This is the first part in a series of articles which will focus on the claims of different nations in the Balkans to greater states. The second part of the series focused on Buglaria.
Recent events in the Balkans regarding Albania, (the Albanian flag over Belgrade’s stadium, gun battles in Kumanovo, sea borders dispute with Greece) have ignited discussions of a myth that had been put aside for a short time. The irredentist apparition of the past has been given form once more, this time through the concept of a Greater Albania. There are many that seek answers on what exactly Greater Albania and who wants to establish it. This article covers the historical and modern reasons used to advocate for a Greater Albania.
For many people the concept of Greater Albania remains an unclear issue, simply because no one can give a satisfactory answer as to what exactly this idea represents. Albanians will never refer to this issue as Greater Albania, but rather as Ethnic Albania (Shqipëria Etnike) a concept that focuses on the establishment of a homeland of the Albanian speaking population in the Western Balkans that consists of Montenegro’s Ulcin province, Serbia’s Presevo region, Kosovo, and part of North-West Macedonia.
It is difficult to determine the historical borders of Albania, and generally for any other state in the Balkans as there are no archives to refer to, and different empires each left their mark changing the ethnic-cultural-historical cohesion of the region many times. The earliest reference to Ethnic Albania dates back to 1878 with the League of Prizren, the meeting that eventually triggered the Albanian independence movement. The meeting gathered all Albanian leaders from the Vilayets (provinces) of Kosovo, Skodra, Yannina, and Monastir and tried to establish a new vilayet by incorporating all vilayets mentioned above into a single Albanian Vilayet. The new vilayet would support the Porte and the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, an effort which would meet with the strong opposition of the Great Powers at that time since their goal was to weaken as much as possible the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the first effort of the Albanian leaders to establish a homeland proved fruitless.
The second effort for the formation of a homeland for the Albanian population came in 1912 with the Declaration of Independence in Vlore. The eruption of the Balkan Wars found Albanians without a government or political elite that could protect the interests of this ethnic group. However, the mass mobilization of Greece, Serbia and Montenegro against Albanians made it clear there was a need for the creation of a state that could protect Albanians on the international level. The newly established Provisional Government of Albania would propose to the Ambassador Congress in London a new Principality that would include today’s Albania, half of modern Kosovo, part of western Macedonia and territories of north-west Greece (Ioannina). This demand was opposed by Russia, since it would diminish the territories of the Serbian Kingdom and consequently the influence of Russia in the Balkans. The final borders agreed at the London Conference (and the borders of modern-day Albania) would find 40% of ethnic Albanians outside the new state. The decision had not only an ethnic and cultural impact in the region, it also had economic implications since the markets centers of northern Albania such as Shkodra were cut off from their main trade partners. The same held true for cities like Ioannina, once the most significant trade center in the region which was disconnected from its major partner cities e.g. Gjirokastër (southern Albania).
The third, and final attempt to establish “Greater Albania” came during WWII, first with the occupation of Italy and then Nazi Germany. Both Axis powers saw Albania as a potential satellite country in the region that would promote their interests. Italy occupied Albania in 1939 and immediately started plans for the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. The plan was simple; Italy wanted to annex as many territories as possible in order to increase their influence. The idea of “Greater Albania” was perfectly suited to their cause. This was the casus belli which Italy used in 1940 to justify its invasion of Greece. After six months of battles at the Greek-Albanian borders the Italians were defeated and sought the help of Nazi Germany which would soon heed their call and march towards Yugoslavia and Greece immediately after Italy’s defeat. Germany continued the policy of supporting a “Greater Albania” and would refer to the cities of Struga bordering Bulgaria as part of Eastern Albania, and cities of Prizren and Prishtina as part of Northern Albania. However, neither Italy nor Nazi Germany ever went so far as to refer to the short established protectorate as “Greater Albania”, but rather as “the Kingdom of Albania”.
After WWII and during the Communist regime in Albania there was no discussion of Ethnic Albania. It was only after the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union that Enver Hoxha would refer to the case of Kosovo for the first time. However, he would use the example of the ethnic Albanians living in Yugoslavia as a warning to Yugoslavia in case of invasion saying that Albania would not fight as a country of 3 million but rather like an ethnic group of over 6 million (including those in former Yugoslavia).
The most recent case when a political leader in Albania referred to Greater Albania was in 2012, at the centenary of Albanian independence. Sali Berisha, former Prime Minister of Albania, referred to “the historical boundaries of Albania from Preveza (Greece) to Podgorica (Montenegro)”. It is worth mentioning that this declaration came from a man who in 2009 signed an agreement giving away a vast sea territory to Greece and possibly violating the Albanian Constitution. Thus this idea should be viewed as vague discourse coming from a controversial political leader, prior to an election campaign rather than a widely held view in Albania.
The issue of “Greater Albania”, which has many times aroused a negative reaction from Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, is a vision of radical circles without a clear political agenda and without influence. Historically, Albania has neither used the term “Greater Albania” nor tried to conquer its neighbors in order to achieve this vision. Nationalism and expansionism have been for a long time a plague for the Balkans. In contrast to other countries in the Balkans such as Greece, Croatia, and Serbia, Albania has never declared war on another country to “liberate” ethnic Albanians nor been accused of ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, it has become a common secret that incompetent leaders turn to nationalistic discourse when they cannot find another remedy for public unrest.
The mass exodus that both Kosovo and Albania are facing right now, with large portions of the population in both countries seeking a better future elsewhere, shows how “Greater” Albania really might be outside of the dreams of nationalists.