The Eurozone Crisis and Tirana

15. 3. 2017

Albanians perceive European integration as bloodless unification with their compatriots in Kosovo and Macedonia. The debacle of the European project means an increase in anxiety for the whole region.

When the European Parliament suspended visa requirements for Albania and Bosnia, Tirana celebrated it like no other accomplishment. The main decoration was placed at the Skanderbeg Square, where major events in Albanian history took place. The heavy pillars of the Palace of Culture’s façade, whose cornerstone was laid by Nikita Khrushchev when Albania was part of the communist bloc, were now covered by gigantic posters in EU colours.

The blue setting was not accidentally in tune with the colour of the governing Democratic Party of Albania. The Party emerged in 1990 in the aftermath of student protests in which one of the slogans read “We want Albania to be in Europe.” On the main poster, yellow European stars interweaved with the black eagle of the Albanian flag and the flag of the USA, the great ally, while giant white letters underneath read: NO VISAS FOR EUROPE. The posters alongside displayed the names of Europe’s biggest capitals and the time needed to fly to them from Tirana. The idea was that in two or three hours, Albanians could reach Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid or Athens.

The whole country celebrated the event with fireworks and concerts that were accompanied by rousing political orations. Prime Minister Sali Berisha dubbed the episode the most important in Albanian history since the emergence of Skanderbeg, who in the 15th century according to national mythology, fought the Ottomans for Albanian independence. He is now the personification of the immemorial European spirit of Albania. The country is now rejecting its 500 years of Ottoman past and 50 years of communist rule and describing them as episodes with no significance.

The mythologization of Europe is accompanied by something what the Albanians themselves call: “the solution of the national question.” By this they understand the independence of Kosovo with its return to Albania to be in concert with the joining of the Western part of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) which is populated mostly by Albanians. Although the elites declare the integrality of the borders, “the solution of the national question” is seen as innate by common Albanians.

In Albania and Kosovo, the word nationality (kombësi) is never used to stand for membership in the Albanian, Macedonian or Kosovan nation states. The word citizenship (shtetësi) is used instead. Nationality (kombësi) refers to all Albanians in the region as a community of people of the same ethno-linguistic provenance and blood relations, unchanged since the times of the Illyrians and constituting a more important association than citizenship (shtetësi).

In every opinion poll, more than 80 per cent of Albanians of Kosovo stand for creating an ethno-nation for Albania. Gallup polls from 2010 indicated that more than 60 per cent of the Albanians in Albania are in favor of the idea and some of them even aim at Chameria, which is a part of the Greek Epir. Since World War II, Chameria has been inhabited mostly by Albanians who were subject to ethnic cleansing carried out by the Greeks as a punishment for their collaboration with the Nazis.

The venture of Albanian integration with the European Union and the nationalistic idea of the “solution of the national question” are perceived not as contradictory but as parallel projects which will ultimately intertwine. Joining the EU will make borders unnecessary, so that Albanians living in all three neighbouring countries would be able to unite in a single country, which some unification ideologues call “the Natural Albania” because the term “the Great Albania” has appalling connotation in the Balkans. The Albanian discourse also avoids speaking of European integration as an attempt to create in the Balkans a post-nationalistic culture that was developed in Europe after World War II. Nevertheless it seems that Albanians will retain their old hostility and distrust towards their historic enemies: Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Greeks.

With Sword in Hand

Such a discourse is facilitated by support for Kosovo’s liberation and its independence—on display in 1999 by most European countries. The national communism encompassed the national glorification of Albanian history, that “cleared the way with sword in hand,” with Albania as “the only stronghold of Marxism-Leninism in Europe.” The present political elites who have inherited the same style of thinking, have substituted communism for a European mythology and have taken national Europeanism as its ruling ideology. This means that nationalism is perceived as a steady and firm foundation for their identification, and Europeanism as an ideology, which creates a “luminous future” for the Albanian nation.

Nevertheless, it is not only the Albanian world that functions according to this binary ideology. It can be applied more or less to all Balkan countries. Similarly, the escalating nationalist movements in the wealthier parts of Europe largely contribute to the diminishment of ambivalence in nationalist- European discourse in the Balkans. In the Albanian case, one fact should be underlined: because of its past, characterized by the profound isolation from both East and West up to 1990, this country did not develop any critical thinking and that has consequences as a complete lack of controversiality in terms of national-European discourse.

Thanks to an active presence of the West, the European integration project emphasizes not only the development of democratic standards but also overcoming old national hostilities in the region, along with fostering dialogue and multiculturalism. Although most Kosovan-Albanians, as I have already mentioned, want to live in ethnic Albania, only a minority of them have proved to be ready to fight for it. The majority supposes that it is nonetheless feasible, due to the approval of Europe and the US.

Correspondingly, when the huge socioeconomic difficulties, the problem of organized crime, or low democratic standards are discussed, they are not articulated in the main discourse as problems that need radical reformulations. They are instead perceived as transformation‑connected quandaries in the process of rapprochement with Europe. It is emphasized that they are to be overcome by means of reforms that are supposed to rebuild the country according to the European model. But there is almost no one brave enough to question the myth of the market or the myth of economic growth, with which the West is being identified.

Eat Only Albanian Food

The mythologization of European integration and, on the other hand, the pragmatic significance of such a myth for the balance in the region, are the most crucial reasons for the fact that the European crisis is not frequently, or even not at all, spoken about in Albania. Nevertheless, the insecurity over the future and fear before the fall are noticeable. The number of Albanians seeking emigration has increased so much that almost one million of 3.5 million Albanian citizens live abroad. For Kosovo, the numbers are half a million out of 2 million respectively. The battle between the ruling and opposition parties revolves around the fact that Albania has not yet obtained status as an EU candidate while its neighbours have.

But the voices of those who do not see Albania’s fate only through the angle of the European integration are getting stronger. The Kosovo youth movement, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (Selfassessment), which in the recent election in 2010 won 16 percent of the votes, used to organize an action under a slogan: “Eat Only Albanian Food” and they destroyed food from Serbia. They are against globalization and a corrupted ruling class, as well as the international protectors in Kosovo. Their national interest defense program assumes national unification, which is more important for them than EU integration. In Albania a new party has recently emerged called the Black-Red Alliance (Aleanca Kuq e Zi) whose ultimate goal is the unification of all Albanians under the flag of the current Albanian country. The Alliance rouses national hostility, speaking of Greek danger or attacking Albanian-Slav marriages in FYROM. Its immediate economic program envisions a merger of Albanian economy with that of Kosovo.

Some are convinced that such movements are financed by Turkey, frustrated by the long-term waits for joining the EU. They claim that Turkey attempts to create its own geopolitical space, particularly in the countries that had once been part of the Ottoman Empire and are now inhabited by Muslims (Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo).

There is however a complete deficiency of a party similar to the Greek left-wing Syriza—that responds to the economic crisis and its causes but simultaneously is anti-nationalistic.

In the aforementioned context, a Greek exit from the eurozone would be a signal that the European project was defeated. The Europe of nation states, rejecting the European project, can precisely in the Balkans see its own false caricatured self in the mirror and a more dramatic face.

Fatos Lubonja

Fatos Lubonja is an Albanian intellectual, editor of “Përpjekja” magazine, laureate of Herder’s Prize (2003). He spent 17 years in communist prison under Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. He lives in Tirana.

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