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“Greater Albania” Is A Myth To Preserve The Country’s Unity (II)

Wed, Nov 4, 2015

Balkans, Turkey

By Andrew KORYBKO (USA)

“Greater Albania” Is A Myth To Preserve The Country’s Unity (II)

(Please read Part I prior to this article)

The Power Of The Christian Community

The State Of Religious Affairs:

What’s usually left out of the conversation when discussing Albania is the strategic Christian minority inhabiting the northern and southern border regions, and the potential for them to sympathize more with their co-confessionalists next door than with their “Greater Albania” ethnic counterparts in Tirana. It’s no secret that Christian influence is on the upswing in the Balkans, and this zeitgeist has even spread into Albania in the years since communism. Although recognized as a majority-Muslim state, the 2011 census surprisingly lists 10% of the population as being Catholic and 6.7% being Orthodox, with each denomination being clustered in the north and south of the country, respectively.

In total, this makes for a population that’s 16.7% Christian as compared to 58.7% who are Muslim, but there’s an important qualitative difference between the two, and it’s that the Christians are much more pious than the largely secular Muslims. After all, it wasn’t just for show that Pope Francis chose Albania to be his first European trip outside of Italy in September 2014, and scattered online reports indicate that Muslim conversions to Christianity (specifically Catholicism and its related sects) are on the rise. Concerning the Albanians that occupy Kosovo, Reuters even ran a 2008 piece detailing how some of them have decided to embrace their “crypto-Catholic” roots, which underscores the developing role that Christianity is playing in the Albanian-populated areas of the Balkans.

Catholicism On The Come Up:

An Ethnic Albanian couple carrying a portrait of Mother Teresa draped with Albanian Flag, as they attend a Mass in Pristina, Kosovo

An Ethnic Albanian couple carrying a portrait of Mother Teresa draped with Albanian Flag, as they attend a Mass in Pristina, Kosovo

One can also recall at this time the global renown of the late Catholic nun popularly known as Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian originally from the territory of the Republic of Macedonia (Skopje, to be exact). Her beautification by the Catholic Church has placed her on the short list to sainthood, and she remains one of the most well-known Albanians to this day. Because of her Albanian ethnicity and the warm feelings most of the world has towards her, she’s become a symbol of sorts for the country and is even quite popular within it. There has yet to be any quantitative evidence produced to establish the following, but it could be that the “Teresa Effect” has made some non-religious or even Muslim Albanians more receptive to Christianity, similar to how the so-called “Francis Effect” has invigorated many lay Catholics.

Of course, it goes without saying that the Vatican has its own self-serving interests in proselytizing the faith across the Strait of Otranto, but it’s undeniable that Christianity (most specifically of the Catholic denomination) has become a tangible fact of life in some parts of Albanian society nowadays. The author is personally impartial to this process and doesn’t want to come off as supporting any religion or denomination over the other, but it needs to be objectively recognized by the reader that Albania is, however surprising it may sound to some, one of the few places in the world where Christianity has grown since the end of the Cold War.

Switching Places:

As a self-assertive and proselytizing Christianity comes up against a secular and stagnant Islam, there are bound to be political consequences in the near future, especially as some representatives of the dominant faith become more conservative in reaction to the upstart religion. This is peculiarly ironic, since it mirrors exactly what’s happening in the EU, except with the roles of Islam and Christianity reversed. Just as there are some Christian-affiliated extremist groups that agitate for violence against Muslims, so too will there likely be Islamist-affiliated ones that target Christians. Neither of these faith-based radicals represents the bulk of their co-confessionals, but nonetheless, they’re the loudest, most visible, and most violent reactionaries from a largely passive majority.

In the EU case, many fret that there are foreign influences guiding the large-scale insertion of Islamic elements into their traditionally Christian societies, and a similar fear could predictably be felt in Albania as per the Catholic proselytizers (“missionaries”) operating in the mostly Muslim country. In both cases, it’s understandable that there’d be a domestic backlash of sorts by the host representatives against the “new arrivals”, even if they’re really native converts such as the Christians in Albania. It’s guaranteed that inter-communal tensions would skyrocket the moment any of these minority identity groups begin engaging in politics or pushing an agenda that is perceived (keyword) to be affiliated with their religion. The author doesn’t intend to justify any sort of violence between these groups, but rather hopes that the previous explanation can help the reader understand the process that is already taking place in Europe, and might soon develop in Albania if the structural similarities between the two’s relationship to upstart religions are any reliable indication.

Albania_declared_Catholics_census_2011Vanguard Dissidents:

The Christian minority in Albania is strategically positioned to become the vanguard dissidents against the Tirana elite’s ‘unifying’ ideology of “Greater Albania”. Like was mentioned at the beginning of Part II, the Albanian power-makers fear that this demographic might come to identify more with its co-confessionalists next door than with their ethnic counterparts in the capital, and that the first form of resistance this may take is in objecting to “Greater Albania”. They might have their practical and pragmatic reasons for this, such as not wanting to create another failed region in the Balkans like Kosovo, or it might be motivated by barely concealed religious concerns that “Greater Albania” is really a code word for anti-Christianity, again, as seen by the example of Kosovo. No matter what drives them to do so, the moment this demographic starts pushing back against “Greater Albania”, that’s when the country will begin entering the most serious crisis in its history, conceivably one which may reach existential proportions.

To explain, no other identity group in Albania is capable of coalescing into a unified bloc quicker than the Christians (and especially Catholics) are, and if they can mobilize any of their existing or soon-to-be-created civil society organizations to help advance a political goal, then they’d immediately emerge as a major force to be reckoned with in Albanian society. Neither Ghegs, Tosks, nor Muslims have as much potential in currently doing so as Christians because the self-awareness of their distinct identities has yet to set in, largely due to the distracting success of “Greater Albania”. Therefore, if the group least affected by this ideology turns into the first one to publicly oppose it (on whatever grounds, be they pragmatic, religious, or a hybrid of both), then it would prompt the government to react in some form or another in order to save the ‘unifying’ ideology that it so desperately needs in order to remain in power and keep “Albanians” from decentralizing into mores specific Gheg, Tosk, and Muslim identities.

The Islamic Backlash

The First Move:

There are many ways in which Tirana could respond to the Christians’ resistance to “Greater Albania”, but the shape it takes ultimately depends on what the dissidents do first. Although it’s possible to project some type of protests in the event that “Greater Albanian” rhetoric once more hits dangerous proportions in Tirana, it’s more likely that such resistance will first be passive and will refrain from physical manifestations until that point. To expand on this idea, it’s probable that local civic figures and Christian-identifying politicians could try to raise the issue whenever given the chance, preferably in a mass media or grassroots (canvassing) platform, despite the reputational and/or career repercussions this could have. The emergence of Christian individuals agitating against “Greater Albania” will be seen by decision makers as being religiously motivated and influenced from abroad (even if this isn’t the case and such actions are driven purely by domestic pragmatism), so they’d probably reactively resort towards encouraging the soft Islamization of society, which might even include enhanced cooperation with Turkish government-affiliated organizations in a hasty effort to emulate part of Erdogan’s ‘success’.

The Turkish Connection:

President of Albania, Bujar Nishani and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyp Erdogan attend the foundation stone ceremony on Mosque of Namazgja site in Tirana, May 2015.

President of Albania, Bujar Nishani and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyp Erdogan attend the foundation stone ceremony on Mosque of Namazgja site in Tirana, May 2015.

At this point it doesn’t matter if the Prime Minister is Christian (like Edi Rami), Muslim, or Atheist – what’s critical to understand is that he and his elite cohorts have a high likelihood of responding to any Christian-affiliated dissent (even if not religiously motivated) by mechanically trying to ‘unify’ the population under the alternative ideology of Islamism (wrongfully assuming that this would succeed simply because a majority of the population is Muslim), following in the footsteps of their national ‘big brother’ in Turkey. It’s not coincidental that Albania has allowed Turkey to begin building the Balkans’ largest mosque in its capital, personally inaugurated by the strongman himself during his last visit to Tirana, since it’s a clear sign of the country’s strategic submission to its historical occupant.

Erdogan might already be entertaining plans to shift his failed Neo-Ottomanism away from the Mideast and towards the Balkans, and an Islamified Albanian society along the Muslim Brotherhood tradition of his preference would be seen as a red-carpet rollout for Turkey’s return to the region. Thus, Erdogan indisputably has a strategic stake in seeing his Albanian proxy following Turkey’s lead in Islamifying its society, and if there’s even the tiniest opportunity for him to convince his underlings in Tirana to go through with his preplanned vision for their country out of what he would characterize as their ‘national interest’ and/or ‘religious duty’, then he’ll surely seize It and supply all manner of support as necessary.

“Mission Creep”:

Some of Albania’s decision makers might rightfully feel uncomfortable about violating their country’s secularist traditions, but they’d probably be ‘assured’ that such steps are going to be incremental, ‘comfortable’, and nothing too extreme from the existing standard. Turkish strategists might even try convincing them that Islamization and “Greater Albania” could actually become complementary ideologies, with the former being ‘necessary’ in order to isolate the Christian dissidents so that the latter can ultimately be achieved. This line of thinking could come off as enticing and ‘manageable’ to the elite, who might agree that a ‘back-up’ ideology is necessary to embolden the Albanian base and discredit Christian naysayers.

As the Islamization of secular states historically shows, however, this could quickly become an uncontrollable process that swiftly eludes the management of the forces that initially set it into motion. When the time comes that an Islamifying government finds itself under the influence of the non-state actors that it had earlier set loose upon the secular majority (and this always happens sooner or later in such societies), then the threshold has irreversibly been passed to where religious-affiliated terrorism can endemically take root in the country, to say nothing of the assumed-to-be earlier advances of foreign-based terrorist infiltrators (be they in ‘hard’ militant form or disguised via ‘soft’ Wahhabist clerics). One mustn’t forget the tens of thousands of mostly Islamist-sympathizing Mideast migrants that Albania wants to bring into the country in the near future either, since it’s sure that they’ll have play an instrumental role in this process as well (and all to Erdogan’s nodding approval).

Assessing The Destabilization Potential Of Albania

Situational Review:

“Greater Albania” has consistently been pursued in one form or another as the country’s de-facto national ideology since the end of communism, and there has yet to be a moment when significant domestic dissent openly challenged the notions of this ‘unifying’ precept. It should be recalled that there are two parallel processes ongoing in Albanian society at the moment, with one being its Christianization and the other its inevitable return to the full-scale promotion “Greater Albania”. The reader would do well to remember that the latter is being evoked as a distracting response to the large-scale economic crisis in the country, following the pattern set out in 1997 in reacting to similar (albeit more political) domestic difficulties during that time. The “Greater Albania” trend will not turn against the country’s Christian population (although it didn’t spare any of Serbia’s during the Occupation of Kosovo), but Albanian Christians might turn against “Greater Albania” for whatever their religious or pragmatic reasons may be. This in turn would prompt a reaction from the authorities that is predicted to unintentionally open the Pandora’s Box of identity decentralization in Albania, with three scenario paths being the most foreseeable.

People’s Revolution:

This scenario is the least ‘sexy’ of the three, but is the one with the greatest chance of occurring. Once the ideology of “Greater Albania” is challenged from within and its hypnotizing effect on distracting the disaffected and impoverished majority of the country’s citizens has faded, they may snap out of their earlier induced ‘trance’ and begin attributing their plight to the elite that are truly responsible for it. The chain reaction of social activism that this would set off could turn Albania into the next “Moldova”, in the sense of civil society organizing against its corrupt overseers and attempting to finally free the country from their thieving clutches. A lot of this would be based in the naiveté that they’d be able to make a pronounced difference by enacting the symbolic retirement of one or two figureheads, but still, in the context of this article, it would satisfy the criteria for creating national destabilization, especially if the targeted leader refuses to steps down, or even worse, resorts to state or militia violence to disperse the protesters.

The difference between this scenario and a Color Revolution is that this examined situation is entirely natural and free from external tinkering. No foreign power manipulated Albania into creating the deplorable conditions that gave rise to tens of thousands of its citizens leaving their country and the colony of Kosovo this year alone, since nobody is to blame for this but the Tirana elite themselves. Additionally, it’s absurd to even conceive of a foreign power having a hand behind the protests, since the US and the West would be dead-set against them, while Serbia and Russia, aside from not having the operational experience in handling such covert operations, have no social capital whatsoever from which to recruit and influence Albanians. This possible People’s Revolution would be entirely by Albanians and for Albanians, and depending on the composition of its protesting elements, it might even take on an extreme nationalist angle similar to EuroMaidan (minus the foreign support in this case, it must once again be reminded). That course of developments would all depend on how the Tirana elite respond to the protest movement and exactly which social elements play the leading parts in organizing it.

Religious Warfare:

Albania has a history of waging religious conflicts both without and beyond its borders. During the leadership of Enver Hoxha, the state implemented a lethal atheization policy where religious practitioners of all faiths could be killed for their beliefs. This was an internal war within the state between the government and all religions. After communism ended, Albanian elements waged another religious war, also with government support, but this time outside of its borders and with the intent of brutally cleansing the Christian population out of Kosovo. The time seems to be coming for a new stage to Albania’s religious wars, and this time it might once again be concentrated within the country itself.

The uptick in Christianity, especially if it’s politicized to an extent, could lead to the ‘moderate’ state-sponsored Islamization of society under Erdogan’s supervision. It might ‘logically’ begin as a Turkish-advised reaction to any Christian dissent against “Greater Albania”, but it could quickly spiral out of control and turn into a bloody sectarian conflict that would inevitably involve the support of foreign actors on both sides (perhaps morphing into a Serbian-Turkish proxy war that takes on the misleading simplification of being Christian vs. Muslim). Amidst the violence (or at the very least, inter-communal tension), ISIL and other affiliated radical Wahhabist groups might find fertile ground for gathering recruits and setting up base in the increasingly fractured society, which would in any case bode extremely negatively for the entire Balkan region at large.

The Fight For Federalization:

Catalyzed by the Christians’ awareness of their particular sub-Albanian identity (no matter to what degree they express it, so long as they do), the Ghegs and Tosks might become emboldened enough to realize their own identity uniqueness, especially if society begins Islamifying per the abovementioned scenario and individuals begin searching for a ‘third way’. Understanding that the ‘unifying’ utility of “Greater Albania” might be irreparably damaged once one sub-national identity (predicted to be Christians in this case) begins expressing its distinctiveness, it’s safe to assume that a ‘race for identities’ would surely follow, and in this case, geo-dialect affiliation could possibly become the most popular. In this projected reality, it’s conceivable that the Gheg and Tosk spaces would make an effort to consolidate within their zones so as to protect their identities from the ‘security dilemma’ between one another, and between themselves and the religiously connected ones that have just begun sprouting up (and precipitated this whole identity crisis in the first place).

One of the most logical steps in this case would be for the Ghegs and Tosks (predicted to be the two most dominant of the competing identities) to formally delineate their spheres of geographic influence, which as was written in Part I, would traditionally be along the Shkumbin River. Having observed how state decentralization quickly spirals out of control in the absence of a unifying ideology to keep everything together, the only alternative to anarchy would be either a military operation launched by the centralized authorities or the federalization of the country along the lines of its most prominent politically represented constituent parties. In the case of Albania, it’s impossible at this point to predict if military force would be used in such a scenario (and whether the military could remain united among escalating identity tensions between its members), but it’s much more plausible to assume that federalization between the quickly consolidated Gheg and Tosk entities could seriously be discussed. In fact, depending on the organization of the Christian community prior to the outbreak of identity decentralization, they might even be able to attain a semi-autonomous status either within Albania proper or inside one or both of the two predicted federal entities (if it comes to it, most likely in the Catholic portion of North Gheg).

Concluding Thoughts

Albanian politicians agitate for the Fascist-era recreation of “Greater Albania” as a desperate measure to compensate for internal weakness. The country’s failing economy precipitates the need to distract the citizenry from internal woes, and the potential for a North-South regionalist identity forming among the Gheg and Tosk dialect communities compels the elite to continuously pursue this ‘unifying’ ideology. Largely neglected when discussing Albania but no less important than its economic woes and geo-dialect division is the emerging Christian community in the country, and it’s possible that this new domestic identity might be self-assertive enough to set off a chain reaction of identity decentralization in the future. If the Christians mobilize into a semi-unified movement or union of interest groups and begin pursuing a shared political cause, then they’d draw attention to the presence of sub-national identities (desperately impoverished citizens, Gheg speakers, and Tosk speakers) that the ‘unifying’ ideology of “Greater Albania” tries to soothe over.

Should the Christians begin directly campaigning against “Greater Albania”, be it through religious or pragmatic considerations, then that would be the greatest (unwitting) attack on national unity that Albania has ever experienced before in its history, and it would automatically result in some sort of state-sponsored response. The predicted Turkish-advised ‘soft’ Islamization of society, already apparently in the cards for a future deployment, would ultimately end up being disastrous for the unified state and would do more to polarize the country than save it, despite Erdogan’s predicted assurances to the contrary. In the ensuring tumult that’s sure to follow any revival of sub-national identity consciousness in Albania (whether or not the Islamist scenario comes into play), it can be heavily predicted that the Ghegs and Tosks will start forming more distinct geo-dialect identities that could pave the way for a weakening of the previously assumed ‘cohesive’ nature of the Albanian state. That by itself would probably kill the national mobilization of support necessary to revive the vague concept of “Greater Albania” once its citizens start thinking in terms of “Gheg-Albania” and “Tosk-Albania” (if not outright Gheg and Tosk identities outside the constructed Albanian nationality), and might perchance become the most long-lasting (and ironically self-imposed) deterrent to Albanian aggression, and consequently the most solid guarantor of Balkan peace for the coming future.

Andrew Korybko is the American political commentator currently working for the Sputnik agency, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.

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