The greater, broken Albania
It seems as though playing chicken with the European Union is becoming an ever more popular sport among Third World countries’ leaders.
The league of charming, if assertive gentlemen south of the Danube has gotten its most recent addition, in the person of Albanian PM Edi Rama.
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In a joint interview with Kosovo’s foreign minister (and ex-PM), Hashim Thaci, Rama said that “the unification of the Albanians of Albania and Kosovo is inevitable and unquestionable”, the only question being how it will happen.
“Will it happen in the context of the EU as a natural process and understood by all, or will it happen as a reaction to EU blindness or laziness”, wondered Rama.
These meditations came in the context of Kosovo’s visa liberalisation issue. Should the EU continue to refuse extending a visa-free regime to Kosovars, Rama hinted, borders in the Balkans may once more be redrawn.
The sceptical European publikum might move to dismiss these threats as all hat, no cattle, but, mind you, there's a crew of would-be statesmen behind the bars of Scheveningen’s prison whose project of a Greater Serbia was once lowballed as self-deluded idle talk (see how that turned out).
This is not to suggest that undue paranoia is a particularly productive way of approaching all future border-setting ploys.
But the memory of the nationalist hysteria and aggressive ultimata which, time and again, managed to combust the region’s powder keg should invite careful consideration of how credible the Albanian PM’s threat really is.
A 'Great Albanian' state
That a problem exists is evident: a Gallup poll conducted among ethnic Albanians in 2010 revealed that 62 percent of them in Albania, 81 percent in Kosovo and 52 percent in Macedonia supported the formation of a "Great Albanian" state.
A cavalier assessment of what these numbers suggest is, at best, grossly irresponsible.
But, a proper understanding of Albanian expansionism must, I think, go beyond the matter-of-fact reporting of a security brief.
The stark contrast between the grandeur of the Greater Albanian idea - an ethnic state encompassing Albania, Kosovo, parts of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia - and the reality of life within these mythical Greater Albanian borders is important to grasp.
This contrast is nowhere more apparent than in downtown Tirana.
I remember visiting the place a couple years ago; the robust highway which took me from the country’s northern border to the capital was dotted with bunkers, concrete monuments to the totalitarian madness which erected them.
The few blocks of Tirana’s inner centre display the usual lot - shapely buildings with dimly lit facades, wide streets, a spacious square with the national hero’s equestrian statue and a Sheraton hotel.
However, venture a little further down the road and you will witness the chaotic traffic, the decaying architecture, and the squalor of run-down neighbourhoods.
This inner-city bubble, shielding the fiction of order and strength from a reality in which neither exists, is reminiscent of those colossal parade boulevards in Bucharest and former East Berlin - grand facades built to conceal poverty, misgovernance, and corruption.
It seems to me that, in a certain sense, the Greater Albania dream is another layer of this facade.
That the arousal of aggressive expansionism is an efficient antidote to domestic distress and discontent has been one of the sad facts of history.
We have seen it, not so long ago, in the region, when bellicose calls to an ethnically pure Greater Serbia were (successfully) made in the midst of a failing process of democratic transition and a massive economic crisis.
We are seeing a similar occurrence in Russia, whose regime’s (fairly recent) turn towards overt ethno-imperialism has been, at least in part, motivated by the grievances articulated by the 2011 wave of anti-Putin protests.
As Walter Benjamin would put it, “behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution”.
In Albania, the fall of totalitarian dictatorship in 1991 and the subsequent years of anarchy lead to a transitional process which yielded much similar results as elsewhere in south-eastern Europe - frail institutions, soaring crime, rampant corruption, illiberal governments, and false elections.
Meanwhile, the average Albanian citizen lives on less than €400 per month.
In Kosovo, the post-independence euphoria, though still strong, is encountering an increasingly formidable challenge - the reality of a deeply dysfunctional state, with a third of the country and over half of the youth unemployed, and three out of 10 Kosovars officially living in poverty.
It is within this predicament that the Greater Albanian opiate finds its way into the bloodstream of a disenchanted populace. As the discontent grows stronger, the political elites should be expected to resort to this sedative with increasing ardour.
Rama’s criticism of “EU blindness or laziness” is not, therefore, solely an attempt at blackmailing the European Union (“if you don’t grant Kosovo a visa-free regime, we will drag the region into another round of ethnic tensions”).
It is also a panicked reaction to a mounting challenge to the self-legitimising narratives of Albanian and Kosovar political leaders, manifested by the waves of mass emigration from Albania and Kosovo.
In the past 25 years, a quarter of Albania’s population has left the country.
Since August 2014, at least 100,000 Kosovars have fled to Europe - 7 percent of the country’s adult population, in less than a year.
People are packing their belongings in sports bags and covertly boarding midnight busses, fleeing from the fictitious realm of Greater Albania into less romanticized, but more prosperous countries.
One is reminded of Milton Friedman’s assertion that migration is voting with one’s feet - if so, the hypothetical party of Kosovars who recently decided to emigrate would be the third largest and, by far, the fastest growing political force in Kosovo.
If Rama and Thaci’s declared wish came true and EU borders were fully open, one can only imagine how much emptier the supposed Greater Albanian territory would become.
The ensuing exodus would, in a way, be an ipso facto vote of no-confidence to societies whose prospects inspire no optimism and political elites that offer no solutions.
Beating the war drums will do no good and may cause much harm - the sooner Rama and Thaci realised this, the better off everyone will be.
Fedja Pavlovic is a philosophy student at Leuven university in Belgium. Send him a tweet at @FedjaPavlovic.