Love Unrequited? Albanians’ Troubled Relationship with Europe

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Albanians still look for validation to a Europe whose attitudes to them remain heavily informed by racism, Islamophobia and stereotypes about ‘Oriental’ others.

Albanians from Albania and Kosovo are portrayed as some of the most Euro-enthusiast persons in the world. However an increasing number of Albanians criticize EU officials for not dealing fairly with the Albanian-Serb question in Kosovo and for postponing their accession to the EU.

In the light of the Berlin Process summit held in Tirana on October 16, 2023, it is useful to look back at Albanian-European relations of the late-19th and early-20th century to better comprehend the long-term dynamics at play in the Albanian-EU integration process.

‘Europe’ and the Albanian national movement

When Albanians feel mistreated by the EU, they often find consolation in the poetry of Gjergj Fishta, who defined Europe a “whore” that denied God and sacrificed Albanians’ rights to the Balkan states and Russia. Fishta’s poem Lahuta e Malcis was published in 1937. But its verses perfectly represent the current feelings of many Albanians towards Brussels, which are the product of a longer history of Albanian-European relations.

For late-19th and early-20th century Albanians, the term “Europe” defined the authority of Great Powers and the Western civilization. The objective of Albanian and other Balkan national activists was to deracialize their nations by proving their European roots. This would eventually legitimize their “emancipation” from the Ottoman Empire, which was described by Western Europeans as an “Oriental” other. However, on their way to becoming “Europeans”, Albanians were confronted by the Great Powers’ expansionist and racist attitudes, which often led them to embrace anti-modernist and anti-colonial stands.

One of the earliest critics of “Europe” was Pashko Vasa. Born in Shkoder in a lower middle-class Catholic family, Vasa joined the Italian Risorgimento in 1848 and fought against the Austrians in Venice. He was accused of treason and held in jail for several months. In his memoirs, he affirmed that he was unjustly detained because he was a foreigner. After being released, he went to Istanbul to pursue a career in the Ottoman administration. In Réflextions sur la legislation en Turquie (1869) he criticized the adoption of Western juridical norms, affirming: “We are neither French, nor Germans; We are Ottomans; our virgin (…) population, cannot change its kind with one that it’s not her own. (…) We have to follow the model of the West, but we have to be very careful that [Western] civilization does not alter our features”.

Albanians’ biggest flaw in the eyes of Europeans was that the majority of them were Muslim. In Western public opinion, Islam and Europeanness were not compatible. This made Albanians and other Balkan Muslims vulnerable to ethnic cleansing during the formation of post-Ottoman states. Turkey’s defeat in the 1877-1878 war against Russia, and the decisions of the Congress of Berlin of 1878, led to the expulsion of many Muslims from their homelands.

In his 1879 book La verité sur l’Albanie et les Albanais, Pashko Vasa criticised the double standards that the Great Powers adopted towards Ottoman populations: “Europe, which has taken upon itself the cause of the Christians, has not uttered a word of empathy for the Muslims.”

In the 1890s, the situation in the Balkans deteriorated due to politically driven violence of Bulgarian/Macedonian bands. Albanians became targets of hostile representation in the European press that portrayed them as criminals and religious fanatics. These opinions were particularly popular in France thanks to intellectuals such as Cyprien Robert, who thought the Albanians would be extinguished by vendettas, assimilation and/or annihilation by superior nations (Les Slaves de Turquie, 1844).

At the end of 1902, the Great Powers gave the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, a note in which, among other things, urged him to deal with “Arnaut criminals” that tormented the Christian population. In a congress organized in Paris by Armenian and Macedonian committees, French politician Francis de Pressensé declared that Albanians were the major cause of troubles in the Balkans.

Albanian intellectuals were often informed by the same colonialist mentality of the French press. They did not deny that their compatriots were retrograde but refused to consider them more “savage” than their neighbours. Faik Konica, editor of magazine Albania that was published in Brussels, replied to de Pressensé that Bulgarians were more retrograde than Albanians because they pursued religious political goals: “The Bulgarians are rebelling (…) as Christians; is not a matter of human rights; We are faced with a movement that wants to substitute a religious supremacy with another.”

World War I knocks myth of ‘European civilization’

The atrocities of the Balkan wars boosted the myth of the Balkan violence. But the massive grave-digging enterprise of World War I dismantled the myth of European civilization. After the signature of the armistices, Gjergj Fishta joked about the alleged European civilization: “And so, the braves of Europe (…) the champions of the 20th-century civilization, who with a broken arm, who with a missing leg, (…) have no reason to fear that their civilized brothers can kill them with asphyxiating gasses or other means of culture and civilization.”

Monsignor Bumçi, president of the Albanian delegation at the Peace Conference, chastised Europe’s bias: “The Turks, personification of the Asian barbarians, have respected the autonomy of Northern Albania. The Peace Conference, expression of the European civilisation … puts Northern Albania under the slavery of her historical enemies.”

Fishta ironically compared racist conceptions on “primitive” violence with the destructive force of European modern warfare: “Ah! How barbarians are those Hottentots, that fight with sticks.” The Rome-based newspaper Kuvendi noticed that Italians viewed Albania as if it was an unknown region of equatorial Africa.

But many Albanians saw Europe as a despotic entity that they needed to appease in order to achieve political goals. During the appointment of the Albanian-Yugoslav borders in 1922, the people of Gollobordë received the international border commission chanting: “Long live Europe! Long live the friends of Albania!”

Attitudes towards Europe changed when Albanians felt neglected, despite their attempts to follow the rules of the Great Powers. The newspaper Ora e Maleve, published in Shkoder, criticized Europe for how it dealt with Albanian minorities in northern Greece after the end of the Greco-Turkish war. It affirmed that “civilized Europe” had allowed Greece to expel the local population, because, as usual, it did not care about Albanians’ rights.

A similar reaction was caused by the decision of the Great Powers to admit the Yugoslav request for border revisions in Vërmosh and Shën/Sveti Naum. A manifestation against the Great Powers was held in Shkodër (Ora e Maleve, 29 September, 1923). Commenting on the procrastination over the settlement of the borders, Ora e Maleve wrote that the commission returned home “infectis rebus” (leaving things undone). The Latin expression was taken by Sallustio’s book Bellum Iugurthinum to indicate the unreliable character of European diplomacy.

To be ‘European’ is to belong to the EU

One century has passed since these events, but the Albanian relationship with Europe is still subject to similar dynamics. In the past, “Europeanization” meant adopting a set of laws, customs and forms of government inspired by Western European states. Today, the procedure is marked by more quantifiable and precise thresholds. Being “European” means, at least for the Balkan states, being part of the EU.

Like in the past, whether Albania belongs to the Europe/EU, is doubted by many EU citizens because of lingering prejudice. During French President Macron’s visit in Albania, a member of French far-right party Rêconquete Marion Maréchal shared a post on her X account saying: No to the entry of Albania in the EU”. The post associated Albanians to “vendettas, mafia, traffics” and other misconceptions. These opinions do not only concern far-right parties. In 2018, the Dutch parliament voted against the beginning of EU negotiations with Albania because of a fear of Albanian crime and corruption, as if they were contagious diseases.

The effects of 19th-century “Europeanization” are visible in Albanian-Serbian relations in Kosovo. All Balkan states owe their independence to the Great Powers. Without their involvement in the Ottoman affairs, it would have been very difficult to achieve independence or autonomy. The process is still going on in Kosovo, which, like Albania in the early 1920s, strives for recognition in an environment that is suspicious of the Balkans and Muslims. The place of contention has moved from Vërmosh and Shën/Sveti Naum, to North Mitrovica. The actual tensions are the continuity of the 19th-century state-building process that was alimented by nationalism and the Great Powers’ endeavours to divide the Balkans into areas of influence.

The dominant role of Europe in Balkan state-building history creates a political and cultural debt with “Europe” that can never be repaid as long as the Balkan countries are unable to regulate their political issues by themselves. As long as border conflict continues, Albanians and Serbs will be under the capricious tutelage of Europe, the US or Russia. Under such circumstances, like in the past, local leaders and communities will try and captivate the favours of “Europe” (and their supporters) because it is the only tool that they have to achieve their personal or collective goals. In the past, the favours of Europe leant more towards Serbia and Yugoslavia. During the post-Yugoslav Wars, Europeans and North Americans became more sensitive to Albanians. The attitudes of Western officials towards recent incidents in Kosovo show that Albanians’ luck has started to change.

Western European leaders have promised EU membership to the Balkans as the only route to stability and peace. The EU is jealous of the influence of other actors in the area, such as Turkey, Russia and China. The EU also discourages local initiatives, such as the Open BalkansHowever, it does not offer the region a clear perspective of integration. The outcome of the high-profile meeting that took place in Tirana to relaunch the Berlin Process can be summarized with Sallustio’s phrase: “Leaving the thing undone, the delegates returned home.” The European leaders did not take serious commitments on an eventual timeframe for the adhesion of the Western Balkans to the EU.

Disappointment with Western Europe has historically produced two interrelated attitudes. Either the embrace of religious and secular projects that reorient Albanians’ belonging to different spatial and cultural coordinates, or the re-appropriation of Europe by emphasising the integrity of Albania vis-à-vis the decadence of the “West”.

Fishta’s misogynistic labelling of Europe reflects the impurity of the West vis-à-vis Vasa’s “virgin” (post)Ottoman societies. In the last three decades, major efforts have been dedicated to the Europeanization of the Balkans and very little efforts have been put to shift the Western gaze from Europe. As a result, we have more Balkan stereotypes in Western Europe and more racism in both Western Europe and the Balkans.

Many people in the Balkans look at Europe as a context in decay, due to migration from Africa and the Middle East. The consent that the EU seems to enjoy in Albania according to polls, is the reflection of a Euro-opportunistic trend. The image that Albanians have of Europe is not the same as 20 years ago. Western European officials need to update their knowledge if they want to give the EU a future in the Balkans, and vice-versa.

Source : Balkaninsight