Albania’s quiet President

You don’t hear much about Albania’s President, Bamir Topi.

That’s probably a good thing. Topi was a partisan politician — he was the #2 leader of current Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party. But since he’s been elected, he’s acted like a national and mostly nonpartisan figure.

In this, he’s followed the lead of his predecessor, Alfred Moisiu. Moisiu, an elderly former general, had been a compromise candidate for the Presidency. To everyone’s surprise he turned out to be very good — dignified, moderate, and nonpartisan, personally honest, but capable of being very sharp when Albanian officals and politicians were being blatantly dishonest or incompetent. When Moisiu finished his five-year term last summer, there was a broad movement to draft him for a second term. (He refused. He’s nearly 80, and being President of Albania is no sinecure.) Albania hasn’t produced a lot of thoughtful, diligent and more or less honest politicians yet, so having two in a row in the Presidency is good fortune.

— I said one doesn’t hear much about Topi, but he was in the news this week in Kosovo and Serbia. That’s because he went to Kosovo, visited an ancient Serb church there, and then made a speech pointing out that Orthodoxy was part of the Albanian national heritage (true), that the church was part of Kosovo’s heritage (true) and implying, without actually saying, that the Orthodox Church was part of Kosovo’s Albanian heritage (untrue).

The usual suspects went completely nuts, of course; Serbia’s Orthodox Bishop issued a long declaration condemning the speech, and various Serb nationalists and politicians have tied themselves into knots of outrage. How dare Albania’s President come to Kosovo, visit a church, talk about the church! Worst of all, how dare he even think about claiming part, any part, of Serbia’s precious heritage!

Well… perhaps. On the other hand, having the Albanians claim Orthodox churches as part of “their” heritage is surely preferable to having the Albanians hating the churches and wanting to burn them down. And while Topi’s history may be dubious, his intentions seem to be good; he also said that the Kosovar Albanians must let the Serb minority live in peace, and his remarks about a common heritage were directed towards that.

Mind, he also said that Albania would be the first country to recognize an independent Kosovo. Which, while probably true, might not be entirely consistent with the message of reconciliation. But in Kosovo, you take what hope you can.

Oh, a bit of Balkan trivia: although most Albanians are nominally Muslim, Topi is Catholic. Perhaps his experience as part of a religious minority is what moved him to make the speech? Comments from anyone closer to this are welcome.

(Meanwhile, Serbia’s Presidential elections are three days away, and PM Kostunica still hasn’t endorsed either candidate. Ooooh, the suspense.)

4 thoughts on “Albania’s quiet President

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Albania: President Bamir Topi

  2. Pingback: Albania » Blog Archive » Albania Boosts e-Government Scheme

  3. Since 1999 (and perhaps earlier) Kosovo has gone through an Ilyrian revival of sorts. The Albanian ethnogenesis myth states that Albanians (i.e. Illyrians) were the original inhabitants of most of the Balkans, while Slavs are recent arrivals, colonizers. Thus, everything in Kosovo and in all “Albanian lands” was originally Albanian and was later “stolen” by the Slav aggressor. Naturally, given that Mediaeval Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries are probably the globally best known Kosovo landmark, it is tempting to extend the Illyrian theory to them as well, and this has been happening increasingly frequently since 1999. The story is roughly that since Albanians were there before Serbs, no doubt they built the original churches and monasteries sometimes before the arrival of Slavs to the Balkans. Then, Serbs arrived and “stole” Albanian churches and built their own on top of them. Therefore, these churches are actually Albanian, not Serb. Given that there are no Eastern-Orthodox Albanians in Kosovo, the logical outcome would be to chuck out Serb monks and convert them to museums (for another example of this see and check out churches in Byzantine-Arberorian style – that’s Serb Orthodox monasteries). Another side of the trend is replacing Slavic names of various landmarks by made up “Illyrian” names. Thus, Suva Reka has become Therande, Gracanica – Ulpiana, Leposavic (a town with nearly 100% Serb population) – Allbaniku (“Albanian town”).

    I’m sure that you’re not surprised that all of this raises quite a lot of alarm among Serbs, and especially in the Serb Orthodox Church. The SOC has repeatedly and very vigorously protested repeated attempts to deny its right to SOC churches and monasteries, which explains the most recent bishop Artemije’s reaction to Topi’s claims. Frankly, they sound just like another repetition of the Albanian nationalist claims and not a message of reconciliation. Denying someone right to their cultural heritage is hardly a message of reconciliation (according to reports I’ve seen Topi claimed that Mother of God of Ljevis cathedral in Prizren and the Patriarchate in Pec were Albanian churches).

  4. Actually Topi is not Catholic. Jozefina Topalli, the speaker of the Parliament (and vice-chairwoman of the DP – Democratic Party together with Topi) is Catholic. Alfred Moisiu is Orthodox as is Edi Rama, the popular mayor of Tirana and chairman of the opposition Socialist Party (SP), and Fatos Nano, ex-PM and ex-chairman of SP, now retired from politics. However, the religious affiliation of any of these, and the majority of people in Albania, means practically nothing. It means that their grandparents or generally their family comes from a certain religious background. Probably their grandparents remembered of religion, only when it was Christmas (for Catholics to go to church) or Easter (for Orthodox to paint the eggs) or Kurban Bajram (for Muslims to eat sacrificed lamb) or Summer Day (for the Bektashi to bake bollokume). Other than that, cultural rites, such as for example those around weddings, or birth, death, folklore etc, are exactly the same across religions, with only slight regional differences. And then communism arrived and leveled off any distinction by making Albania an officially atheist state for nearly 50 years. Tellingly, no major opposition to the outlaw of religion was ever recorded, apart from a few clerical circles. Presently there are so many mixed marriages that people have a hard time telling who is what, so I wouldn’t read too much into Topi being a Catholic or Muslim or whatever. First and foremost he is a politician and he makes statements based on that. I heard his speech in the Kosova’s parliament and the statements in the church and in both he stressed the need for mutual respect and cooperation betw Kosova Albanians and Serbs, and he really have no reason to go and provoke the Kosovar Serbs at this point. The reaction of the Serb hyper-nationalists and SOC, comes out of the rage that the President of Albania is able to go and visit officially Kosova and speak in the Parliament while the President of Serbia is not able to. But that’s another issue.

    Re. Mark’s remarks of the “illyrian churches”, it’s true that is a semi-theory circulating in some fringe circles, but I, although being Albanian do not believe it. I do believe that Albanians descend from the Illyrian tribes (based on archeology, history, linguistics, material or oral traditions etc etc etc) and that Christianity was introduced on them by St Paul in the first century, they had been subjects of the Byzantine empire and they naturally had their own churches when the Serb empire expanded on Kosova. Could any of the present Serb churches have been build on the foundations or expanded on an existing illyrian church? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the present churches Albanian, any more than let’s say it makes the Dome of the Rock, a Jewish temple. The churches that were built in the 13th century have been Serbian for 700 years and can’t be Albanian today. I as an Albanian, have no problem with that.

    But there’s another side of the coin. Of all the Serbian churches in Kosova, only a handful of them (maybe 10-15) are medieval churches, the rest and the large majority are churches that were built in the 20th century after Kosova was occupied by Serbia in 1913, and when the population of it was already overwhelmingly Albanian. Please check the church records of when the churches were built and the official Yugoslav censuses of the time. It is well known why Serbia undertook such a massive church building programme, in a territory that didn’t have so many Christians after all. It was not for religious, but for political and diplomatic reasons: to change the ethnic appearance of the province. And while the Serbian state was battling insurgency after insurgency every decade to keep the territory, the SOC was building church after church to beef up the argument that this was a Serbian land: “look how many churches we have built here, this is our holy land”. It is important to distinguish between the historical value of a building and it’s propagandistic value. And it is also important to ask the question: Why build so many new churches, when we all know that the Serbian population of Kosova have been steadily decreasing and Serbs were leaving the impoverished province in droves for better opportunities in Serbia proper?
    One such massive church was started to be build by Milosevic, smack in the center of Prishtina, in the front yard of the city’s public library, at the same time as he was preparing to ethically cleanse Kosova of its population. Because of the war it still stand there, unfinished, and emblematic of the Serbian policy in Kosova. It is analogous with someone sticking a sign with his name in my front yard and then claiming my entire house because of it. The normal reaction of any person after winning the fight to keep his house, would be to tell the usurper: “take your stinking sign with you”. However I hope the Kosovars would show restraint and be the bigger person, because Serbs are apparently the smaller one.

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