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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Thursday, April 24, 2003


Albania: A long, hard crawl
Albania's flagAlbania is among the unluckiest countries in Europe, and while things appear to be on the rebound for the tiny, bedraggled nation, I would hardly want to be foolishly optimistic. They are, however at a point not disimilar to where I described Afghanistan as being--that is to say, somewhere in the midst of the long, unending crawl towards true freedom. It's got a lot of detours and backtracks, but I think they'll both make it, one day.

Illyrian coinage from the 3rd-2nd centuryHISTORY: Albanians are pretty well convinced that they came from the ancient Illyrians, and they're most likely right. Being descended from the Illyrians seems like a pretty good gig. They showed up in Albania around 2000 BC and their first known king, Hyllus (the Star) died in 1225 B.C, were good at metalworking and at fighting each other and others. The Illyrians were pretty dominant over the area by the fourth century BC, under Bardhylus (White Star) which is when attacks from Alexander the Great's father, Phillip of Macedon, started attacking it, which sent the region into a decline that, really, it hasn't recovered from. A couple hundred years later, after being conquered and recovering from Alexander himself, Illyrian queen Teuta provoked Rome into attacking. In 165 BC, they had knocked off the last Illyrian king, Gentius, and by AD 9, the Romans had wrested control of the area from the various Illyrian tribes, and began the long tradition of splitting up the area of Albania into little bits. This continues, to an extent, to this very day.

Life wasn't too bad under Roman rule, though, as the Romans built aquaducts and cultural centers like Appollonia in Illyria, and the Illyrians provided some of the best soldiers--and eventually, Emperors, including Diocletian, Constantine and Justinian--that the empire had. During this time, Illyria also had the distinction of having Christianity brought by the Apostle Paul himself, and a bishopric was established there in AD 58.

When the Empire split in 395, Illyria went with the East politically, but the West religiously, switching over to religious Byzantium in 732, and eventually splitting north/south between Catholics and Orthodox when the churches officially split. The 5th century was a rip-roaring good time of barbarian invasions of the Roman empire, and Illyria was no exception. Most of the area got assimilated by the invaders--first the Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Huns, and then, and most emphatically, the Slavs. Albania, however, remained more or less distinct, though hardly unaffected.

Skanderberg, national Albanian heroFrom that point until the present, the history of Albania has been one of social and cultural independence combined with relatively constant political dependance on a more powerful nation. The march began with Byzantium, then the Bulgars, then Norman crusaders, Angevins, Serbs, Venetians, and eventually the Turks, who conquered the region in 1430. However! They were beaten back by the Albanians. The resistance was led by their national hero Skanderberg, a tribe leader who had originally submitted to the Turks and converted to Islam, but later converted to Catholicism and turned on them after tricking a Turkish pasha into giving him his family fortress back. He held off the Ottomans for 25 years until his death in 1468--his family flag is Albania's national flag to this day, and he served as a focal point for Albanian nationalism from the day he converted to Catholicism to today.

After Skanderberg's death, the Ottomans did prevail, and ruled Albania--more or less, as the region, especially the mountainous areas, was always a pain to fully control--right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Though most Albanians did (eventually) convert to Islam, in name at least, the national and ethnic ties almost always prevailed over religious ones, much to the chagrin of the Ottomans.

Speaking of ethnic ties, Albania is divided into two different tribal groups, the Ghegs and the Tosks. The Ghegs live in the north, in the rugged areas north of the Shkumbin river, and tend to be more isolated than the southern Tosks. The Tosks have been more likely to be more assimilated by whatever power is in control of Albania at the time--which means they tend to be more powerful. The Gegs, on the other hand, are more tribal, traditional and primitive than their southern brethren, some still following the 14th Century tribal Code of Lek (with even more ancient roots).

Much like in the Roman empire, Albanians had a knack for coming to power in the Ottoman one--over two dozen Ottoman Grand Viziers being of Albanian origin. This did not prevent the Ottoman Empire from becoming the Sick Man of Europe in the 19th century, which prompted the people of the Balkans to begin making moves towards their own independence. The Albanian League was founded in 1878, with that goal in mind. Things didn't quite work out for a while. Though Albanians fought a war against the TUrks from 1910-12, which they won, more or less, and to prevent their neighbors (Serbs, Montenegrins and Greeks) from taking it apart, they declared independence, and, with the support of the European Great Powers--who also plopped a German prince on the throne. His reign was swiftly torn apart from all sides, just in time for WWI.

The war had the unfortunate and common effect of tearing Albania into little pieces--pieces that were put back together thanks only to the intervention of the USA. Though independent, it was still tusseled over by the Serbs (Now via Yugoslavia), Italians and Greeks. They were kept at bay for a while by America, during which time the Albanians formed enough of a political system to see a man come to power who in 1928 declared himself "King Zog." Yes, "King Zog."

Zog was generally autocratic, disliked, and tended to be dominated by Italy, though not always. He certainly was dominated by Italy in 1939, when Mussolini (not to be outdone by Hitler's annexation of Austria) invaded Albania. An Albanian resistance of both Communists and Nationalists fought the Italians until 1943, when Germany took over for the Italians, at which point they fought each other and the Germans. The communists, organized and backed by Yugoslavia's Tito, won, leading eventually to a 40 year rule by Enver Hoxha once the war was over.

Enver Hoxha, dictator Hoxha was an odd duck, a sort of mirror universe version of Ceacesceau who died at a much more convenient time (1985) and place (off camera). He continued the Albanian tradition of social independence with political domination by various nations. Albania was under Yugoslavian dominance for a while, until Tito pressed for full control. Soon afterwards, Stalin and Tito parted ways, and Hoxha suddenly bent his knee to the USSR insteadbecame an ardent Stalinist. No, seriously, he did, copying Stalin's brutal ways and ditching the Soviet Union for China once it repudiated Stalinism, and ditching China for independence once it strayed from strict Maoism.

It was under his successor, Ramiz Alia, that Albania, the last bastion of Stalinism, fell to democracy. It has been a bumpy ride since then. Albania has always been one of the poorest countries in Europe, and typically the poorest. Though Hoxha brought it up to speed a bit, Communism has never been conducive to real modernization (and Marx would have shuddered at the thought of such a backwards nation diving straight into Communism from a tribal state). It continued to be true through the 1990's--as did many of the tribal aspects.

One of the wierder aspects of recent Albanian history is the single handed social, political and economic mauling the nation was given by, of all things, pyramid schemes--indicative of a nation that hasn't quite figured out capitalism completely. In 1997, the Socialist party took power, and has not relinquished it yet. The trouble in Kosovo both resulted in an influx of refugees and a deep love for America, for relieving the problem.

CURRENTLY: Albania is still Europe's poorest country, stuck with a corrupt government, an often tribal mentality, and widespread organized crime, but it is making strides towards success. Albanian terrorists, however, both inside Albania and outside of it continue to cause problems.

Organized crime is probably the main problem in Albania right now--it't a sad proof of man's fallen nature that criminals are consistently quicker at organizing themselves than democracies. Smuggling of children, women, drugs and other commodities. The government claims to be making strides against it, but it's difficult to tell for sure.
Albania is also one of America's number one fans, mostly due to America's intervention in Kosovo. While most of Europe is latching onto the Euro, Albania is holding tight to the dollar as its currency of choice, and Albania was one of the first nations to declare its unqualified support for America in Iraq, militarily and otherwise, and their troops have recently headed to the region, and Albanian companies have been invited to take part in the reconstruction project.

ANALYSIS: Like I said, Albania's in the middle of a long crawl towards freedom--but the path isn't very well marked out, and it's easy to start going in self-destructive circles. It wouldn't surprise me if, in thirty years, Albania looks very much like it does today. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if, in thirty years, Albania is one of the more successful nations in all of Europe. It's the only European nation with a replacement birthrate, and more committed to America than Britain is. That may not all be roses and ice cream, though.

While the accusations of some, mainly on the left, that the Eastern European participation in the Pro-America "Gang of Eight" and "Vilnius Ten" (of which Albania was a part) was nothing more than a case of "once a puppet nation, always a puppet nation" were vile, despicable and reprehensible, they have something of a ring of truth when it comes to Albania, for unique reasons. As I said before, Albania has a history, going back to the Byzantine Empire, of being politically dominated by different foreign powers, often in a fairly short space of time, while maintaining a surprising cultural independence. In the 20th century, Albania was under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Germany (for a couple years), Yugoslavia, Russia, China and, to a much more limited extent, the USA.

But then again, that's not such a bad idea--after all, they're finally backing the right horse. And beyond that, the difference this time around is that "they" means the people of Albania, not the ruling elite. For the first time, the Albanian people have chose their "Big Brother" nation, to an extent unheard of in their history, and to an extent unheard of even in surrounding Americo-phillic Eastern European nations. So, there's a definite bright side there. Plus, though Albania is predominantly Muslim, they seem unlikely to be influenced by radical Islamicists--despite Al Quaeda types popping up in Kosovo--due to their fierce loyalty to Albania and Albanians, whatever their religion. Heck, they're a mainly Muslim nation whose national hero is a Catholic who killed Turks--not exactly fertile ground for jihad.

These good points shouldn't be overstated, though. America's competition for influence is, of course the European Union, which is also one of the few forces for reform in the nation. I don't trust the EU any farther than I can throw it, however, and suspect that it's a double edged sword that threatens to turn Albania into Europe's version of the Reconstruction-era South, without the legitimate excuse of, you know, slavery or a war. Yet, the American style of doing things tends to be more conducive to organized crime, and so I worry that the good-hearted reformers in Albania will eventually flee into the waiting arms (that is to say, gaping maw) of the EU. I may be overemphasizing that danger, though, as I hope any Franco-German plans for EU domination and subjugation are gone with the hot, sandy winds of Iraqi Freedom.

So, Albania is at something of a crossroads too--though it's more like a vast plain in which every step is a crossroads--the road has been overgrown from lack of traffic, and there are too many well-worn paths that would be more tempting if they weren't made by lemmings tumbling off of cliffs. I hope they'll make it, though--and think they will, though it may be a very long trip, and the end certainly won't be perfect (it likely won't even be the end).

LINKS: The Russian and Eastern European Network Information Center at the University of Texas has a great page of Albania links with more than I could provide here. Transitions Online is a good source for Albanian, and other Balkan news, and the Rule of Law Through Technology page has good resources, including a great summation of Albanian history, as does Infoplease, unsurprisingly. One of the coolest web resources is the Library of Congress' Country Study on Albania, which is a veritable gold mine, albeit eleven years old.

Well, two down. This one's a good deal longer than the one before, probably because there is a good deal more known about Albania pre-1800 than there is about Afghanistan. I'm really starting to enjoy this stuff, even if it takes obscenely long to get one of these put together. When else do you get to learn about a man named "King Zog?" I'd also like to suggest the book Albania: A Modern History by Miranda Vickers, a book I probably won't actually finish, but that gives a remarkably thorough story of the hard-luck Albanian people.

Next up: Algeria!
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