By Prof. Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic*
The Albanian nationhood as understood in the 19th century was part of a romanticist notion of nationality, i.e., the Albanians were the Balkan people whose mother tongue was Albanian regardless of any confessional division of Albanian people into three denominations (Muslim, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox).
Within the north Albanian tribes, especially among the Miriditi, the Roman Catholic Church was very influential. The Roman Catholic Church became the main protector of the Albanian language and cultural heritage and the main protagonist of the national identity of the Albanians in the Northern Albania. The expression of common notions of the Albanian nationhood were expressed by the Albanian political leadership in the years of the Balkan Wars 1912–1913 in slogans such as: “Neve Shqiptar nuk jemi Greke, Sllav, or Teerk, neve jemi Shqiptar” (“We Albanians are not the Greeks, Slavs, or Turks, we are the Albanians”).
The Albanian political “methodology” from the time of the First Prizren League in 1878 until the Balkan Wars was applied in preparation for unification of all “ethnically Albanian territories” in the Balkans into (a “Greater”) Albania – a single national state of all Albanians, i.e., within the ethnic borders demanded by the League in the years of its existence from 1878 to 1881. Essentially similar national-state concepts were also included in the political programs of the Albanian Peja (Pejë) League, from 1899, the Greater Albanian Kosovo Committee, from 1920, and the Second Prizren League, from 1943. This included preservation of the traditional, common law and local community as the organizational basis of the national movement followed by the demand for unification of all territories populated by the Albanians became Albanian primary national interest from 1878 onward.
Clearly, the process of creation of Albanian nationality was not yet completed at the end of the 19th century. The Albanian nation was not considered a political reality in Europe by many politicians at that time. The Albanian people were among the last ones in Europe to build up their own national identity and national community. When during the sessions of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 the question of Albania and the Albanians was put on the agenda, the German Chancellor (Kanzzelar) Otto von Bismarck decisively rejected discussing it with the explanation that there was no Albanian nationality. For him, the Albanians were the Turks. At the same time, the Serbs (either from Serbia or from Montenegro) and the Greeks considered themselves as a nation (i.e., ethnic groups which had their own state organizations), and as such were understood by Europe, while the Albanians were understood as the Balkan ethnic group (i.e., the group of people who did not have its own state).
Consequently, the ethnic group of Albanians could live only as an ethnic minority included into some of the Balkan national state(s) and could not expect more than the right to autonomy within it (them). At the turn of the 20th century many politicians in Serbia, Montenegro and Greece shared the opinion that the ethnic group of the Albanians was culturally and politically incapable of a modern national development and above all unable and insufficiently competent to establish and rule their own national state.
The backwardness of the development of Albanian society at the beginning of the 20th century was evidenced by the fact that the initiation of a process of modernization shook the Albanian tribal society, but failed to replace it with a modern industrial, parliamentary and civil society. The Albanian national movement was seen as an archaic social movement that could not reach a level of national cohesion in modern terms.
This movement produced among the Serbs, Montenegrins and Greeks a feeling of jeopardization of the political and territorial integrity of Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. For them, the theory of the Illyrian-Albanian continuity was in essence a nationalistic ideological construction which became a driving politically-ideological force for Albanian politicians to create, from the Albanian point of view, their ethnic borders according to Albanian acquired rights. Geopolitically, this project, from 1878 to the present, demands not only the territories which ethnically and historically belong to the Albanians, but goes beyond them and encompasses the entire Illyrian-Albanian ethnic population, dispersed in different areas over the neighboring Balkan regions: Kosovo and Metohija, southern parts of Central Serbia, Çameria (Greek Epirus and Greek Western Macedonia), the western portion of the Republic of Macedonia (the FYROM) and the Eastern Montenegro.
However, contrary to the theory of the backwardness of Albanian social development, the Albanian political and intellectual leadership from the turn of the 20th century has argued that the Albanians met all conditions required by contemporary political science to be recognized as a nation: 1) they have their separate ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity; 2) the Albanian settlements in the Balkans are compact; 3) the Albanians have a very precisely defined national program; and 4) they possess the abilities to build up a community and their own independent state which would be self-governed.
The Albanian political and intellectual leadership often stressed that the Albanian people with their own national idea would never be successfully integrated either into Serbian, Montenegrin or Greek societies and states. That is, in addition to numerous and diverse causes, also due to the fact that the Albanians do not belong to the Slavic or Greek linguistic and cultural groups. There is also significant divergence of national development of the Serbs, Montenegrins, Greeks, on the one hand, and the Albanians, on the other. These nations had a different kind of national movements and distinctly different political elite and national ideology. However, the Albanian national ideology of the Illyrian-Albanian ethnogenesis was created and still exists as a pure myth in the form of a quasi-scientific political propaganda for the sake of the creation of a “Greater” Albania.
Finally, the Albanians surely were among the very few Balkan peoples who managed to find an internal balance between three faiths and to build up the national identity associated with each one as Islam is followed by 70% of Albanian population (primarily from Albania proper, Kosovo and Metohija, the Western Macedonia and the Eastern Montenegro), Eastern Orthodoxy is professed by 20% of the Albanians (chiefly from the Southern Albania and the Greek Northern Epirus) and Roman Catholicism is adhered by 10% of the Albanians (mainly from the Northern Albania proper and Kosovo and Metohija). In one word, the Illyrian theory of the Albanian ethnogenesis played a crucial role in forming a common Albanian identity regardless on confessional division of the Albanians.
The 19th century movement of the Albanian national awakening started half a century later in contrast to a similar process of other Balkan nations and an entire century after similar movements in Central Europe. The cause of this delay was a general national-cultural underdevelopment of the Albanian people who lived under the Ottoman Empire for centuries without cultural and ideological connections to Western Europe where the ideology and movement of nationalism emerged and spread throughout the European continent.
Subsequently, the ideas of national identification, national statehood and the concept of historical-ethnic territorial boundaries was realized by Albania’s neighbors (the Greeks, Serbs and Montenegrins) well in advance of the Albanian people. When Albanian intellectuals during and after the Great Eastern Crisis 1875–1878 theoretically shaped the thought and concept of the Albanian national idea related to the question of fixing Albanian national territories and creating an Albanian national state, they faced, and had to struggle with, Serbian, Montenegrin and Greek national aspirations towards the realization of their own national statehood. This ideological, political and military fight was focused primarily on the question upon certain “national” soils on the Balkans which would be included either into a united Serbia, united Montenegro, united Greece or united Albania: Kosovo and Metohija, Northern Epirus, Western Macedonia, Skadar (Skutari) region in the Northwest Albania and the territories around the city of Ulcinj and the Bojana river in the Eastern Montenegro.
The national program of the First League of Prizren set up the following two ultimate national goals of the Albanians: 1) the national liberation of all Albanians, of whom a majority lived within the Ottoman Empire and a minority in the independent states of Serbia and Montenegro; and 2) the creation of a national state of the Albanians in which the entire Albanian historical and ethnic territories would be incorporated into Greater Albania. This second requirement led the Albanians in subsequent decades into open conflict with the neighboring Christian states: Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. The national awakening of the Albanian people in the years of 1878–1912 resulted in the establishment of an ideology of nationhood and statehood that was, to a greater or lesser extent, challenged and opposed by all of Albania’s neighbors today – the Serbs, Greeks, Montenegrins and the Macedonian Slavs.
About the author:
*Prof. Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic, Mykolas Romeris University, Faculty of Politics and Management, Institute of Political Sciences, Vilnius, Lithuania
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy