Wednesday, August 29, 2012


The EU or a Greater Albania: what future for Kosovo?

by Francesco Guarascio
28 August 2012

As they walk in the centre of Kosovo's buzzing capital Pristina, passers-by cannot fail to notice the number of references to Albania. The dull six-starred, European Union-like flag adopted by Kosovo in 2008 is rarely seen, while the double-headed eagle of the Albanian banner is displayed proudly at every corner. Souvenir stalls in the main tourist streets sell t-shirts evoking Albania rather than Kosovo. Asked for a restaurant, taxi drivers are likely to drive to eateries with Albanian specialties.

"We would join Albania immediately, if America agreed," states Edmond Zhita, a hotel manager in Peya, the second-largest city. His view is widespread in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians represent almost 90 per cent of the population. A poll published by Gallup in 2010 revealed that 81 per cent of the Albanians living in Kosovo were in favour of a 'Greater Albania' – a dream state encompassing the territory of Albania, Kosovo and neighbouring regions in Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro that are predominantly inhabited by Albanians.

The percentage of those in favour of a Greater Albania has risen steadily since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, when only 54 per cent of the sample backed the idea. In September, Kosovo will gain full rights of sovereignty as the 25-member international steering group in charge of overseeing the country's embryonic administration ends its task, four years after independence. Still, an EU mission to train police and the judiciary, called EULEX, as well as a conspicuous North Atlantic Treaty Organisation peacekeeping force, will remain in the country to prevent ethnic clashes between Albanians and the Serbian minority.

Despite the sizeable ongoing foreign presence in the country, this first taste of real power may push Kosovo's leadership to rethink the idea of a Greater Albania. The concept is not new – it was born in the Kosovar town of Prizren in the 19th century to promote Albanian independence from the then ruling Ottoman empire. It may sound odd that after a long struggle for independence from Serbia, Europe's youngest state is already tempted by the idea of giving away its sovereignty to enter a new marriage with neighbouring Albania. But the poor economic state of the landlocked country – which is ravaged by corruption and frequent ethnic clashes with Serbian minorities – has gradually increased the will to join the bigger neighbour.

But it takes two to tango, and Albania is showing little appetite to openly back a project that would cause concern not only in the region but also in Brussels and Washington. Most Albanians from Albania remain in favour of a Greater Albania, but the number of supporters is shrinking. They dropped from 68 per cent in 2009 to 63 per cent in 2010, according to Gallup pollsters. "The contradictory dynamics of the support, in Albania and Kosovo, for the idea of a Greater Albania is the best illustration of how important an EU perspective is for the region," explains Ivan Krastev, a Balkan political expert. "The explanation for these contradictory trends is quite obvious – at the time of the poll, while Albanians were expecting the lifting of the visa restrictions for travel in the EU, only 7 per cent of Kosovars saw freer travel coming soon," he argues.

Krastev's view is widely shared in Brussels. Europe is firmly engaged in giving Kosovo a clear EU perspective. Work is underway to launch a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, a crucial step for a country wishing to gain the status of official candidate for EU membership. A visa liberalisation process is also ongoing, to favour free movement of Kosovars in the EU. "I confirmed the EU's continued commitment to Kosovo's European perspective," reiterated European Council President Herman Van Rompuy after a meeting in July with Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga. Kosovo has already adopted the euro as its official currency, despite being outside the eurozone. National laws are available in English, favouring harmonisation with EU rules and foreign investors' understanding of the country's legal environment.

Yet despite all this effort, the road to Brussels remains a bumpy one. Only 22 of the 27 EU member states have so far recognised the new country. Greece and Cyprus still oppose this move, mainly because of fears of a Greater Albania. Spain, Slovakia and Romania are also against recognition, believing that it could trigger copycat demands among the Hungarian, Basque or Catalan minorities living within their countries. Serbia is even firmer, saying that it will never recognise the breakaway region, as are Russia and China.

One way to quell the potentially dangerous ambitions for a Greater Albania is for Brussels to keep alive the EU perspective for Albania, although the country still falls seriously short of meeting basic requirements. Tirana was granted the status of potential candidate in 2003 but submitted its membership application only in 2009. Since then, the process has moved slowly amid violent power struggles and widespread corruption in the country. The warm embrace of the EU has prevented the breakup of many European countries for years – including Belgium and Spain. For Albanians that embrace needs to work in the opposite way, to avoid a marriage that would be unpopular with too many parties. The question is, will the prospect of a common house convince those in favour of marriage to refrain from union?

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