Monday, March 03, 2008

After Kosovo: Next Stop Greater Albania?

TETOVO, Macedonia -- Walk down any street in this Macedonian town and you would be forgiven for thinking that an international border has accidentally been crossed.

Stores have Albanian names, cafes have a distinctly Albanian flavor, and the red Albanian flag bearing a black double-headed eagle flutters on the streets.

Albanians form an overwhelming majority in an arc of northwestern Macedonia bordering predominantly Albanian Kosovo, which proclaimed its independence from Serbia this week. The same is true of slices of southern Serbia and Montenegro.

After Kosovo's leap toward self-determination, is the next step a Greater Albania to pool together the region's ethnic Albanians in a unified state?

Don't count on it.

The notion has been frequently floated in recent years, and there are some nationalist ethnic Albanians who advocate unification.

But there appears to be little overall public enthusiasm for it _ not in Albania itself, not in newly independent Kosovo, and not in Albanian-dominated areas of neighboring countries.

Part of the resistance lies in the markedly different experiences of Albanians in recent history.

Ethnic Albanians have not lived in a unified country since the Ottoman Empire's grip over the Balkans ended in the years before World War I.

In the intervening decades, they lived under dramatically different regimes. Enver Hoxha's brutal four-decade isolationist rule of Albania _ and that of his successor Ramiz Alia _ left his countrymen cut off from the outside world until the 1990s.

Life in Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia was more sophisticated, despite the restrictions of the communist regime.

So when Albania opened its international borders for the first time in 1991, Kosovars found they had little in common with their brethren to the southwest.

But Kosovars have also likely calculated that the move would be bad for their future as well.

It was tricky enough for the province to declare independence over the vehement objections of Serbia and Russia. Calling for a pan-Albanian state would likely provoke an even stronger response, not only from Serbia but from other Balkan neighbors.

The United States and EU heavyweights France, Germany and Britain would also probably oppose any abrupt move toward Albanian unification. And Kosovars know that their new _ and barely financially viable _ country depends on the goodwill of these Western states.

Kosovo may also find that being a sovereign country is preferable to becoming a province of a larger state once more.

Sabit Bunjaku, an economist in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, used to support the idea of a Greater Albania, but now thinks it should be laid to rest. "Our demands are being fulfilled, so why ask for more?" he said.

Despite the apparent apathy for the idea of Albanian unification, concerns do persist, particularly in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanian rebels took up arms against government forces in 2001, launching a six-month conflict.

"The biggest fear for me, as a Macedonian, is that Kosovo's independence will bring only partition for Macedonia," said Marina Stevcevska, an economist in the capital, Skopje.

For its part, impoverished Albania has set its sights firmly on eventually joining the European Union and NATO _ with all the financial benefits that could bring _ and most politicians seem unwilling to jeopardize those goals.

In the end, Albanians might indeed find a unity of sorts _ under the umbrella of an expanded European Union.

Theodore Couloumbis, professor of international relations at the University of Athens, said that he sees two options for the Balkans.

They could go the route of seeking "to redefine the map, to regain or to gain territories," Couloumbis said.

The other path, he said, "and the one I hope that most people in the Balkans are opting for, is the European option."

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