Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Myth of Greater Albania (Part 3)
From Ottomans to Americans

Dr Sam Vaknin

Click here for part 1 of this series
Click here for part 2 of this series

The Ottoman occupation was an unmitigated misfortune. Albania - culturally, a veritable part of Italy in the past - was cut off from it and from the Renaissance it spawned. The Turks brought with them their venal type of devastation, not only economically, not only physically, not only in human lives - but also culturally. A gangrenous paralysis ensued. The lucky quarter of the population escaped to Italy. The others were left to fight it out through civil disobedience (refusing to pay taxes, to serve in the army and to surrender their weapons) and in open rebellion, time and time again, indefatigably, resourcefully and often in the name of the Christian faith.

To put an end to the nuisance, the Turks Islamized the lot (or at any rate, two thirds of the lot) during the 16th and 17th centuries. To ensure conversion, the Turks tortured, killed, raped and taxed the Christians. It worked and people crossed to the other side in droves. Now there were Catholic Albanians and Muslim Albanians. It was a replay of the old, 11th-century, religious fragmentation. Albanian political leaders in the 19th century - aware of the potential of these fractures to denationalize - insisted on "Albanianism" - a substitute, unifying political "religion". The rallying cry was: "The religion of Albanians is Albanianism".

Nothing much had changed in Albania since the time of feudalism. The Turks awarded local warlords estates to administer (timars). These warlords - the centres of real power, both political and military - subverted the authority and dominion of the Empire. The more the Empire tried to appease them with endowments the more potent and ambitious they became - such as the Bushati family, the eccentric Ali Pasa Tepelene (who also ruled Northern Greece) and others. In convulsive feats of reassertion of authority, some sultans deposed these pashas - but this did nothing to diminish the autonomy of their estates. In 1831, Turkey abolished the timar system altogether. This bold reform backfired as the old estates fragmented even further and power devolved to even lower levels of communal organizations run by beys (in the north) and bajraktars (everywhere). These were bloodthirsty, rigidly patriarchal and primitive mini-rulers. Paradoxically, Albanians who emigrated (mainly to Turkey itself) rose to prominence. Turkey had a total of 27 grand viziers (prime ministers) of Albanian extraction.

It was in Kosovo, in 1878, that discontent, unrest and revolt coagulated into the League of Prizren. Originally, a narrow local-interest northern group, it fast adopted an expansive agenda, seeking to unify the four parts of Albania - Kosovo, Shkoder, Monastir and Janina - which were spread across four vilayets (Turkish administration areas)into one political unit. But it is wrong to attribute to it the birth of the delirium of a Greater Albania. The League sought an administrative solution - not a political one. All they wanted was to create an Albanian zone - but, crucially,within the Ottoman empire. They were more focussed on benign, less threatening things like culture, art, literature and education. In short, it was a cultural movement with administrative aspirations - not the beast of untethered expansionism it was made out to be by latter day (and rather interested) historians. It was in Monastir (today's Bitola in Macedonia) that a national, Latin, alphabet was adopted in 1908. More convenient than Greek or Arabic - used until then - it triumphed.

History moves in quirkily agonizing twists and turns. It was the League's involvement with the Albanian language and the strong opposition by the Turks to its use (the League's activities in this respect were banned in 1881) that transformed the League from a rather local affair to a modern national movement along Italian or German lines. The Albanian language was indeed suffused by nationalism, immersed in unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Its reawakening signalled the reawakening of Albanianism.

When the last great hope, sealed by the Young Turks' (broken) promises of autonomy and democracy, was lost - the Albanians rebelled and forced the Sick Man of Europe to swallow yet another dose of medicine. In 1912, Turkey granted the Albanians their wishes. The Greek, Serb and Montenegrin armies then conquered Albania and divided it amongst themselves.

Long division

This trauma of division is a recurring trauma in the Albanian psyche. How ironic that the only people who can empathize with them are the Macedonians who share the same fear of being quartered. Faced with the annihilation of Albania so soon after its birth, Albanian leaders met in Vlore, led by Ismail Kemal, a former high-ranking Ottoman official of Albanian origin. With nothing much to lose, they declared independence (the Vlore Proclamation) on 28 November 1912.

In December 1912, the Great Powers - Britain, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Italy and France - met in London to divide the unexpected spoils. The conference handed the independent Albanian state to Austro-Hungary and Italy. But the price was a great diminishment in its geographical scope. Kosovo was given to Serbia and Cameria to Greece. The most luscious and productive lands and more than half of all Albanians were left out of the new independent homeland. Such was the nature of territorial comprises at that time that it created more problems than it solved. Two new ones were born that day and hour: a Yugoslav-Albanian flaring animosity and a Greek-Albanian mutual denial. The unfortunate and tragicomic German who was appointed to administer Albania (Wilhelm zu Wied) departed soon thereafter with the outbreak of the First World War.

This first European bloodbath provoked all of Albania's neighbours into an uncontrolled binge of invasions. Austro-Hungary, France, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia - they all marched in with no plan in mind but to occupy and plunder. The country became chaotic and it took a US President, Woodrow Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference to avert the abolition of the Albanian independent state. It was not the first time Albania descended into chaos - nor was this to be the last time the Americans would come to the help of the Albanians. Britain, France and Italy planned to partition it, Wilson vetoed it and that was the end of the plan and the beginning of Albania.

In Lushnje, in 1920, the Albanians convened a national congress and established a government. That year, Albania was admitted to the League of Nations, sponsored by the very Britain that sought its partition only the year before. Secure in its sovereignty and international recognition, Albania inverted its attention. Society was polarized between land-owning fat cats, the beys, and militant archconservative bajraktars led by Ahmed Bey Zogu from Mat in the north. These reactionaries were opposed by an uncomfortable coalition of merchants, intellectuals, progressive politicians and assorted democrats, led by an improbable American-educated bishop of the Orthodox Church, one Fan S Noli.

The conflict ended four years later when, in 1924, Zogu fled to Yugoslavia. But the entrenched power of the landed gentry was not to be discounted so easily. Noli, now Prime Minister, ruled over the Albanian equivalent of the Weimar Republic. He brought radical land reform, modernization and westernization. But he was personally unstable, he won no international recognition (he was considered a revolutionary leftist) and he had no money to buy his way with.

Zogu came back, this time with a Yugoslav-backed army.

He won.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 1 November 1999

Click here for part 1 of this series
Click here for part 2 of this series

Part 4 of this series will appear in next week's issue of CER

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.



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