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Fireworks in the Rain: Albania’s Independence Centennial

9:16 AM, Dec 6, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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During the independence ceremonies, nearly all Albanian politicians alluded vaguely to the division of the Albanian ethnic community between Albania proper, Kosovo, and large groups in neighboring Montenegro, Macedonia, southern Serbia, and Greece, most of which were torn away from the mother country beginning in 1912. But none called for revision of borders or creation of a so-called “Greater Albania.”

That appeal was, however, taken up by an ethnic Albanian Sunni cleric who heads the official Islamic Community of Macedonia, Sulejman Rexhepi. Late in 2011, Rexhepi shocked Balkan Muslims by offering “reconciliation” to Saudi-financed fundamentalist Wahhabis and other extreme Islamists who have penetrated the region, and implying a reprimand of Sufis who warn against radical infiltration.

Macedonia has lately been troubled by episodic confrontations between its Slav and Albanian residents, Rexhepi’s statement that “unification of Albanian lands was God’s will” was interpreted in the classic Balkan manner as a deliberate, if convoluted provocation aimed along with his outreach to Wahhabis at isolating Sufi and other moderate elements among Macedonia’s Albanian Muslims. The atmosphere around Albania has become so envenomed that Macedonian president Georgi Ivanov cancelled his planned appearance in the Tirana observances marking Albanian independence. Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos similarly shunned the Albanian centennial in umbrage over remarks by Albanian politicians about the expulsion of Albanians from northern Greece in the 20th century.

Meanwhile, Albanians continue to receive threats from the radical nationalist government of Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic, who ranted during the Albanian jubilee, which he did not attend, that “Kosovo should stay within Serbia, and I should go to Pristina as Kosovo’s president. . . . Kosovo is what Serbia agrees to, not what the U.S. and some other U.N. members say it is. Kosovo can never be taken away from Serbia,” he declared.

Facing hostility to its east and south—the Montenegrin government to the northwest refrained wisely from embroilment in these Balkan contentions—Albanians had reason to emphasize their friendship with the United States. But other divisions over the nature of the commemoration bedeviled Albanians at home. Two grand public programs were held, one by the conservative government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha in Tirana, and another sponsored by the ex-Communist and nationalist opposition in Vlora, a port city founded by the ancient Greeks. There self-determination was proclaimed and the Albanian flag, dating to the era of resistance to the Ottoman invasion more than half a millennium ago, was raised in 1912.

Tirana has many new and shiny high-rises, but lacks a central bus station. To reach any outlying city, a visitor must first locate the intersection or park from which buses, or minibuses called “furgons,” depart, usually frequently and cheaply.

On the morning of November 28, I walked to the place whence the furgons, charging $6.50 each way for a trip usually requiring two hours, left for Vlora. Ticket-sellers cried out, “Vlora! Vlora!” to passersby, as if to dramatize the city’s role in Albanian history. The night before and during the centenary day, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Vlora from Albania, Kosovo, the neighboring countries, and Albanian diaspora outposts in the United States and Western Europe. Two hours into the trip, traffic was jammed and people got out of their cars and the furgons, waiting for the congestion to clear. The furgons were halted altogether on Vlora’s outskirts, and I joined others who had to walk a about two-thirds of a mile to the city center and “Flag Square.”

To demonstrate that the two patriotic rituals were politically non-sectarian, Prime Minister Berisha and socialist opposition leader Edi Rama shook hands, somewhat ostentatiously, and raised the flag anew.

Later, the crowd spread through the town, which has a population of about 80,000. Older people looked for cafes in which to drink coffee or brandy, and the young lingered in Flag Square, dancing to pop tunes that had been broadcast repetitively for days, emphasizing the unity of all Albanians. The red and black colors of the Albanian flag were seen everywhere.

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