Beyond escalation of war - unification?

Less than two years after the end of the war in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are involved in another armed struggle, this time in Macedonia. Although the Macedonian conflict is relatively small in scale, it is sliding closer and closer toward all-out war. Yesterday, Macedonian officials threatened to launch a new military offensive if ethnic Albanian rebels don't pull back from recently gained positions around the city of Tetovo. The intensified fighting and inability of the two sides to reach a political agreement points to a larger issue: the latent desire of some ethnic Albanians to form a "Greater" or "Unified" Albania.

Some 6 million ethnic Albanians live in a relatively homogenous swath of southeast Europe, ranging from the Albanian coast on the Adriatic Sea, through the southern tip of Yugoslavia, and into western Macedonia. They share the same language, history, culture, and ethnic identity, yet are split into three countries. Logic would dictate that, if Kosovo and western Macedonia were both highly autonomous, a tendency toward unification with Albania would emerge.

To be sure, ethnic Albanians are careful when approaching the topic of a Greater Albania. Just about every public figure will renounce the idea as politically unacceptable, especially in today's volatile Balkan climate. Yet, most Albanians, as with the Serbs and Croats, also will acknowledge that, in their hearts, unification is a dream that will not soon be forgotten.

"There is a strong emotional aspect to it," says Nicholas Pano, a professor of Albanian history at Western Illinois University. "Albanians feel that their brothers and sisters have been left outside their borders.... They believe Albanians should be unified."

The Significance

The question of "Greater Albania" is incredibly sensitive, and for that reason the international community has gone to great lengths to make sure it doesn't become anything more than an abstraction.

First, under the 1975 Helsinki Accords, European borders are not meant to change, for the reason that new borders would encourage the opening of more territorial conquests.

This is particularly relevant to the Balkans, where borders did change with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

In addition to Albanians, ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats have large pockets of their people living outside their borders. Diplomats fear that if one group made a push for unification, the others would be encouraged to do the same. If that were to happen, Bosnia and Macedonia, two fragile multiethnic countries, would be in great jeopardy.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in fact, is accused of trying to create a "Greater Serbia." His efforts led to four wars and, in effect, the shrinking of his country. Today, Mr. Milosevic is awaiting trial on Kosovo war-crimes charges at the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. One way that rival Balkan ethnic groups try to undermine each other is by accusing them of seeking a "greater" nation. Therefore, Serbs commonly warn of the dangers of a "Greater Albania," and vice versa.

The Players

Mainstream ethnic-Albanian leaders, including Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, and Arben Xhaferi of Macedonia, publicly denounce any efforts aimed at achieving a "Greater Albania."

More radical ethnic Albanians, such as former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci and National Liberation Army (of Macedonia) political leader Ali Ahmeti, have also steered clear of calling for a unified state. In fact, when a relatively obscure Albanian politician, Arben Imami, recently called for "unification," comparing Albania to Germany and Korea, he was immediately condemned both inside and outside his country.

Why Now?

The Kosovo conflict and the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia had several unforeseen consequences. One of them was that it emboldened the ethnic Albanians, perhaps sending them a signal that violence is a way to achieve their political goals.

In Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians, under the yoke of Serbian repression for more than a decade, preached nonviolent resistance, and were largely ignored by the international community. When their frustration was transformed into an armed uprising, however, the world began to listen.

Now the same thing is happening in Macedonia. If the ethnic Albanians, who number from 500,000 to 800,000, making up about one-third of Macedonia's population, were to fight for and win some kind of greater autonomy, the blueprint for a Greater Albania could slowly come into focus.

What to Look For

It seems unlikely that the ethnic Albanians will ever get a unified country through violence. In fact, their best chances may be in just the opposite scenario.

If the Balkans become stable, democratic and more integrated with Europe, borders would become less important. Then, it may be possible for the Albanians to negotiate a new international arrangement that would bring their people closer together, peacefully. The same can be said for the Serbs and Croats.

The desire to unify "is coming, so the international community should try to manage it rather than oppose it," says a government source, who requested anonymity.

***

History

The Albanian people were ruled for some 500 years by the Ottoman Turks, during which time large numbers were forcibly converted to Islam. The Ottoman Empire, which stretched as far north and west as Croatia and Bosnia, began to crumble at the start of the 20th Century. In 1912, the first independent state of Albania was proclaimed, and the next year it was recognized by the Great Powers at the London conference. That state, however, excluded about 45 percent of the ethnic-Albanian population - a figure that still roughly applies today.

Since the birth of the state, Albanians inside and outside the country have maintained a common identity, which they call Trojet Shkiptare, or "Albanian Domain." When Zog solidified power and proclaimed himself king in 1928, he significantly called himself "King of the Albanians," not "King of Albania."

Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 40 years until 1985, was a deeply paranoid isolationist who tried to wipe out Albanian nationalism, but failed. The more ethnic Albanians were persecuted outside Albanian borders (such as in Yugoslavia), the more their sense of solidarity grew. Those feelings mushroomed during the war in Kosovo - and are on display today in Macedonia.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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