The four Albanian vilayets during the Ottoman Empire (Circa 1878)
The tragic news about the Albanians of Kosova continues to dominate print and broadcast headlines in the USA and elsewhere. Yugoslav President Milosevic’s relentless and systematic destruction of over 300 Kosovar Albanian villages created a horrific situation where almost 5000 Albanians have already been killed and more than one million left homeless. Although the Rambouillet Interim Peace and Self-Government Agreement for Kosova proposed by the Contact Group and the European Union was accepted and signed by the Kosovar Albanian side, the continuous onslaught by Serbian military forces against Albanian-populated villages and cities in Kosova resulted in over 900,000 refugee Albanians since the peace talks began in France a few months ago. As of this date (4/26/99), the current NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia to force Milesovic to sign the Rambouillet agreement are proving to be unsuccessful.
Kosova’s Legal Status Under the Former Yugoslav Constitution
It is a little known fact worldwide that under the Yugoslav constitution of 1974 Kosovo was equivalent in most ways to Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics who have since gained full independence from the former Yugoslav federation. Although Kosova’s status was as an “autonomous province” of Serbia, in theory, it had dual status, being defined both as a component of the republic of Serbia and as a component of the federal Yugoslavia. But in practice Kosova exercised the same powers as a republic, having its own parliament, high courts, central bank, police service, and territorial defense force; it was formally defined (from 1968 onwards) as part of the federal system, and it was represented directly — not via the Republic of Serbia — at the federal level.
In July, 1990, the Serbian parliament — as a result of the nationalistic fervor fueled by Slobodan Milosevic – abrogated the autonomy of Kosova whose population was 90% Albanian. Serbs then replaced Albanians in all of their governing, military, police, commercial, and academic institutions leaving Albanians with no representation at either local or national levels for their majority population in Kosova.
To this day, however, to this day little is known about the true historical and geographical relationship between Kosova and Albania. One of the root causes of the age-old animosity between Serbs and Albanians appears to center around the plain of Kosova, near Prishtina (the capital of Kosova), on which a historic battle against the Ottoman Turks occurred on June 15, 1389. It is frequently stated by the Serbs that the battle (won by the Turks) took place only between Serbs and the Ottoman invaders. For that reason, the land is deemed to be sacred by the Serbs although almost 2,000,000 Albanians reside in Kosova constituting about 90% of its population.
About the Battle of Kosova
On the day of that significant battle on the plain of Kosova in 1389, it was not only Serbs but, in fact, an anti-Ottoman coalition of six different nationalities — Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles, Serbs, and Albanians — headed by the Serbian Prince Lazar who fought in a major alliance against a Turkish army twice its size. Because Prince Lazar’s men fought so ferociously against overwhelming odds, they appeared to have gained a tactical advantage early in the day until, inexplicably, two contingents of Serbs, commanded by V. Brancovic and K. Marko, retired from the field of battle and entered into secret negotiations with the Ottomans. The Serbian defectors reached an agreement under which they took sides with the Turks against the six-nation coalition. In that last desperate armed conflict, the Turks, now aided by the two Serbian fighting units, subsequently defeated the opposing armies, and this tragic loss marked the eventual collapse of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania which all came under Turkish rule.
Ottoman Occupation: the Four Vilayets of Albania
After all Balkan opposition had been finally crushed, the Ottoman Turks enacted a series of political and social measures in order to gain complete control of Ethnic Albania. As in other occupied Balkan territories, for purposes of administration the Turks divided Albania into 4 provinces or “vilayets” – the vilayets of Shkodra, Kosova, Manastir, and Janina (see map) where the overwhelming majority of their respective populations was Albanian by language, history, tradition, culture, and laws. These divisions meant that the Albanian regions were cut off from each other, the four vilayets being controlled by quite separate adminstrations whose governors were called “Soubache”. To further suppress an Albanian identity or nationality, the Turks forbade the teaching of the Albanian language or history in any of the four vilayets. To accomplish that objective, the “divide-and-rule” strategy also permitted the Turks to enlist the wholehearted and enthusiastic support of the leaders of the existing religious faiths in the occupied territories. Thus, Muslim Albanians had to attend Turkish schools, Orthodox Albanians – Greek schools, and Roman Catholic Albanians – Italian schools.
It should be noted that the Ottoman Conquest of Europe actually 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. Ottoman domination of Central Europe and the Balkans 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 corruption 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.
Ethnic Albania, still comprised of the 4 vilayets, was penalized by the Great Powers because it was considered part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. As a result, the Albania of 1878 was divided by ceding a portion of the vilayet of Shkodra to Montenegro, and major portions of 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, essentially, the nation of Albania as it is known today. It should also be noted that Albania’s neighbors, especially Serbia and Greece, 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.”
Present Day Albania
Albania 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. Prior to 1991, it had 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, indeed, 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 Albanian alphabet is Latin-based, and similar to that of English except that it is comprised of 36 letters including ë and ç and nine digraphs dh, gj, ll, nj, sh, th, xh, and zh which are regarded as a single character. The Albanian alphabet does not have the letter w.
The Albanians are essentially a homogenous people but have been divided traditionally into two basic groups, the Ghegs in the North, and the Tosks in the South, the dividing line being the Shkumbini River that runs east to west across the middle of Albania. 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. Albania has the advantages of high literacy (about 90%) and less rape of land and resources than some of its neighbors such as Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. It is the world’s third largest producer of chromium and has significant natural resources such as petroleum, copper, nickel, and coal awaiting only further development by foreign investors. Up until 1991, Albania, because of its mountaineous terrain that resulted in the construction of a network of high-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, Greece, Germany, Canada, and as far away as Australia.
Northwest of Albania beginning clockwise, it is estimated that there are approximately 80,000 Albanians living in Montenegro, about 2 million in Kosova, 100,000 in South Serbia, 400,000 in Macedonia, and 200,000 in northern Greece. Albania, indeed, is a country completely surrounded by itself.
Religion in Albania
Until the 16th century, almost all of Albania was Christian, the Roman Catholic religion being dominant in the north and the Orthodox religion in the south. In the 17th century, the Turks began a policy of Islaminization by using, among other methods, economic incentives to convert the population (for example, some Albanians who adopted Islam received land and had their taxes lowered). By the 19th century, 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 in1989-90 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. Although reliable statistics are lacking, observations and anecdotes suggest that the historical 70-20-10 percentages are no longer valid. The collapse of the old communist order in 1989-90 has seen a religious revival of sorts in Albania, and it is believed by a former USA official stationed in Tirana that the religion with the most new adherents are Christian evangalists such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.
Although frequently referred to as a “Muslim” country, there is no state religion in Albania, and the Albanians are renowned for their extraordinary religious tolerance. It is a little-known fact worldwide that the Albanians protected their own Jews during the Holocaust while also offering shelter to other Jews who had escaped into Albania from Austria, Serbia and Greece. The names of Muslim and Christian Albanian rescuers of Jews are commemorated as “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem and are also inscribed on the famous “Rescuers Wall” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. At the unveiling of the names of Albanian rescuers on February 5, 1995, the Museum’s then-director, Miles Lerman, gratefully stated, “Albania was the only country in Europe which had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than before it!”
A joint Israeli-Albanian concert was held in Tirana on November 4, 1995 to commemorate the protection of Jews by Albanians from Nazi occupiers of Albania during the Holocaust — its participants were the Kibbutz Orchestra of Israel, the Opera Orchestra of Tirana, the National Choir of Tirana, and the Israel-Albania Society.
Origins of the Albanians
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. However, the Albanians call themselves ” Shqipëtarë ” and their country “Shqipëria” — generally accepted to mean “land of the eagles” because two of the Albanian words for “eagle” are “Shqipë” and “Shqiponjë.” 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.
Illyria Becomes Part of the Roman Empire
The Romans conquered Illyria in 227 BC for which they had to pay dearly by making frequent expeditions across the Adriatic Sea to quell chronic insurrections. During the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Albania served as the battleground 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 an Ethnic Albania – that is, territories whose population was almost exclusively Albanian-speaking and Albanian in terms of language, 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, by uniting hitherto warring Albanian feudal clans, created an alliance that fought the Ottoman Turks for some 25 years until his death in1468 thereby preventing them from overunning all of Europe and postponing the inevitable conquest by the Turks of the entire Balkan peninsula.
Notwithstanding Albania’s current economic and social difficulties, the USA remains a strong supporter of Albania and continues to play a strong role in encouraging the development of democratic institutions and the democratization of the governing Albanian infrastructure. However, the disasterous “get-rich-quick” pyramid schemes in 1997 abetted, in part, by the Democratic Party government of Dr. Sali Berisha, brought Albania to a state of near-anarchy and lawlessness thereby creating a complete breakdown of the existing social order that resulted in its replacement by popular vote by a weaker Socialist government (which, apparently, has little authority in both the northern and southern regions of Albania). And because of recent American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, as of this date the USA embassy in Tirana is still temporarily closed for enhanced security purposes making the exchange of visits between Americans and Albanians more difficult.
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