Some thoughts on Greater Albania, Part 1

Okay, first thought: there is not going to be a “Greater Albania” in the political sense.

The Albanians of Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia are evolving away from political union, not towards it. Kosovo’s new Constitution has “no union with any other state” as Article One, and that’s not just wallpaper for the internationals; the Kosovar Albanians, having finally gained their independence, have no interest in being ruled from distant Tirana. Meanwhile the Albanians of Albania are discovering the Kosovars are… well… poor. They’re happy to greet them as cousins, but aren’t interested in adding a large, poor, backwards and densely populated northern province. Macedonia is the only place you can still find enthusiasm for “Greater Albania” , and even there it’s increasingly marginal — the two large Albanian parties both are seeking their advantage within Macedonia, not outside it.

So why the post? Well, because even though there won’t be a “Greater Albania”, the Balkans are seeing a completely new phenomenon: the emergence of Albanians as an important political force.

Twenty years ago, Albania was a Communist hermit kingdom. The large Albanian minority in Yugoslavia was part of Yugoslav politics — dominant in Kosovo, negligible elsewhere. Albanians were not a significant political, social or economic force anywhere outside of Kosovo and Albania itself.

Today, Albanians have two countries of their own and a big chunk of a third. They’re a key minority in Montenegro. And in Greece, they’re set to be a huge minority in a country that doesn’t deal well with minorities. So the 21st century history of the Balkans is going to be, to a great extent, the history of the Albanian Question.

I think this will be a two-post series. In the second post, I’ll look at individual countries. In this one, I want to look at just one question: why do the Albanians suddenly matter?
There are two answers to this.

1) The fall of Communism. It’s a gross oversimplification to say that Communism “froze history”. But there’s a grain of truth to it. And in the case of Albanians, it’s particularly relevant. The Albanian Question first emerged in the wake of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Europe suddenly realized that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Europe had left behind a large, distinct ethnic group without a country of its own. Albania was cobbled together quickly (in large part to deny Serbia access to the sea,), but its boundaries bore little relation to where Albanians actually lived.

In the interwar period, the Albanian kingdom fell more and more under the dominance of Mussolini’s Italy, until the Duce outright colonized it on the eve of WWII. Greece and Yugoslavia, meanwhile, “solved” the problem of their Albanian minorities by a combination of treating them badly and ignoring them. Unsurprisingly, in WWII these minorities tended to favor the Axis; and unsurprisingly, at the end of WWII they suffered accordingly, especially in Greece, where the Greeks seized the opportunity to ethnically cleanse their “Cham” Albanian minority out of existence.

Still a broad belt of Albanian settlement remained, stretching across the penninsula through Kosovo to Macedonia. Most of it was now in Communist Yugoslavia, which solved the ethnic problem about as well as Communist Yugoslavia solved any of its other ethnic problems. So when Communism collapsed and Yugoslavia disintegrated, there the Albanians still were.

That’s half the answer. The other half is,

2) Albanians have kids.

Lots of them.

Oh, they’re slowing down. A generation back, the typical Albanian family had six or eight kids. Today they’re down to two or three, and falling. Basically they’re following the same track as their Balkan neighbors, just a generation or two behind.

But that generation makes a huge difference. Here’s a list of TFRs (Total Fertility Rate, expected number of children per woman) for the Albanians and their neighbors:

Albania — 2.37
Montenegro — 1.83
Serbia — 1.75
Macedonia — 1.56
Greece — 1.56
Bulgaria — 1.39

The difference is actually bigger than these numbers suggest, because of the phenomenon of “demographic inertia”: Albanian communities have younger populations, with more young women in their peak child-bearing years.

So, while all of Albania’s neighbors have aging and declining populations, the number of Albanians continues to grow. The growth is slowing, and will probably flatten out to zero in another fifteen or twenty years. But in the meantime, the relative number of Albanians will continue to grow.

(Let me pre-empt a stupid comment here. No, it’s not because the Albanians are The Muslim Menace, determined to overwhelm decadent Europe with their savage fertility. About a quarter of Albanians are Christians, and the three-quarters that are nominally Muslim are notoriously irreligious. Their fertility rates are high because they’re poor and socially conservative. Note that they were even higher back in the days when Albania was the world’s only official atheist state, with religious practice strictly forbidden.)

The impact of Albanian growth was most obvious in Kosovo, where Albanians went from about 68% to 82% in two generations — partly because of differential emigration, but mostly because of all those children. It’s also a factor in Macedonia, where the Albanian minority has grown from just under a quarter of the population back at the time of independence to more like 30% today. But 20 years from now, it’s going to be a particular concern in a country that’s currently not much worried about it: Greece.

But that’s a story for another post. Meanwhile, key point: while the Albanian communities of the Balkans are not interested in political union, they are intensely interested in each other. “Greater Albania”, as I’ve said, is a silly idea; these days it’s mostly a scare image, a bogeyman for Serbian and Greek nationalists. But there is what we might call an Albanosphere.

Albanians travel freely across the various borders; they listen to the same music, read the same articles republished in various newspapers and magazines, and are quick to each others’ defense. Albanians in Albania follow Macedonian politics with interest, arguing over which party better represents ethnic Albanian interests there, while Albanians in Montenegro can speak for hours on the difference between (current Albanian PM) Sali Berisha and (former Albanian PM) Fatos Nano. Albanians in Kosovo — I can say from firsthand experience — have an intimate knowledge of slurs and bad treatment directed at Albanians in Greece. Albanians everywhere vote for the Albanian Eurovision entry, cheer the Albanian football team, and stayed out all night celebrating the independence of Kosovo. And they all eat burek, drink rakija, and can bore you senseless with stories about Skanderbeg.

The Albanosphere: it’s here, and the rest of us will have to get used to it. Because it’s going to shape Balkan politics and society for a long, long time to come.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Minorities and integration by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

58 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Greater Albania, Part 1

  1. That was the view of some people I spoke to in Albania a few years ago. What maybe made the difference between the people you saw and the people I saw was that they lived far from the border. I would expect the refugees who manage to get far from the border to be on average richer and higher class.

    And Albania in 1999 was a bit of a mess. Much of the destruction of the 1997 pyramid riots was still visible.

  2. Hm…funny. I’m from Tirana and during the war I still lived in Tirana. There may have been few cases of rich Kosovans being astonished by the state in which they found Albania but the majority of the refugees came in a desperate state (only with their clothes on or without knowing where their relatives were) and were hosted either by citizens or in the refugee camps. They were certainly far from being arrogant.

    What’s more interesting is that the few months that Kosovans stayed in Albania have contributed more than maybe years/decades of open borders. There are now relatively strong ties between many hosting families and the Kosovans they hosted (marriages, regular visits on special occasions etc.).

  3. Doug,
    By the powers vested in me…you are an honorary Albanian citizen ;-). You have certainly got the Albanian society down, give or take a few minor subjective points.

    On immigration: many Albanians are seeing that by the time taxes, rent, and all the expenses are paid in Italy and Greece one barely saves 50 euros a month. Albania is poor but all Albanians have a home there (many are brand new as well) and expenses are non-existent when compared to Western Europe. You can live very comfortably with an extra $200-300 a month in an Albanian village with barely no taxes, growing your own raki, veggies, meat, fruits, milk, cheese etc etc etc. Some have already sold land and stand to gain even more as tourism picks up. Many have parents with pensions as well so combined with strict immigration enforcements and very few benefits, it makes no sense going to Italy. You work a day here and there and live even better in Albania, among your people.

    Let’s hope that in 3-5 years Albanians will serve the western tourists, in Albania and not Greece or Italy. The railway bothers me as well; it would have been much easier to add at the same time as the road, but maybe they panicked at the sum. $1 Billion for the road was pushing Albanian limits as well. On the positive side, MK will probably choose Durres as its port too, thanks to economic advantages and some MK-Albanian pressure, making Albania an important hub.

    On pop: Serbia has the 4th OLDEST population in the world, and a horrible economy, meaning it probably stands to drop more as it improves. They have as many 15 year olds as 60 years olds, a demographic nightmare, especially since the new generation is doomed as well.

  4. In what way does Serbia have a horrible economy?
    In the way that they can still produce cars, airplanes, household electro-appliances and almost everything else?
    Or in the way that a sack of the best wheat flour you can find, in Serbia costs 50 Euro cents?
    In what way? Please?

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