The Western Balkan facelift and the integration of Albanians

The Western Balkan facelift and the integration of Albanians




Following an eventful June, Montenegro is in NATO, Macedonia is out Brussels’ doghouse and Albania’s pro-EU government has a new-mandate. Kosovo’s government is more of a mystery. And Serbia’s government is now being led by an openly gay woman — a development seen by many as a mere facelift.


While the Western Balkans made significant steps toward Euro-Atlantic integration, major ethnic-related issues remain unresolved and largely unaddressed. One such issue is the future of Albanians living outside of Albania.


The rosy picture is that the entire Western Balkans will integrate into the EU and possibly NATO. Borders will be abolished and rival ethnic groups will live peacefully and prosperously together, enjoying freedom of movement across the region and beyond.


That vision is coming into fruition very slowly, if at all. The Western Balkans is rife with poverty, inefficiency and corruption, and ethnic tensions tend to flare up several times a year. Western integration is progressing, albeit at a very slow pace for some.


Over the last month, however, there have been a couple of milestones. Montenegro formally joining NATO is noteworthy given that the alliance dropped bombs in Montenegro in 1999, killing eight people. And just last year, Russia allegedly carried out a coup attempt with the aim of stopping Montenegro from joining NATO.


On May 31, Zoran Zaev became the prime minster of Macedonia. Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic party, has for several years been the West’s choice to lead Macedonia over former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the nationalist VMRO party. Since Zaev has taken over, Macedonia has relaunched talks with Greece over the multi-decade name dispute. The dispute between Athens and Skopje over Macedonia’s name has prevented the small Balkan state from joining NATO. Now Skopje, Athens and Brussels are all showing interest in resolving the issue, and Macedonia could join the alliance under a provisional name in the near future.


As Zaev tries to mend ties with Macedonia’s neighbors and cozy up in Brussels, what is being overlooked is Macedonia’s internal ethnic conflict. Zaev rose to power due largely to the support of ethnic Albanians. During last year’s election campaign, he wooed some Albanian voters away from voting for Albanian parties. Then following the election, Albanian parties struck a coalition deal with Zaev, rather than Gruevski, who narrowly came in first place. Earlier this year, it was reported that Zaev agreed to a demand on making Albanian an official language nationwide in Macedonia. That caused a flareup of tensions in Macedonia, which climaxed with nationalists storming the parliament and leaving Zaev covered in blood.


Now it appears the agreement on raising the status of the Albanian language was never a solid deal or Zaev has backtracked on the plan. But the demands of Macedonia’s Albanians are not going away.


Officially, Albanians constitute 25 percent of Macedonia’s population. But there has not been a census since 2002, and the demographics may be shifting in the Albanians’ favor. The Albanian population is not wholly committed to a future inside Macedonia. If given the chance, Albanians in Macedonia’s northwest might vote to unite with Albania.


Macedonian nationalists are aware of these sentiments, albeit their sources of information tend to be propaganda coming from Skopje or Moscow, which try to foster division for political gain. Macedonian nationalists are concerned that if the Albanian language gets official language status nationwide, ethnic Albanians will next demand federalization of the country, followed by secession.


Tetovo municipality building
Tetovo municipality building

While pro-Gruevski and Russian media in the Balkans are probably pumping some people full of fear, concerns over possible federalization and secession have some legitimacy. Ask Albanians living in Tetovo, for instance, whether they want their city to be part of Macedonia or Albania and you are bound to find more than a few who favor the latter. Tetovo, which is the hub of Macedonia’s predominantly Albanian region, more closely resembles Albania than Macedonia, albeit with a more Muslim and religious population than Albania. In Tetovo, Albanian flags are prominently displayed — even in front of City Hall — and the Albanian language is heard around town on the streets and in businesses.


As with Albania, Kosovo held parliamentary elections last month. The outcome of the two votes was dramatically different. The Albanian election, which took place Sunday, appears to have resulted in the ruling Socialist Party winning a parliamentary majority, something it lacked during its recent stint in power. Prime Minister Edi Rama is now expected to speed up EU-ordered judicial reforms and launch membership talks with Brussels.


Two weeks prior to the election in Albania, voters went to polls in Kosovo for snap parliamentary elections. The outcome of the vote was inconclusive. A coalition led by the former ruling party came in third place. A separate coalition, which has nominated former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader Ramush Haradinaj for prime minister, came in first place. Haradinaj has twice been acquitted of war crimes, and he was arrested earlier this year in France on a Serbian war crimes warrant.


The most notable takeaway from Kosovo’s election is the performance of Vetevendosje, a party viewed by some as a radical, leftist, Albanian nationalist movement. Vetevendosje, which was the only major party to run alone in Kosovo’s June 11 election, came in second with 27 percent of the vote, trailing only the coalition led by former KLA officials, which received 34 percent. Vetevendosje is very popular among Kosovo’s youth and figures to keep rising in popularity in the coming years. Currently, Vetevendosje even stands a chance of forming a government due to the inconclusive outcome of the election.


In recent years, Vetevendosje politicians repeatedly set off tear gas in the parliament, and the party was tied to some violent street protests. The party vehemently opposes Kosovo’s EU-brokered deals with Serbia and Montenegro, which have thus far failed to gain parliamentary approval in Pristina. The deal with Serbia would create an association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo, and the agreement with Montenegro is a border demarcation deal that critics say would force Kosovo to cede some land.


As shown by Vetevendosje’s surge, the zeitgeist in Kosovo is no longer that of Pristina doing what Brussels tells it to do. In further signs of disagreement with Kosovo’s western overlords, the party and its supporters vehemently oppose privatization and have advocated holding a referendum on Kosovo uniting with Albania.


Given that the political will in Kosovo is shifting toward taking a more confrontational stance with its neighbors and with Brussels, the small state, which still lacks full recognition, is on an unclear path. NATO is for the most part keeping the peace in Kosovo, but Kosovo has the weakest chance among all Balkan states of joining the EU.


If Vetevendosje rises to power and EU memberships looks like it is merely a fantasy, Kosovo could pursue a union with Albania. Albanian Prime Minister Rama has said he would not rule out a union with Kosovo if Brussels turns away Pristina. While it remains to be seen whether Tirana and Pristina would actually follow through on the threat, the mere prospect of a referendum on Kosovo joining Albania could cause tensions in the region to ignite.


Regional integration


NATO has a strong chance of adding Macedonia, and it already controls Kosovo, though Kosovo is not a member of the alliance. Hence, NATO effectively controls the entire Balkans, with the exception of Serbia and Bosnia.


EU integration is a more murky picture. Montenegro has a decent shot of joining the bloc, possibly followed by Albania. Serbia, unlike Albania, is already engaged in membership talks, but there is no clear understanding of what Brussels will demand that Belgrade do with respect to Kosovo. Macedonia, with its EU membership bid stagnating for nearly a decade, could see the process speed up now that it has a government viewed favorably in Brussels. But Macedonian EU membership remains a distant possibility. Bosnian membership is an even more distant possibility, and Kosovo lags behind Bosnia.


With Russia trying to exploit tensions in the Balkans and use its influence in certain areas, particularly Serb-controlled regions, to halt NATO and EU expansion, the West is essentially in a race to integrate the region. Yet the West has no plan to expedite the process, and tensions that Moscow can exploit continue to bubble beneath and sometimes above the surface.


By Josh Friedman

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