Outside observers tend to think of Albania as a monolithic bloc, but just below the “Greater Albania” surface is a depth of societal division, periodically drained by the “unifying” valve of ethnic irredentism. The country is suffering from such a degree of corruption and mismanagement that thousands of its citizens have opted to flee and begin their lives anew in Germany, which has only contributed to the economic crisis that Albania has found itself in and raises fears of oncoming political unrest. Something else that needs to be spoken about when addressing domestic Albanian divisions is the potential for the Gheg and Tosk geographical dialect divisions to coalesce into concrete regionalist identities that weaken the cohesiveness of the Albanian state.
Squeezed between grassroots socio-economic pressures and the threat that the geo-dialect divide might one day take on political contours, the Tirana elite has resorted to the myth of “Greater Albania” in order to maintain ‘unity’ and redirect society’s growing anger towards a ‘regional crusade’. What they may not have calculated, however, is that the country’s strategic Christian minority might one day identify closer with their neighboring co-confessionalists than the with the diversion of “Greater Albania”, and if they take the lead in exposing this charade, then the entire national fabric might eventually unravel in unpredictable directions.
The article starts off by highlighting the economic desperation prevalent in Albania and its occupied colony of Kosovo and how the huge migrant flows this has stimulated have given Tirana’s elite a serious cause for self-interested concern. Afterwards, it explores the Gheg and Tosk dialect divide and the prospects for its politicization in the future, especially in the absence of a ‘unifying’ “Greater Albania” ideology or a major weakening thereof. Part II continues the research by examining the potential for Albania’s Christian minority to play the vanguard role in leading the domestic resistance to the “Greater Albania” ‘theology’. Following that, it looks at the possibility of the government responding through a Turkish-supported ‘soft’ Islamization of society to counter the Christian dissidents, with all of the unintentional and explosive problems that this could predictably create. Finally, the work concludes by assessing the most probable impact of all these processes on Albanian society and touching upon three interrelated scenarios.
The Other Migrant Crisis
The Albanian Exodus To Europe:
Lost amidst the news-grabbing headlines about the Mideast’s migrant crisis to Europe is the internal one that hit uncontrollable proportions at the beginning of this year, but was soon eclipsed by its more politically convenient counterpart. The Independent Balkan News Agency reported in April that 20,000 Albanians had already left their country in search of better opportunities in the EU, with The Telegraph writing in late February that 50,000 Albanians had left Kosovo by that time for the same reason. Taken together, that’s at least 70,000 Albanians that have fled the Balkans by early 2015, but unfortunately for observers, news coverage about this mass exodus was overshadowed as the Mideast migrant crisis began spiraling out of control, and it has since then been extremely difficult to find reliable figures about the number of Albanian migrants since, let alone any detailed coverage in general.
Step Out Of The Shadows, Get Deported:
A mid-summer article from Euroactiv counted around 8,000 Albanians requesting asylum in Germany, despite the 2% or so success rate for that group at the time. More than likely, the rest of the at least 70,000 Albanian migrants didn’t even want to apply for asylum because they knew the almost impossible odds of receiving this benefit and also suspected their departure entities would soon be put on a list of “safe countries” that would lead to the deportation of 98% of those said applicants. Choosing instead to treat their stay in Germany not as a lifelong new beginning but an indefinite working trip, they opted not to notify authorities of their presence. In hindsight, this was a wise decision on their part because Germany eventually did declare Albania and “Kosovo” “safe countries” and has already begun deporting 716 of the prior applicants (almost 9% of the total) back to Tirana within a month of making the decision.
Unwanted In Their Own Country:
Although proportionately small in number when compared to all the Albanians that have fled so far this year (and obviously more by now than the 70,000 that were counted in spring), Tirana is afraid that a large wave of deported individuals will soon arrive back in the country. These angry and unemployed individuals might rightly begin agitating against the government and demanding real economic change in their country, and that’s what really makes the elite anxious. Furthermore, deported Albanians that return to the occupied Serbian Province of Kosovo might refrain from making such a trip again and instead opt to find a job in Albania instead, which would further strain the domestic labor market and increase unemployment.
The Western Detour:
In response to this demographic ‘threat’ that could undermine their rule, the Albanian elite are preparing a backup plan to siphon migrants back into Europe under the cover of Mideast “refugees”. Prime Minister Edi Rama has “warned” that the narrow Strait of Otranto separating his country from Italy could be used as an alternative route for facilitating German-destined migration, but given how desperate tens of thousands of Albanians have proven themselves to be in leaving for the EU, it’s likely that they’ll join their Mideast counterparts in making the journey. From the perspective of an Albanian migrant eager to enter or return to Germany, it’s much easier to do so via the detoured route of Italy-France-Germany than to risk being sent back at the German-Austrian border, which is now under stringent security checks. What Rama basically did was to precondition Europe into accepting that this route will likely be utilized more in the future, all with the intent of drawing Mideast migrants to it that could serve as cover for the Albanian outflow that he wants to facilitate.
Due to the absence of dependable data since early 2015 reporting on the extent of the Albanian exodus from the Balkans, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how many have already left and the number that will follow in their footsteps by the end of the year. It could even be that the 70,000 recorded from this spring is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the actual count is indeed much larger by now. It appears real plausible that this is the case and that Tirana is fretting the demographic bloodletting from the past year, yet reluctant to keep disaffected Albanians in the country out of fear that they may demonstrate against the government.
Thus, International Business Times’ report that Albania would accept a whopping 75,000 “Syrian” ‘refugees’ makes a lot more sense, since it looks like the government is seeking to compensate for the outflow of tens of thousands of angry and potentially politically charged Albanians by importing an equal amount of foreign and politically unassuming migrants instead. The major risk in this short-sighted strategy is that the ‘new neighbors’, many of whom are anti-government sympathizers (if not outright terrorists), might bring their Islamist ideology with them and explosively disseminate it all throughout Albania.
The Albanian government is expected to ramp up its campaign of “Greater Albania” in response to the deteriorating domestic conditions of the country, similar in effect to how they did after the 1997 internal crisis almost brought about the full collapse of the state. Whenever Albania is at its weakest, its leaders espouse “Greater Albania” the loudest, so 2015 and the coming years are expected to mirror those of 1997 and the disaster that came afterwards. The international conditions are different, however, and NATO doesn’t have as much of a “blank check” in carving out another “Greater Albanian” colony in Macedonia like it did with Serbia, for example, but this still doesn’t preclude the possibility of state-sponsored terrorists trying to exploit the engineered political crisis in Skopje in order to advance their territorial objectives.
To a greater extent than how it happened in Kosovo, this time any Albanian terrorists that decide to take up arms against the Macedonian state might be more openly infused with radical Islamic beliefs, partly owing to the dangerous contagion of such ideas via ISIL’s social media marketing, but also due to the dual factors of the undocumented migrant flows through the country (potential pro-Albanian “stay behind” insurgents, provided their disaffected elements can be KLA-armed) and the chance that Tirana might accommodate the Islamists views of its planned “new arrivals”. While traditionally a largely secular state, the Islamization of Albanian society isn’t as far off of a possibility as some think, and this will be described more in detail later when discussing the government’s potential response to any forthcoming Christian opposition to the irredentist myths on which its ‘legitimacy’ rests.
One People, Two Identities?
The Dialect Divide:
Albania is unquestionably a united country with a national culture, but it does have one dramatic internal division, and that’s the presence of two very distinct dialects, Gheg and Tosk, between its northern and southern regions, respectively. Right now the differences are mostly linguistic, although this has caused some underlying political resentment in Albanian society in the past. Gheg is the prevailing dialect that had been used for centuries in most of Albanian society, but its literary and ‘elitist’ reputation led to the communist government favoring the more ‘working class’ Tosk dialect for official correspondence. This policy is still in place today and has even been transplanted to the Kosovo colony, even though some of the Albanians occupying the Serbian Province aren’t too happy about it. This demonstrates that the issue could certainly be politicized in the future as an anti-centralization issue and be used to form the core of a regionalist identity focused on each respective dialect.
In fact, it can even be suggested that without an external “crusade” to unify all Albanian speakers, the country’s Gheg and Tosk duality would naturally crystalize into two separate and distinct regional identities that transcend the linguistic divide and begin taking on a more socio-political character. More than likely they’d be complementary to one another, especially owing to their identical historical experience and largely overlapping cultural similarities, but there remains the possibility that one or both of the regional Albanian identities would one day want to more formally delineate the traditional Shkumbin River boundary between them into something akin to an actual political division, perhaps even a federalized frontier. This process could be accelerated by the fact or perception that the ruling party and/or the national elite are utilizing nepotistic practices in accordance with their geo-dialect identity, especially if this occurs to the detriment of the other side or brings both of them into heated competition over the corrupt allocation of economic resources to their respective geo-dialect partners or ‘constituents’.
Albania’s Version Of “Sunni-Shiite”?:
The emergence of a politically charged regional-dialect identity in Albania might be met with scorn and scoff from some readers, but they’d do well to turn their attention to the contemporary Mideast for evidence of how a previously unified demographic can be torn apart through an obsessive focus on differentness. The Sunni-Shiite divide had remained largely peaceful and apolitical for centuries, and it was never really a deciding matter in anything aside from personal choices on behalf of the adhering individual. That all changed in recent history, however, once the Saudis began using denominational differences in pursuing political ends, and since then, what was once a non-existent factor in regional politics has been artificially catapulted front and center in terms of grand decision making, despite the manufactured origins of this ‘rivalry’ over the past two decades.
The same pattern of politically dividing the once-unified Muslim community into Sunni and Shiite can even more easily and much more naturally be applied towards the still-unified Albanian dialect community of Ghegs and Tosks. The majority of Albanians speak Gheg, but are forced to handle their official business in Tosk owing to the ideologically driven policy still in practice from the communist era. Whereas Saudi Arabia’s talk of “Shiite domination” over Sunnis was nothing more than provocative misinformation meant to incite sectarian hatred, there is actually full truth to the statement that the Tosk dialect is being forced upon Gheg speakers, meaning that the level of preexisting resentment must be higher in this case than it was in the Muslim one prior to Riyadh’s manipulative mechanisms.
It’s also a lot easier to tell a Gheg from a Tosk simply because each dialect is so distinct, so the moment an individual opens their mouth to speak, it’s possible to tell which group they belong to. The same instantaneous evaluation can’t be said for the Sunni-Shiite divide, which requires at least some specific knowledge about the individual in question. This is another point, and it’s that language is something so subconscious to an individual and learned from the moment they are born that it’s extraordinarily difficult to adjust later on in life. It’s a lot easier for one to internally convert to a different religion or sect than to “convert” the dialect they’ve been speaking their whole life. The dialect that an Albanian speaks from birth is the one that they’ll likely retain until death, thus making it an exceptionally integral and intimate part of their personal identity that could understandably form the core of a possible regional-political one.
From Former Yugoslavia To Former Albania?:
The example of the former Yugoslavia provides perfect evidence of the last-mentioned point. Serbian and Croatian are dialects of one another, but they’ve become such an inseparable part of each geographic area’s given identity that no Serbian would accept anyone calling their native language Croatian, or vice versa with a Croat having someone label the language they speak as Serbian. This testifies to just how deeply ingrained dialect politics can become, and there’s no reason why Gheg and Tosk Albanians in the north and south of their country, respectively, should be any exception to this proven rule, especially since they are much more different to one another than Serbian and Croatian are between themselves. Yugoslavia had the communist ideology to unify the different identities in the country, just like Albania has the “Greater Albanian” one, but remembering what happened to Serbia and Croatia after communism, the Gheg and Tosk are guaranteed at least some level of inter-dialect tension after ‘Greater Albania” no longer holds them together.
It’s not to suggest that inter-dialect rivalry between the Ghegs and Tosks will descend into the large-scale internecine violence witnessed during the 1990s dismemberment of Yugoslavia or the contemporary chaos in the Mideast, but it should be clear to all that once the unifying ideology of “Greater Albania” is gone, so too is the idea of “unified Albania”. When the communist ideology faded in Yugoslavia, divisions (many of them largely manipulated by foreign actors) began to emerge, and something similar is witnessed in the Mideast as well. After World War II, all the Arab states were against Israel, but once tis ideology also began to fade and a handful of them recognized their former foe (Egypt, Jordan) or began entering into a de-facto strategic alliance with them (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), it became a lot easier for the US to tinker with the sectarian differences in the Muslim world in order to divide and conquer.
The situation in Albania is similar, albeit with the difference being that it’s much more natural for each constituent identity group to drift apart without any foreign interference whatsoever, and that on the contrary, foreign interference (in this case positive American and Western media coverage) is responsible for reinforcing the unifying ideology of “Greater Albania”, not undermining it. Nevertheless, in the event that domestic dissidents become brave enough to publicly speak out against “Greater Albania” (if this occurs, it’s predicted to happen first with the Christian community and will be described in the next part), then the whole ideological system could quickly become untangled and the dialect differences could turbulently come to the surface (most likely led by the suppressed Gheg majority). It might then come to be that “Albania” as the union of Ghegs and Tosks becomes just as much of an anachronism as “Yugoslavia” was for the union of Serbs and Croats (among others), although this might not take the form of a full-fledge dissolution, but rather of a barely held-together renamed federation between two fiercely independent parts.