'Greater Albania' gains ground

As ethnic Albanian refugees mass outside Kosovo, some explore notion of

With some 40,000 more refugees pouring across the Albanian border over this past weekend, Albania and Macedonia are now playing host to a half million Kosovar Albanians.

Many want only to return to Kosovo. Some are also exploring a bigger dream: uniting ethnic Albanians in a single "Greater Albania."

That idea - a worry for the West, not to mention for Yugoslavia - is a hot topic in Tetovo. This Macedonian city has become a new center for Albanians in the region, if not around the world.

Cafes fill with professors, rebels, journalists, and the rest of the exiled intelligentsia of Kosovo. Most were part of the awakening in Kosovo in the 1980s that made Albanians the last European national group to develop a collective identity.

Most of them want a Kosovo that will one day join with Albania; some want more.

Foreign ministries across the region are concerned about the prospect of an activist new ethnic block and resulting cultural clashes. A Greater Albania could bring demands to redraw borders to include parts of Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro - and deepen divides between Orthodox Christian and Muslim groups.

Old loyalties in the unstable Southern Slavic tinderbox might draw Greece and Turkey into conflict, two NATO allies that already have uneasy relations, experts say.

Tremors have already been felt in Tetovo at the technically illegal Albanian "open university," where violence erupted in 1995 when Macedonian authorities tried to shut it down. The rector here, a German-educated philologist, advocates secession from Macedonia, albeit a peaceful one. Still, this terrifies ethnic Macedonians - as does evidence that many students here share the rector's point of view.

Yet the closer one gets to "the Albanian question," as its brain trust refers to it, the further away a Greater Albania actually seems. Little unity exists among the dozens of power centers and interest groups in various states.

"Every Albanian is a commander," a famous Italian characterization from the 1940s, is still partly true.

Albania itself lived in Stalinist isolation for 70 years, until 1993. It is riven with schisms and is as different from Kosovo as Venus is from Mars. Macedonian Albanian leaders, for their part, talk more about European integration, World Bank loans, democracy, and civil rights than about a Greater Albania.

"Greater Albania is an idea that is alive but is 50 years away and will look something like Brussels today, where borders are indistinct," says Abdurahman Haliti, leader of the opposition Albanian party in Macedonia. "What is more alive is an awareness that we must join Europe."

The new factor, however, is the war. Much depends on its outcome. If Albanians feel abandoned after the Serbian ethnic cleansing, or if refugees don't return, the passive idea of Greater Albania could turn into a movement.

A new generation of Albanians, more confident and educated than their parents, is rising. Many are joining the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which may radicalize them. One hears claims for a new "Illyria" - large swaths of land occupied in Homeric times by Albanians who, unlike most Balkan groups, are not Slavs but a kind of aboriginal people of the Balkans.

"There are other structures more radical than our own," says Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia, part of the ruling coalition. Mr. Xhaferi, the most popular Albanian leader, who was jailed two years ago for flying an Albanian flag alongside a Macedonian one in Tetovo, adds: "Until now, these forces were in our control, and they listened to us. If they someday don't listen, they will certainly take matters into their own hands."

For Albanians, Kosovo is the intellectual and spiritual center of the Albanian question - dating back to the 1970s at Pristina University. In 1981, a bid by Kosovars to become a new Yugoslav republic was put down after riots that started when a student found a roach in his soup.

But the idea of independence did not die. Ironically, Serbs also claim Kosovo as the center of their national identity, the place where they lost an epic battle in 1389 to the Turks and where Slobodan Milosevic seized power over Serbia in 1987.

Yet in modern times Kosovo has been 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and, as British writer Noel Malcolm points out, a seedbed of progressive Albanian thinking. Also, the character of "Greater Albania" is different from the Serb variety. The Greater Serbia program of President Milosevic draws from a complex set of myths and heroic narratives and has an expansionist ideal; Greater Albania is more a simple matter of demographics and gradual unity. Most Albanians refer to an "ethnic Albania," and call the phrase "Greater Albania" a type of Serb propaganda.

Still, the impulse for a large, new Albania is unsettled and unclear among the Albanian rank and file. It is being shaped by daily events and the kind of strange twists of feeling that come when war refugees feel misery at losing family but euphoria that NATO is helping them.

"The KLA is not fighting for liberation," says a Balkan expert in Macedonia. "They are fighting for a Greater Albania, and that is what the West doesn't understand."

The Kosovo intelligentsia now in Tetovo deny this. For these refugees, Kosovo must one day become independent. But they speak of an eventual "confederation" with Albania, to use the term of Shkelzen Maliqi, a prominent Kosovar leader.

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