Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania ruffled feathers Monday night with remarks he made during an interview on a Kosovar radio show. “The unification of the Albanians of Albania and Kosovo … is inevitable and unquestionable,” he said. “The question is how it will happen. Will it happen in the context of the E.U. as a natural process and understood by all, or will it happen as a reaction to E.U. blindness or laziness?”
Championing a so-called “Greater Albania” — the name coined for the hypothetical union between Albania and Kosovo — is a clear affront to Serbia, which considers the latter nation to be under the authority of Belgrade. Kosovo endured ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serbia before declaring independence in 2008. Since then, it has been diplomatically recognized by over 100 countries, but many doubts about its sovereign status remain. The Serbian reaction to Rama’s inflammatory interview was predictable: Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic tweeted that Kosovo would “never unite” with Albania, and one presidential advisor accused Rama of “banging the war drums.”
While the battle analogy may seem histrionic — many have argued that visions of a “Greater Albania” are more symbolic than actionable — metaphors of violence certainly ring true for the region. The former Yugoslavia famously devolved into ethnic and national conflict in the 1990s, with the ethnic Albanian Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo displaced, maimed and slaughtered at staggering rates. But Albania proper was not part of Yugoslavia, and the peoples of Albania and Kosovo thus developed under different national cultures. By 2008, when Kosovo announced its own statehood, Kosovar Albanian identity had become a sort of rallying cry for those who had suffered under the Serbian yoke.
Still, Albania and Kosovo share a long-standing kinship that has affected relations between Tirana and Belgrade. Long stretches of relative calm have a tendency to blow-up at slight provocation: in September, a soccer match between the two countries famously ended in nationalist riots after a politically-inclined reveler flew a drone over the playing field that was carrying a “Greater Albania” flag. In October, Rama’s met with Vucic to build bridges — marking the first time since World War II that an Albanian leader made a diplomatic trip to Belgrade. The uneasy truce between the two is underscored by the Kosovo issue, the transnational elephant in the room.
While unification with Albania still doesn’t attract much support in Kosovo, recent events suggest tension is mounting within the ambiguously independent republic as well. Violent clashes between protesters and security officials have erupted in recent months, sparked by controversies over boneheaded comments by a local councilman making light of the Bosnian genocide. Serbia and Kosovo also continue to play tug-of-war with the Trepca mine, which represents billions of dollars in mineral wealth and inconveniently straddles a hotly contested territory.
Albania may envisage absorbing Kosovo in the context of eventual E.U. membership, to which it is arguably closer than is Kosovo. But for Pristina, joining Albania would be admitting what the situation on the ground has hinted toward for a while — that despite an excess of enthusiasm, national feeling and Western support, many obstacles remain on the path toward becoming a viable state.