A brief history of Albania, Kosova, the geopolitics that created them, and why this matters today.

A lot of people are fascinated with Albania and Kosova. This is good for me because when I write grant applications to fund my research there, my proposal instantly becomes “mysterious” and “intriguing.” Yep, there’s nothing more appealing to a grant committee than these small, predominantly Muslim countries in the Balkan peninsula, with their long history of communism and turbulent democracy. What is interesting about most people’s intrigue in these countries is that many don’t really know anything about them at all. Or what they do know is colored by Hollywood, which tends to portray Albanians as thieves, drug dealers and human traffickers (Aka. Taken).

So why am I talking about the creation of these two states now? Well a lot of reasons, but mainly, the idea was sparked by the news that Albin Kurti’s (the current Prime Minister of Kosova) 50 day old Government has been toppled in a vote of no-confidence this week. The news articles have been filing in since…

I know what you’re thinking. We are in a global pandemic.. and you’re not a political science specialist, so what have you to say? That’s true – but as always, I find myself having an opinion. In terms of the pandemic, I am doing my part by staying home. I am not a health professional to be able to offer some new and groundbreaking insight on how to kick the virus to the curb. And you really don’t need me to tell you to wash your hands and to stay the fuck home. But seriously.. stay home. In regards to the latter, while I may not have a degree in poli-sci, I do have on my side is an understanding of the history of the area (both in the deep past and in the more recent one) and an anthropological bent. But in the spirit of transparency,  I should mention that I also have a vested interest in the politics of these countries, being Albanian myself.

Following the news coverage of the “toppling of the Kosovar government,” I’ve gotten messages from my non-Albanian friends asking me what is going on. And I’ve been talking to my friends overseas about the situation as it unravels. Many of us are frustrated. If not outright angry…all of us are worried. And then something struck me. I’ve had to explain the situation so many times these past few days to so many colleagues (happily of course, if you know me, you know there is nothing I love more). But it got me thinking about what the rest of the world must think. How they are interpreting this? And then I thought about how the articles regarding Kosova, its government and the Mini-Schengen deal (which I assure you is at the root of this whole debacle) have been published of late. And the recent tweets from Donald Trump Jr. (link here)  and Ambassador Kosnett’s (link here) comments on the matter of US and NATO Involvement in Kosova. If most of the world has no idea that Kosova exists, then even less are familiar with its history.  And if the only exposure to Kosova many are getting are these heavily biased and skewed articles which use thinly veiled rhetoric with an overt political agenda.. then we have a problem. So I thought the best that I could do is help provide some context.

Of course, I cannot go into all the details of the formation of the Balkan states, but I can provide a generalized timeline specifically in terms of the creation of Albania and Kosova and anyone who wants to know more can read up on their own to fill the gaps (in fact, please do go and read on your own – this is not going to be all-encompassing). My goal here, I guess it to provide a very watered down, but comprehensive enough timeline of the creation of Albania and Kosova, since understanding this will help people contextualize what is going on in the Balkans now, specifically in regards to Kosova, and hopefully bring some more attention to this very worrying situation. Having done that, then you, my friends, can make up your own mind on how you feel about the situation. I also want to make a disclaimer that I am not trying to convince people to favor one party over the other. I know just how messy Balkan politics are and know as well as the next person that no political leader is perfect.

So shall we begin ( a very short history of the Albanian people, with E. Baci)

Once upon a time… Kidding…

There exists in the Balkans an ethnic group of people called the Albanians. Depending on who you ask, they have been there for hundreds of years or thousands of years… I’m not even going to go there. Pause number one, what is an ethnic group? Good question mon amie. Very simply, an ethnic group is a community who see themselves as having a shared culture and descent. Often times, ethnicity is dictated by what people are not, you know, good old fashion binary opposition.

Some of the earliest references to the Albanians as a cultural or ethnic group date to the early Middle Ages, in the 12th century. Their origin and ethnogenesis, however, is very highly contested by scholars… The reasons which I think are also very much rooted in geopolitics. Despite sharing a common language, the Albanians were never politically unified but instead, their socio-political organization was more similar to that of a tribal society, based on landowning kinship units- known as fis, led by men of the family. This form of sociopolitical organization was especially dominant in the north, where it survived until the 20th Century.

Historically, the first time the Albanians united as one was in the year 1444, under the leadership of Gjergj Kastriot (aka Skënderbeg) in order to fight off the Ottoman Empire in a military alliance known as the League of Lezhë. Despite holding off the Ottoman for multiple decades, the Albanians were conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, like the rest of the Balkans. They remained under Ottoman occupation until the year 1912, where I suppose our story really begins.

Some themes are going to intertwine through the rest of this narrative: they are nationalism, romanticism, and foreign diplomacy and geopolitics.

Pause number two, you’re probably wondering what romanticism has anything to do with geopolitics.. a lot my friend.. a lot. A good example of this is the declaration of Independence of Greece. Greece was the first nation to break out of the Ottoman Empire, back in the early 1800s. However, despite being “woke” the Greeks would not have been able to throw the yoke of Ottoman domination without foreign help, specifically from the big European players like England and France. This creates the very unhealthy pattern of foreign intervention that we will over the next 200 years up until the present. You may be asking yourself,  why would these European giants have a vested interest in helping the Greeks? Surely it is out of the goodness of their hearts, no? Sorry to disappoint, but there is always a motive. The first of which was that many of the larger powers want to snuff out the Ottoman Empire because they saw it as a threat to their own power. What better way to weaken the Ottoman Empire other than breaking it up at the very junction where it connects to the European continent? But why help Greece specifically? Well because their ancestors created democracy. The Western world as we (they knew it) owed its existence to the Greeks… très romantic, no? The same argument has been made in regards to the incorporation of Greece into the EU, with many specialists arguing that Greece was not ready economically, politically, etc. etc. to become a part of the EU but obtained the vote because of the romanticization of its past. The romanticization of these heroic or golden days has proven over and over again to be disastrous, just look at Mussolini’s Italy… but I digress.

For the most part, however, the Ottomans were able to maintain their hold on the Balkans until the beginning of the 20th C when the empire began to weaken. In 1912 the Balkan Wars began; a violent war fought by the European powers over the spoils of the dying Ottoman Empire. Yep, others got involved to gain some territory, not to help those under Ottoman control to free themselves…how unromantic. One of the most contested territories was that of Albania – which declared independence at the end of the First Balkan War in 1912. This is what many people don’t know however and the root of a lot of the conflict we see in the Balkans today – in regards to Kosova. The Conference of London, a peace council consisting of the six great powers at the time  (the UK, Germany, France, Italy,  Austria-Hungary, and Russia) decided on the borders of Albania, all with their own interests in mind.

Remember the war was not fought for the liberation of the Albanians or other people, but over who could claim that territory. Here is where “smaller players” like Serbia factor in. Serbia claimed the area that is today Kosova, on the basis that key national and religious monuments, primarily churches are found there. Because we all know, if you build a structure on some land, it becomes yours.. neverminded what lies directly under it.. #logic, amiright? Serbia, being an Orthodox Christian nation had the backing of Russia (yet another case of foreign intervention and support).

Anywho, the border suggested by the Albanians, which would have consolidated the dispersal of ethnic Albanian in the Balkan peninsula under one nation was rejected, and the resulting borders left as many ethnic Albanians outside of the new country as it housed within – essentially creating multiple populations of Albanians as minorities in other nations – again this is really important when we think about the Kosovar War and Genocide which I well get to in a minute.

I am going to fast forward over 80 years in the Balkans fairly quickly. Albania was independent for a short time, then it became an Italian protectorate, and then a monarchy, and the communist state, and only “recently” a democratic republic, in the 1990s. And this is where our storyline comes full circle to the topic at hand. For all of this time, Kosova was a part of Yugoslavia. For those of you who don’t know anything about Kosova, it is Europe’s youngest state with a population of just under 2 million and, as is almost entirely ethnically Albanian. So, you may be wondering dear friend, why are there two countries in the Balkans that have an ethnically Albanian population – the geopolitics that created the Albanian borders mentioned only a paragraph before. Kosova became an independent state in the year 2008, however, it is one of the most contested counties in the world – with its sovereignty bringing challenged and unrecognized by multiple other nations. Spearheaded almost entirely by Serbia, which still refuses to acknowledge “its lost territory” as an independent and sovereign state.

The creation of an independent Kosova is a history that is rooted in violence and oppression. While many people may know of the Bosnian War, very few know the Kosovar War, which started in 1998 and lasted one year. Americans may recall that this is when Clinton sent over NATO forces in 1999. But many fail to understand why the situation called for NATO in the first place.

In the 1990s several Balkan states started to break free from Yugoslavia. You can think of Yugoslavia as a mosaic of “different” ethnicities who were all held together by the idea that they were Slavs (this is a very watered down explanation of a very nuanced situation, so please take it with a large grain of salt). You were not Bosnian, Slovenian, etc., you were a fellow Slav. Interestingly enough, the Kosovars were not Slavs, they were Albanians, and protests began demanding the autonomy of the province in the ’80s. While things may have been more bearable under Tito, who promoted an idea of unity and Slav-brotherhood. However, the Milosevic regime that followed differed as Serbian nationalism grew. It was clear that Milosevic’s regime had a clear bias for certain groups over others, and that resources were not really being equally distributed by going to Belgrade. This sparked national awakenings, with ethnic groups coming together and declaring independence, the first of which were the Croatians and Slovenians.

The conflict rose to the world scene with the Bosnian war in 1992, when the US sent in NATO troops after rumors spread of the mass killing of ethnic Bosnians and the use of rape as a weapon of war by the Serbian Militia.  You with me so far?

The mid-1990s finds the former Yugoslavia a “shadow” of its former “glory” with just Serbia and a few small provinces – one of which was Kosova. At this time, the conflict between Serbia and Kosova intensified as the ethnic Albanians demanded autonomy from Serbia who systematically mistreated them based on lines of ethnicity and race. This conflict came to a head with the Kosova War, which many people don’t even know took place. Like in the Bosnian War, the atrocities carried about by the Serbian military includes systematic genocide and rape as a weapon of war to “erase the Albanian race” from the territory of Kosova. It is estimated that 10 000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the war, and that 20 000 women were raped.

You may be wondering, why the interest in this tiny piece of land? Well, the argument is that there are Orthodox Churches there, as mentioned above. I find this to be weak, to say the least. But really, it’s about money and power. The territory Serbia really wants are the northern parts of Kosova, incidentally, the same territories that are richest in minerals and metals.. go figure. And this brings us to today, to the Mini-Schengen deal, and to the toppling of Albin Kurti’s government.

For the past 6 months or so the Albanian news outlets have been coving the proceedings of a new political alliance known as the Mini-Schengen deal, between the Balkan states. So far, the leaders of Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia have attended. If you are familiar with the geography of the area, you will notice two things, first, there is a major gap in this free trade zone, by the absence of Kosova. And second, one nation, in particular, towers over the rest, in terms of size and economic strength: Serbia. So you can ask yourself, who will profit the most from this deal? Actually, you don’t have to, Vučić himself will tell you as he told the Serbian people in an official address, Serbia.

While I love international negations that foster peace and comradery as much as the next person, this whole deal is shady to me. Honestly, it sort of reminds me of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). For those of you not familiar with NAFTA, it is a free trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, intended to bolster their economies. However, this is not how things really played out and in fact, the interactions between the three were very asymmetrical, to the detriment of some. For example, the flooding of the Mexican market with US corn due to NAFTA had catastrophic side effects on smaller framers in Mexico. With this analogy in mind, you can think of everyone else in this Mini-Schengen deal as Mexico.

The whole situation is also infuriating for many other reasons. First, a lot of the blame on the stagnation of the deal is being placed on Kosova (the rhetoric I mentioned earlier) – Specifically on Albin Kurtu for his “malicious” tax policy on Serbian goods. And second, for refusing to sign into a deal with a country that refuses to acknowledge its sovereignty….. Yes, you read that right. Kosova is the one playing dirty because they don’t want to sign an international free trade and movement agreement with another nation that doesn’t even recognize it as sovereign. To make matters worse, through a series of tweets (like the ones linked above), because that how geopolitics work now, US officials (if you want to count Trump Jr as an official) are for lack of a better word bullying Kosova into playing along by threatening to pull out NATO forces.

Again, I am not a poli-sci specialist, but if you ask me, it is the “question” of Kosova’s sovereignty that Albin Kurti’s government was toppled, not because of a failure of his government to respond effectively to the COVID pandemic. The fact stands, that after breaking the pattern of a predominantly two-party system (with Vetëvendosje winning by a landslide a few months ago), Kosova finds itself “without a government.”

I am not naive and understand that no political party is perfect, and I am not writing this to suggest that Albin Kurti and Vetëvendosje are the holy grail of Kosova politics. But I can’t help but feel that geopolitics had a lot to do with the movement for the vote of no-confidence which toppled the Kosovar government, and maybe I am being pessimistic, but what will go down in the next few months could not only have catastrophic consequences for the Kosovars but all of us. Let’s not forget that it was nationalism that sparked WWI, beginning in the Balkans no less. And the disaster that followed when the world turned a blind eye to Hitler’s annexing of “small and insignificant” portions of Sudetenland. These small “microaggressions” in the field of geopolitics have disastrous consequences if left unchecked. That is why the world needs to care about this tiny country in the Balkans and its independence.

Despite being so well connected in our day and age because of the internet and social media, it is just as easy for people to disconnect as well. We can get so caught up in our own little world that we could not be bothered to care about the toppling of a government of a country with less than 2 million people. A country that is so far away. A country that has only been a country for just over a decade. But this mentality is dangerous.  History has shown us time and time again what happens when we don’t think the goings-on in a country far far away has no effect on us.

Stay safe and stay healthy dear friends. And as always, formulate your own opinions – all I really wanted to do was get my thoughts out there. And if at most, I anger people enough to go and do their own research, then I consider that a win. I acknowledge that I have my own biases. So if you don’t agree with what I had to say, by all means, you are free to do so.

Peace, love, positivity.. and viva democracy.

PS. I thought about citing all of my sources as I was writing but it became overwhelming. Of course, most of what I present are not my own opinions but recounts of historical events, which I learned from reading various books. If you would like to read on your own and are not sure where to begin, I would be happy to suggest some books and articles.