ALBANIA: A Country Surrounded By Itself

Albania, as we know it today, is a small country located on the Adriatic Sea surrounded, beginning in the northwest in a clockwise direction, by Montenegro, the Kosova province of Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and, finally, Greece in the south. In physical size, Albania is about 230 miles long by about 90 miles at its widest point. It has a population of approximately 3 million, 200 thousand people. The Albanian language is not derived from any other language, that is, it does not have a Slavic or Greek base as is commonly believed, but is, in point of fact, one of the nine original
Indo-European languages, the other eight Indo-European languages being Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indian, Iranian, Italic, and Keltic. As such, Albanian is one of Europe’s oldest languages!

The Albanians are essentially a homogenous people but have been divided traditionally into two basic ethnic groups, the Ghegs in the North, and the Tosks in the South, the dividing line being the Shkumbini River. Both Ghegs and Tosks speak the same language but pronounce it with some difference. A simple example is the Albanian word for the English verb “is”. A Tosk would say “eshte” (EH-shtah) whereas a Gheg would pronounce it as “asht” (AH-sht). The former communist government of Albania made the Tosk dialect the official dialect of the entire country.

The Albanians are the direct descendents of the ancient Illyrians whose territories in 1225 BC included all of former Yugoslavia, that is, Dalmatia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and portions of Macedonia and northern Greece. It was from one of the Illyrian tribes called the “Albanoi” located in central Albania, that Albania derives its name. Shkodra, the 3rd largest city in Albania and located in the northern part of the country, was also the capital of Illyria so it has deep historic roots.
The Romans conquered Illyria in 227 BC for which they had to pay dearly by making frequent expeditions across the Adriatic Sea to quell the insurrections that had become chronic. An interesting footnote may be the fact that during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Albania served as the battlegound for the contest of the supremacy of Rome. The decisive battle between Octavious and Antony for the imperial throne of Rome was also fought on the Albanian seacoast, and in commemoration of his naval victory at Actium, the future Emperor Augustus built the new city of Nicopolos on the southernmost part of the Albanian seaboard whose ruins may be seen to this very day in the modern day city of Preveza which was taken away from Albania and assigned to Greece by the Conference of London in 1912.

When the capital of the Roman Empire was transferred from Rome to Byzantium in 325 AD, Albania, then known as the Thema of Illyricum, became a province of the eastern section and remained part of the Byzantime Empire up until the early Middle Ages when certain feudal families managed to form independent principalities which eventually evolved into a Greater Albania – that is, territories where the population was almost exclusively Albanian-speaking and Albanian in terms of history, laws, tradition, and culture. One of those independent principalities was governed by the Kastrioti clan which later produced Albania’s greatest folkhero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who fought the Ottoman Turks for some 25 years until his death in1468 thereby preventing them from overunning all of of Europe and postponing the inevitable conquest by the Turks of the entire Balkan peninsula.

The Ottoman Conquest of Europe began in 1354 when the Turks captured the Byzantine fortress at Gallipoli located on a narrow peninsula where the Dardanelles opens into the Sea of Marmara. This military victory established their first stronghold on European soil. The defeat of the Bulgarians at Maritsa in 1371 and the defeat of the Serbs at Kosova in 1389 marked the collapse of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania which all then came under Turkish rule.
As in other occupied Balkan territories, the Turks established a system of adminstration of Albania by dividing it into 4 provinces or “vilayets” – the vilayets of Shkodra, Kosova, Manastir, and Janina. Until the 16th century, almost all of Albania was Christian, the Orthodox Catholic religion being dominant in the south and the Roman Catholic in the north. In the 17th century, however, the Turks began a policy of Islaminization by using, among other methods, economic incentives to convert the population. A simple example is that some Albanians who adopted Islam received land and had their taxes lowered. By the 19th century, however, Islam became predominant in Albania with about 70% of the population while some 20% remained Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic. These groupings remained in effect until the communist government outlawed religion in1967 making it the world’s only atheist state. Freedom of religion in Albania was restored only in1991 but it must be noted that the overwhelming majority of Albania’s population was born under a communist regime which pursued an aggresively atheistic policy. Altho reliable statistics are lacking, observations and anecdotes demonstrate that the historical 70-20-10 percentages are no longer valid. Altho the collapse of the old communist order has seen a religious revival of sorts, when I was in Albania in September, the USIA officer in Tirana told me that he believed the religion with the most new adherents in Albania were the Christian evangalists such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

The Ottoman Conquest of Europe lasted for more than 400 hundred years before it went into decline, in large measure because of persistent unrest and nationalism in the conquered territories and the corruptive self-rot of its own body politic. After the defeat of the Turks by the Russians in the war of 1877, the Great Powers evoked the Treaty of San Stefano the following year signifying the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Greater Albania, still comprised of the 4 vilayets, was penalized by the Great Powers because it was considered part of the Ottoman Empire for almost 5 centuries. As a result, the Albania of 1878 was divided by ceding the major portions of the vilayet of Shkodra to Montenegro, the vilayet of Kosova to Serbia, the vilayet of Manastir to Macedonia, and the vilayet of Janina to Greece. Thus, what remained after the partitioning is the nation of Albania as it is known today. It should also be noted that Albania’s neighbors wanted the total partitioning of Albania so that it would no longer exist as a separate entity and nationality. The one person who prevented that from happening at the Paris Peace Conference in1919 which eventually confirmed Albania’s official boundaries was President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America who declared, “I shall have but one voice at the Peace Conference, and I will use that voice in behalf of Albania.”

So, today, northwest of Albania beginning clockwise, there are approximately 40,000 Albanians living in Montenegro along its border with Albania, about 2 million in Kosova, 100,000 in South Serbia, 600,000 in Macedonia, and 250,000 in northern Greece. Albania, indeed, is a country compeletely surrounded by itself!

Right now, Albania is in the process of waking up from almost 50 years of a repressive communist regime. Today, Albania has a democratic government that, notwithstanding some of the same problems as other former communist countries, is possibly one of the most stable in the Balkans. It has the advantages of high literacy, less rape of land and resources than its neighbors such as Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. It is the world’s second largest producer of chromium and has signifcant natural resources such as petroleum, copper, nickel, and coal waiting only further development by foreign investors. Up until 1991, Albania, because of its mountaineous terrain that resulted in the construction of a network of hi-rise dams, shipped hydro- electric power all over the Balkans and as far west as Austria.

Albania also has an incredibly beautiful Adriatic seacoast that runs the entire length of the country with gorgeous white sandy beaches plus breathtakingly impressive mountainous areas with tremendous ski resort and winter sport potential. Albania has a diaspora scattered all over the globe with significant concentrations of Albanians in the USA, Italy, Germany, Canada, and as far away as Australia.

The USA is a strong supporter of Albania and is playing a continuing role in encouraging and supporting democratic institutions and the democratization of the governing infrastructure. Albania has a long way to go, but I am confident that it will continue to improve. I believe it will take at least a dozen years to undo most of the damage caused by the former communist government and for Albania to find its place in the European Community. I have been to Albania a number of times during the past few years working alongside my lovely wife, Jane, with the US State Department to help in the democratization process, and I am proud of the progress this small country of my birth has made in such a short period of time.

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