Monday, June 05, 2006

The Albanian Diaspora – Foreign Policy Actor *

* Taken from "The Role of Albania In The Kosovo Crisis:
Why did Albania
not play the nationalist card in its foreign policy?

By Ralf Gjoni

Historically, the Albanian Diaspora has played an important role in Albania’s process of state formation and its nationalism since the dawn of Albanian renaissance in the 19th century until the emergence of the KLA and the war in Kosovo. In the 19th century, the diaspora was part of a broader cultural revolution which Albanian intellectuals undertook in order to promote the publishing of Albanian language literature. The reason why the Albanian renaissance gave so much attention to the linguistic scholarship and literature was because language was probably the strongest evidence of an Albanian homogeneity. In a nation where three religions could become a major obstacle to unity, it seems logical that the foundation of a national identity lie in the strengthening of its language and culture. This was probably the most efficient tool for Albanians who already possessed one of the oldest indo-European languages clearly distinguishable from that of the Serbs or the Greeks. Since the Ottoman authorities had strictly prohibited the use of Albanian language in written texts, the task of developing an arsenal of Albanian literature was carried by societies set up by the diaspora. Although a few of these societies were attempted secretly in Albania, more were centered among Albanian expatriates who for political, religious or economic reasons had migrated to Constantinople, Romania, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece and the United States. Their aim was to promote the use of the Albanian language and thus stimulate the national consciousness and strengthen the bonds of unity among all Albanians.[1] Similarly, the 20th century diaspora played a crucial role in the establishment and financing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as well as influencing a media war which played into the legitimization of the imagery of Serbs as oppressors and Albanians as victims.

Diasporas tend to be more nationalistic than the home country for a number of reasons. First, their geographical division with their home makes them more prone to nostalgia, thus feeding into the construction of stronger myths. Second, as it has been evident through many years of Albanian emigration, diasporas feel the need to express their solidarity with the home country, thus materializing their emotional attachment into political activism. Such political activism can be quite efficient and far more partisan than normal state politics as practiced by the home country for it relies on the idealization of historical myths and national symbols. There are two particular aspects that characterise the activism of the Albanian diaspora as the Kosovo crisis was reaching its climax. First, it was instrumental in organizing financial and human support for the KLA and its increasing armed resistance against the Serb army. Second, it fought a highly successful media and diplomatic war in the west while influencing Albanian and Kosovar politics, thus slowly emerging as an undeniable political factor in the crisis.

Frustrated with several years of passive resistance against Serb atrocities in Kosovo, the diaspora began to move towards the organization of an armed resistance. At first they started to act in sporadic forms such as guerrilla type operations. For example when five Serb policemen were cut down in a hail of bullets in 1996 around the village of Decani, responsibility was claimed by a previously unknown ethnic Albanian underground group based in Switzerland, where there is a large Albanian diaspora community.[2] However, as the regime of Milosevic continued to radically restrict the rights of the Albanian population in Kosovo, Albanian diaspora groups started to build a network of human resources responsible for collecting financial support which then enabled the KLA to have an arsenal of weaponry, essential for their military operations against Serb forces. In seeking to illustrate this network of civil society members, Stacy Sullivan writes about the Krasniqi family dispersed in the USA and Germany and how this family’s geographical dispersion had made it possible for an ideal network to build the KLA. With Florin and Ilir providing money and supplies from the diaspora, Agim helping with the logistics in Albania, and Adrian regularly crossing into Kosovo to deliver guns and conduct attacks, the KLA doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled the amount of weaponry it had at its disposal in Kosovo. This, in turn, enabled the likes of Pajaziti and Jashari (prominent guerrillas) to begin phase two of the guerrilla insurgency.[3] Even prominent Kosovar politicians publicly recognized the importance of the Albanians abroad. In a time of despair for the Kosovars, Albanian leader Ibrahim Rrugova encouraged the population by insisting that “Kosovo could build its own institutions-schools, hospitals, maybe even police – with the help of the ever increasing Albanian diaspora.[4] As it becomes evident by the above references, the diaspora was instrumental in not only supporting the KLA but also the governance system that Rrugova had undertaken in parallel with Serbian political institutions.

However, growing popular discontent with Ibrahim Rrugova’s political pacifism which had not fulfilled widespread aspirations for independence or at the least, self-governance, resulted in a major shift in the balance of internal political forces. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) explains at the time, Rugova, elected in 1992 as "president" of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo and viewed abroad before the outbreak of fighting as undisputed leader and sole representative of the Kosovo Albanians, was steadily losing influence, his political absolutism and passive pacifism increasingly irrelevant.[5] Indeed, until 1998, Ibrahim Rrugova was the unchallenged leader of the Albanians in Kosovo. However, as his pacifist discourse did not achieve any concrete results and his refusal to acknowledge the KLA seemed out of touch with the reality on the ground, his political power and authority to speak as the main representative of the Kosovar Albanians decreased significantly. Such political vacuum was quickly filled by the activities of the KLA as an organization heavily supported by the finances collected by diaspora societies operating in the back corners of Geneva, London, Detroit and New York. As Noel Malcolm suggests, whatever degree of support this ‘army’ did receive would have to be interpreted as an expression of popular frustration at the apparent inability of Ibrahim Rrugova to gain any new recognition of Kosovo’s interests from the outside world in the aftermath of Dayton.[6] Such frustration quickly turned into a major network of activities among the Albanian community abroad which used various instruments such as media coverage, internet propaganda and marketing as well as large demonstrations in most of the major western capitals to raise awareness and attract the international community’s attention.

Another development of particular interest which needs to be noted is the changing relationship between various Albanians groups in the United States. If until 1998, Albanians from Albania and Kosovar Albanians did not show much solidarity towards each-other, media coverage of Serb atrocities in Kosovo changed the course of relationships between the two. As Annie Lafontaine discovers through her interviews with Albanian immigrants in New York, after the beginning of the war (…), the Albanians from Albania realised that their fellow-countrymen needed their help. Their typical hospitality led to the creation of a new solidarity, a step forward towards the realization of unification.[7] Therefore, while the internal political factors both in Albania and Kosovo were divided, the different societies of the diaspora in the US and Western Europe managed to unify and become more effective in pushing the Kosovo issue further up among the security agendas of NATO member states. Thus, the Albanian diaspora turned into a de-facto foreign policy actor which could speak for all Albanians and not just for Kosovo. All of these developments were playing to the benefit of the KLA and their campaign. It is important to note here the powerful game which the KLA played through its public relations by using the diaspora as a supporter and speaker at the same time. As Alex Standish points out, the KLA may not have been a particularly able military force, but it fought a first-class media campaign – and that had a very significant impact upon international public opinion, the so-called “CNN Factor”, which in turn provided NATO with vital domestic support within most member states.[8] This demonstrates the changing nature of the KLA from a so-called local terrorist organisation into an efficient, transnational organisation with a developed network of human resources, financial support, marketing department and armament. In this case, we have a civil society actor with the same authority as a state.

However, what made these activities easier to undertake was the collapse of the Albanian government and the weakening of its army due to the pyramid schemes financial disaster in 1997 which had left the country in total anarchy. Such anarchy was the perfect environment for KLA operatives to buy arms and send them over to Kosovo. James Pettifer, a Balkans Expert for The Times who travelled the region during that period, reports that if until then:

‘(…) a Kosovar in southern Albania was an isolated, poverty-stricken curiosity, the new KLA visitors were from a very different background, serious well-educated young men with a purpose. Some could speak German, often with a Swiss accent. They were superb organisers. The first Albanian diaspora forces were entering the fray, something new was coming to the Balkans from the rich streets of Geneva and Zurich, an ironic revenge of the poorest people in Europe, nurtured by little newspapers with names like Zëri i Kosovës that kept hopes of freedom alive’. [9]

The above evidence highlights the transnational nature of the diasporas which make them an undeniable international factor. Diasporas are an important element of global civil society and at times vital in ensuring the internationalisation of a particular crisis concerning their home country. This has been evident among the Cuban community in Florida and their effective lobbying in the US against Cuban president Fidel Castro. Similarly, the Jewish diaspora has been essential in ensuring pro-Israeli foreign policy decisions from the US government. However, what is rare in the Kosovo crisis is the fact that the Albanian diaspora gradually turned from a civil society actor into a powerful political factor, eventually fundamentally changing the balance of forces on the internal political scene, both in Kosovo and Albania. When explaining how Albanian politicians at the time were measuring all the foreign policy options towards Kosovo and more specifically towards Yugoslavia, Paskal Milo, Albanian foreign minister during the crisis, confirms that the Albanian government was under extreme pressure from Kosovar elements operating within Albania and more specifically from diaspora groups.[10] This indicates that the diaspora had a significant effect upon Albania’s foreign policy stance and its internal political debates.

[1] Jacques, 1995, p. 287.

[2] Pettifer, 2005, p. 86.

[3] Sullivan, 2004, p. 118.

[4] Ibid, p. 74.

[5] International Crisis Group, Balkans Report, no. 41, 2 September 1998.

[6] Malcolm, 1998, p. 355.

[7] Lafontaine, 2002, p. 184.

[8] Standish, 2000, p. 8

[9] Pettifer, 2005, p. 113.

[10] Interview with Mr. Paskal Milo, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Albania, 20 July 2005.


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