End of a Nation? Why Albania Fell Apart A Difficult History Led to the Current Crisis in This Unique Balkan Nation

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What's at stake?

Europe's tinderbox

Albania, Europe's poorest country and one of its smallest, has descended into anarchy over the last two months. Popular outrage against the government was ignited by the collapse of several shaky pyramid schemes that bankrupted many Albanians. Like other turmoil in Europe this century, the crisis might draw in the United States. Here's the worry: The disorder could lead to uprisings by ethnic Albanians in neighboring Serbia and Macedonia, where American troops are stationed. Many people in Albania are very poor and may decide to sell weapons they have looted from Army depots to these Albanians outside of Albania in order to earn money for food. Many nationalities live in this southeast portion of Europe known as the Balkans. It has been referred to as the tinderbox of Europe ever since the 19th century, when the Islamic Ottoman Empire increasingly lost control of the region, and European nations began to compete for influence. World War I was sparked in the Balkans. Europe's future Solving the Albanian crisis is seen as a test of Europe's ideal of creating a peaceful continent of market democracies after the end of the Soviet empire. The European Union's inability to end the war in Bosnia, and America's role in finally forging a peace accord, has put a spotlight on Europe's response to the current crisis. In all post-communist Eastern European nations, the challenge continues to build democracies and civil societies. For close to two generations, Albania experienced Europe's most repressive, isolationist Communist rule. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron hand from the early 1940s until his death in 1985. Albanians were ignorant of the outside world, denied the practice of religion, and became accustomed to near-total dependence on government. That legacy helps account for their belief in the get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and the popular outrage that followed the collapse of the schemes. Who are the Albanians? Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians, an Indo-European people that settled in the Balkan peninsula from north of the Danube during the first millennium BC. When the area was invaded by migrating peoples such as the Slavs in the 5th and 6th centuries, only the Illyrians in the south of the region - roughly modern Albania - remained unconquered and unassimilated. Thus Albanians are not considered Slavs, unlike most others in the Balkans. Modern Albania is roughly divided between two ethnic-linguistic groups, the Ghegs, who live north of the Shkumbin River, and the Tosks in the south. The Tosk dialect is in official use. Despite minor differences in appearance, dress, and culture, both groups - representing 97 percent of the country - consider themselves Albanian. But the north-south divide appears to be growing. Former Communist dictator Hoxha was from the south, and it remains a stronghold for the Socialists, many of whom are former Communists. President Sali Berisha is from the north and has been accused of giving northerners positions within his government at the expense of southerners. The south is primarily held by a loose coalition of rebel groups that demand Mr. Berisha's resignation. Many observers say that the mafia and the opposition Socialists comprise most of these rebels. Most Albanians in the north still appear to support Berisha. Why did they invest in pyramid schemes? Fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes still nab the unwary in almost any country. …