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The ghost of Greater Albania won’t go away

The joint session of the Albanian and Kosovo governments in Tirana has generated a predictable firestorm over the pan-Albanian remarks made by some of the participants. Once again the spectre of Greater Albania is stalking the Balkans, Serbia in particular. Belgrade “won’t sit quietly while Greater Albania is created,” the Serbian Justice Minister growls. The Serbs are not alone in their complaints. Some in Albania criticise their own politicians for, as they see it, summoning up the ghost of Greater Albania for their own murky purposes.

Of course, politicians need to be wary in handling such a combustible thing as nationalism – a proverbial tiger that so often devours those who think they can ride it. Still, nationalism is not going to go away, however much some wish it to.  The left and the civic activists may treat it as a pathology or disease that can and should be isolated, treated and removed. But history – including the recent history in the Balkans – suggests nationalism is too integral to most people’s sense of self for it to just retreat in the face of condemnation.

In Albania’s case, nationalism of the “greater”, or irredentist, variety will bubble away – whether or not the politicians play with it – until Albania’s crazily arranged borders are rendered redundant by the European integration of the Balkans. The 1913 settlement left too many Albanians outside the national state for Greater Albanian sentiment not to exist, in some form.

Albanians are not the only victims in Europe of nonsensical-looking borders but usually there is some kind of logic to them, based either on history or geography. The Croatia-Herzegovina border has no ethnic logic to it, for example, but it does at least have the weight of history on its side.

Albania’s borders have neither history, nor geography nor ethnicity to support them. They are just “there”, the eternal legacy of the after-dinner deliberations of far-away diplomats meeting in London, most of whom couldn’t have cared less.

Researching a book on the English Balkan explorer Edith Durham a while back brought home to me just how frivolous, as well as damaging, this settlement was.

Durham herself managed to change the southern border of Albania by firing off a well-aimed telegram to the London Conference in which she demanded that the town of Korce go to Albania rather than Greece. The border was duly shifted south, causing apoplexy in Athens. “Helped to save Koritza [sic],” Durham reflected later, laconically.

Good for her, one might think. Korce was definitely mainly Albanian. Still, the affair is a reminder of how casual the London Conference diplomats were in their approach to frontier questions. Up north, Gjakova and Debar – Dibra to Albanians – went to Serbia simply because Serbia wanted them and because Russia supported Serbia. It did not concern anyone in London that Serbia had no serious ethnic or historic claim to either town, or that their loss to Albania would be the economic ruin of much of northern Albania, severing the countryside from the markets it served.

What shook me most about the arrangement of Albania’s frontiers was a page in the memoirs of British Foreign Minister, Edward Grey, who described this disastrous development for Albania in semi-comic terms. Grey clearly barely knew where either place was and wrongly called Gjakova “a village”, as if the struggle was over a couple of huts and not an important market town.

What he did recall about Gjakova was that while discussing it with the Austrian ambassador in his London office, the Austrian accidentally knocked over a vase of daffodils and soaked his coat. Years later, the memory of the drenched ambassador was what most stuck in his memory.

Durham, a deeply serious woman, was shattered by the cynicism of such proceedings – the way it was all treated as a game of chess. Convinced that a lifetime’s work for Albania had gone to waste, and that no state with such borders could survive, she returned to England a year later and refused to return, except for one brief trip made reluctantly in 1921. “The hope I dreamed of was a dream/ Was but a dream and now I wake,” she wrote, copying out the gloomy lines of a poem by Christina Rossetti. She was angry but not that surprised when Italy swallowed up Albania 18 years later.

It is too late now to rewind the clock and change the Balkan frontiers. Granting independence to Kosovo has healed some of the wounds created in 1913. If the border between Kosovo and Albania lives on, it now separates two Albanian-speaking countries. Still, the damage done in 1913 is not completely repaired, and will not be, until the whole region is more fully integrated into Europe – at which point such borders, hopefully, will become semi-redundant. Then, not before, the ghost of Greater Albania will be laid to rest.

Source: Balkan Insight

 

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