One of the most fascinating and eventful periods in Balkan history occurred in the 50 years or so that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey in 1923. During that time, the Balkan nations were emerging and beginning to come into their own. Borders were in almost constant flux, with innumerable small and larger scale wars. Most of these conflicts remain unknown in the West, though their ramifications still loom large in the nations involved (of which more, in a subsequent post.) These Balkan wars grew out of competing visions--that of a Great Greece, a Greater Bulgaria and/or a Greater Serbia--and usually at the expense of a Lesser Macedonia. Since 1923, however, the borders have more or less been in place, and while there may be occasional grumbling, there is no serious questioning of the status quo, no revanchement in the making. A late-comer to the race is the former whipping-boy of the Balkans--Albania. And it could be that the Albanians, by sheer demographics, are succeeding where their neighbors failed.
My time among the Albanians was limited--a few hours in Albania proper, and later about the same amount of time in Kosovo. Even that small window is skewed. I traveled in what may be the most prosperous region of Albania--the southeast quadrant wedged between Greece and the Ohrid area of Macedonia. My exposure to Kosovo was basically confined to the highway corridor from Skopje, Macedonia to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. So, take my observations for what they are--and realize that they may not be applicable to the larger region.
At the remote border crossing between Greece and Albania, the Greek guard asked me why I wanted to go into Albania--not in a "what-kind-of-contraband-do-you-have-in-your-trunk" kind of question, but a "why in the world do you want to go there" type of way. I told him I was working my way towards Ohrid and that seemed to satisfy him. He shrugged and motioned me on through. The first site that you see on the Albanian side is one of Enver Hoxa's derelict old bunkers from the bad old days. They are literally everywhere, an enduring testament to one man's xenophobia.
I found the landscape in this region of Albania to be surprisingly pleasant. Distant mountains loomed in the background, framing wide, seemingly fertile valleys. Somewhat surprisingly, the one word I would use to described the country is "bustling." The area I observed--and this primarily on the highway from Korce to Pogradec--seemed to be a beehive of activity. Perhaps this is due to the fact that agriculture here is so labor intensive. Fields were in cultivation everywhere, with men, women and children out in force, working their crops. I passed few cars on the highway, as most people were riding in pony carts, or on bicycles, or walking. Interestingly, the cars I did see were invariably Mercedes-Benzes. New construction was in evidence here and there, both commercial and residential. One homeowner seemed to be trying for an Albanian "Tara."
In persecution of Christians, nothing compares with the sheer scope of Soviet brutality during the 20th century. No Communist regime, however, pursued the abolition of all religion--Christian and Muslim--more methodically, systematically or consistently than the Albanian regime. At least 355 Albanian priests died at the hands of the Communists. At the end of the regime, 22 Orthodox priests remained alive. Today, the church is enjoying something of a resurgence--over 150 new churches have been constructed, 60 monasteries and over 160 existing churches have been repaired, and with clergy now numbering about 150. Officially, Albania is said to be 70% Muslim, yet on first glance one does not sense this at all. The way women are dressed is the most obviously indicator to the casual observer. Everyone I saw seemed dressed to be working in the fields, with many of the women wearing broad-brimmed straw hats. I did not see a single instance of a women in overtly Muslim dress. The picture below depicts an Orthodox Church and a mosque in the small village of Vashtemi. One would see the occasional church, but in actuality I saw little evidence of either churches or mosques in Albania. The Hoxa regime may have done their work all too well.
I planned to make a swing through Korce, the largest town in the region. Albanian tourism is a relatively new thing, and published guidebooks for the country are practically nonexistent. The best resources are online sources, such as Virtual Tourist. But I did have a Lonely Planet guidebook for Eastern Europe, with a slim chapter on Albania. According to them, Korce had a certain charm, with an impressive Orthodox Church, and "wide, tree-lined boulevards." Somehow, I missed that part of town. Korce was, however, a going-concern; a bustling, dusty market town with garish modern architecture. I suspect that the writers for the LP guide were doing a bit of padding. Pogradec, on Lake Ohrid, which was treated dismissively in the book, however, I found to be an attractive city. I drove along the shores of Lake Ohrid, as Albanian families were picnicing on the beach, and passed through the little-used border crossing into Macedonia.
I will have to admit that I am not a fan of Kosovo. This is not just sympathy for the plight of the Serbian Orthodox minority there, although there is certainly that. My prejudice, however, is more closely tied to our appalling foreign policy in this area--began by the Clintons and the criminal Albright, sanctioned by Bush II and apparently approved by the current administration. I have posted my thoughts before, here, and here. The imposed recognition of an "independent" Kosovo opens an international can of woms that will plague many nations for years to come. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 is a direct consequence, with an "independent" South Ossetia and Abhkazia. With this new principle in place, what is to keep any region with a distinct minority from pressing for independence? And under these new guidelilnes, there are those places with far more legitimate claims than Kosovo. Let's be clear, there is no such thing as a "Kosovar," there are simply Albanians living in Kosovo. I realize that my views are not always consistent. On the one hand, I favor localism. I would be fine if Europe consisted of 150 Grand Fenwicks. On the other hand, I believe that the Austro-Hungarian Empire probably worked better than anything that has come after. And the unfettered nationalism unleashed and given sanction after the First World War has hardly been an unqualified success. My opposition to an independent Kosovo in no way
excuses the abuses of the Milosevic regime, where much of the blame must fall. That said, a number of other options, including the autonomy offered by Serbia, would have been preferable to outright independence. Even a defacto partition with predominately Albanian areas annexed to Albania proper seems a better option than what is in place now. For behind the facade of an independent Kosovo, supposedly ready to take its place among the community of nations, is the reality of systematic thuggery, where 2/3 of the Serbian Orthodox population has been ethnically cleansed, their lands and businesses appropriated and hundreds of churches and cemeteries desecrated and/or destroyed. All the while, the government and the KFOR troops looked the other way. A thousand years of history is being wiped clean, and replaced with boxy Saudi-financed mosques. I would recommend reading Crucified Kosovo, Hiding Genocide in Kosovo (written by a KFOR soldier), and Kosovo: The Score, 1999-2009.
So, you might say I entered Kosovo with something of a chip on my shoulder. I crossed the border north of Skopje, and headed north towards Pristina on the main highway. My goal was Gracanica Monastery (to be addressed in my following post.) From there, I originally intended to cut across Kosovo to visit the Decani Monastery, from which I would exit into Montenegro. As it turned out, I drove to Gracanica and then retraced my course back to Skopje, realizing that my original plan would have been unwise.
The landscape of Kosovo itself is pleasant enough, wide valleys dotted with villages full of the chalet-type homes I would later find so prevalent in Serbia. My first impression of Kosovo was that the entire region was under construction--the roads packed, houses and businesses going up everywhere, and the dust flying. Money was clearly flowing in from somewhere. I also noticed that Kosovo differed from every country I visited on this journey. Everywhere else, I passed through vast areas of open, uninhabited country--with plenty of room for population expansion, as well as for preserving wilderness reserves. Not so in Kosovo, which gave every indication of actually being filled-up. The region is much more heavily populated than any area I visited elsewhere in the Balkans. I sympathize with those who proclaim that Kosovo will always be a part of Serbia. But, the reality on the ground suggests otherwise. Demographics often trumps history. Simply put, the Albanians have spent the last several generations having children, whereas the Serbians have not. This population crush bodes ill for neighboring countries, Macedonia in particular where the Albanian Muslim influence is much stronger than I would have thought. Finally, I will have to say that on the surface of things, Kosovo does not appear overtly Muslim. Every village has a mosque with a soaring minaret, for sure, but the people themselves dress as their Balkan neighbors do. Men of all ages wear shorts, something generally not done in Muslim countries. I saw very few women dressed in traditional Muslim attire. Kosovo appears to be thorough-goingly secular.
After an emotional visit to Gracanica, I decided to return to Macedonia as quickly as possible. Near the border, I passed the lonely Church of St. Elijah along the highway. Burned and desecrated, it stood yet, a lonely sentinel and reminder...for now.