Why Albanian Nationalism is No Threat to Liberal Democracy


Albanian nationalism is on the rise; or so claim its critics – mainly the governments of the bordering countries of Macedonia, Serbia, and Greece. They claim the rise is a threat to their liberal democracy systems and could potentially destabilize an already troubled Balkan region. Don’t believe them! Albanian nationalism might be a lot of things, but a threat to liberal democracy is not one of them. If anything, Albanian nationalism has embraced Western and democratic values at an unexpected rate, considering Albania itself was a totalitarian communist regime less than three decades ago. A realignment of Albanian foreign policy coupled with the systematic undertakings of its critics has helped reify the notion of Albanian nationalism and its commitment to liberal democracy.

Mad Men are now in charge

Albanian foreign policy is at its current heyday. After following the late Enver Hoxha’s self-reliance foreign policy under his decades-running communist regime, Albanian foreign policy is awakening from its hibernation. Late partnerships with the Soviet Union and China, based primarily on a shared ideology, are long gone. In the last three decades, Albania has attained full NATO membership as of 2009 and is an official candidate to join the European Union as of 2014. Its primary alliance is with the United States, a relationship that all Albanian leaders, wherever they fall in the political spectrum, deem eternal. The Albanian commitment towards the ideal of democracy is solid. Other important allies in this journey include Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and France.

As the Balkans region remains a diplomatic turf battle between Moscow, the West and Turkey, the current Albanian leadership has been presented with golden opportunities to capitalize on each party’s interests to leverage against one other. Prime Minister Edi Rama, a painter by trade, has a colorful style when it comes to diplomacy. Through a healthy dose of hyperbolic marketing, Rama and his cabinet have been able to reinforce old alliances and forge new ones while protecting the interests of Albanians in mainland Albania and Kosovo.

Where ideology is diametrically opposed, Rama has leveraged economics, offering trade deals and inviting foreign investors to invest in opportunities in Albania. For example, the relationship with China is entirely economic, as China does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. With Russia, the relationship has stagnated since 1961, as Hoxha’s Albania sided with People’s Republic of China during the Sino-Soviet Split and eventually withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. As Russia is the main supporter of Serbia in the region and, hence, refuses to recognize Kosovo, the relationship between Albania and Russia is almost non-existent. Yet, with Moscow being accused of interference in Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia, Rama’s cabinet has been vigilant in asserting its position as the only NATO member in the Western Balkans, urging all parties involved to solve problems through dialogue. “You cannot consider yourself an European nation and not talk to your neighbor,” Rama stated in a visit to Belgrade. Although Serbia and Albania, like all other Balkan states, have different stances on Kosovo, they fully supported the Western Balkans having a common economic zone akin to a mini – European Union economic zone. As Rama was the first Albanian Prime Minister to step in Belgrade in decades, visiting Belgrade more than any other Albanian Prime Minister, his behavior has not gone unnoticed. France awarded him the Order of Legion d’Honneur, their highest national decoration, for his willingness to cooperate in times of adversity.

Rama has also leveraged ideological similarities in foreign policy by cultivating stronger support for Albania’s entry into the E.U. During his visit to France last month, he confirmed the Albanian-French special relationship and the importance of long-term cooperation between the two countries in rule of law, defense, security, and tourism. Rama has promoted the message that Albania is open for business. While his predecessor, Sali Berisha, initiated the doctrine of openness with the grand slogan of “Albania 1 Euro,” (stating that the cost for foreign investors would be 1 euro for a variety of governmental services), Rama has increased promotion of the country to foreign investors, achieving the largest foreign investments to date through government concessions. Every foreign leader invited for an official visit is urged to bring investors with them. This effort culminated with the Polish Prime Minister bringing an unprecedented number of businesspeople with her.

Turkey remains an important strategic ally, with bilateral trade aimed to reach one billion dollars in the next years. The current Turkish leadership has been a champion of close cooperation with Albania, offering new agreements on culture, trade, military cooperation, and investment opportunities. Addressing the Albanians as brothers, Turkish President Erdogan has pushed for closer collaboration between the two countries. The relationship has reached historic highs, with Albanian leaders invited to every major Turkish celebration of large infrastructure projects. At the Euroasia Tunnel opening, Erdogan stood alongside Albanian President Bujar Nishani. Similarly, at the opening of Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, Erdogan drove with Prime Ministers Rama and Bildirim across the bridge. Rama was also a special guest to Erdogan’s daughter’s wedding. But as Erdogan implements his Islamist agenda, Albania, a secular democracy but a majority Muslim country, has curbed his passions in favor of Albania’s potential role as a bridge between the West and East, a role traditionally understood for Ataturk’s Turkey.

Rama has also searched for new partnerships with facially non-traditional allies as well, such as Israel, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Iran. During Rama’s official state visit in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu looked straight into Rama’s eyes when he said that the Jewish people never forget their friends, recognizing the refuge and sanctuary Albanians offered to the Jewish people during World War II. Agreements for bilateral trade are signed and there are talks underway to establish a transit airline between Tel Aviv and Tirana. When Singapore recognized the independence of Kosovo, Rama scheduled an official visit to Singapore, arguably the first visit for a sitting Albanian Prime Minister. He pledged to increase trade collaboration between the two countries. Of course, he did not forget to invite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to visit Albania and bring some investors with him. Similar strategies were followed with Brazil and Kazakhstan. The relationship with Iran is at its beginning stages, remarkable given few could have predicted it would even initiate. After all, Albania houses on behalf of the United States some 2,000 exiled leaders of the Iranian opposition. Yet, in his visit to Tehran, Minister of Foreign Relations Bushati stated that the two countries had agreed to open embassies in the capital of each nation and to increase their collaboration on trade, culture, and tourism. The Albanian leadership took the opportunity to remind Iran to reconsider its stance on Kosovo, given its Muslim majority population.

Chickens come home to roost

A realignment of Albanian foreign policy does not alone explain the rise in Albanian nationalism, especially outside of its borders. The systematic undertakings and second-class treatment of Albanians from the critics of Albanian nationalism, the surrounding countries, have led to a reification of the idea that there is such a thing as an Albanian identity. Failing in their challenge to incorporate Albanians as equal members of their respective societies, Albania’s neighbors now have to deal with the powder keg they lighted.

Historically, Albania has been a constant migrant factory. With nearly one-third of its population emigrating at different waves and at different magnitudes, Albanians have always searched for a better life. Prime destinations include Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the United States. In none of these countries, Albanians have territorial claims, even though their ancestral roots in certain of these countries go back to the medieval times.

On the other hand, Albanians also have a large presence in bordering countries such as Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Greece, in all of which Albanians insist to be autochthon and subject their current status due to them being late remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Winter nights would not suffice to tell the complex stories of these relationships, but it’s safe to say that they are carpet bombed with lost chances for reconciliation.

In Kosovo, Albanians comprise the largest ethnic group, about 90 percent of the population. Since its unilateral declaration of independence, more than 116 countries have recognized Kosovo. Serbia objects to this claim and has pushed an aggressive agenda to reverse the trend of recognition or, failing that, to at least cement claims to the northern part of Kosovo, a mineral-rich region. However, its efforts have been met with the same coin, something for which the Serbian leadership was not prepared.

When the Serbian government wanted to allow a train to go to Kosovo this year with its carriages painted with “Kosovo is Serbia” and offensive religious and nationalistic Serbian symbols, the government of Kosovo threatened that it would not allow the train to pass. It almost seemed like the count down had began for things would turn for the worse, when the Serbian government decided to stop the train before entering Kosovo’s territory. Then-Prime Minister and current President Alexander Vucic condemned the threat, labeling it terroristic, while claiming that he was not aware of the symbols on the train. Such claims have been systematic from the Serbian government, ranging from not knowing the location of Radovan Karadzic, architect of the Bosnian genocide (who was arrested in Belgrade, after tips from foreign intelligence agencies), or issuing arrest orders for former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). While European Union leaders try to bring Kosovo and Serbian delegations to talks, skepticism and lack of trust constantly postpones any potential agreement. The latest Sisiphus’ challenge was the international arrest order issued against Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA member and former Prime Minister of Kosovo. This was Haradinaj’s second arrest order, having been found not guilty of the first round of charges filed against him at The Hague. He was not found guilty this time either and was greeted with a hero’s welcome when he got back to Kosovo.

In Macedonia, Albanians never have fitted in. Such differences almost led the country to civil war on ethnic lines in 2001. That unrest was stopped with a last-minute agreement, commonly known as the Ohrid Agreement, that required that Albanians are given more rights and are fully integrated into Macedonian society as equals. The latest Macedonian census in 2002 showed that Albanians are roughly a quarter of the population. Albanian political leaders in Macedonia claim that there are more yet to be counted, despite many ethnic Albanians being forced to immigrate abroad due to the lack of government investment in Albanian-populated areas. They further claim that Albanians in Macedonia continue to be treated as second-class citizens and are not offered equal opportunities in life and administrative offices. Despite the governmental coalition of 2001 including an Albanian political party, the BDI of Ali Ahmeti, such claims were not taken seriously.

Yet, a few years back, a charismatic Macedonian by the name of Zoran Zaev became the leader of the Macedonian opposition. Pro-Western, he started a campaign of leaks showing that the current Macedonian leadership staged evidence-incriminating Albanians in dozens of occasions and used derogatory terminology when addressing them in private meetings. Outrage followed, leading to new general elections in December 2016. Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the far-right VMRNO-DPMNE that was the party in power, launched a full-fledged campaign against the EU and NATO, while pledging a Macedonian nationalist agenda. The Albanian parties in Macedonia were plagued by infighting, but gained enough MPs between them to hold the balance of power, forcing any party seeking to form a government to include their members.

After meeting in Tirana with Prime Minister Rama, who is technically obliged by the Albanian Constitution to protect the rights of Albanians without regard to their location, the Albanian parties in Macedonia collectively agreed to a common platform for their support. These demands included Albanian becoming a dual language in Macedonia and appointment of a special prosecutor to handle cases they claim to be dubious and ripe for mistrial. Gruesvski, whose party has the largest number of MPs but could not form government due to lacking a majority, did not accept the terms. Zaev did. However, President Ivanov, a close friend of Gruesvski, as well as, from the same political party, refused to assent to Zaev’s request to form government, citing “legal and political” reasons. Among such reasons was what they call “The Tirana platform”, alleging that Prime Minister Rama served as a coach for the Albanian parties to reach such platforms. Rama, on the other hand, maintains he was merely a host to say the least and a cheerleader at its best.

On April 27, the majority elected Talat Xhaferi, a former defense minister and member of the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), as speaker. Part of his role would include formally petitioning the president to ask Mr. Zaev to form a government. Violence erupted at the Parliament after: Zaev and other Albanian MPs were assaulted by outside protestors who stormed into the building. The protesters opposed the coalition’s call to grant greater rights to ethnic Albanians, including the demand to make Albanian an official language of Macedonia. A few days ago, President Ivanov accepted Zaev’s second bidding to form a government and the country is projected to go towards a stable government in the coming months.

In Serbia and Montenegro, Albanians are somewhat making progress. Mostly in the Preshevo Valley, ethnic Albanians were disappointed to not be included in Kosovo. Since then, they have been officially recognized as a minority group within Serbia and were visited by Prime Minister Rama in an official visit. In Montenegro, Albanians had their second county recognized this past month. Montenegro is aiming to enter NATO, which Albania has supported. The two countries state that they have excellent relations between them and are hoping further collaborate in future on trade, tourism, security, and infrastructure.

And then there is Greece. Albania and Greece have an inconsistent relationship. While both are NATO members, their relationship is haunted by ghosts of the past. The two countries technically remain at war due to a statute in Greece since World War II, technically abrogating NATO’s treaty. However, the two countries have a Treaty of Cooperation in spite of the technical state of war. Many Albanians believe that the law allows Greece legal protection from legal suits from the Chams, ethnic Albanians in Greece that were pushed away from the Ionnania region that they claim to be homeland of Chameria. Chams have been very active in their claims after forming a political party in Albania, accusing the Greek government of genocide against Muslim Chams after the end of World War II. They have appealed to the European Courts, demanding reparations. Relations reached a low when former Prime Minister Berisha and the Greek government reached an agreement about disputed naval waters, but the Constitutional Court of Albania found the agreement unconstitutional, upon litigation supported by civil society and then-opposition leader Rama. In a recent interview, Alexis Papahelas, a prominent Greek journalist, asked Prime Minister Rama to reassure the Greek public that there was no Turkish hand involved behind the scenes when the Constitutional Court reached the decision. Rama assured him. However, as Chams increase their political presence in the Albanian Parliament, their agitation is likely to increase, projecting future areas of disagreement.

The dog that barks doesn’t bite

While the rise in Albanian nationalism has been gradual, it does not follow that it is a threat to liberal democracy. Despite their location, Albanians have always pledged to support democratic institutions and desire to be part of the EU and NATO. The only other country that has criticized the rise of Albanian nationalism is Russia, who is struggling to assert its influence in a region that historically had been in its sphere of influence.

Albanian rhetoric has not always been holy either. As of late, Prime Minister Rama and President Thaci of Kosovo declared that if the EU turns its back on the Balkans, specifically Albanians, then Albania and Kosovo would unify consequently. Such rhetoric contradicts Rama’s previous stance, who, when asked about the concept of Greater Albania, would always claim, “Albanians will one day unite together but under the European family.”

However, those statements appear more as a rhetorical warning to the EU or feeding into domestic electoral campaigns, rather than actual substantiated threats. Both countries have a long way to consolidate their democratic institutions, decriminalization of politics, rule of law, and their respective economies. Immature political elites haunt Albanian and Kosovo politics, which in turn it actually presents a real threat to this momentum in Albanian foreign diplomacy and to its national interests. Whereas Kosovo needs to speed up its process of international recognition, Albania needs to deal with challenging domestic issues such as public infrastructure, high corruption, high unemployment, and improvements in the overall quality of life. In this regard, Rama’s cabinetwork leaves a lot to be desired. Hence, his statements offer the perfect refuge for his accountability towards the electorate, as he curbs into their nationalist passions.

If anything to be taken seriously, such statements are the bells that remind those that support democracy that other actors are playing in the Balkan region and in such pivotal times, support should not be frugal. If anything, it reminds everyone of the powder keg that is the Balkans. The question is now if other actors try to empty it or will they keep uselessly pointing at it and standing by?

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