The history of small nations and peoples passes through the doors of tragedy--this ancient proverb has too often proved apt in the case of the Albanian people. After languishing for decades, their cause emerged forcefully onto the international stage in 1990, when a gathering of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia in Kacanik, and thousands of young people in the Albanian capital, Tirana, forced their way into European embassies to request asylum.
Long artificially dormant, the plight and unique culture of this Balkan nation lay before the eyes of Europe. Although these political events signaled the Albanians’ emergence from obscurity, they may have given a false impression that a new epoch was dawning in the Balkans. Instead, Europe came face to face with a Balkans of the past, where great nations play power games, where religions and ideologies clash and people suffer as a direct result. Those who viewed the dominant Islamic faith of the Albanians as a negative factor in their relations with Christian Europe, however, were flabbergasted when NATO bombs began falling on Yugoslavia in 1999, to the direct benefit of Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking, Muslim majority. But the past stays with Albania, and considering the two fundamental elements of a nation’s development--the characteristics of its people, and the hard facts of its geography--Europe’s poorest and least understood country would be unwise to count on the same level of commitment in the future on the part of the great powers. Scholar, writer and critic Aurel Plasari sketched out in a recent interview some underlying patterns that have molded the difficult history of Albania and the Albanians.
Aurel Plasari is the director of the Albanian National Library. Born in Tirana in 1956, he is the author of many volumes of poetry and fiction, and has edited or translated Albanian editions of Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dostoevsky. Active as a literary critic and political scientist, he teaches Albanian political history at the University of Tirana.
Artur Nura: Commentators and politicians have analyzed the last 12 years of political pluralism in Albania and examined its crises, problems and modest progress. In my view, however, history does repeat itself, and the stereotype of politics in recent years is more or less the same as that in the past. Taking this view, the question arises whether the Albanian, as political actor, has played a fundamental role in the country’s historical development. On the other hand, how significant have geography and geo-politics been?
Aurel Plasari: To get to the origins, more or less, of the problem of Albanian politics, we have to start from the time Albanians decided to found a state--or were convinced, or forced, to agree with the great powers’ formulation of their state. [Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The following year in London the great powers acknowledged the country’s independence, but granted large territories with Albanian populations to Montenegro, Serbia and Greece.]
It was a time of enormous decisions, an opportunity to choose a model for state building. Foreseeing the total withdrawal of the Ottomans from the region; approaching the great powers to back the independent principality of Albania--without doubt this was a very difficult challenge for Albanian patriots, intellectuals and politicians. In general, they made natural, rational decisions. A European state model was chosen, quite distant from the Byzantine model where the state and religion are linked. The consequences of this model, the difficulties that occurred, the complications it led to and probably still causes--this is another question.
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The University of Texas at Austin
Nura: … returning to the foundation of the Albanian principality in London in 1913, from what I know of that event, the Albanians were considered largely as Muslims rather than as an ethnic group. And not only at that conference, but before and even after, demographic and natural parameters were not considered [when setting the borders of Albania], when you recall the significant Albanian presence in Kosovo, Macedonia and even Greece.
Plasari: First, we must take into account the historical facts you mention. We are speaking of a conference where the Albanians themselves did not participate. Many writers claim they were not even invited! That may be true…. Can you imagine that the Albanians of Kosovo not being protagonists in the [Rambouillet] conference? Even more, their being unable to insist, to give their opinion, and to [have an] influence? [The March, 1999 Rambouillet Agreement, which provided the legal basis for a provisional government in Kosovo, was accepted by Albanian groups, but rejected by Belgrade.] But at the meeting of ambassadors in London we are speaking of, the Albanians were not participants. True, we can say they were not invited, but we are entitled to say that Albanian politics [at that time] was not organized at a high enough level to enable them to participate and influence the decisions made.
You rightly pointed out a second important point--the configuring of borders. Under international law, the decision to found a state is a paramount right; this has to be accepted. But that conference saw the facts of the situation and did not fix the borders. They decided to set up an international commission to fix the borders. Through one commission, two or three commissions, the process was prolonged again and again until the early 1920s. In the end, even with one representative on the commission, the Albanians were unable to influence it and obtain what they deserved.
Nura: In your writings, you consistently see the Albanian territories as a crossroads of political cultures and religions from West and East. Do they still fill the same geo-political position between complex interests, amid colliding global politics, cultures and religions?
Plasari: Yes, that’s right. From its geo-political, historical and cultural position, Albania has been a crossroads and a transit zone…. Cultures and civilizations have collided and mixed here in some very strange ways. Our culture and literature still lack a definitive study of these crossings of cultures and civilizations. Historically, however, we know that the West always passes through on its way east--since the Crusades. Populations have also moved west, but usually when military forces from Asia have come in. We can count here two centuries and more of Slavic presence, [followed by] five centuries and more of the Ottomans [beginning in the late 14th century]. I believe this is a special characteristic of Albanian culture. I don’t say this doesn’t describe other cultures, but at this level of confusion and mixing, I believe it is characteristic of Albanian culture. Whether such mixing and blending influenced Albanian politics positively or negatively--this is a different case.
Nura: While we are in an analytical mode, I’d like to ask about Albanians’ inclinations in the area of religion … the origin of this goes back to the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 395, when the Illyrian territories [encompassing modern Albania] were constituted as an administrative part of the Eastern Roman [Byzantine] Empire, but religiously, they fell under the authority of the Roman pope.
Plasari: This is one of the most complicated parts of our history, but we have to state some important facts. We must accept them and not pretend we don’t know them. Albanians under the Roman Empire, and then when they passed under the control of the new [Eastern] Roman Empire of Constantinople, had no difficulty embracing contradictory elements--political subordination to Constantinople, religious subordination to the pope in Rome. Some historians of religion argue that the Albanians at that time didn’t speak of two different rites. The difference was practically of no importance for Albanians who were interested in going to church just to get married and be buried.
[Conversions from one Christian rite to another] were undoubtedly influenced by the aristocracy, who did this purely for pragmatic and political reasons. Let’s be clear--this kind of conversion was seen even among the Slavs, the Serbs.… [Medieval Serbian rulers] converted now to the Eastern Church, now to the Western Church, or better said, to the pope in Rome…. This practical kind of conversion is a reminder that religious faith has a political element…. It is different today when the Church is not a political element.
Nura: But even today religion is a political element, isn’t it?
Plasari: I think there are some that try to make religion a political element, but this is one of the greatest errors. It is a return to the Middle Ages. Whoever tries to use religion as a political element, in the first place, he shows that he doesn’t understand politics and is unfit for politics …
Nura: … The mass conversions of Albanians from Christianity to Islam--was this a rational choice? [Islamicization of Albania began with the Ottoman invasion and peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries.]
Plasari: I’ve already mentioned how easily the Albanians converted from one [Christian rite] to another without difficulty. People who are accustomed to pass from one church to another have no difficulty converting to another religion. Of course, it had to be simpler for them because they were converting in parallel with other nations of the region. No doubt, the process went more quickly when the social leaders converted to the new religion. Very often, we don’t have a clear overview of such religious conversions, and it is not easy to achieve one.
Aristocrats were the first to convert. Their conversions were, first of all, based on ethical grounds, and because it was connected with preserving their social status…. After that, the mass of the common people followed their social leaders. But the conversion process was definitely complicated by other elements, pragmatic, economic--and military. [In some instances, the Ottomans allowed only those Albanians who had accepted Islam to maintain arms.] If you give one part of the population the right to maintain arms, and deny it to another part because of religion--even we today would do the same, wouldn’t we? And there was undoubtedly another dimension of the logic of conviction involved. Contact with the new religion was attractive to many people. This dimension must not be denied, because we are considering here a great religion, as Christianity is, with a great, glorious history, just as Christianity has.
Nura: Considering the much greater distance [from Albania] to Muslim Turkey, compared with the near presence of Orthodox Serbs and Greeks … do you think Islam helped the Albanians resist and survive the constant Orthodox efforts to assimilate them?
Plasari: One of the main partisans of this theory is Safete Juka, in the United States. She tries to explain the mass conversions of Albanians by arguing that it was done to preserve their nationality. There is a basic error here--it has been pointed out before, so there is no need for much further debate: This argument mistakes the cause for the consequence…. From my studies I believe the reasons are quite different…. Of course, in areas that were directly confronted with other ethnic groups, this argument could have validity. But this cannot be the case in other places like Tirana, Durres and Kavaje [situated deep within Albanian territory]. There must be other causes [of conversion] in these areas, and other consequences.
Nura: In the modern Albanian state, sharing this same geography, is there again a risk of conflicts of interest between cultures, economies and faiths?
Plasari: The Albanian state can be damaged by potential negative factors, but I think the greatest risk could come from those who aim to damage the model of state-building that was chosen in 1912 - 1913, those who propose other models taken from holy books. One thing is clear: When Albanians decided to live together, they agreed to live according to a type of state that didn’t come from holy books, a type where the state is distinct from religion. Let me say it in capital letters: When the Albanians opted for a model for their state, they found it neither in the Bible, nor in the Koran. Not because the Bible and the Koran don’t offer models for states, but because European history had reached an era when state models were found in Greco-Roman tradition. Models proposed by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Tertullian and others. It was a European, a Western European model. Different, let us say, from those of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and other states based on a religious institution.
Nura: Looking back at the foundation of states in this region since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in your opinion which state model has been the best?
Plasari: For some Balkan peoples, the religious state model has been fruitful and optimal. For the Greeks … the church created the state. In this sense it was the optimal model. For the Bulgarians too. We must not forget that the church, according to the tradition of the Ottoman Empire, had many attributes and administrative rights [including tax collection] … which means it was a kind of half-state. So when those people needed to set up a state they were already half finished, you might say.
Nura: And the Albanians?
Plasari: Albania did not have such a half-finished state, and at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, with their different religious components they couldn’t find help from the church or from the mosque. And the model they opted for was that of Western European states. In the historical sense, it was certainly a more modern model, but it seems that modernity typically faces difficulties in the Balkans. The people who constructed their states to an old, theocratic model--Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbs--had more facilities to do it.
Nura: In conclusion?
Plasari: The Albanian state, it seems--those geniuses who made it--opted for a certain model with the understanding that Albanians can live together under the Western European model alone. Let us say, the emancipated, liberal model, where the church, mosque and religions are separate from the state. If someone tries to change the Albanian model, it would risk dissolution, disassociation, disintegration--even today. Or at least, it would cause too many other problems.
This interview first aired on Gjelivizion in Tirana. The text was translated by Artur Nura and appears in edited and slightly abridged form. Editorial clarifications are in square brackets.
Artur Nura is a print and broadcast journalist based in Tirana. In 2001-2002 he was editor in chief of the Tirana television station Gjelivizion.
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