Albania Historical Background
Albania has been a nation long subjected to foreign domination. The mountains still bear the ruined walls of fortresses that once garrisoned Roman legions, Byzantine armies, and Venetian crusaders. Nevertheless the Albanian tribes, isolated by mountains, lakes and swamps, were never fully subdued by their many conquerors. The mountain chieftains retained much authority over their clans.
Once part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, Albania came under the dominion of the Byzantine Empire in 395 A.D. It was during the period of Roman rule that Christianity was introduced. While nominally under Byzantine rule until 1347, northern Albania was invaded by Slavic tribes in the 600s and the southern area was annexed in the 800s by Bulgaria. Byzantium regained control of the south in 1014. Venice colonized the northern area in the 1000s and Naples soon became politically dominant in the whole region until the 1300s when the area was was taken by the Serbs. Thereafter it became a target of Ottoman Turkish expansion in the early 1400s.
It was during these difficult times with the Turks that Albania finally achieved its national identity and a period of sovereignty as a nation. The warrior hero, Gjergi Kastrioti, better known as Skanderbeg, formed a union of Albanian princes and defended the nation against superior Turkish forces to establish an independent Albania which lasted from 1443 until 1478 when it fell to the Turks. The Ottoman Empire controlled Albania from 1478 until 1912.
Ottoman domination lasted longer and influenced Albania more profoundly than that of any other foreign power. Islam became the majority religion.
The collapse of Skanderbeg’s rule and Turkish occupation caused a great exodus of Albanian Christians to southern Italy, especially to the kingdom of Naples, as well as to Sicily, Greece, Romania, and Egypt. Most of the Albanian refugees belonged to the Greek-Orthodox Church. Some of the émigrés to Italy converted to Roman-Catholicism, and the rest established a Uniate Church. The Albanians of Italy significantly influenced the Albanian national movement in future centuries, and Albanian Franciscan priests, most of whom were descended from émigrés to Italy, played a significant role in the preservation of Roman-Catholicism in Albania's northern regions.Many Albanian Christians emigrated to Italy.
In Albania, during the centuries of Ottoman rule, two-thirds of the population accepted or were forcibly converted to Islam. Conversion to Islam was essential to realize position and privilege; this was the usual motive for conversion.
All three of Albania's religions were forcefully introduced by conquerors. In 1914, seventy percent of the population was Muslim, divided between the Sunni and Bektashi sects. Greek-Orthodox Christians constituted twenty percent of the population and Roman-Catholics made up the remaining ten percent. The Roman-Catholics lived primarily in the northern coastal areas bordering Austro-Hungary. The Greek-Orthodox were concentrated in the south near the Greek border. All religions were officially outlawed in 1967.
In 1912 the Albanians took advantage of the first Balkan War to declare their Independence from Turkey. An international control commission traced the borders of Albania in 1913, destroying the dream of a greater Albania by assigning large areas with predominant Albanian populace to Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece. Considering that many Albanians are also found in southern Italy, as many Albanians were left out of the new state as were included in it. Boundary disputes persist to the present because many of these “outer Albanians” want local autonomy, and Albania wants to acquire neighboring territories where Albanians predominate.
The new nation had a difficult beginning. In 1913, during the second Balkan War, Albania was occupied by the Serbs. In 1914 William, prince of Wied, became King but was soon expelled by his premier. Italian, Greek, and Serbo-Montenegrin forces occupied the land in the First World War. Then, in 1916, Austrians and Bulgarians entered the country and Albania remained a battleground until the end of the war. The Albanians eventually expelled all foreign troops and also successfully resisted Yugoslav and Greek encroachments.
In 1920 Albania reasserted its independence. Ahmed Zogu emerged from Albania's internal political struggle to seize power in 1925. At first he proclaimed a republic with himself as president, but in 1928 he established a monarchy and became King Zog I. He ruled as a dictator until the spring of 1939, when Italy invaded and annexed the country. Following Italy's World War II surrender in 1943, German troops replaced the Italians. The Nazis withdrew at the end of 1944, leaving Albania to the Communist-led National Liberation Front headed by Enver Hoxha. He set up a Communist state in 1946.
Albania isolated itself from most of the world for a quarter of a century after World War II. With over 750,000 Albanians living in neighboring Yugoslavia, fear of that country has been a constant factor in Albania. When Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the ComInform in 1948, Albania sided with Moscow. After Stalin's death in 1953, Hoxha continued to follow a hard “Stalinist” line. This provoked growing tensions with the Kremlin and friendship with Communist China. In 1960, in an ideological dispute between Soviet and Chinese Communists, Albania sided with China. The Soviets broke diplomatic relations with Albania in 1961 and then cut off all military and economic aid. Albania allied itself with the more ideological pure Chinese. After the death of China's leader Mao Tse-tung in 1976, relations cooled between Albania and China. Upon the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, the repressive, isolationist regime was replaced by a somewhat more open government under Ramiz Alia.
Opposition parties were legalized in 1990 and a non-Communist government was elected in 1992. In spite of limited democratic reforms, drastic shortages of consumer goods persist in Albania, the poorest nation in Europe.
The Albanians are considered to be descendants of Illyrian and Thracian tribes who settled the region in ancient times. The country is ethnically homogeneous with 96 percent of the population being Albanian. There are two major subgroups of Albanians - the Gegs and the Tosks. Historically, the Gegs of northern Albania were herdsmen, mostly Muslim and Roman-Catholic. The Tosks of the south were more generally settled farmers, and their religion was more often Greek-Orthodox but also many Muslims. Today their differences in dialect, religions and social customs are distinguishable but not pronounced. Ninety-five percent of the population are ethnically Albanian. Greeks are the largest minority; they constitute 3% of the population and live in the southern portion of the country. The other 2% include Vlachs (akin to Romanians), Gypsies, Bulgars, and Serbs.