On November 28, as is the custom every year, Albanians around the region will mark the 107th anniversary of Albania’s independence, also known as Flag Day. There will be no celebrations due to the heavy earthquake that hit Albania, but the streets in Tirana, Prishtina and other cities in the Balkans inhabited by Albanians will be filled with the red flag and the double-headed black eagle.
The symbol with Byzantine origins, used is medieval times by Skanderbeg during the resistance against Ottoman invasion, was revived in the modern era by the Albanian national renaissance movement, which put Skanderbeg at the center of the national narrative. Together with the distinct Albanian language, the flag stands today as a central pillar of Albanian cultural and political identity.
But behind the strong symbolic unity that will be felt on Flag Day – and the persistent sense that Albanian national identity is something so deeply entrenched that other “state identities” can only run parallel and secondary to it – political relations between Albanians in the region are becoming increasingly more complex.
A new poll conducted jointly by the Open Society Foundations of Albania and Kosovo with the citizens of both countries, parts of which were leaked to the press, provides valuable insights. It also gives some clues on how these relations might evolve politically over the next decade.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has frequently toyed with the idea of national unification and provocatively imagined that Albania and Kosovo might within the next ten years have a joint President. Kosovo’s incoming Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, has had national unification with Albania as central to his agenda. The Tirana branch of his movement has even scheduled a March for Unity on this Flag Day.
Many dismiss pan-Albanian rhetoric as mere populism for domestic use, or as blackmail against the international community to secure faster EU integrations. While there is a lot of truth to the political expediency of this rhetoric and the fact that it serves elites to distract attention from other problems, the other side of the coin is that the rhetoric is used precisely because it speaks to widely shared and powerful sentiments.
In light of the recent geopolitical turmoil and the collapse of EU integrations, the idea of national unification has now also been implanted with a fresh sense of possibility.
The OSF polls suggest that national unification enjoys considerable majority support in both countries. If given the chance to vote in a referendum, 75% of Albanians in Albania and 64% of Kosovo Albanians would vote in favor of national unification.
But a deeper reading of the poll results shows that, while in essence the YES answer is very meaningful as an articulation of a political aspiration, it is also somewhat reflexive. The answers stumbles onto many BUT’s as it gets translated into political reality, including lack of clarity of what unification actually means and what it will cost to get it.
First of all, the fact that support for unification is higher in Albania than in Kosovo seems somewhat counterintuitive. Nationalist sentiment has been less expressed there than in Kosovo. But the data suggests that the unification narrative in Albania remains present and strong, but stays dormant because it has not been politicized enough.
Albanians in Albania broadly subscribe to the narrative of Kosovo having unjustly been separated from Albania when it declared independence. But over the past decades the country has had way too many troubles of its own to have been able to afford the luxury of pursuing national projects, beyond the support and solidarity it has provided to Kosovo’s freedom and independence bids.
This low “prioritization” of unification is also visible in the recent poll, in a question that might be taken as a proxy for the intensity of the desire for unification. When respondents were asked whether they are willing to pay the costs of the project (more specifically, “pay a tax”), support for unification in Albania drops to 29% while in Kosovo it drops less, at 44%, but still to less than a majority.
This rather surprisingly low “intensity of support” for unification in Kosovo leads to the second key insight, which is that the Kosovo-centric stream of thinking and pride in Kosovar identity has indeed solidified during first decade of statehood. While the Kosovo-centric outlook used to be largely limited to those segments of Kosovar Albanian society that had a higher degree of integration in Yugoslavia, it now seems to have been embraced also by parts of the new post-war middle class.
There are way too many reasons for why this has happened, and they require a whole new article to explain. But the most frequent reason cited by poll respondents who are positioned against unification is that “separate states would work better”.
On Kosovo’s side, there is undoubtedly an increasing unease with the asymmetry of power and the trauma of possibly being absorbed once again as a periphery. There is also a historically induced mistrust by parts of Kosovar society towards Tirana elites as not understanding Kosovo well enough and thus potentially neglecting it.
At core, both in Prishtina and Tirana, the key friction is about power sharing. This partly explains why in both countries support for unification is lowest in regions where the capital cities are.
During the last decade relations between the two countries have been stripped from the romanticism and the symbolisms of having a common identity, towards an understanding that this identity is shared by two different political realities.
Nothing illustrates this fact better than the poor state of trade relations. While exchanges between Albania and Kosovo have flourished in the fields of culture and media (where state barriers are inexistent) – to the point that it now almost feels as one cultural space – the same has not happened in terms of market integration. Vested economic interests in both countries have continuously created roadblocks for one another just as much as they have with other countries in the region.
Frequent joint-government meetings have been unable to deliver anything beyond empty rhetoric to overcome these obstacles. Politicians remain accountable to the constituencies and economic interests within their polity and this remains a more powerful force than abstract notions of identity.
The third most important insight from the poll is that while Albanians in principle want unification, a very small share (23 percent in Albania, 17 percent in Kosovo) believe that such a thing is possible. But the pessimism is not the product of people viewing internal differences as insurmountable – most consider the international community and regional countries as being the greatest obstacle.
It is unclear how relations will evolve in the next years. Much will depend on the structural forces that are pushing the countries apart and those pushing them closer. But one thing is for sure: economic and political currents have caused big tectonic shifts in the region over the past century, yet Albanian identity and its historical narrative has shown to be remarkably resilient as a basis for solidarity and political action.
In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans.
After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration.
The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region.
You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.