analysis 01 Feb 13

Albania’s Berisha Becomes Born-Again Nationalist

The Albanian prime minister’s efforts to reinvent himself as a model patriot before elections this year might be purely opportunistic but could stoke tensions and alienate key allies.

By Besar Likmeta

Sali BerishaPrime Minister Sali Berisha has angered some of Albania’s neighbours in recent months by appearing to suggest that he wants to establish a much larger state that includes majority ethnic Albanian areas beyond the country’s borders.

Tirana’s premier, who is well-known at home for his colourful rhetoric, lashed out at Serbia’s government after Belgrade took down a memorial to ethnic Albanian fighters in the town of Presevo in January.

Berisha said that the monument’s removal showed that Serbia was racist and that ethnic Albanians in the Balkans must unite in one state.

“This act shows one more time that there is only one way, the unification of the Albanian nation, in order for Albanians to enjoy the freedom they earned by shedding blood,” he said.

Berisha has also promised to offer a speedy path to citizenship for ethnic Albanians across the world and vowed to create a national football league which will also include teams from Kosovo.

While ordinary Albanians and local political commentators remain divided on the reasons behind the premier’s rhetoric, some experts have warned that it could incite passions that might prove difficult to calm again.

As a consequence of the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and the subsequent rearrangement of borders, large numbers of Albanians live outside the country, in neighbouring Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.  

The Albanian government’s stance over the past decade has always been that the unification of Albanians could come about only through the process of integration into the European Union.

Tirana has consistently rejected calls for border changes in the Balkans after the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.

Berisha’s latest statements have divided the Albanian public, with some people suggesting that talk of the unification is long overdue and others saying that nationalist rhetoric is dangerous.

“I see Berisha’s statement as truthful and important, because I have always believed even during the communist regime that we should be united with Kosovo under one state,” said Ibrahim Plegi, a mechanic in Tirana.

“The debate should have been opened more than a decade ago,” he added.

But Engjell Xhindoli, a photographer, disagreed. “There is a difference between a call for national reconciliation or patriotism and nationalism,” Xhindoli said.

“Nationalism is reactionary and simply dangerous,” he added.   

The political scene in Tirana has seen recently the rise of two nationalist parties, the Red and Black Alliance and the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, PDIU.

The PDIU, which is a junior government partner, represents the Cham minority, a group of Albanians expelled from Greece at the end of World War Two from the region of Chameria, and targets its rhetoric against Athens.

The Red and Black Alliance meanwhile calls for the unification of Albanian lands and has lashed out against Albania’s neighbours and Berisha, calling him an autocrat and a traitor.

Under attack, and with few successes to show off before the June 2013 parliamentary elections, Berisha has increasingly appealed to pan-Albanian sentiment.

Arion Sulo, editor at Tirana daily newspaper MAPO, says that Berisha is walking a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, using occasions like the Albanian independence centennial celebrations last November or the row over the guerrilla monument in Serbia to boost electoral support.

“I don’t think that there is a change in Albania’s foreign policy toward the region, because a closer look at the statements reveals that Berisha is playing a semantics game,” he said.

“Although nationalist rhetoric is being used by the Democratic Party over the backdrop of the elections, it will not be their main pillar in the campaign and as elections approach it will subside,” Sulo predicted.    

Mero Baze, a political analyst and fierce critic of Berisha, also argues that the premier’s words are not sincere.

Baze sees Berisha’s recent heated rhetoric as a move to stir trouble in areas populated by Albanians in order to gain clout.

Baze says that Berisha tried the same tactic before the fraudulent 1996 parliamentary elections, when he was president.

“It has nothing to do with putting oneself at the service of the nation, but rather turning the nation to the service of your personal power,” he said.

Berisha is Albania’s longest-serving leader since the collapse of the communist regime, having made a remarkable political comeback after being forced to step down as president in 1997 while the country was in virtual anarchy following the collapse of a series of pyramid-like investment schemes.

According to Florian Bieber, professor of south-east European studies at the University of Graz, he has always been pragmatic.

“Berisha has proven to be changing his political convictions and statements repeatedly over the past two decades to suit his needs,” Bieber said.

Bieber said that although Berisha’s nationalist statements sound opportunistic, they risk squandering the political capital that Albania and Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia have built up with their US and EU allies by taking a moderate, non-confrontational line.

“Rhetoric is always real in the sense that it enters the public space and it gives legitimacy to ideas that were earlier limited to the political margins,” Bieber noted.

“The use of nationalism often has been rewarded in the region over the past two decades and political leaders who played with it often got stuck and were unable to put the genie back into the bottle,” he warned.

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