Balkans Twist: 'Greater Albania'

The Serb leader's drive for a 'Greater Serbia' once brought NATO bombs. Will ethnic Albanians try the same tack?

In a trend with broad implications for the Balkans, ethnic Albanians increasingly are calling for a new state that would unite Albania, the Serb province of Kosovo, and parts of Macedonia and Montenegro.

Some claim the desire for a "Greater Albania" is centuries old. But with recent violence in Kosovo and a general unrest among ethnic Albanians, it's now coming to the surface.

"I believe that in their souls, 99 percent of all Albanian people would love unification," says Afrim Morina, vice president of the fringe Kosovo Party of Albanian National Unity. "The waging of war in Kosovo has created a greater sense of solidarity, suffering, and nationality. To me this is not surprising."

This scenario alarms Western diplomats. A push for a Greater Albania could grow into the kind of international conflict that would require NATO intervention.

A Greater Albania movement could also undermine the 1995 peace agreement ending the Bosnian war by encouraging other nationalities - particularly Serbs - to resume their unfulfilled land claims.

It was Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's quest for a "Greater Serbia" that led NATO to bomb Bosnian Serbs in 1995.

"As far as the question of a Greater Albania is concerned ... let me start by saying we're against it and that this would be a very dangerous development that could affect the stability of the region," said US State Department spokesman James Rubin July 20.

Kosovo is the southern province of Serbia, inhabited by some 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, who seem willing to fight for independence. Serbian police crackdowns aimed at the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have fueled a storm of violence since late February, killing more than 400 people and sending 70,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing.

Fighting reached a new peak this week in Orahovac, a city of 20,000 that neither Serbian nor KLA forces has been able to control.

In the past five months, thousands of Kosovar refugees have streamed into Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, all of which have restive ethnic Albanian populations who sympathize with the KLA.

In addition, the recent military success of the KLA, which now controls about a third of Kosovo, has for the moment taken the future of Kosovo off the negotiating table and onto the battlefield, making the dream of a Greater Albania attainable in some people's eyes.

The KLA's success has marginalized Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, a US-backed pacifist who favors independence, not unification.

More radical leaders are gaining popularity. Jakup Krasniqi, the KLA's self-styled spokesman, has been calling for a Greater Albania. Hydajet Hyseni, an increasingly powerful political rival of Mr. Rugova, says he considers independence to be a compromise.

"The best solution for Albanians is not [independence]," Mr. Hyseni says. "The best solution for Kosovo is unification with Albania."

The bold claims of the ethnic Albanians dwarf the international community's desire to grant Kosovo autonomy or republic status within Yugoslavia, a compromise Mr. Milosevic has indicated he would consider.

More than a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian, and they are concentrated in the west of the country, which borders Kosovo.

The KLA may be active there: Three strong explosions reportedly shook the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and two locations near the border July 21.

Montenegro, the tiny republic that, along with Serbia, makes up postwar Yugoslavia, has some 20,000 ethnic Albanians, but more are coming in daily.

In Albania, a country of 3 million that is still recovering from the civil unrest of two years ago, politicians are increasingly playing the Kosovo card to gain support. Northern Albania has been used as a KLA training ground and is a source of arms for Kosovo.

Fighting between Serbs and the KLA has already spilled over the Albanian border on more than one occasion, Albanian officials say.

Although Albanians throughout the Balkans share customs and language, they have been separated for at least 600 years, dating back to the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the Balkans in the early 15th century.

Albania became an independent state after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, but ethnic Albanian populations still existed in Macedonia and Kosovo, which were part of Serbia, and in Montenegro, which was independent.

Albania was deeply isolated under the postwar communism of Enver Hoxha. Ethnic brethren found more freedom in Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia.

During the 1970s and '80s, ethnic Albanian intellectualism was cultivated at the University of Pristina in the autonomous Serbian province of Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro were influenced, but Albania itself was hardly penetrated.

Even after Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989, Pristina remained a center of Albanian nationalist thought, inspired by the formation of an underground university in 1991.

Today, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro are more closely linked to each other than they are to Albania. Yet, a unified nationalist spirit exists.

"It's true that, inside every Albanian's heart, there's a desire for unification," says Muhamet Hamiti of the Kosovo Information Center, which is closely tied to Rugova. "But it's not politically realistic. It's only wishful thinking."

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