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Albania And Kosovo Celebrate Independence Day

Albania is reluctant to openly support the Kosovo Albanian demands for independence but Albanians on both sides of the border threw themselves into celebrations for Albania's first official Independence Day on November 28.
By Llazar Semini

On Sunday (November 28) Albania celebrated Independence Day for the first time and Kosovar Albanians wasted no time in joined the party.


For the first time since the fall of the Communist regime in Albania a military parade was held in Tirana's Boulevard of Martyrs of the Nation. In Kosovo the Albanian national flag was freely displayed from tooting cars and a series of ceremonies were held around the province.


After 450 years of Ottoman subjugation, Albania declared independence on November 28, 1912. Under the leadership of Ismail Qemali Albanian patriots hoisted their national flag in the southwestern port of Vlore.


Albania was the last 'nation' remaining within the once vast Ottoman Empire and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) presented Albanians with an ideal opportunity to gain autonomy from the Turks. Kosovo Albanian patriots played a significant role in the victory over the crumbling Ottoman Empire.


But at the London peace conference in 1913, the major European powers decided to link Kosovo (predominantly ethnic Albanian) to Serbia. This decision was reaffirmed in the Versailles Treaty after the First World War.


Following the defeat of Nazi Germany and her fascist allies in 1945, the Balkan communist leaders discussed the idea of uniting the two Albanian lands. But with the start of the Cold War Yugoslavian and Albanian relations deteriorated and the proposal was dropped.


Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, was obliged to grant Kosovo autonomy in 1974 following widespread protests. But the current Yugoslav leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, reversed this in 1989.


Meanwhile Albania has hardly mentioned the idea of adopting Kosovo even during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia over the last ten years.


Much was expected during the Serbian-Croatian war and especially during the Bosnian conflict. But the Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova opted for a Gandhi-like policy employing peaceful protest in the pursuit of autonomy against the cruel and cunning Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milosevic.


The start of a guerrilla war by the new fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in early 1998 sparked Belgrade's policy of ethnic cleansing, a policy the West refused to swallow on the back of its failures in Bosnia, where thousands of civilians had died.


Only a year earlier Albania was engulfed in a near-civil war following the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes. Europe's poorest population lost its life savings, more than a billion U.S. dollars. Virtual anarchy reigned in March 1997 and more than one million light weapons and thousands of tons of explosives were looted by the Albanian population from army depots all over the tiny Balkan country.


Soon illegal arms trafficking blossomed in northeastern Albania, which borders Kosovo. The Albanian government could not, of course, condone the supply of weapons to insurgents in Kosovo but neither could the authorities stop illegal shipments across the border.


And the West also chose to "close one eye and one ear" to what was going on. Still the KLA numbers were too few to confront with the well-trained and experienced Serb army and police. Without NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia the KLA fighters could hardly have hoped to deliver the much-expected results.


In the course of the conflict in Kosovo the government in Albania changed. Pandeli Majko replaced Socialist leader Fatos Nano, whose government had favoured Hashim Thaci (a leader in the KLA and now Kosovar Prime Minister to be) over the more moderate Rugova.


Majko adopted a more balanced strategy, ever mindful of the West's attitude to an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia. Ilir Meta, elected as Prime Minister in October 1999, might be considered a more suitable personality to deal with the different political sides within Kosovo.


Belgrade's ethnic cleansing campaign forced nearly one million people out of Kosovo. Half of those refugees sought shelter in neighbouring Albania, a fact that improved Albania's bad post-communist image in the West.


With Kosovo now governed by the United Nations and NATO, the goal of independence still seems far off but perhaps not just a dream as before. The U.N., various institutions and foreign governments has said Kosovo will have broad autonomy. But events have clearly shown Kosovo cannot be given back to Serbia.


"Belgrade should forget thinking it has temporarily lost Kosovo. They have lost it once and for all," said Thaci, premier of the self-styled Kosovo ethnic Albanian government, in a ceremony in Pristina on Sunday.


"This year...gave a colossal push to the national issue putting Kosovo on the road to peace, prosperity and European self-determined and integrated independence," said Albanian President Rexhep Meidani last Sunday. He said he considered November 28 "a special 87th anniversary of independence for the Albanian nation".


"For all Albanians this is the year of Kosovo's liberation from chauvinist Serb violence, the year of the borders' opening and of great fraternity, the year of the a once-and-for-all inclusion of Albania and Albanians into the Euro-Atlantic family," Meidani said.


But Albania has its own problems after a decade of post-communist transition into a world market economy. Albania needs to relax strained political inner conflicts, restore order, fight corruption and build its democratic institutions in order to gain more assistance from outside. And Albania now has a constitution, passed in a referendum on November 28, 1998.


All (Albanian) political groups in Kosovo hailed the independence celebrations. "We shall win battles in peace to facilitate the work of the international community in respecting and recognising the will of the citizens of Kosovo for freedom and independence," said Thaci.


"For the first time we celebrate November 28 in a free Kosovo," said Rugova. "Hail to November 28, independence day," wrote the Koha Ditore daily, while Kosova Sot newspaper said: "Celebrate your flag. It will wave for ever in free Kosovo".


Kosovo Albanian leaders are confronted with a huge challenge in convincing the local population to live in peace with other minorities, including Serbs, in Kosovo.


During the celebrations on one of Pristina's main streets a group of ethnic Albanians attacked three Serbs whose car had become caught up in the crowds of revelers. The three were pulled from their car and a gunman in the crowd shot the man dead and wounded his wife and elderly mother in law. British UN soldiers intervened to rescue the two women from the crowd.


The car had been overturned and torched. General Klaus Reinhardt, Commander of the K-FOR peacekeepers, said, "I am appalled by what happened. No one here dared to intervene. It unveils a basic lack of humanity by the people in the street and a high degree of intolerance on the side of the attackers and the bystanders."


Hashim Thaci's Party for Democratic Progress has condemned the recent murder and other anti-Serb attacks. The party issued a statement saying such violence was a serious threat to the "just war of liberation" and cast a dark shadow over the Independence Day celebrations.


Llazar Semini is a journalist in Tirana