Albania Torn Over Brethren's Plight Next Door

Officially, it keeps cool on Kosovo. But many in north are now primed to aid their northern neighbors.

The battle lines in Kosovo seem clear-cut.

The Albanian minority wants independence. Serbia - which, with Montenegro, makes up postwar Yugoslavia - steadfastly rejects it. And the West prefers something in between: autonomy reinstated to the Serbian province, where Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

But to neighboring Albania, the situation is far from black-and-white.

Indeed, it finds itself in an unenviable pinch: sandwiched between its utter dependence on the West for financial aid and its loyalty to the Kosovo Albanians. Seemingly everyone in northern Albania has a cousin across the border; these blood ties may drag the state into war with Serbia. Yet so far, pragmatism has won out over idealism: Albania toes the diplomatic line on the Kosovo question.

"I haven't seen them say 'no' to the West on anything," says a Western observer who heads a nongovernmental organization in Tirana, the capital.

But Albania's leaders - ex-communists elected last summer after anarchy swept the country - are quick to defend their foreign policy as sovereign.

"We are not supporting the ideas of the West because we are weak or in crisis - we think this is the best solution now," Foreign Minister Paskal Milo told the Monitor. "The Kosovo Albanians need to understand that in politics there are compromises. And when you have two extreme positions, it's impossible to work without compromise."

Mr. Milo insists that theirs is a well-intentioned attempt to introduce a "new philosophy" to an Albanian nation with no tradition of democracy.

Indeed, Albanians are a small but ancient tribe long conditioned to iron-fisted leadership. Centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire were followed by four decades of Stalinist repression under dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1992 came the post-communist, but increasingly authoritarian, regime of Sali Berisha. He was ousted last year.

Yet Western-style diplomacy has elicited mixed reactions among ordinary Albanians.

Far from the Kosovo border, in central and southern Albania, is a public preoccupied with its poverty, not Kosovo. Already Europe's poorest country, Albania sank even deeper when several huge pyramid-investment schemes collapsed a year ago. The ensuing chaos left some 3,000 dead.

"Albanians have many problems of our own to solve first before we start fighting again," says one young woman in Tirana.

To them, Kosovo is a perpetual problem out of their hands. They no longer consider themselves to be one and the same with the Albanian Kosovars, as they are known. Complete isolation under Hoxha prevented any interaction between the two communities. Meanwhile, Kosovar culture suffered under Yugoslavia. Even the Albanian language is somehow distinct.

Where support is strongest

But the mood is different in the rugged mountains of northern Albania. Here in the city of Kukes, 14 miles from the Kosovo border, locals don't appreciate the moderate language of Prime Minister Fatos Nano. Albanian "patriotism," they say half-jokingly, is gauged by how much you hate Serbs.

Widespread joblessness fuels that enmity; the bustle of daytime street activity is actually restless men moving from one cafe to another. One senses that war would give them something to do. Albanians here want Tirana to take a harder line with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, in light of the massacre of some 80 Kosovar "terrorists" by Serb police a month ago.

If their Kosovar brethren continue to die in large numbers - and Tirana resists intervention - these well-armed northerners vow to rush in as volunteers.

The half-million restive Albanians in Macedonia have pledged to do the same.

"If war starts, one man from every family would go fight; the bloodshed would affect everyone here," says Jonuz Hallaci, a journalist with Radio Kukes.

"[The Serbs] have done so many bad things to us over the years that you couldn't resist revenge, no matter how big a heart you have," he says.

Capitalizing on such sentiment is Mr. Berisha, who was seemingly down and out last year. The charismatic ex-president is again surging in popularity, attacking Mr. Nano's policies with nationalist rhetoric. If violence in Kosovo escalates, Berisha, a northerner, could be the spark that galvanizes Albanians against Serbia.

Will the West hold sway?

Milo and other Albanian officials concede they have so far failed to effectively communicate the importance of diplomacy over saber-rattling.

Albania, they note, also has no tradition of regard for public opinion. Being forced to rein in the hotheads of Kukes is a worrisome prospect for Tirana. With its army and police still recovering from last year's anarchy, the state has requested stepped-up cooperation with NATO. A civilian monitoring group from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is also being set up. And in Macedonia, a United Nations force including 350 US troops is watching for spillover.

Albania will likely continue to take cues from Washington and and the European Union: The state couldn't survive without their economic and political support. And turning up the heat are Italy, Greece, and Germany. War would likely unleash a wave of refugees, who'd pause only briefly in Albania before heading West. Thousands of Albanians washed onto Italy's shores last year.

Officials in Tirana try to put the best face on their position. Autonomy, while far from an ideal solution, could be a means to an end, says Nano spokesman Ben Blushi. In words that would make Serb nationalists blanch, Mr. Blushi says: "If we go for autonomy, 10 years later who knows? It may lead to a better, self-determined solution." (Translation: independence.)

At least that's the line Tirana officials will whisper into Kosovar ears. But backing the Western powers is a gamble. They showed lackluster resolve to stamp out the war in Bosnia, or punish Iraq's Saddam Hussein for violating UN agreements.

If the West fails with Kosovo, at best it would cost Nano and his cohorts popular support; at worst, it would likely mean another war in the Balkans.

As one Kosovo Albanian puts it, "We have to fight for independence. Autonomy comes with no guarantee: They gave it to us once and took it away [in 1989]. Why wouldn't they do it again?"

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