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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

   

 

The Albanians in the Nineteenth Century


 

Albanian prospects in the Balkan constellation were not bright as 19th century events unfolded. Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, as well as significant elements in neighboring Bosnia and Hercegovina--all were nationally fully alert, vibrating, and in some type of genuine opposition to the Turks. All of them were heading toward some form of independence and national fulfillment. And they all seemed to be gaining momentum and revelling in their fanciful dreams. It was obvious that Albania had a lot of catching up to do. Easier said than done, when one thinks of the stern Albanian reality. Albania simply could not qualify for the race. With three religions, two strikingly different mentalities (Tosk in the south and Gegh in the north), and no common alphabet literacy or written culture of their own to articulate national identity, the A1banians were not in the same class as their Hellenic and Slav competitors. With their total involvement in the passing Turkish civilization, disencumberment was practically impossible. For two reasons: they were culturally not ready for it; second, they had no cadres to do the necessary work. For the Greeks and Serbs it was a matter of renaissance. For the Albanians it was reaching for something never before experienced.

With no Hellenic past and culture to give them a sense of superiority, no medieval greatness to make them feel confident, no centuries-long resistance to feed their fortitude, Albanians found themselves in a position of a pupil totally unprepared for the forthcoming test. History was, at that time, very cruel and unfair to Albania. It pitched this small unprepared nation into combat with by far better equipped rivals. This was an unfortunate development for the future of Balkan international relations. Understandably, from the very outset Albanians were prone to panic and to paranoia. How were they going to extricate themselves from this unfavorable situation? How to prevent being "swallowed" by these foreign cultures, foreign nationalities, and strange social habits of the surrounding "small imperialists"? There was only one way, they thought, the way snails, turtles, and hedgehogs react when sensing danger: withdraw into ones shell and see an enemy in everyone and everything. Unfortunately, ever since those tantalizing days at the beginning of the 19th century, Albanians have yet to come out of that shell. This siege mentality of the past seems to explain most of the strange and peculiar behavior of Albanian individuals and society even today.

As far as the leading Albanian intellectuals were concerned, the ones that were to bring their people onto the road of national awakening, they saw Albania surrounded by three small states: Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece, which were seeking to aggrandize themselves at the expense of Albania. This frame of mind made it difficult, if not impossible, for Albania to join the other Balkan states and pull away from Turkey. On the other hand, there was no more effective way to jolt the Albanian national consciousness than by the use of such scare tactics.

Most of the protagonists of Albanian national awakening lived separated from their homeland, and were really products of foreign cultures. Such could also be said of the surrounding Greek or Slav societies. Intellectuals from the latter, however, once back, were returning to their native land which had its own history, culture, literacy, language, religion, and tradition--everything clearly separated from any foreign great culture. The Albanian who was returning home and wanted to begin something, to awaken his people's consciousness, had practically to create all the above enumerated. Albanians made their history in Constantinople and not in Tirana. The Albanians did not have Dushan's tsardom (as the Serbs), neither was their culture based on Hellenic civilization (as the Greeks). Albanian heroes were "Turkified outlaws," and not native mountaineers who fought for "the honorable cross and golden liberty" (as the Serbs and Montenegrins). Finally, the Albanians were not even able to write their program of national awakening in one single Albanian language common to all Albanians let alone verbalize it.

The organizational, national, and cultural obstructions that faced the Albanian patriots in the 19th century were paramount. Breaking away from Constantinople, as the source of everything good and bad that had befallen Albania, probably would not have been such a major problem, especially since that was the period when the wouldbe Albanian ruling class was beginning to be disenchanted with the Porte. But to induce Albanians to break away from the concept of Islamic solidarity with the Turks, or any other Moslem nation when faced by aggressive Christians, was a task of major proportions.

Typically, the realization that an attempt to break this bond was absolutely necessary came not from Albanians in the country, but from those abroad. From those Albanians who had a chance to distance themselves from the prevailing mentality at home, or who at least lived in peripheral regions of the Albanian diaspora. From those Albanians who could witness and evaluate the processes of national awakening in Italy (where a sizable Albanian minority lived), Austria, and other European countries. This, of course, made it a foreign idea, which had to be transplanted, not the genuine product of domestic soil. The American Independence idea, if born in Montreal, would not have the authenticity of the one in Philadelphia.

A considerable step was taken for the Albanians when Naum Vequiharxhi, some say a Macedonian, created an Albanian cultural organization in Romania, where he was living. In addition, by combining elements of various alphabets, he constructed a new Albanian alphabet in 1844. It was his proposed solution to one burning problem, which the Albanians did not solve until about four decades later. Vequiharxhi and others had realized that if the Albanians were ever to have a school with an Albanian teacher (not a Greek, Turk, or Italian), they first had to have an alphabet. But this obvious truth did not gain easy acceptance in the divisive conditions that were tearing Albania apart. The Albanian nation which was to be the carrier of the national ideal was yet to be formed, out of tribes of various orientations. It was therefore naive to believe that a cohesive force could be made out of something that did not exist, but Albanian patriots knew that they had to make the attempt.

For the Albanian patriots, the education of the people was a most indispensable weapon. But this was not palatable to the Turks, who in their long reign over foreign races and peoples had experienced a lot of resentment and even armed rebellion. They used force to deal with such problems, but were confused as to how to act against moves for a separate cultural identity.

With all due respect to the efforts of the Albanian patriots of that period, and to today's protagonists of the "Albanian national awakening theory," the fact remains that there was no such thing as a "national uprising" against the Turks in Albanian history. The year 1844 is usually cited as the time of numerous Albanian popular uprisings. Revolts did indeed break out in cities such as Skoplje, Prishtina, Tetovo--none on Albanian territory proper--but these were prompted by the decision of the Turkish government to require of Albanians the same things as demanded of other Moslems in Turkey: obedience of the new military draft and the new tax laws. This terminated the special status that the Albanians had enjoyed. It takes a considerable stretching of the meaning of words to equate such opposition, undertaken in order to retain ones own privileged status, with "national awakening." Could the indignant participant in the Boston Tea Party ("no taxation without representation") be asked to liken his battle cry to the slogan that would insist on maintaining a privileged position ("representation without taxation")? By what magic twist can a fight against discrimination be equated with the struggle for the preservation of discrimination?

Albanian patriots seemingly never understood the simple truth that the only way that Albania could obtain freedom and independence was by joining hands with the Balkan Christians. This was anathema to the Moslems, but without successful Christian uprisings in the Balkans, Albanian revolts by themselves could not bring liberation. When South Albanian pashas andbeyssupported Turkish "pacification" of the Greek Revolution (1821), they seemingly did not know what they were doing. It seemed to them a normal Moslem cooperation, as long as the Turkish subsidies lasted. Once the money supply dried up, the Albanians rebelled. The Turkish answer: in 1830, the Turkish commander of the expeditionary force, Reshid Pasha, summoned the South Albanian leaders to Bitolj, telling them that he was bringing a "pardon" from the Sublime Porte. But on August 26th of that year, while attending a sham military parade, they were massacred, 500 of them, in a way that had nothing "sublime" about it. Albanians who survived, or heard about it, ran for cover. But where to go? To the Greeks! Similarly, in 1870 and 1910, Albanian refugees fled to Christian Cetinje. 

Throughout the 19th century there were reports that Albanians were in an uproar. They revolted in 1835 (Skadar), in 1839 (Prizren), in 1844 (Skoplje, Tetovo, Prishtina), in 1845 (Prishtina), in 1847 (Sandjak of Girokastra). The reason for all of these rebellions was the same: the attempt of the central Turkish government to secure new income and to tighten the system of military draft. The Turks would usually begin with some kind of census, which would be a signal for the Albanians to grab their rifles. Describing the revolt of Prizren (1884), which spread to Djakovica and Prishtina, historian Stavro Skendi writes: "... for people who have not been used to paying taxes, or to paying very low ones, the sudden increase [in taxes] was deeply resented." (The Albanian National A wakening, p. 191). Usually in times of such "awakenings," the Albanian insurgents would first confront Turkish units, and the Turks would give up or postpone their demands, whereupon the Albanian rage would be turned against their Slav neighbors. The Russians would file a protest to the Sublime Porte; the Austrians and Italians would express concern for the "endangered" Albanians; and the Serbs would once again try to reason with the Albanians. Every time that this game was played, the Serbs would find themselves at the shorter end of the rope.

Typical of the process were the machinations taking place in the southern areas of the old Serbian state, which toward the end of the century was also in turmoil, with Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Albanians jockeying for position. The Slavs and Greeks were in vicious competition, but they never lost sight of their enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece formed an alliance, and in 1912 declared war on Turkey. The Albanians, on the other hand, just could not see how their interests could coincide with the interests of their rivals. So, as Professor Skendi notes: "Turkey could rely on Albanians, who were hostile to Slavs. In 1901, Albanian bands pillaged and partly set fire to Novi Pazar, Sjenitsa and Prishtina.

They attacked the Slavs everywhere. The Serbian population suffered most, because of their proximity to the Albanians" (ibid., p. 201).

The Turkish administration had its reasons for keeping the anti-Slav flame burning among the Albanians. But what interest the Albanians had in it remains a mystery. As Turkey was about to cease being the source of power and social advantage in the Empire, what kept the Albanians from extending their hand to the Slavs?

All those Albanian patriots abroad, and especially those in Constantinople, must have noticed the change in the general attitude of the Porte toward the Serbian nation-- their visiting princes, kings, premiers, and envoys on special missions. With Serbian rulers being received "in official audiences at the Imperial Palace of Yildiz," would it not have been wise to establish closer relations with the rising crowds, and in fact "piggyback" to freedom with them?

The question must have bothered the Russian Ambassador in Constantinople, Ignatiev. He was a man of action and even offered some of his own money (1876) for the purpose of winning Albanians over to join the Slavs. For the same reason, Montenegro's Prince Nikola PetrovichNjegosh courted the Miridite ruling family Bib Doda in the 1880s. Prince Nikola admitted that he did all this in the hope that "when it comes to hurrah" Albanians would join the Montenegrins in the fight against the Turks. The Serbian government, Belgrade agents, numerous semi-official organizations--all worked hard to attract Albanian support for the common struggle against the Porte. They were especially betting on a sympathetic reception among North Albanians, whose Christian faith would prompt them to join in fighting Islam instead of Christianity. But this did not happen.

One such opportunity was when the Serbs of BosniaHercegovina rose up against the Turks in 1875. Serbia, although ill-prepared, came to the support of the rebels, joined by Russian General Cherniaev and some 2,000 volunteers. Cherniaev, now a Serbian citizen, commanded the venture. Not long after, he turned tail and advised a truce, no doubt influenced by a meeting and a decision by the Russian Tsar and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor that Serbia should not be allowed to annex Bosnia. Russia sent Constantinople a strongly-worded ultimatum, while at the same time telling the Serbs to make peace.

In April 1877, however, Russia declared war against Turkey, and when she experienced tough Turkish resistance implored the Serbs to help, promising aid. The Serbs came to Russia's assistance, and by the end of December, while suffering heavy losses, forced the Turks to surrender the fortified city of Nish. Soon thereafter they ran into strong resistance at Samokovo, which was fiercely defended by Albanian troops. Forgetting promises of help to the Serbs, and the Serbs' hope of returning to Old Serbia, the Russians saw an opportunity to dictate the peace, and agreed to a truce with the Turks.

Ignoring their Serbian allies, the Russians signed the Treaty of San Stefano (March 1878), creating a Greater Bulgaria. Russia, the great "protector," did not consult her Serbian friends even unofficially. But the Serbs were not the only ones to be surprised and shocked; the Albanians were even more so. If Russia could dish out such treatment to independent Serbia, its ally, what could the Albanians, who still did not have their state and who fought on the side of the Turks, see in the cards for themselves? Not much.

The Western Great Powers, especially Austro-Hungary, realized that San Stefano meant Russian domination of the Balkans and beyond. To England and France it meant Russian control of the Straits. And Italy visualized the disastrous sight of Russian naval ships in their sea. Consequently, in less than three months, these powers called a conference at Berlin, which came to be known as the Congress of Berlin. German Chancellor Bismarck offered to be an "honest broker."

Albanian activists in Constantinople, a month before the Congress of Berlin was to meet, formed a secret "Central Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Albanian people." It was not so secret, because several Turkish high officials of Albanian descent, were members. The Committee alleged that Serbia and other Balkan nations were desirous of annexing Albanian territories.

The Committee was the backbone in June 1878 of an Albanian assembly at Prizren, which later came to be known as the "League of Prizren." The President of the Constantinople Committee, Abdul Frasheri, delivered the opening speech in Prizren only three days before the opening of the Congress of Berlin. The largest number of Prizren participants (of a total of about 80) were from Northern Albania, and only two (including Frasheri) were from the South. Moreover, very much in attendance were Moslem landholders (some invited from Bosnia-Hercegovina), Moslem clergy, and beys and pashas--all politically conservative.

The delegates at Prizren favored the maintenance of the sovereignty of the Sultan over Albania as a guarantee against partition. As Stefanaq Pollo and Arben Puto (The History of Albania, Boston, 1981, p. 118) conclude: "This meant that for a while the Albanian movement and the Porte were united by common interest, for the Albanians needed the Turkish authorities to give them a free hand, and the Turks were very anxious that local resistance movements should form an obstacle to any plans to break up their empire."

The Prizren assembly drew up and sent a memorandum to the Congress of Berlin. The petition which reached the British delegation, however, was one drafted by the local committee in Skadar. It contained sentences detesting Turkish domination, a stand that the pro-Turkish conservative meeting in Prizren would not have approved. Lord Beaconsfield submitted the petition to the Congress, bringing the Albanian problem, for the first time, to the attention of international public opinion. Albanian patriots were disappointed that in the end the Congress of Berlin ignored the petition. The Great Powers considered Albania still a part of Turkey, and the whole Albanian question .tS constituting a Turkish internal problem.

The fact that England had assumed the role of Albania's tutor at the Congress was not overlooked in Serbia. "At the Congress of Berlin," wrote historian Slobodan Jovanovich, England "behaved as our enemy. The Austrian OCCUpation of Bosnia, for example, was proposed by the English Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury." ( Vlada Milana Obrenovica [Reign of Milan Obrenovich], vol. 2; Belgrade, 1927, p. 22). One cannot help wondering if "old Slobodan" was at all surprised when, as Premier of the Yugoslav Government in Exile, he was dumped in 1943 by Churchill in order to create room for the ascent of Marshal Tito.

One result of the Berlin Congress was that it kindled Albanian chauvinistic attitudes, just as San Stefano had set afire the national intolerance of Bulgaria. In that sense, both events only added to the existing worries of Serbi.: Turkey in the south, Austro-Hungary in the north, and now Bulgaria in the east and Albania in the west. Territoriall. and politically, both Montenegro and Serbia made modest gains from the Berlin deliberations, which modified San Stefano. Both were allowed some territorial expansions, and were internationally recognized as independent states, although de facto they had been for some time.

Turkey, which at Berlin accepted the expansions, later resorted to delaying tactics by instigating the Albanians to protest, and explaining to Europe that it could not ask its Moslem troops to fight its Moslem brothers for the sake of benefits to the Slavs. The ugliest incident in the course of these Albanian "protests" was the killing of Mehmed Ali Pasha, a Turkish diplomat of European renown, in Djakovitsa on September 6, 1878. The mob dragged his body through the streets, and paraded it with the decapitated head on a long pole. His host, the president of the local committee of the Prizren Leage, Abdulah Pasha Dreni, was also killed.

To most observers, the movement for Albanian national awakening had degenerated into mob rule, and the Prizren League had lost its authority over the national awakening. The Prizren League had in effect fallen into the hands of radical elements, who organized assemblies in cities such as Gjirokastra and Debar. They were routed by a Turkish expeditionary force under Dervish pasha. Abdul Frasheri was captured, sentenced to death, subsequently commuted, and finally amnestied three years later. What began as an Albanian awakening movement ended up in bands ransacking and pillaging cities and settlements, and the Turkish authorities were for the most part forced to put up with it.

Some Albanian patriots were deeply disappointed with the tactics of those who had assumed to act for the League. The unruly behavior of Northern Albanians (Geghs) horrified those in the South (Tosks). One of the Southerners was Faik Konitza, editor, author and cultured Westerner, who disapproved of violent tactics and appealed for the acceptance of civilized methods, condemning what he called "schools of assassination and massacres." Another was his close friend, Ismail Kemal Vlora, who liked to dream of a "Greco-Albanian Entente," although he was suspicious of the Greeks and especially of the Serbs. Parenthetically, it might be added that Vlora was to proclaim the first Albanian provisional govenment in 1913.

When the League of Prizren demonstrated that it was unable to guide, it meant that the Serbian side had no one to approach for a reasonable discussion. But even if there had been an Albanian representative to whom grievances could be submitted, one wonders if local Albanian "bosses" who tyrannized the Slav population could have been controlled. The situation was especially complex in the southern areas of the medieval Serbian kingdom--where three anti-Albanian groups (Serbs, Bulgars, and Greeks) were resorting to self-defense tactics.

The actions of radical Albanian elements were in part a reaction to being ignored at Berlin, together with the realization that without Turkish help they could not prevent Serbs from eventually moving back to Old Serbia territories. From the time of the Serbian exoduses (1690 and 1738), Albanian settlers pushed northward, taking over more and more Serbian lands. Now, in fear and panic, they began a migration in reverse, as they realized that the day of reckoning might be coming. In the process, they vented their rage on many innocent and helpless Serbs, in some areas verging on genocide.

European capitals became concerned that the Ottoman authorities were either unable or unwilling to put a stop to the Albanian actions. Moscow, although sincerely moved by the destiny of her Slav brothers in the Balkans, was primarily interested in having no one to disrupt its policy in the peninsula. Western Europeans became agitated because they saw in all of this an excellent excuse for Moscow to intervene. So they pressed the Ottoman Government to do something, to go ahead with its "reform program" and to secure a peaceful life for its Christian subjects.

Serbian envoy to Constantinople, Dr. Vladan Djordjevich, in May 1895 reported to Belgrade that he had gone to see the Russian ambassador, to whom he complained about Albanian atrocities, which were forcing hundreds of families to flee to Serbia. He drew the ambassador's attention to the fact that in a relatively short period of time the Serbs would disappear from the Kosovo vilayet. He pointed out that those who remained in Old Serbia would have to accept the Turkish faith in order to save their naked lives, unless the horrible Albanian violence was stopped.

Earlier, the ambassador told Serbia's envoy that the situation was well known to him, because one whole village had declared to the Russian consul that if the harassing continued the whole village would convert to Islam. "We will, in our hearts remain Serbs and Orthodox," the peasants declared to the consul, "but in order to save our property and our naked lives, until better times we have to accept Islam." The ambassador promised that as soon as he had additional details, which he had requested, he would personally contact the Grand Vizier. Moreover, the ambassador agreed with the envoy's suspicion that Austria was giving encouragement and aid to the Albanians (Vladan Djordjevic, Serbija i Turska, 1894-1897; Belgrade, 1928, p. 112).

The archbishop of the Dechani Monastery, Serafim Ristich, informed the Porte and world opinion on what was going on, by publishing Plach Stare Srbije (The Cry of Old Serbia), on Austrian territory (Zemun, 1864). In his memorandum to the Porte, Ristich enumerated each and every individual case of violence, terror, robbery, and outright murder performed by Albanians in the districts of Pech, Djakovitsa, Prizren, Prishtina, Novo Brdo, Gnjlane, Tetovo, Vranje, and other districts and lands. It took him 68 numbered paragraphs to describe all pertinent cases in a documented way. "Unless this savage assault on us is discontinued," wrote the archbishop, "we will be forced to leave the soil which is soaked with the blood of our ancestors, and move away from the hearths of our homes." Be it noted that this was published fourteen years before the League of Prizren which, compared to the period after the League, made the archbishop's time look relatively good.

In some ways the worst was yet to come. As the Albanian migrations in reverse continued southward, they took out their rage upon the Serbs still in Turkey. So as the century was coming to an end, and more Albanians had to migrate, more and more Serbs in Turkey were exposed to increased hatred, persecution, and mistreatment. In turn, this placed an enormous burden on Serbia: what to do to help their endangered brothers at a time when Turkish law and order were getting weaker and weaker? It is estimated that in the period 1876-1912, about 150,000 Serbs were forced to leave the Kosovo vilayet (Jovan Cvijic, Balkanski rat i Srbija [The Balkan War and Serbia]: Belgrade, 1912, P. 8).

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