Updated: Aug 12, 2018
(Note—This article is based on a keynote address delivered by the author in Washington, DC, on July 14 to a conference on the future of Albanians in the Balkans, which was sponsored by the foreign intelligence division of the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.)
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Thank you for this opportunity to speak about the political and economic challenges facing the Albanians in the Balkans today and how these challenges, if unaddressed, may affect the peace and stability of Southeast Europe. My wife and Balkan Affairs expert, Shirley Cloyes, is with us today. We have just returned from a fact-finding trip to Kosova, and Shirley will deliver a report, entitled “Kosova Adrift,” to foreign policy leaders in the House and Senate this week.
Unification Is Not the Answer
First, let me say where I stand (and have always stood) on political unification of Albanian lands, which would require changes in existing borders. It is the question that seems to provoke the most fear among foreign policy experts concerned about lasting peace and stability in the Balkans. (It is also used by traditional adversaries of the Albanian people and of Muslims, in general, to stoke the fires of racism and ethnic hatred.)
In short, I do not support Albanian unification and have never proposed it as a solution for seven million Albanians living side by side today in Southeast Europe. Nor does anyone on the board of the Albanian American Civic League (the independent volunteer lobby that I founded in 1989). In fact, I have not seen any mainstream support for political unification of Albanian lands in the Albanian community, not in the last twenty years since I left Congress. To be sure there are fringe groups and opportunists who talk about it from time to time, but they have little or no support in the Balkans or in the Albanian diaspora.
What about a Merger of Kosova and Albania?
The most likely marriage, from a logical point of view (because they are two sovereign states) would be Kosova and Albania, as key links to any process of Albanian unification. But I have not seen any meshing of political parties or thinking among the political elites and the Albanian people there that could even start the process. In fact, I believe quite the opposite is true because the Albanians of Kosova and Albania have had quite a divergent historical and political experience since emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The terrible impact of Hoxha’s Stalinist Communist dictatorship on Albanians from Albania included complete isolation from Albanians in Kosova and created a vastly different cultural, spiritual, and economic environment.
On the other hand, I believe that the idea of unification or “Greater Albania” is a tool for Serbia’s lobby and its allies in Washington and Brussels to distract us from the need of Serbia to fully democratize and integrate into Europe. The late dictator Slobodan Milosevic used the concept to scare Europe about “Albanian Muslims”and further marginalize the Albanian people of Kosova, while he pursued his plan for “Greater Serbia,” achieved in part with the creation of Srpska. (Milosevic’s successors are now continuing his Serbian empire “dream” by expanding Serbia into Mitrovica in northern Kosova, through the de facto partition of Kosova against the will of the United Nations and the European Union.) Finally, there is no doubt in my mind that any changes in borders today in Europe would lead to more damaging and needless political instability with other gerrymandered ethnic groups like the Hungarians, who are divided into Hungary, Serbia (Vojvodina), Romania, and Slovakia, and the Kurds, who are likewise divided, but live contiguously, in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Majority Control and Minority Rights—The Only Real Solution
So what is the answer for the Albanian people? In Kosova, it is majority control and minority rights and integration into the European Union. Kosova has a 92 percent Albanian majority. It deserves to be independent. Its borders were not changed since Yugoslavia disintegrated—they were merely upgraded from Republic/provincial to national. Kosova’s borders should not be changed now to satisfy Serbia and Russia. (By the way, Russia should be confronted frequently and loudly by the EU and the United States for meddling in European domestic and foreign policy.) Furthermore, minority rights for Albanians in Montenegro, Presheva, Greece, and Macedonia must be held to the highest international standards to prevent further political and economic instability in those Albanian lands bordering Kosova and Albania. (It is ironic that the Ahtisaari plan gives Serbs in Kosova the best minority rights of any in Europe, and yet the Albanians in Presheva and in Montenegro are subject to apartheid-like conditions even today.)
Greece and Turkey must acknowledge the existence of large Albanian minority populations and protect the language, cultural, and economic rights of Albanians living in their countries as citizens or guest workers. Greece, moreover, must resolve the festering wound of the Albanian Cham population driven out of Northern Greece during and after World War II. (Chameria has become Europe’s Palestinian problem requiring repatriation and/or compensation through negotiations for a mutually agreed upon plan.) Finally, Slav-dominated Macedonia must implement all of the Ohrid Agreement provisions and stop manipulating the Albanian political parties there, exacerbating tensions between them—tensions that in recent days have degenerated into violence.
European Union Membership for Albania and Kosova
In Albania, the government remains weak and ineffective. The nearly two decades of strife between the Democratic and Socialist parties has left the country mired in corruption and destabilized by scandals, the most recent involving the sale of Chinese arms to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, which has resulted in allegations of a cover-up by our own embassy. For years, the problems of Albania were ignored as long as the government kept quiet about the status of Kosova. The time has come to insist on a much higher political, judicial, and economic standard there, and to become involved in the transformation of the society, which, like Kosova, remains robustly pro-American. Until that happens, Albania unfortunately will be no closer to joining the EU than it was ten years ago, leading to more corruption, economic stagnation, and political instability.
Whether or not Albania and Kosova are admitted to the EU (and every effort should be made to accelerate their admission), the answer cannot be just law enforcement in which Albanians are locked inside their borders and traffickers and smugglers are intercepted and jailed. The real and only answer is for the United States and the European Union to insure economic development, integration, and the protection of human and civil rights. Albanians should be given the visas that Serbs recently received to work and travel throughout Europe. Kosova’s human capital, for example, is potentially one of its best exports, with a young, hard-working, and entrepreneurial population, of which 500,000 are unemployed, and many more are under-employed. Albanians speak English and many other languages, have broad business dealings with each other and with other Europeans, and have a great propensity for democracy.
The answer to preventing a violent response to conditions in Albanian territories is not unification. The West, led by the United States, must ensure Kosova’s control over its territory by preventing the partition of the North and investing in education, infrastructure, economic development, and human rights for all Albanian populations in the Balkans. The United States spent over a billion dollars leading the NATO war against Serbia in 1999. The United States also spent a huge amount of political capital in leading the way for Kosova to become an independent state in February 2008. It would now be foolish to abandon this great investment by “outsourcing” the future of Kosova and all Albanians in the Balkans to the European Union, which has always been divided on the “Albanian question.” If the United States does not lead now by confronting Russia, Serbia, and Greece in the Balkans, we will be forced to clean up another Balkan mess in the future, as we have always done in the past. And, in any case, that would be no way to treat the only real friends that we have there—the Albanian people.
July 25, 2008
Former Congressman Joe DioGuardi is the founding President of the Albanian American Civic League.