Political tension in the Western Balkans is running high again. On April 6, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama cautioned that his country would unify with Kosovo if the European Union failed to incorporate both countries into the continental bloc. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was quick to respond, accusing Rama of fomenting instability in the region.
Albania and Serbia have a complex relationship because of ethnic tensions and overlapping territorial aspirations. Complicating things further, Albania supported Kosovo's 2008 unilateral declaration of independence, while Serbia continues to resist its international recognition. Friction between Serbia and Albania will persist, but Albania's claims over Kosovo will remain rhetorical, and a more serious escalation is unlikely.
During a joint interview with Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, Rama brought up two options for unification between Albania and Kosovo. The first would be for both countries to join the European Union. Though Rama has said this is the option he supports, he mentioned a second possibility: uniting Albania and Kosovo into one country. Serbia, which still considers Kosovo a breakaway territory, rejected the idea. Belgrade does not realistically expect to recover Kosovo, but it still opposes any move that would unify the two largest ethnic Albanian communities. On April 8, a European Commission spokeswoman categorized Rama's statement as "provocative."
Tension between Albania and Serbia is not new. The resurrection of irredentist claims has long been a common feature of politics in the Western Balkans. In a region with such a complex geographic and ethnic landscape, where official borders do not match linguistic or religious ones, most countries hold centuries-old grudges and make territorial claims on others. This situation has often led to violence, with the wars of the 1990s as the most recent example.
A Difficult Relationship
As the Ottomans expanded their empire from Anatolia to the Balkans in the 14th century, Serbian and Albanian lands progressively fell under Turkish rule. The immigration of Muslims from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire into the Balkans and the conversion of many locals created a disruptive patchwork of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations. According to the 2011 census, almost two-thirds of Albania's population is Muslim. In Serbia, on the other hand, more than four-fifths of the people follow Eastern Orthodoxy.
When the Ottoman Empire started to crumble in the early 20th century, several Balkan states saw the opportunity to repel the Turks and to acquire territory from their neighbors. The First Balkan War (1912-1913), which was key for the expulsion of the Ottomans from the region, also resulted in conflicts among the Balkan states. During the war, Albania declared independence from the Ottomans but was invaded by Serbian troops; Belgrade saw the conflict as an opportunity to gain access to the Adriatic Sea. Although the Treaty of London recognized Albania's independence in 1913 — and Serbian troops eventually withdrew — the treaty also introduced territorial adjustments that left almost half the ethnic Albanian population outside the new country's borders.
Albanian irredentism already existed under Ottoman rule, but the Treaty of London gave it new life. In its current form, it includes claims to regions in neighboring Kosovo and western Macedonia in addition to small areas in southern Serbia, southern Montenegro and northwestern Greece. Notably, some of these claims overlap with nationalist agendas in Serbia, which envisions a "Greater Serbia" covering territories of modern-day Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and, in some of its variants, Albania.
The situation of Albanian minorities in the former Yugoslavia and later in Serbia has been an enduring source of conflict between Tirana, the capital of Albania, and Belgrade. Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, which has traditionally been under Serbian control and whose political status is particularly contentious. In the 1990s, Tirana called on the international community to intercede and stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in collapsing Yugoslavia. At the same time, Belgrade accused Tirana of supporting separatist groups in Kosovo. The bilateral relationship became strained again in 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Albania subsequently recognized Kosovo's independence, a move that irritated Serbia's leadership.
Potential for Social Unrest
Over the past year, Albania and Serbia have alternated diplomatic gestures with the usual provocations. In November, Rama visited Vucic in Belgrade for the first meeting between the two countries' leaders since the late 1940s. However, an incident during an October soccer match between Albania and Serbia clouded the talks. The game was suspended after a small drone flew over the stadium carrying a "Greater Albania" flag, triggering an exchange of harsh words.
But despite intermittent tensions, the borders of the Western Balkans are unlikely to change anytime soon. For most Albanians, the idea of a Greater Albania has symbolic meaning linked to a broader sense of Albanian identity and solidarity with ethnic Albanians in the region. Most Albanian governments have used the idea of a Greater Albania for political reasons, but little to no concrete action has resulted from the rhetoric.
More important, Tirana's main allies oppose any of its territorial claims. Albania is a NATO member aspiring to join the European Union and is unlikely to make any moves that could seriously destabilize the region. Opinion polls show that EU accession is popular among Albanians, a factor that will continue to deter Tirana from making any unilateral moves to unify with Kosovo. Additionally, with Kosovo suffering through dire economic conditions, Tirana cannot afford to unify with a region facing high unemployment and poor economic prospects.
Despite intermittent tensions, the borders of the Western Balkans are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Serbia's case is similar. For political reasons, Belgrade cannot officially recognize Kosovo's independence. The Serbian government also understands, however, that it will not recover the lost territory anytime soon. In addition, the European Union considers the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo a crucial part of Belgrade's accession to the continental bloc. As a result, the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations primarily focus on the status of the Serbian minorities living in northern Kosovo.
However, Albania's relations with Kosovo could generate problems in the future. Albania is an ethnically homogeneous country, particularly when compared with neighboring Macedonia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though Albania is familiar with domestic political instability, ethnic-fueled tensions are rare. But volatility in Kosovo poses a risk to Albania for several reasons. First, the conflict between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbians in Kosovo creates friction between Tirana and other regional players, most notably Serbia. Second, poor living conditions in Kosovo will force Albania to absorb increasing numbers of unemployed Kosovars over the long term. According to World Bank data, over 14 percent of Albanians live below the poverty line, creating the conditions for potential social unrest in Albania.
Pressuring the European Union
Though Rama's statements were mostly meant for a domestic audience, the Albanian government is using the idea of unification with Kosovo to pressure the European Union to speed up the accession process. Albania applied for EU membership in 2009, and the country formally became a candidate in 2014. Over the past decade, Tirana introduced several reforms to attract foreign investment, liberalize the economy and qualify for EU membership. The European Union is still demanding more reforms, however, especially with regard to corruption and organized crime.
More important, the European Union is currently suffering from "enlargement fatigue." After incorporating 12 new members between 2004 and 2007, the bloc has lost its appetite for new membership. The economic crisis has also led to a political crisis that complicates the accession of new countries. Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 but will be the last country to do so for a long time. Albania and Serbia are unlikely to join this decade. Kosovo, in the meantime, has long demanded visa-free access to the continental bloc. It was after seeing progress in negotiations drag that Tirana and Pristina threatened to pursue bilateral unification.
The overall popularity of EU accession within the Albanian establishment explains why Tirana will apply political pressure on the bloc without necessarily acting on the government's strong statements. However, Albania's negotiations with Brussels will drag out over many years, and a lack of progress could endanger this balance and lead to more regional instability.