Albanians’ Aid to ‘Brothers’ Has Limits


In cafes and on street corners, anywhere people meet to talk politics in this hardscrabble capital, a consensus is taking shape: Albanians will do anything for their beleaguered “brothers” in the neighboring Yugoslav province of Kosovo--anything, that is, except fight for them.

Just over the border, an estimated 250 people have died since February in Kosovo, which is part of Serbia but is 90% ethnic Albanian. Serbian forces have been trying to suppress an armed insurgency among ethnic Albanians there by shelling, burning and shooting up villages believed to be along rebel supply lines.

International observers worry that if the fighting in Kosovo escalates, it could spread into Albania or Macedonia, even flaring as far off as Greece and Turkey.

But a sampling of opinion here suggests that if the Kosovo conflict does spill over into Albania, it won’t be because Albanians have rushed into the breach for their ethnic “brothers” across the mountains. Poverty, hunger and a horror of renewed anarchy have left them far too exhausted for that.


“Of course, the Albanians are not prepared to go and fight,” said Remzi Lani, executive director of the Albanian Media Institute, a UNESCO-funded foundation. “People are very tired, very busy just surviving. Most of them want to leave the country. If you want to leave the country, you don’t want to fight. They will offer their solidarity, but that is the maximum that they will do.”

New Risks for Rump Yugoslavia

To be sure, the Kosovo conflict raises tremendous new risks for the rump Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and its tiny partner, Montenegro. But the border combat is especially troubling for Albania, a volatile, grindingly poor “developing democracy” that gets more foreign aid per capita than anywhere else in Europe. An estimated 14,000 Kosovo refugees already have crossed into Albania, straining its facilities to the breaking point; hundreds more come daily.

The fighting-age males among them have begun using the rugged Albanian north as a guerrilla resupply zone. “It’s a kind of Ho Chi Minh Trail,” Lani said.


As thousands in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, continued to protest the Serbian military campaign Wednesday, the opposition leader here has been trying to whip up a nationalist fever, calling Albania’s prime minister “an enemy of the Albanian nation” for not doing more to help the “blessed” Kosovo rebels.

All the political parties mouth the nationalist slogan, “One Nation, One Direction,” and the parliament has recognized Kosovo as an independent state, though the government has not.

Recently, a Tirana newspaper went so far as to print an impassioned plea that Albanians stop selling their Kalashnikov assault rifles to the Kosovo insurgents and offer them free instead. Ask an Albanian what he thinks about the residents of Kosovo, and he will almost invariably respond, “They are our brothers.”

But probe deeper, and it becomes clear that these are “brothers” who were completely cut off from each other for nearly half a century because of Albania’s uniquely harsh brand of isolationist communism. And now that the two halves of the family are getting reacquainted, they are finding they don’t really have all that much in common anymore--or even like each other all that much.


During their long years under dictatorship, Albanians--if they thought of the cousins in Kosovo at all--pictured them as the lucky owners of houses, land and two or three cars.

A Rose-Colored Dream of Albania

The Kosovo residents, meanwhile, developed a rose-colored dream of Albania as the national motherland, a paradise with no dominating Serbs to push their kind around. Those in Kosovo loyally named their children after Albanian towns, taught them Albanian history and read them Albanian literary classics. They dreamed of one day reuniting their partitioned “nation” into a Greater Albania.

But no sooner had the Albanian dictatorship fallen in 1991 than these illusions were shattered.


“The first foreign businessmen to arrive in Albania were from Kosovo,” recalled Sokol Balla, a journalist in Tirana. “They showed us the face of capitalism for the first time, and believe me, it was not a pretty face.”

Cheap Imports at High Prices

Arriving over Albania’s destroyed roads, Kosovo merchants brought cheap imports for sale at unheard-of prices. One defaced the heart of Tirana by digging an enormous hole, then leaving without building the luxury hotel he had promised. Another set up what is said to be the first of this country’s notorious pyramid investment schemes.

“Before, we had a kind of fruit juice we could buy for half a lek,” said Emin Barci, a young economist relaxing in a Tirana bar on a recent afternoon, referring to the Albanian currency. “But when the Kosovans came here, they started selling the same juice for three leks. That’s six times the price.


“We were coming from the most absolute poverty that existed in the world,” he said. “And under the Communist regime, we had been taught that no one should steal and that capitalism robs the workers through the market. So, when the Kosovans came here, we were asking, ‘Why are they doing this to us?’ ”

Asked whether he would support Kosovo’s liberation movement now, Barci said, “Personally, I care. We are all brothers over there. But there is no need to rally, or to furnish them with weapons and ammunition. Whatever they need, they took last year.”

He was referring to the violence that swept Albania in March 1997, when national arms depots were sacked and a huge quantity of weaponry was stolen. Many of the guns are believed to have found their way into the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the shadowy insurgency now fighting for the province’s independence.

Further chilling any nationalist fever in Albania is this country’s continuing economic woes of a scale unimaginable elsewhere in Europe. Though the economy’s free fall has been halted since the anarchy of last year, a full 30% to 40% of the work force remains unemployed, the Labor Ministry says. Decrepit factories left from the Communist “self-sufficiency” days stand idle. The land under them is, in some cases, disputed and unusable.


Even those lucky enough to have jobs in these circumstances are unsure of getting paychecks. The state-owned companies that provide water, electricity and telephone service provide jobs--but few customers have the means or desire to pay their bills. The prime minister himself recently had his phone disconnected for nonpayment. Strapped for cash, the utilities are often months behind in meeting payrolls and can’t make repairs.

The result: a merry-go-round of strikes, broken water mains, overheated transformers, water shortages and blackouts--and more customer refusals to pay.

Garbage collection is a nonstarter idea even here, and the streets and lanes of the cities are awash in trash. Beneath the rubbish, the streets themselves are broken.

This all adds up to an enormous deterrent to any potential investor who might be tempted to build up a business and create jobs in Albania--and that’s not even mentioning the armed gangs who roam the countryside, picking off passing cars and trucks.


Even the aging ferry that provides passage for refugees from the remote northern borderlands toward the better-off south comes under fire at times by thugs trying to extort a “tax” for its use of “their” lake.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of Albanians--an estimated one-third of the population--have fled this catastrophe, to Italy, Greece, Switzerland and Germany. There, they take the menial jobs no one else wants and send the money home to their families. Each day in Tirana, throngs can be seen jostling for visas in front of the German Embassy. Newspapers give extensive coverage to Greece’s deployment of tanks along its border with Albania to stop the flow of human misery.

Sheer Survival Takes Precedence

Against this backdrop, the decades-old dream of uniting Kosovo and Albania in a Greater Albania has taken a distant second to sheer survival. If people here dream at all at the moment, it’s not that Albania will unite with Kosovo, but simply that their country will remain stable long enough to start bridging the chasm between themselves and the rest of Europe.


“I feel sad for the citizens of Kosovo, but I feel sad as a citizen of Europe, not as an Albanian nationalist,” said Roland Sahatcia, who works in a Tirana print shop making bus tickets.

Though he would like to help the refugees, Sahatcia said, that was all he was willing to do for the Kosovo cause. “My mother came from Kosovo, and she said our family had been fighting for centuries for the liberation of Kosovo,” he said. “And during the Communist regime, we were educated to think that we could solve our problems with arms. But now, it isn’t possible to think like that. We’re part of Europe, and it’s stupid to think of a war as a way of solving national problems.”