Greater Albania Gaffe

The Tirana government attempts to limit damage caused by a minister's shock support for a Greater Albania

Greater Albania Gaffe

The Tirana government attempts to limit damage caused by a minister's shock support for a Greater Albania

The government's efforts to present itself as a moderate and progressive force in the region suffered something of a blow last week when a minister called for the unification of Albania with Kosovo.

Justice minister Arben Imami, whose Democratic Alliance Party, DPA, is a member of the ruling coalition, said his party was geared to speeding up the "peaceful unification of Albania with Kosovo".

The four other government parties swiftly distanced themselves from his remarks, made in a statement outlining the DPA's platform for forthcoming elections.

Though known for his eccentric behaviour, Imami has never been regarded as a nationalist, rather as an adept and stabilising force within Albanian politics. Ambassadors were therefore somewhat taken aback when he said he was sure a Greater Albania would receive the support of the European Union.

Imami claimed that the desire for unification dovetailed with global trends, "There are no two Vietnams, no two Germanys and there will be no two Koreas," he said in apparent defence of his statement.

But, for many, Imami's timing couldn't have been worse. Whether or not he is representing a tiny minority view, as a government minister, his words carry weight in the politics of south-eastern Europe.

Albania had been winning sympathy in the international community for its condemnation of an ethnic-Albanian insurgency in Macedonia and its contribution to resolving the conflict there. Tirana has even requested that NATO monitor its border following Skopje's accusation that it was "supporting Albanian extremists".

Having a government minister preach the benefits of Albanian expansionism rather flies in the face of the country's diplomatic role. Sources close to Prime Minister Ilir Meta say Imami had committed political suicide.

Imami's announcement is bound to taint Albania's international image, just as it tries to overcome the legacy of communist rule and an awkward ten-year transition.

In an attempt at damage limitation, the government has been quick to repudiate Imami's remarks. " Albania... is against border changes and is for the building of a free, democratic and European Kosovo," said an official government statement.

Many leading Albanian politicians have been keen to stress that Imami had been voicing personal views which were wholly unrepresentative of the great majority of Albanians.

"Such statements damage the Albanian cause," said Foreign Minister Paskal Milo. "It even casts a shadow on relations with the international community."

Indeed, American reaction to Imami's comments was swift. An hour after Imami's announcement, US ambassador Joseph Limprecht descended on the justice minister.

"When a government minister calls for the creation of a Greater Albania this is interpreted as support for terrorists and extremist elements, " the diplomat said later.

Limprecht was doubtless surprised at Imami's outburst as the West had considered the justice minister an ally.

Quite what provoked Imami's comments is unclear. Albanians on either side of the border are not so strongly bound by kinship as Imami seems to believe. Few Albanians believe a Greater Albania is a solution to the region's problems.

On the contrary, a politically and economically strong Albania is capable of becoming a stabilising factor in the Balkans, as it would be better able to support the rights of Albanians around the region

Unless Albanians rally and make it quite plain that they are opposed to any changes in the country's border, support for Tirana's government could easily dry up.

Llazar Semini is IWPR Project Editor in Albania.

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