Athens-Tirana relations sink to new low: Dispute highlights a new Balkan crisis - the fate of ethnic Albanians, says Tony Barber

Click to follow
RELATIONS between Albania and Greece, rarely amicable, hit rock bottom yesterday after Greece vowed to expel up to 200,000 illegal Albanian immigrants and Tirana accused Athens of inciting ethnic Greek separatism in Albania. 'Political and clerical circles are purposely inciting anti-Albanian hysteria to cover up systematic interference in Albania's internal affairs and to mask their attempts to Hellenise Albania and the Albanian people,' Tirana said.

The dispute highlighted a little-discussed aspect of the general crisis in the Balkans: the fate of the region's ethnic Albanians. As many as 6 million Albanians live in the Balkans, with at least 3 million in Albania proper, 2million in Serbian-ruled Kosovo, 200,000 to 700,000 in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and others in southern Serbia and Montenegro. There are also at least 80,000 in Italy, descendants of mercenaries who fought for King Alfonso of Naples in the 15th century and of Albanians who fled Ottoman rule.

Many Albanians in the Balkans suffer discrimination, and some activists hope that one day all Albanians will be united in a Greater Albanian state. The Albanians have the highest birthrate in Europe, and some demographers predict that, if the trend continues, Albanians will outnumber Serbs in the 21st century and rival Greeks as the largest Balkan nationality. This prospect alarms Serbs and Greeks and has reinforced their determination to keep Albanian aspirations in check.

One cause of the Greek-Albanian row is the arrival of about 200,000 Albanians in Greece over the past three years to escape the economic collapse of their homeland. Greek officials say the Albanians have committed hundreds of robberies, murders and rapes, and they have expelled tens of thousands of illegal immigrants this year. At least 8,500 have been sent across the Greek border since Friday, and the Greek government spokesman, Vassilis Magginas, said yesterday that the drive would continue until all illegal immigrants had returned home.

The dispute also involves Albania's Greek minority. Albania puts this minority at only 60,000, but Greece - which regards Albanians of Orthodox faith as Greeks - says the true figure is 300,000 to 400,000, or about one in 10 of Albania's 3.3 million people. Greece accuses Albania of mistreating ethnic Greeks, and some Greeks (but not the government) even lay claim to the southern part of Albania that Greeks call Northern Epirus.

Albanian police last week expelled a Greek Orthodox Church official, Chrysostomos Maidonis, from the southern town of Gjirokaster, accusing him of encouraging Greek separatists. The move apparently caused unrest in the town and was the immediate reason for Greece's retaliatory deportation of Albanian immigrants.

The Albanians, descendants of Illyrians and Thracians who once inhabited the Balkans, speak an Indo-European language distinct from Greek and Slavic languages. However, there is a cultural and linguistic difference between Ghegs - Albanians from northern Albania and Kosovo - and Tosks, who live in southern Albania.

The Albanians fell under Turkish rule in 1478 and did not achieve independence until 1912. Italy conquered Albania in 1939 and, after the Axis powers carved up Yugoslavia in 1941, a short-lived Greater Albania was created that included Kosovo and Albanian-populated areas of Macedonia and Montenegro. Many Albanians look back with pride on that period.

From 1944 to 1985, the Stalinist Enver Hoxha ruled Albania and isolated it. Hoxha was a Tosk, and Albanian Communism was primarily a Tosk phenomenon. If a Greater Albania were created, however, the Ghegs would be in a majority and the political centre of gravity would move from Tirana to Pristina and Prizren in Kosovo. The Gheg-Tosk rivalry is one reason why Albanians may find it hard to form a united state. Another is that Serbs, Greeks and Slav Macedonians all fiercely oppose an enlarged Albania. Still, from a geographical point of view, unification would be easy, as most Albanians live in compact areas next to each other.