So, the Albanosphere: about 7 million Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece and Montenegro, plus another million or so recent emigrants and gastarbeitern scattered across Europe and the US.
I’m going to leave the diaspora mostly out of the picture. They’re very important, but I can’t spent all my days writing blog posts. I’m also going to leave out the Arvanites and the native Albanians of Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Romania. The Arvanites identify as Greeks of Albanian descent, not Albanians (long story), and the other groups are small.
So what can we say about the rest of the Albanians?
The Albanosphere is poor and backwards… Kosovo is in a dead heat with Moldova for the title of “poorest country in Europe”. Unemployment is very high, economic growth is stagnating, and nine years after the bombs stopped falling they still can’t keep the lights on.
Albania is better off, but not by much. Unemployment is very high and there’s a large black economy. There are major problems with producing and distributing energy — the whole country had a day-long blackout earlier this year. Both Kosovo and Albania are running huge current account deficits, which are only partially compensated by remittances from abroad. And both have a lot of remittances, because there are so few opportunities for young people that most of them go abroad to find work.
Corruption is a huge problem. Albania consistently ranks very low in indexes of corruption — in 2007, Transparency International ranked them #105 in the world, below Mongolia and Lebanon and in a tie with Burkina Faso and Djibouti. Inequality is very high, with perhaps 10% of Albania’s population living well and the rest sunk in poverty. And in terms of human development — education levels, life expectancy, things like that — Kosovo, Albania and the Albanian part of Macedonia are all near the bottom of the European charts.
…but that is changing fast. On the other hand, Albania has seen sustained economic growth in the 5%-6% range for a decade now. Macedonia has been growing more slowly, but was richer to begin with, and managed to avoid war and civil chaos.
The number of high school and university graduates is rising rapidly. Foreign investment is flowing in. Tirana and Shkoder buzz with new construction funded by German, Greek and Italian money, some clean, some not. Albania has a surprisingly strong SME (small and medium enterprise) sector, and many of these small firms are seedbeds for investment and human development. And while large numbers of young Albanians are leaving, many are also coming back — bringing degrees and skills from abroad.
Meanwhile, the region is urbanizing at a startling rate. More accurately, it’s deruralizing; the villages of northern Albania and Kosovo are sending their people, especially their young people, to the cities. Tirana has grown by more than 150% since 1990, and Prishtina has doubled. This has both positive and negative consequences, but in any event it’s changing the region
In short, while the Albanosphere is still one of the poorest corners of Europe, this may not be true for much longer. The region still suffers under major handicaps, but it’s undergoing very rapid change.
The Albanosphere is culturally conservative… The Balkans generally are somewhat conservative by Western or Central European standards, but this is particularly true in the Albanosphere. The traditional, patriarchal family is still the basic building block of society. There’s a lot of social pressure on women not to get too far from traditional roles. People tend to marry young. Divorce happens, but isn’t typical.
Public displays of affection are less common than elsewhere in the Balkans, and women dress a bit more conservatively. (A bit. Tirana girls sport a “hooker chic” not much different from what you see in Belgrade.) Outside of the large cities, women don’t drive much, nor walk around alone. You don’t see porn sold openly on street kiosks, and sensitive topics like AIDS or domestic violence are still not much discussed. Gays are sort-of tolerated as long as they’re firmly in the closet, but gay rights are not on the menu.
…but religiously tolerant. There’s an old saying that “the religion of Albanians is Albanianism”, and there’s a lot of truth to it. In round numbers, the Albanospere is about 70%-75% Muslim, maybe 15%-20% Catholic, and the rest Orthodox. In practice, “Muslim” to most Albanians means “descended from a Muslim family, observe some Muslim holidays, don’t eat pork”. Very few women wear a headscarf or veil.
There’s almost no friction between the religious groups. Intermarriage is common and nobody thinks much of it. When Benedict was elected Pope a few years back, church bells ran all over Tirana, to general approval. Every Christmas in Prishtina, the single Catholic church is filled to overflowing with Muslim Albanians who’ve come to share the holiday with friends.
I’ve had some trouble explaining this to Serbian and American Orthodox acquaintances. Religiously tolerant!?! Have you seen what they did to the monasteries in Kosovo? Do you have any idea how many Orthodox churches those animals have burned??
The answer, of course, is that the Albanians didn’t attack the Serbian Orthodox churches because they were Orthodox. They attacked them because they were Serbian. But if you’re an Orthodox person who’s seen film clips of Albanians smashing and burning churches, this distinction may be hard to grasp.
Albanians are clannish. In English, this has two related meanings. Both are true here.
Albanians take family connections very seriously — especially the extended patronymic family. Depending on where you are, they may be more or less formal about it. In much of Kosovo and some parts of Albania, there are, literally, clans; they’re run by (male) clan elders, and they have a lot of influence in politics and the economy. This is less true in Tirana and Macedonia, but the extended family is still very important there.
Albanians are also rather clannish in the more general sense. However friendly they may be as individuals (and Albanians can be very friendly), in groups they often keep outsiders at a little distance. “Handle problems within the family/clan/neighborhood” is a fairly strong social imperative.
This has both good and bad effects. The extended family provides a powerful social safety net that has helped the Albanosphere get through some very difficult times. It’s also a source of capital; most small businesses in this part of the world are started with family money. On the minus side, the clan system encourages nepotism and other sorts of corruption, and can make Albanian society very opaque to the state. A policeman looking for a suspect (for instance) may find a lot of closed mouths and averted gazes; less dramatically, so may a social worker or an electrical inspector looking for bad wiring or illegal connections. (Stealing electricity from the power company is a popular sport throughout the Albanosphere.)
Albanians are the target of a lot of strong negative stereotypes. Albanians have a bad reputation.
There’s no nice way to say this. If you ask a European to free-associate off the word “Albanian”, you’ll get results like “Mafia, gangsters, violent, dirty, drugs, human trafficking, corruption, stolen cars, dangerous”. This trend gets worse as you get closer to the lands where Albanians live; the British barely know what Albanians are, the Germans have a low opinion of them, and the Serbs are almost insane with hatred for them.
It’s hard to say just why this is. Yes, post-Communist Albania was a violent place for a while, but it was a lot less violent than post-Communist Yugoslavia. Yes, Albania has mafias and criminal gangs, but so do the Italians and the Turks. Yes, there’s human trafficking and drug dealing, but it’s no worse than in other poor Eastern European countries. There are thousands of Albanian pimps and prostitutes in Italy, but there are probably even more Polish and Ukrainian pimps and prostitutes in Germany. Yet these countries aren’t cursed with such negative images.
This is a topic that deserves a post of its own, but for now I’ll just note the unhappy fact: Albanians have a bad image.
The Albanosphere is politically immature. This is more of a regional thing than an Albanian one. I mean, nobody is praising the wisdom and honesty of Serbian or Greek political leaders. Still, the Albanians got dealt a particularly bad hand by history, and few of their modern leaders have risen to the challenge. A particularly egregious example was seen in the last general election in Albania, when the incumbent Prime Minister Fatos Nano suffered a clear defeat at the polls… and nevertheless clung to power, making vast claims of fraud and generally being a huge embarassment, for over a month. This was in part because of Nano himself, but it was also because Albanian politics still has trouble with the whole “loyal opposition” concept. Also because of corruption — Nano was surrounded by people who’d been getting filthy rich under his administration, and they were all telling him to fight to the last possible instant.
More generally, Albanian politics tend to be fissiparous, and driven by personalities, clan ties, regional loyalties and cash rather than ideologies. This is common, even normal in post-Communist countries, but it doesn’t make it easy to form a government or run a modern state.
That said, the leaders of the Albanosphere have scored a few successes. Kosovo’s independence is one; the Ohrid Agreement of 2002, which established Albanian rights in Macedonia, is another. And while Albania itself has big problems, it’s managed to avoid widespread violence or social collapse, at least for the last ten years.
The Albanians are on the doorstep of the EU. Macedonia is an EU candidate, though they won’t be joining before 2014 at the earliest. Albania and Montenegro have SAA agreements and will probably be candidates in the next two or three years. And hundreds of thousands of Albanians are in the EU already, legally or otherwise.
The joker in the pack is Kosovo. Most of the EU countries recognize it, but several do not, and Greece would probably veto its candidacy. And, of course, it’s going to be very hard to offer candidacy to Kosovo and Serbia both.
Nevertheless, by the end of the next decade most if not all of the Albanians will be in the EU. And the prospect of EU membership will be a major engine for change across the Albanosphere.
Okay, that seems like a good place to stop. I think there’ll be one more post, which will be about the Albanians and their neighbors.