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History

The Unlikely Birthday

by Robert Wilton

Albania, Europe’s most eccentric state, is 100 years old today. The distinctive double-headed black eagle flies massive over Tirana, the capital, and public buildings across the country. (Too distinctively, a flock of Chinese-made flags are widespread, with the wrong number of feathers on the eagle.) When Albanians celebrate any birthday, the traditional blessing is “may you reach 100” – but for their homeland it’s an anniversary that would often have seemed unlikely during its strange century.

The declaration of independence on 28th November 1912 was not really against the Ottoman Empire; instead, the ethnic Albanian patriots realized that the collapsing Empire left them vulnerable to their voracious neighbours, and they wanted to carve out a space for themselves. The German Princeling who was chosen as King lasted all of six months before domestic chaos and the outbreak of the first world war among his sponsors sent him back into the German Army. The one attempt at a home-grown monarch was the self-proclaimed King Zog, now better known for drawing his revolver and shooting back at would-be assassins while wearing correct evening dress, and for using gold bullion to pay his bills when in exile. Occupation during the second world war was followed by the bizarre and brutal forty-year regime of Enver Hoxha. His paranoid pastiche of Stalinism was a joke to those who didn’t have to live in it, a nightmare to those who did – although Albanians still speak proudly of what he did for education.

Albania today has made itself a dependable player in the international community’s activities in the Balkans, with the basic trappings of democracy and the first signs of tourism along its beautiful coast. But the population are frustrated, and the celebrations are more a statement of what could or should be. “After the circumstances of the last two decades,” suggests one commentator, “Albanians in Albania don’t have much to be proud about.” Their economic situation seems bad to them, there’s widespread criticism of the Prime Minister (previously Enver Hoxha’s personal physician) and some feel that they were better protected and respected under Communism. Discontent is focusing interest on a lost ideal of the nation; two new movements have recently emerged calling for solidarity among Albanians across the Balkans.

Over the border in Kosovo, the celebrations are even more feverish. Here the eagle, black on scarlet, seems to adorn every building and every car. One Municipality has made it an offence not to fly the flag of the Albanians, who make up more than ninety percent of the country’s population. The same international politics that created Albania left the Albanians of Kosovo out of it, a compromise that has troubled the region ever since. Aside from one brief period during the second world war, the Albanians have been divided by the borders of the Balkans, those in Kosovo struggling under the Yugoslav regimes of Tito and then Slobodan Milosevic.

After the ethnic cleansing and NATO bombing in 1999, and then a period of international administration, Kosovo’s independence was arranged in 2008. The world’s experts have since helped to create a state with all the structures of free-market democracy, and special protections for the ethnic minorities. But with the European Union insisting on yet more negotiations with Serbia, Kosovo’s Albanians are feeling insecure about their identity. They’re content to recognize the rights of their minorities, but only if it means clear acceptance of an independent and Albanian-dominated Kosovo state. When they’re really happy or really worried, it’s not the new flag of Kosovo that appears on balconies and taxis.

On the main roundabout on the edge of the capital, a stall is selling the Albanian eagle and the Stars and Stripes – for most Kosovars the emblems respectively of identity and security. “We’re better than we were; not as good as we could be,” says the taxi driver. Liberation from Serbian oppression was the realization of a dream of decades, but independence has not brought practical improvements to life. The economy is becalmed, unemployment hard to measure but reckoned to be at least 50%. Kosovars are served by demoralized, under-resourced and unreformed schools, grim hospitals, and a judiciary that no-one trusts. The European Union is busy in Kosovo but, when it comes to the things that Kosovars care about, seems either obstructive (about the unrestricted travel they enjoyed under Tito) or indifferent (about cleaning up politics). The Self-Determination protest movement are fierce advocates of the right of Albanians to be united in one state, and equally fierce critics of the shortcomings of international engagement and of the alleged corruptions of Kosovo’s Government.

Among the Roma and Ashkali minority living just a few miles from the centre of the capital, no flags are flying today. When the fireworks explode across the night, Kosovo’s Serbs will stay indoors. The Albanians of Albania and Kosovo have endured much to get where they are now, and their unlikely survival and the growing peace of their region are worth marking. Nevertheless, the festivities will also be a defiant and faintly desperate attempt to forget some uncomfortable realities, at least for an evening. A nation is celebrating its birthday, but two states are still feeling growing pains.

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