The world has known very little about Albania over the years and even less about the Albanian people, who are descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Illyria, which as Illyricum was among the most prized prefectures of the Roman Empire.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival in the region of the Slavs in the 6th century, the Illyrians, later to be called Albanians, have waged a long struggle with their neighbors. That battle goes on today in Kosovo, a disputed region of the former Yugoslavia, where 2 million Albanians, 90% of the population, are ruled by 200,000 Serbs, descendants of the Slavs.
Altogether 7 million Albanians live in Albania itself and five surrounding countries: Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece.
The Albanians in Kosovo exist in constant fear of brutality at the hands of the repressive Slav regime, as witness the massacre three weeks ago of 80 Albanians by Serb police and paramilitary troops.
But the international community, including the U.S., has so far refused to support the Albanians' campaign for independence, insisting that they should find their future within Serbia. This solution, they say, would ensure "political stability" in the region and prevent turmoil from spilling over into neighboring countries, perhaps even pitting two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, against each other.
It is true that Serbs have military preponderance in Kosovo and big brother Russia in their corner, but the world community's insistence that Albanians remain under a regime that treats them as second-class citizens will certainly not do much for political stability either.
Forced to live in circumstances they despise, Albanians will eventually rise up, and the whole region may catch fire as it did in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.
Kosovo is often compared to Bosnia as an example of what can happen when nationalist feelings are left unchecked. But Kosovo is different in two important ways: It is almost totally Albanian, while Bosnia was divided into Serb, Croat and Muslim sectors. And Kosovo is surrounded on all sides by Albanians living in neighboring countries, who could be expected to come to the Kosovars' assistance if Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic begins a campaign of ethnic cleansing as he did in Bosnia.
Despite the brutality of Serb aggression in Bosnia, the conflict there at least could be contained. If an all-out slaughter of Albanians is begun by Belgrade, the conflict almost certainly would spread across borders.
Although separated from their brethren in Albania for almost five decades by the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Albanians in Kosovo consider Albania their motherland, and national ties are strong. There is one Albanian language, one national flag, one culture and one tradition. Although Albanians belong to different religions--Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim--they always consider themselves Albanian first.
Kosovo's autonomy within the former Yugoslavia was abolished in 1989 by Milosevic. Serb identity and authority were imposed on all public institutions and enforced by military occupation. Despite the danger of being beaten, jailed and killed by a regime that has no regard for human life, Kosovo Albanians took their fate into their own hands and established parallel institutions, including schools and hospitals.
It is puzzling how the international community expects Kosovo Albanians to live under a Serb regime while recognizing Srpska, a region in Bosnia with a handful of Serbs, as a republic.
Serbia's claim that Kosovo is integral because it is the cradle of Serb civilization is only a myth to hide a more practical reason for holding on to it. Kosovo is rich in precious metals like gold, silver, copper and lead, mineral wealth that should be owned by the people who have occupied the land since prehistory. The usurping Serbs were granted the Kosovo portion of Albania only in 1913 as part of a Great Powers deal designed to head off a wider war, which soon occurred anyhow.
The other excuse Serbia often gives to justify its repression and military occupation in Kosovo is fear of its secession and reunion with the motherland in a "Greater Albania." Kosovo Albanians do indeed want to secede from Serbia, but, as a compromise, would agree to remain independent--for now. But the stronger the repression of Albanians by Belgrade, the stronger will be the drive to unite with Albania.
Today the international community is making the same mistake it did in 1991 at the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia. After seven years and a brutal war, the Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians are all independent. Why shouldn't the Albanians have the same right? And why wait for a war to break out?
If peace is ever to hold in that region, the Albanian national problem has to be resolved fairly, once and for all. Serbia and the international community must come to realize that the Albanians of Kosovo have the same right to live independently as a republic as has been granted all their neighbors.