Kosovo’s prospects of  integrating into the European Union and Euro-Atlantic structures.

Although the myth of a Greater Albania exists, and has been brought up in an incoherent and sporadic way since the time of the Ottoman Empire, it was never a serious political platform.

Historically, there have been different movements that have sought the creation of Greater Albania. However, as Paulin Kola argues in his book ‚ÄúIn Search of Greater Albania,‚ÄĚ Albanian decision-making institutions have never been powerful enough to seek the creation of a unified Albanian state.

Albanian leaders have always been dependent on international actors and more concentrated on preserving their position within the state while being battered by the circumstances of their time. As such, there was never a serious initiative for creating a Greater Albania. Although the myth of a Greater Albania exists, and has been brought up in an incoherent and sporadic way since the time of the Ottoman Empire, it was never a serious political platform.

Because of the length of this piece, I do not want to concentrate on past pan-Albanian movements and their failures within the Ottoman Empire, the time of Ahmet Zogu, during World War II, or in the time of Enver Hoxha in Albania and Tito in Yugoslavia. To put the issue of Greater Albania in a modern context we have to see how prevalent the idea was in the recent wars in the Balkans, and how prevalent it is currently in the political agendas of Albanian parties in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia ‚ÄĒ¬†two states with Albanian majorities, and the other with a large Albanian minority.

A serious political platform?

According to a study conducted by the International Crisis Group on pan-Albanian movements during the war in Kosovo in the late ’90s, military organizations that sought unification with Albania, like the People‚Äôs Movement of Kosovo (LPK) and the National Movement for the Liberation of Kosovo (LKCK), were less supported by the population. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which received great support in Kosovo and the diaspora, on the other hand, aimed to obtain independence for Kosovo.

The biggest peace wing party in Kosovo, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and two parties that stemmed from the KLA; the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), also sought Kosovo’s independence and not a unification with Albania. These parties became the greatest political forces in Kosovo, while other parties that sought national unification failed in the 2002 elections, the first elections after the Kosovo War. From 920 seats in 31 municipalities, LPK won four seats, Balli Kombetar (a nationalist movement) won two seats, and LKCK did not win any.

According to Crisis Group, in Macedonia the National Liberation Army started to pick up support during the insurgency in 2001 only when they started to move away from the pan-Albanian platform and focused on fighting for more rights for Albanians in Macedonia.

In Albania, parties that have followed the agenda of a Greater Albania have always had little or insignificant support. As far as separatist wars involving Albanians in Macedonia and Serbia go, there was also little support from Albania. In terms of Kosovo’s independence, support was more considerable, but more so because of the compassion that they felt for the Kosovar population there, rather than any aim to eventually unify with Kosovo.

The largest Albanian political parties in Albania have never seriously advocated for an a Greater Albania, but they have always advocated for more rights for Albanians and fostering more economic and cultural links between Albanians.

After the war in the Presevo Valley and in Macedonia in 1999-2001, the National Albanian Army was formed, which had members from Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo. This military group sought to unify Albanian territories and opposed the Ohrid Agreement of 2001 that brought an end to the war in Macedonia.

But this group was never supported in considerable numbers by Albanians and was declared a terrorist organization by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 2003. More widespread support was given to the military movements that sought more rights for Albanians in Macedonia, and those that sought independence for Kosovo.

Albania's former minister for foreign affairs, Paskal Milo, was so dismayed by the amount of times he was asked about Greater Albania, he felt the need to write a brochure refuting the idea.

After the war in Kosovo in 1999 and the uprisings in Presevo and Macedonia, Albanians throughout the Balkans were continuously aware that their destiny depended enormously on the great powers. Albania, on the other hand, was isolated from the Balkans during its communist era. As it opened up and transitioned into democracy, it started to focus on the improvement of trade relations with Kosovo and the region.

The Crisis Group report mentions that Paskal Milo, Albania‚Äôs former minister for foreign affairs, who served between 1997 and 2001, was dismayed by the many times he was asked about Greater Albania in international circles; so much so that he felt the need to write a brochure titled ‚ÄúEthnic Albania – between fiction and reality‚ÄĚ to refute the ideas that Albania was seeking to expand. In the brochure, he explains that the notion of Greater Albania is not an objective of mainstream Albanian parties in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, and argues that the future of Albanians across the Balkans is integration into Euro Atlantic structures.

For the government of Albania, a prosperous future would be one of European integration, together with Kosovo and the region. Although the people of Albania would probably favor national unification, they have other priorities and do not support violence as a means for achieving this.

In Kosovo, the only party that seeks unification with Albania is the Self-Determination Movement (Levizja Vetevendosje), a party that is known, among other things, for its nationalist and populist rhetoric, especially outside of Kosovo. Ironically, their biggest electoral success was in 2013, when they won the mayorship of the capital, Prishtina, with a campaign that was completely based on social-democratic policies, and had no nationalist angle.

The policies with which Vetevendosje succeeded were based on the concerns of the local population, such as providing a 24-hour water supply, stopping illegal construction, opening kindergartens, improving the public transport network, etc. The party is on the rise in Kosovo because of their consistency, their radical stance against corruption in a captured state, and the failure of governing parties to deliver.

The problem in Macedonia is not the myth of Greater Albania or the Albanian Platform; the problem is not ethnic at all.

In Macedonia, Albanian parties have regularly governed in coalition with Macedonian parties. For a long time, they governed with VMRO which is using a demonization campaign against Albanians now that they can no longer govern alongside them. Talat Xhaferi, whose election as speaker of the Assembly sparked such violent scenes last week, was in fact the Minister of Defense in Gruevski’s cabinet between 2013 and 2014.

Albanians in Macedonia voted for the SDSM in record numbers at the last elections specifically because they did not want a Gruevski government. Sixteen years after the civil war in Macedonia, many Albanians disregarded ethnic lines and voted for a Macedonian party because they were not satisfied with the performance of the Albanian parties, and because they wanted, through the ballot box, to topple Gruevski, who they consider corrupt and blame for capturing the Macedonian state and its institutions.

Albanians, together with Macedonians, also protested after a number of leaked wiretaps were published in 2015. These wiretaps proved major instances of power abuse that Gruevski and people affiliated with him (including his family members) had committed during the time VMRO was in power.

It is absurd and preposterous to say that the SDSM, the second biggest Macedonian party that focuses on European and NATO integration, would support an Albanian platform that would divide Macedonia. It is also very dangerous to portray the current situation in Macedonia as an ethnic conflict, to demonize Albanians and to stigmatize them as separatists through the myth of Greater Albania.

The current situation in Macedonia and the Balkans is a novelty, writes Marko Prelec, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest. He argues that now in the Balkans we do not have the familiar image of an oppressed minority wanting to break away. Instead, according to Prelec, ‚Äúthe most bitter and dangerous conflicts in most of the states there are between parties that appeal mostly or exclusively to the majority ethnic community. Minorities are bystanders, pulled in against their wishes.‚ÄĚ

While Albanians in Macedonia do not desire conflict, Gruevski, who is supported by both Russia, and the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, aims to turn a conflict for power into an ethnic conflict through this perpetual paranoia surrounding Greater Albania (parallel to that, Gruevski, as a friend of Orban, also conducts propaganda for the de-Sorosization of the state).

The truth is that Gruevski fears jail if he loses power. The problem in Macedonia is not the myth of Greater Albania or the Albanian Platform; the problem is not ethnic at all.

In Macedonia, we do not have a group of patriots protecting their motherland and its sovereignty, we have a corrupt elite that refuses to give up the power they have consolidated over the past 11 years through corruption and political patronage, and will use any means to prevent that. Their tactics even extend to storming the parliament and creating imagined threats that pulls a minority into an ethnic conflict that no one wants.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.