by Tony Kitanovski-
Can the idea of a Greater Albania have serious repercussions for the Greek state as well as Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia, who are both currently gripped by an existential battle for sovereignty and territorial integrity? Absolutely…. With a sizable existing population touting Albanian heritage and a cheap imported Albanian labour force now calling Greece home it’s the next logical step for Albanian irredentism.
Is Greece’s stance towards Macedonia regarding entry into the EU having an upward effect on Albanian irredentism and contributing to the Greater Albanian idea? Absolutely…… So what is the Greater Albania idea, how is it affecting the Republic of Macedonia and why does it have the potential to spill over into being the latest of many Greek border disputes?
To say that the Republic of Macedonia is at an existential turning point is perhaps making an understatement that borders on biblical in its proportions, but none the less, it is. It’s a time when the nation is facing extreme pressures from the international community to relinquish everything it holds dear under the guise of appeasing Greece’s ridiculous human rights violation that is the ‘Macedonian name issue’. This crippling irredentist blockade of an otherwise straight forward entry into the EU and NATO has completely polarised Macedonia’s population and paralysed the political process both directly and indirectly.
Directly because it’s halted the EU accession of Macedonia and with it brought all of the subsequent accompanying fiscal ramifications making economic development laboured and hamstrung by lack of market opportunities that the EU promises to provide.
Indirectly, but probably more importantly, it is largely the catalyst for the rise of existing simmering ethnic tensions in the Republic of Macedonia between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians. The Albanian population which makes up about 15% of the total population, is desperate to live in an EU member state and have no desire to halt their own progress into the EU because of a pesky ‘name issue’.
So much so, that the concept of a ‘Greater Albania’ has reared its head in Balkan politics. ‘Greater Albania’ is an irredentist and expansionist agenda that seeks to ‘acquire’ territory in neighbouring countries where Albanians make up a large percentage of the population. Albanians are currently in the process of annexing western Macedonia by creating an independent federalised self-governing territory and eventual unification with a ‘Greater Albanian’ state, officially denied of course…… Let’s not mention Kosovo shall we.
On the surface this would appear to be the ideal self-destruct situation for Macedonia that the Athens government has been looking for…or working towards, but will a reshaping of Macedonia’s current borders help or hinder the Greek state? As the threat of federalisation looms large on the Macedonian nation, the question has to be asked….has the Greek government pushed too far?…. You see the ‘Greater Albania’ concept takes in Albania, Kosovo, North-western Macedonia and also incorporates the ‘Greek’ province of Epirus.
I can see Greek irredentists spraying their coffee over their screens as we speak but in the world of Balkan politics, nothing can be done without an equal and opposite reaction. Greece itself also has an ‘Albanian’ problem…. Does it? But only Greeks live in Greece I hear you say. Greece is pure and the lands that Greece holds have always been Greek…. I wonder how many people in Greece today actually understand that the concept of the ‘Megali Idea’ the Greek state was founded on has given us the culturally diverse but ethnically troubled Greek state we see today.
No amount of wishful thinking will bring Greece to the ethnically homogenous state it believes itself to be – it has itself been subjected to two millennia of continuous population movement and assimilation exercises just like the rest of the Balkans. Yet despite the immense human cost of those continuous upheavals Greece, with the aid of the British Empire, was able to absorb those populations and ‘Hellenise’ them via the machinations of the Megali Idea’s assimilation, re-education and ethnic cleansing agenda. But what’s the Megali idea I hear you ask?
The Megali Idea was conceived by the Vlach politician Ioannis Kolettis in 1843 during the reign of the Bavarian Prince Otto, the first King of Greece. It was effectively the reviving of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire in the belief that it was actually Greek in the first place even though a Greek state had never existed anywhere in history previously. Kolettis, who was twice the prime minister of the newly formed Kingdom of Greece, put in place the process for establishing an expanded Greek state encompassing the former Byzantine lands from the Ionian Sea, Asia Minor, the Black Sea, Thrace, Macedonia and Epirus. This new state would have Constantinople as its capital and be the “Greece of Two Continents and Five Seas”. It would bring those lands into the sphere of influence of the Saxe Coburg Gotha royal families of Europe (Otto’s relatives) enabling them to control central Europe, the Balkans, the southern Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
This expansionist ‘Megali Idea’ dominated Greek politics from the 1840s, through to the Balkan wars at the beginning of the 20th century and the Greek state managed to expand its territory five times in its history aided by British diplomatic and military support (the Windsors are actually Saxe Coburg Gothas too). It annexed the Ionian Islands in 1864, Thessaly in 1881, Macedonia, Crete, southern Epirus and the Eastern Aegean Islands in 1913 via the treaty of Bucharest and Western Thrace in 1920. It temporarily halted the Megali idea after the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and the ‘Population Exchange’ between Greece and Turkey in 1923, but still managed to annex the Dodecanese in 1947. Small problem….. Very few ‘Greek’ people actually lived in any of these lands let alone Epirus.
Epirus is historically an ethnically Arvanite territory and it effectively means that the origin of today’s Greeks in Epirus, by default is actually Arvanite. The obvious proviso here is if they arrived from other parts of Greece, the Near East, Egypt or Turkey during the population exchanges, but failing that Greek Arvanites are a product of an originally religious and later ethnic assimilation process. The Greek government will have you believe that Arvanites are a Greek people like everyone else who lives in Greece but they’re not.
Arvanite ethnicity is, in fact, similar to the ethnic Tosks of modern day Albania in both language and ethnicity. Interestingly, the modern state of Albania is itself a conglomeration of ethnic minorities but the bulk of Albania made is up of Tosks and Ghegs (with languages unintelligible to each other) that have formed a collective national consciousness for what is the most part, a geostrategic goal for territorial expansion. (The Albanian nation is a thesis on its own and is effectively an invented idea for political aggrandizement based on false history that is played by the global powers seeking control of the region)…..but we digress.
There has been a concerted push from Tirana to reinforce the Albanian/Arvanite narrative and how many Arvanites identify as ethnic ‘Albanians’ today is currently unknown. Indeed some ethnic Arvanites are actually more patriotically Greek than the Greeks themselves, but this is changing. Albanian migration into Greece has been at record highs and the recent immigrants have been finding a lot of common ground with both language and culture in the local Arvanite villages, fuelling a new wave of Albanian consciousness in the Greek state. The recent episode of Greek soldiers openly displaying the double headed eagle hand symbols while in uniform has sent the Greek government into meltdown and those soldiers have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms in a symbol of zero tolerance that had human rights groups up in arms.
You would think that Greece, having such a rich and traditional association with Arvanite and Albanian culture, would embrace it and accept its own status as a multi ethnic state but on the contrary. Greece demands to be recognised as purely Greek and has a deep suspicion of any native ethnicity in the occupied lands it acquired over the last 150 or so years. Be it Macedonian, Arvanite, Thracian, Vlach or Turkish.
Moreover, Greece often conveniently ignores the fact that Albanians (Arvanites) have existed within the current borders of the modern Greek state for half a millennium. Greece also doesn’t like to advertise that revolutionaries like Androutsos, Kriezis and Karaiskakis who fought harder than any other fighters for the creation of the Greek kingdom were actually ethnic Arvanites(Albanian). In fact, until the middle of the 19th century, the creation of Epirus as a federal Greek Arvanite state was firmly on the Athens agenda. The Arvanite culture was so numerically superior in western Greece that Arvanites were able to outnumber Greeks in villages 20km from Athens only 50 years ago. Athens had distinct Albanian speaking quarters and the Greek ceremonial military uniform with its distinctive ‘fustanella’ is actually an Arvanite national costume that was adopted as a long forgotten gesture of respectful acknowledgement for Arvanite sacrifices and bravery.
This enormous Arvanite contribution to the Greek state has done nothing to allay Greek suspicion of ethnic Albanians and tensions are currently rising between Albanian immigrants and Greeks who harbour prejudices and racist attitudes towards them. The Arvanites are watching and the ones who culturally identify with the migrants don’t like what they see.
This is exacerbated by the fact that Albania and Greece are hardly on the friendliest of terms. They have yet to reach a consensus on some major politically sensitive issues stemming from the formation of the Albanian state and also WW2. Most of the leaders of the Albanian independence movement were educated in Greece, specifically in Ioannina, and it was those Greek educated leaders that went on to fight for Albanian independence and helped divide Epirus into Northern (Albanian) and Southern (Greek) Epirus.
Greece has continuously taken umbrage with the persistent policies of successive Albanian governments that have professed territorial aspirations for the entirety of Epirus, the fate of the ethnic Albanian Cham exiles and Albania’s subsequent collaboration with them, (the Cham community is a sub-group of Albanians who were expelled from northern Greece after the war when the Greek authorities accused them of collaborating with the Germans during Nazi occupation) and the fact that the Albanian government actively assisted Kosovo in the process of succession from Serbia (staunch Greek ally). One can’t help but feel that Greece is currently suffering from a wave of potentially ‘justifiable’ anti-Albanian paranoia.
There is also a significant Greek minority population in Northern Epirus (Albania) that is subjected to hostile policies from the Albanian government and Greece is ironically livid at the treatment of ‘Greeks’ outside of its sphere of influence. This is explained succinctly in a 1994 CIA report that highlighted the simmering tensions between Tirana and Athens regarding the large Greek minority in the Epirus region which borders Albania and Greece.
Greece is fully aware that the next logical step is for Albanians to attempt to make Epirus the 4th Albanian state in the ‘Greater Albanian’ project. Fuelled by Tirana, it would be the new flashpoint of Albanian expansion as it collides with an unrivaled Greek nationalism in what appears to be a future battle of the unstoppable force impacting with the immovable object.
From this perspective, there is no doubt Athens looks upon developments in Macedonia with a keen eye. The Greek authorities would undoubtedly welcome the self-destruction of the Republic of Macedonia, but it could unleash a ripple effect in Greece itself that would be almost impossible to combat given Greece’s current economic woes and decaying military infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain.
The influx of Syrian refugees has shown that Greece has effectively no practical ability to maintain or defend its borders and recent comments from the Greek government about not supporting any border changes for the Republic of Macedonia or the Balkans in general, underlines its angst about balancing which is the lesser of two evils. The Greek government would undoubtedly be thinking “If the Albanians can pull off federalisation in Macedonia, why can’t they attempt it in Greece?
Greece may try and utilise its status as a NATO member state, but Albania is also a NATO member state. In a battle of wills, the US would do its best to broker peace deals but the Albanians have been less combative towards the Americans and are effectively a NATO vassal state. They facilitate all of the ‘black ops’ and expansionist agendas for the US military in the region.
This type of conflict would be an existential dilemma for NATO and if pushed to a decision between the two, Greece may not be the preferred candidate for support considering their ‘Orthodox brothers’ relationship with Serbia that puts them belatedly into the Russian sphere of influence. Something not lost on the US, especially after a recent visit by President Putin to Athens trumpeting good relations through a geostrategic ‘orthodox alliance’.
It’s a little naive to suggest that Greece might be relying on Macedonia to maintain its sovereignty in order to avoid the Albanian issue spreading to the occupied lands Greece currently administers, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that Greece’s contribution to today’s Balkan instability in Macedonia has a pretty high likelihood of spilling over into Greece. Considering the regular political crisis’ faced by the government and current economic pressure that its citizens are under, can the Greek state hold back a wave of Albanian nationalism as well? Can Greece continue to subvert every minority behind its borders? Can Greece continue to fuel ethnic tensions in a European environment where ethnic harmony, tolerance and mutual respect is the stated goal? Will the Albanians be as willing to deny their heritage and succumb to the ‘Megali’ ideology in the hope of a better economic existence? Greece has hardly provided the environment for any of these to prosper and may, in fact, find itself unable to deliver on the great Greek promise.
Tony Kitanovski is the Director of State Affairs, currently on the VIC, SA & TAS Branch Executive Board for the World Macedonian Congress -Australia
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