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History of Albania – sword in hand

“THE ALBANIAN PEOPLE have hacked their way through history, sword in hand,” proclaims the preamble to Albania’s 1976 Stalinist constitution. These words were penned by the most dominant figure in Albania’s modern history, the Orwellian postwar despot, Enver Hoxha. The fact that Hoxha enshrined them in Albania’s supreme law is indicative of how he – like his mentor, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – exploited his people’s collective memory to enhance the might of the communist system, which he manipulated for over four decades. Only Hoxha’s death, the timely downfall of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980’s, and the collapse of the nation’s economy were enough to break his spell and propel Albania toward change.

The Albanians are probably an ethnic outcropping of the Illyrians, an ancient Balkan people who intermingled and made war with the Greeks, Thracians, and Macedonians before succumbing to Roman rule around the time of Christ. Eastern and Western powers, secular and religious, battled for centuries after the fall of Rome to control the lands that constitute the Balkans. The Illyrians gradually disappeared as a distinct people from the Balkans, replaced by the Bulgars, Serbs, Croats, and Albanians. A forbidding mountain homeland and resilient tribal society enabled the Albanians to survive into modern times with their identity and their Indo-European language intact.

In the fourth century, barbarian tribes began to prey upon the Roman Empire, and the fortunes of the Illyrian-populated lands sagged. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic Huns were the first to arrive, invading in mid-fourth century; the Avars attacked in A.D. 570; and the Slavic Serbs and Croats overran Illyrian-populated areas in the early seventh century. About fifty years later, the Bulgars conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain to the lowlands of what is now central Albania. Many Illyrians fled from coastal areas to the mountains, exchanging a sedentary peasant existence for the itinerant life of the herdsman. Other Illyrians intermarried with the conquerors and eventually assimilated. In general, the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine cultural centres in the lands that would become Albania.

Again during the late medieval period, invaders ravaged the Illyrian-inhabited regions of the Balkans. Norman, Venetian, and Byzantine fleets attacked by sea. Bulgar, Serb, and Byzantine forces came overland and held the region in their grip for years. Clashes between rival clans and intrusions produced hardship that triggered an exodus from the region southward into Greece, including Thessaly, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands. The invaders assimilated much of the Illyrian population, but the Illyrians living in lands that comprise modern-day Albania and parts of Yugoslavia and Greece were never completely absorbed or even controlled.

The first historical mention of Albania and the Albanians as such appears in an account of the resistance by a Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, to an offensive by the Vatican-backed Normans from southern Italy into the Albanian-populated lands in 1081.

The Serbs occupied parts of northern and eastern Albania toward the end of the twelfth century. In 1204, after Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, Venice won nominal control over Albania and the Epirus region of northern Greece and took possession of Durrs. A prince from the overthrown Byzantine ruling family, Michael Comnenus, made alliances with Albanian chiefs and drove the Venetians from lands that now make up southern Albania and northern Greece, and in 1204 he set up an independent principality, the Despotate of Epirus, with Janina (now Ioannina in northwest Greece) as its capital. In 1272 the king of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, occupied Durrs and formed an Albanian kingdom that would last for a century. Internal power struggles further weakened the Byzantine Empire in the fourteenth century, enabling the Serbs’ most powerful medieval ruler, Stefan Dusan, to establish a short-lived empire that included all of Albania except Durrs.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks swept into the western Balkans. After a quixotic defence mounted by the Albanians’ greatest hero, Skanderbeg, the Albanians succumbed to the Turkish sultan’s forces. During five centuries of Ottoman rule, about two-thirds of the Albanian population, including its most powerful feudal landowners, converted to Islam. For generations, religious pragmatism was a distinctive trait of the Albanians. Even after accepting Islam, many people privately remained practising Christians. As late as 1912, in a large number of villages in the Elbasan area, most men had two names, a Muslim one for public use and a Christian one for private use.

The most effective method employed by the Ottoman Turks in their missionary efforts, especially in the central and southern parts of the country, was the creation of a titled Muslim class of pashas and beys who were endowed with both large estates and extensive political and administrative powers. Through their political and economic influence, these nobles controlled the peasants, large numbers of whom were converted to Islam either through coercion or the promise of economic benefits. At the end of the seventeenths century, the wars waged by European powers, aimed at pushing the Ottomans out of Europe, were regarded as holy, liberation crusades by the Balkan rayah. In retaliation, after the defeat of European forces in 1690, the Ottomans and the Muslim Albanians exposed the population to mass reprisals and, essentially, to the first large-scale ethnic cleansing, also in Kosovo and Metohija where some 1 400 Christian monasteries, churches, and other monuments covered the area. (The Patriarchal Monastery near Pe, Kosovo served as seat of administration for Serbian Orthodox Church from thirteenth to eighteenth century.)

As the centuries passed, however, Ottoman rulers lost the capacity to command the loyalty of local pashas, who governed districts on the empire’s fringes. Soon pressures created by emerging national movements among the empire’s farrago of peoples threatened to shatter the empire itself. The Ottoman rulers of the nineteenth century struggled in vain to shore up central authority, introducing reforms aimed at harnessing unruly pashas and checking the spread of nationalist ideas.

Albanian nationalism stirred for the first time in the late nineteenth century when it appeared that Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece would snatch up the Ottoman Empire’s Albanian-populated lands. In June 1878 Albanian leaders organized the Prizren League, which pressed for autonomy within the empire, presenting the concept of a “Greater Albania” (although it formed a majority in only two of the claimed territories – the Scutari and Yanina vilayets.) The whole movement was dominated by a group of conservative Muslim beys and tribal chieftains. Discrimination against other ethnic groups went along religious line, which often, in the Balkans, ensued in religion-generated ethnicity. Subsequently it became a pattern for all similar interethnic conflicts in the region, thereby creating dangerous precedents. After decades of unrest and the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the First Balkan War in 1912-13, Albanian leaders declared Albania an independent state, and Europe’s Great Powers carved out an independent Albania after the Second Balkan War of 1913. The partition of Albania in 1912, when Kosovo and other Albanian-inhabited territories were not obtainable, left the country with a deep sense of resentment and hostility to outsiders.

With the complete collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires after World War I, the Albanians looked to Italy for protection against predators. After 1925, however, Mussolini sought to dominate Albania. In 1928 Albania became a kingdom under Zog I, the conservative Muslim clan chief and former prime minister, but Zog failed to stave off Italian ascendancy in Albanian internal affairs. In 1939 Mussolini’s troops occupied Albania, overthrew Zog, and annexed the country. Albanian communists and nationalists fought each other as well as the occupying Italian and German forces during World War II, and with Yugoslav and Allied assistance the communists triumphed.

After the war, communist strongmen Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu eliminated their rivals inside the communist party and liquidated anticommunist opposition. Following the 1946 purge of Sejfulla Maleshova, the leader of the party faction that advocated moderation in foreign and domestic policy, Albania’s relations with the West deteriorated, and both the United States and Britain withdrew their foreign envoys from Tiran. Albania’s application to join UN was also rejected (Albania did join the UN in December 1955).

Hoxha made peace with Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president, and in July 1946 signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Aid with Yugoslavia. Yugoslav influence over Albania’s party and government increased considerably between 1945 and 1948. Yugoslavia came to dominate political, economic, military, and cultural life in Albania, and plans were even made to merge the two countries. The border between Yugoslavia and Albania after 1971 became open.

When China opened up to the West in the 1970s, Albania’s rulers turned away from Beijing and implemented a policy of strict autarky, or self-sufficiency, that brought their nation economic ruin. In the late 1970s, Albania embarked on a policy of rigid self-reliance. Having broken ties with the two leading communist states, Albania aspired to total economic independence and declared itself the only genuine Marxist-Leninist country in the world. The government was actually forbidden to seek foreign aid and credits or to encourage foreign investment in the country. Hoxha rigidly adhered to Marxism-Leninism, seeing the world as divided into two opposing systems – socialism and capitalism. But he also led Albania in a two-front struggle against both United States “imperialism” and Soviet “social-imperialism.” For example, Albania refused to participate in CSCE talks or sign the Helsinki Accords in 1975 because the United States and the Soviet Union had initiated the negotiating process.

By the mid-1980s, Ramiz Alia, who had succeeded Hoxha in 1982, recognized that in order to ameliorate Albania’s serious economic problems, trade with the West had to be significantly expanded. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was on the top of the list of potential economic partners. In 1987 Albania established diplomatic relations with West Germany, after first dropping claims for war reparations.

Albania initiated discussions with many private Western firms concerning the acquisition of advanced technology and purchase of modern industrial plants. It also asked for technical assistance in locating and exploiting oil deposits off its coast. But the problems for Albania in pursuing these economic aims were considerable. The main problem was Albania’s critical shortage of foreign currency, a factor that caused Albania to resort to barter to pay for imported goods. An even greater problem until the 1990s was the provision in the 1976 Albanian constitution prohibiting the government from accepting foreign aid.

As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, however, Albania continued to be highly critical of its former ally and denounced Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika. Apparently Albania was also concerned about what it saw as Soviet support for Yugoslavia’s handling of the Kosovo issue. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to call for improved relations with Albania.

Albania’s attitude toward the United States traditionally had been very hostile. Relations with Washington were broken in 1946, when Albania’s communist regime refused to adhere to prewar treaties and obligations. Ramiz Alia showed a different inclination, however, after a visit to Tiran in 1989 by some prominent Albanian Americans, who impressed him with their desire to promote the Albanian cause. In mid-February 1990, the Albanian government reversed its long-standing policy of having no relations with the superpower. No formal contacts between the United States and Albania existed until 1990, when diplomats began a series of meetings that led to a resumption of relations. On March 15, 1991, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Washington reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. United States secretary of state James Baker visited Albania in June 1991, following the CSCE meeting in Berlin at which Albania was granted CSCE membership. During his visit, Baker announced that the United States welcomed the democratic changes that were taking place in Albania and promised that if Albania took concrete steps toward political and free-market reforms, the United States would be prepared to offer further assistance.

Ramiz Alia’s pragmatism was also reflected in Albania’s policy toward China and the Soviet Union. The Albanian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs made an official visit to China in March 1989, and the visit was reciprocated in August 1990. On July 30, 1990, Albania and the Soviet Union signed a protocol normalizing relations. The Soviet-Albanian Friendship Society was reactivated, and Alia met with the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, when they were both at the United Nations in September 1990. No longer were the United States and the Soviet Union considered to be Albania’s most dangerous enemies. Alia’s trip to the United Nations was the first time that an Albanian head of state had attended an official meeting in the West.

Geopolitically, the Albanian movement has a long and well-tested experience in relying on the historic or periodic enemies of the states whose territories it had claims on. In the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, one such Balkan enemy was Austria-Hungary, to be followed – in the period between the two world wars – by Italy. During the Second World War, to be courted were Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich. After 1948, Albanian demands were supported by the USSR and China, while after the end of the Cold War, from 1990, they turned for aid to the only remaining military alliance – NATO.

Elections in March 1991 gave communists a decisive majority. But a general strike and street demonstrations soon forced the all-Communist cabinet to resign. In June 1991 the Communist Party of Labour renamed itself the Socialist Party and renounced its past ideology. The opposition Democratic Party won a landslide victory in 1992 elections. Albania’s experiment with democratic reform and a free-market economy went disastrously awry in March 1997, when large numbers of its citizens invested in shady, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes. When five of these schemes collapsed in the beginning of the year, robbing Albanians of an estimated $1.2 billion in savings, their rage turned against the government, which appeared to have sanctioned the nationwide swindle. Rioting broke out, the country’s fragile infrastructure collapsed, and gangsters and rebels overran the country, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths. A multinational protection force eventually restored order and set up the elections that formally ousted President Sali Berisha. In September 1998 former Prime Minister Berisha provoked violent clashes with government troops after the death of one of his aides, demanding that Prime Minister Fatos Nano resigns. See further Albania developments

02/03/2010. Category: history. Tags: .

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