"Northern Epiros": The Greek Minority in Southern Albania


After decades of political isolation, Albania burst suddenly onto the international scene in the summer of 1990. Five thousand Albanian citizens, inspired by televised dissidence elsewhere in Eastern Europe, stormed the foreign embassies in Tirana and requested asylum and emigration. Albanian security police blocked access to the embassies but did not begin to stem what quickly became a flood of emigration. As a result of the collapse of the Albanian economy, as well as the loosening of border restrictions, by early 1991 tens of thousands of young, male, mostly unskilled Albanians were emigrating illegally and hazardously by boat to Italy and on foot over the mountains into Greece. By 1994, conservative estimates of the number of illegal Albanian migrants in Greece alone reached 150,000 - 200,000.

The migrants into Greece included Albanian citizens identified in news reports as "ethnic Greeks" - or "North Epirots," residents of that zone of Southern Albania referred to by Greeks as "Northern Epiros." Emigration from this zone in particular was so massive that by April 1994, the Economist would report that "most North Epirots no longer live in Albania." The effect was to heighten tensions in southern Albania itself between "ethnic Greeks" and their Albanian co-citizens: land was left uncultivated, villages depopulated, and, in the general instability of the times, claims to property (in the hands of women, children, and the elderly) were felt to be insecure. A Minority Rights Groups Report from 1994 noted an increase in small arms purchases in the rural areas.

At the same time, with the Albanian economy in "transition" - the highly centralized system of the communist years having collapsed - Greece was the only source of income for many Albanian - "Northern Epirot" and otherwise - families: unemployment in Albanian cities has reached 60%. Albanian workers, however vilified in Greece (popular opinion holds them responsible for waves of rural banditry and urban theft), provide cheap labor for Greek farms and businesses. Reciprocally, Greek investment is crucial to the emerging free-market Albanian economy. As a consequence of this mutual involvement and more than half a century of political alienation, the relationship between Greece and Albania is ambivalent and volatile. The two "minority" - issues - that of the status and security of the ethnic Greeks of southern Albania and that of Albanian immigrants in Greece - have been tightly linked since early 1991.

"Northern Epiros"

Since 1991, a cluster of incidents involving ethnic Greeks and the Albanian state have drawn attention to the issue of human and minority rights in Albania and have revived an older question of Greek interests in Northern Epiros.

From the end of World War II until 1990, Albania was perhaps the most repressive, as well as the poorest, state in Eastern Europe. The dictatorship of Enver Hoxha brutally suppressed all political opposition, and in 1967 it made religious expression illegal. Whether or not special sanctions were applied to ethnic Greeks under Hoxha is a point of dispute, as a recent Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report notes. In any case, all potentially dissident Albanians suffered. Although the communist regime was dissolved between 1990 and 1992 and the government is now controlled by the Democratic Party of Sali Berisha, civil rights are not yet well established, and there are continuing abuses - harassment of the political opposition, a restricted press, police and judicial corruption. These general conditions should be noted when considering the difficulties experienced by the Greek minority.

Ther term "Northern Epiros," which is regularly used in the Greek national press and informally by Greek citizens, was generated in the territorial struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "Northern Epiros" has no precise boundaries but it refers to a sector of southern Albania, contiguous with the Greek province called Epiros, that Greece claimed as Greek territory at the time of the founding of Albania in 1912 and 1913. The term is rejected as politically charged by Albanians. Intermittently from 1912-1923 and again from 1940-1944, Northern Epiros was a contested zone: in 1914 it was declared "autonomous," and during WWI it was occupied by Greek, French, Italian, and German military forces.

At the end of WWII and the Greek Civil War (1949), the frontier between Greece and Albania was closed at the 1913 boundary line. Until the 1950s, Greece continued to ask for review of the Northern Epiros question in the international courts. Subsequently, the issue was dropped, and in 1987, Greece's official state of war with Albania, in place since 1942, was finally revoked. Despite the occasional inflammatory remark on the part of individual ministers, Greece has no official irredentist designs on Albanian territory. At the same time, Greece has taken a protective role with reference to the human rights of ethnic Greek Albanians. The Greek government claims that there are - or were - about 200,000 ethnic Greeks in Albania. Official Albanian sources (such as the 1989 census) cite a maximum of 58,000 (along with 4700 Macedonians, 1300 Roma, and 1300 Vlachs of a total population of 3.3 million).

Whatever the position of the Greek government may be, a vocal irredentist minority both abroad and within Greece - particularly among conservative clergy - considers Northern Epiros "unredeemed:" the American - based Pan Epirotic League has described the Greeks of Northern Epiros as "under Albanian occupation." The most extreme advocates of the Greek nationalist position deny that Albania has any legitimate claim to the status of nation-state.

The intensity of Greek reaction to events in Albania concerning ethnic Greek Albanian citizens is linked to long-standing concern over what Greeks have considered "historic Greek lands," in particular, southern Albania and western Turkey. Greece had hoped to recoup these territories after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, and had been disappointed in that ambition. Furthermore, the Greek community in Albania may constitute the last numerically significant Greek minority in the Balkans outside Greece itself. Thus, paradoxically, the exodus of Greeks from southern Albania may have provoked a surge of irredentist desires: suddenly the Greek presence in what Greeks consider an indigenous zone seemed on the verge of disappearance.

In 1993 and 1994, a series of events concerning the rights of Greeks in Albania and of Albanians in Greece provoked open conflict between the Albanian state under President Berisha and the Greek state under Prime Minister Papandreou. The two states exchanged lists of diplomatic "demands" and engaged in hostile police and judicial actions aimed at their respective "minority" populations. We should be cautious about taking the language of these political debates at face value. How, for example, either within Albania or abroad, is an "ethnic Greek" to be identified? Why do official Greek and Albanian estimates of the Greek population of southern Albania differ so dramatically? And since we raise the issue of a "Greek minority" in Albania, what can be said about an "Albanian minority" in Greece? The answers to these questions reflect the complexity of "nationality" in southern Albania and northern Greece.


Geographical orientation

The western coast of the Balkan peninsula along the Adriatic Sea is divided from the central and eastern mainland by the southern offshoots of the European Alpine system, the Dinaric Alps of the former Yugoslavia and the Pindus range of Albania and Greece. When we think about southern Albania and Greek Epiros we have first to understand that a significant range of mountains divides this territory from the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula and from the northeast. In the north of Albania, east-west passage before the modern period has been extremely difficult; in the south, some river valleys cut through to the coast from the interior. Despite the valleys, the south is still a mountainous area.

Differences in patterns of communication no doubt lie behind the conventional division of Albania into two dialectal regions. In theory, "Gheg" is spoken in the north, and "Tosk" in the south, particularly in the plains. But the actual situation was probably more complex, with a number of other dialects neither clearly Tosk nor Gheg - for example, among the Liaps and the Chams, and perhaps the Pogoni. (The historical significance of any such division, in any case, has diminished over time with the effects of a national educational system.)

The eastern Adriatic coast was not rich in good harbors - or in harbors accessible to the hinterland (Igpumenitsa was only developed after Greece lost access to Sarande); and much of the coastal trade was dominated by the Adriatic islands, especially the island of Corfu. Thus, the belt of mountainous territory, river valleys, and (before drainage) swampy plain that stretches between Montenegro and the Gulf of Arta (and that now makes up Albania and the Greek province of Epiros) was organized before the modern period into numerous, relatively small districts. These had strong regional identities, were centered on market towns, and were intermittently under some form of imperial control.

As for Northern Epiros, it can be imagined as a belt of land-perhaps 40 km wide at its narrowest, 90 at its broadest - stretching in a northeasterly direction from the coast north of Corfu to the lakes of Ochrid and Prespa (which Albania shares with Greece and Yugoslavia). It includes the port of Sarande, and the important towns of Gjirokaster, Korce, and Himare.

The politics of prehistory

In the southern Balkans, nationalist controversies tend to involve archaeology and ancient history. As if geography could speak for itself, they also involve arguments about the natural logic of mountains, rivers, and valleys. Nothing about the territory is beyond controversy. The area we have just described has been called (wholly or in part), "Illyria," "Epiros," "Macedonia," "Albania," and "Greece," to cite in their English versions a few of the names applied. These terms refer to aggregations of smaller districts with their own, locally relevant names.

In antiquity, Greeks used the word "Illyrian" to refer to people in Albania and Montenegro. They used "Epirote" to describe the culturally non-Greek people on the mainland (epiros being Freek for "mainland") across from Corfu where they first settled. But etymologies, like genealogies, reflect political interest. The Albanian-American linguist Peter Prifti derives epiros from the "Illyrian word eper, meaning `higher' or `elevated."' He identifies the Epirote tribes as Illyrian. Albanians describe themselves as the descendants of the Illyrians; Greeks claim the (eventually hellenized) Epirotes as Greek. There is a wonderful ambiguity to the prehistoric Epirotes that prefigures twentieth century controversies about Albanian and Greek national identity. And neither in Greek antiquity nor after the Roman conquest were the borders of an "Epiros" clearly defined: twentieth century Albania occupies the two ancient Roman provinces of Old and New Epirus, but only a northern fragment of the Byzantine province called Epiros.

Most contemporary scholars are reluctant to place the extremely various prehistoric peoples of the eastern Balkans and the Adriatic into the simple categories "Illyrian" or "Greek" (see, for example, John Wilkes' The Illyrians). It is probably more accurate to think of regional groups subject to homogenizing forces: urbanization, trade, conquest, empire and - eventually - nationalism. In understanding these larger processes of consolidation and separation in Albania and Epiros, it is helpful to remember that the dividing line between the Latin and Greek spheres of language and culture in the Balkans seems to follow the valley of the Shkumbin River. It is south of this line (that is, in southern Albania) that Albanian and Greek language and culture mix to produce the complexities we are considering here.

The nineteenth century: Albania and Epiros before 1912

The key to understanding contemporary conflicts lies not in prehistory or ancient history but in that nursery of Balkan identities, the nineteenth century. Albania/Epiros at that time constituted a complex field of linguistic, religious, regional, and emerging national affiliations, often in cross-cutting combinations. But why was this particular zone so extremely socially diverse? What was its character when Greece (beginning in 1832) and Albania (in 1912) took shape as states?

The diversity of the Greek-Albanian border zone was a consequence of two millennian of human traffic. In the generation and politics of this diversity, Roman - and later Italian - interests played a role of more than passing importance. These interests were motivated by the desire to control overland routes from Italy to the East. According to historian Stavro Skendi, before Islam came to Albania, Albanian feudal lords "led an amphibious life between Catholicism and Orthodoxy." This religious "flexibility" is a crucial feature of Albanian self-consciousness. However, Albania's connection with Italy has been a perennial source of friction with Greece.

The Romans devastated - and colonized - Epiros following their conquest of the Macedons in 168 B.C. The Slavs reached the Adriatic in 536; they seem to have taken over the existing fabric of towns (until well after the end of the Ottoman period, village in Epiros kept their Slavic names). By the tenth century, a number of approximate "ethnic" or linguistic groups emerge from this multilinguistic and politically complex milieu: the population is linguistically Latin/Romanized (the Arumani), Albanian/Albanianized, Greek/Hellenized, or Slavic/Slavicized.

The Ottoman conquest in the fifteenth century replaced rule by Christian Latin, Venetian, Frankish, and Byzantine princes with that of Muslim Turks. Albania was not without its holy wars: the national hero Scanderbeg, raised as a Muslim by a religiously "amphibious" father, fought for Albanian independence as a converted Christian against the Turks and Albanian Muslims. Gradually, however, conversions and inter-marriage resulted in a linguistically mixed population with religious affiliation to two forms of Christianity (Catholicism and Orthodoxy) as well as Islam and Judaism. Bektashism, a pantheistic form of Islam with close ties to Christianity, thrived in Albania. As an eclectic sect, it may have suited Albania's heterogeneous population.

During the Ottoman period, and especially during the later nineteenth century, the administrative divisions of Albania and Epiros were repeatedly re-drawn with an eye to preventing the formation of homogeneous ethnolinguistic blocks that might compete with the central Ottoman administration. The Ottomans played one local lord against the other; there was no clear line between an Albanian and a Greek territory.

Consider, for example, J.C. Hobhouse's 1817 record of his first impressions of the Adriatic coast of the southern Balkan mainland. Hobhouse (the poet Byron's traveling companion) describes his first glimpse of the town of Preveza. Celebrating the moment as his "first view of Greece," he identifies the town as being "on the coast of Albania...in the country formerly called Epirus."

As Hobhouse implies, the terms overlapped. "Albania," at that moment, referred to a political district: a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire under the control of the notorious Muslim Albanian Ali Pasha. The southern parts of the same district - its Adriatic face in particular - might be called "Epirus," but the separation between northern and southern Albania was vague: Hobhouse laconically noted - in one of the great understatements of political geography - that he had "never seen a map in which the line of separation is distinctly marked." As for "Greece," it was both everywhere (in the classical past, and in the growing insurrection of Greeks against the Ottomans) and nowhere (in 1817, it did not yet exist as a state).

Regarding the inhabitants, there existed the same complications. The Governor of Preveza was a "Turk with Albanian guards," but of the "Turkish" half of Preveza's population, "...the greater part are Albanians." Though Hobhouse referred to them as Turks, the Muslim Albanian guards spoke no Turkish, only Albanian and Greek. In fact, according to Ottoman historian Melek Delibasi, Epiros was unique among Ottoman provinces in being scarcely subjected to Turkish coloni-zation or deportation policies; most Muslims were local Christians converted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As for the Christians, they called themselves without national distinction, "Romans," meaning Chris-tians of the "Greek Church." Hobhouse noted that Albanians and Greeks wore different clothes: the Greeks (when they were not dressed in the European style) wore loose woolen brogues, the Albanians wore the cotton kamisa or kilt - precisely the kilt that was later adopted as the Greek national costume.

Formal education existed in Greek and Turkish, which were also the languages of commercial relations. The domestic language of the majority in a number of districts was Albanian, but education in Albanian was forbidden. There were, as well, domestically Greek-speaking communities. Albanian speakers were Orthodox as well as Muslim in the south, and Muslim and Catholic in the north towards Montenegro. There were Albanian speakers in Elbassan who called themselves Greeks and professed loyalty to the Sultan (who ensured their independence from the Slavs).

The social hierarchy was more complex that a simple religious division might indicate. Not all "miserable laborers" were Christians, not all lords were Muslim. However, the Muslims constituted without exception the political class and the great majority of large landowners. At the same time, marriage practices linked Muslim and Christian Albanians as well as Albanians and Greeks. Eighteenth and nineteenth century travelers marvel at the intermarriage of Muslims and Christians and the preservation of two confessions in one household.

The border and the problem of nationality

In 1913, in the treaties concluding the Balkan Wars, the Great Powers - Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy - granted Albania independence, but left the southern border open to negotiation. In part as a result of the conflicting agendas of the separate Powers, the question of "Northern Epiros" quickly became the most volatile issue in European politics.

Albanians, following the example of their "liberated" neighbors, had begun to agitate for autonomy or independence at the end of the nineteenth century, but their position in the Balkan struggles was at first ambivalent. In initially supporting Albanian autonomy, the Turks had tried to play the Albanians against both Greeks and Slavs. Yet the Greeks had also lobbied in the 1880s for an alliance with the Albanians, on the grounds that Albanians, like themselves, were "native," and to a considerable extent religiously and educationally hellenized.

Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Italy all had interests and intentions in claiming territory with Albanian populations. On the southern border, however, the contest was ultimately between Albanian and Greece. In a sense, the issue was clear enough: while there were some Muslim Albanians in Northern Epiros, and some Christian Greeks, the Christian majority was both Orthodox and domestically Albanian-speaking. Thus their "national" could be given a number of conflicting readings, and there was substantive disagreement about what constituted nationality in Epiros. During the Ottoman period, individuals often bore two names, Muslim and Christian. (Since Christians also bore Muslim names for state identification, the name was no guide to "national" identity.)

Conflicting criteria of national identity

The Albanians and the Greeks, and their respective international lobbyists, embraced opposing criteria of national identity. For the Greeks, the only legitimate criteria were political "consciousness" and "civilization" (educational culture, commercial language, religion, and the public domain). The Albanians and their allies contended that domestic language (and "racial" belonging as indicated by domestic language) should be taken as criterion. They argued that what united Albanians across confessional divisions (Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox) was an enduring identity based on kinship and common origins. The Great Power, perhaps fearing a bloody struggle (like that in Macedonia) for the hearts and minds of the population, declined to hold a referendum. Instead, a series of commissions with representatives from the various Powers visited Northern Epiros between 1912 and 1922 to determine the identity of the inhabitants. Since the members of the commissions employed two competing notions of national identity, there was no consensus.

With the failure of the Great Powers' commissions to reach a reasoned conclusion in the field, a British compromise line was drawn up. This "Protocol of Florence" of December 17, 1913, delineated what has remained, with minor corrections, the official boundary line between Greece and Albania. During and after WWI, pro-Greek and pro-Albanian forces as well as third parties (Italian, French, German) engaged in intense fighting in the border zone: villages were burned, populations massacred. It was not until 1923 that the border achieved some degree of political reality.

The movement for "national self-determination" in Northern Epiros was too politically complex to be summarized here. However, it is important to state that at least some factions - pro - Greek in their general orientation - desired not union with Greece but "autonomy" (the comparison with Cyprus may be instructive). The ambiguity of the political situation in 1914 and local opposition to inclusion in the Albanian state generated local proclamations of autonomy in the major towns and resulted in a general proclamation of "Autonomous Epiros" at Gjirokaster. An agreement guaranteeing administrative autonomy, a mixed gendarmerie and religious and educational liberty was in fact signed by Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Russia on May 17, 1914, at Corfu, and ratified by the Albanian government on June 25. The outbreak of WWI effectively prevented autonomy from taking shape and the agreement was disregarded at the Ambassador's Conference in Paris in 1921 that ratified the Florence line.

During the 1930s, the Albanian government took measures to suppress foreign, especially Greek, influence. Greek schools were closed, in violation of the League of Nations Minorities Treaty. Hoxha's later policy of isolationism can be more easily understood against the background of a history of foreign conspiracy for the dismemberment of Albania. However, these dramatic measures of state-building punished, not accidentally, the Greek minority - that is, those who chose a Greek "consciousness" after the independence of Albania.

The border dispute had set the tone for future exchanges between Albania and Greece. Greece had argued in 1912 that the Greek educational culture of the Orthodox population of Albania was equivalent to national consciousness; Greek nationalists had maintained that Albania was too religiously and linguistically heterogeneous to constitute a nation; and they had maintained that Muslim Albanians (particularly southern Albanians) were in reality converted Greeks. Thus the question of a Greek presence - and Greek education - in southern Albania reminded Albanians of more comprehensive Greek challenges to the integrity of the Albanian nation-state.

III The ethnographic landscape

Up until WWII, the landscape on both sides of the Greek-Albanian border included pockets of both Christian and Muslim Albanian speakers and Greek speakers. In Greek Epiros, Albanian speakers lived particularly in the coastal areas. Perhaps the largest compact group was the Muslim Albanian-speaking Tsamides, or Chams, in the district of Tsamouria/Cameria (respectively Greek/Albanian). This population, according at least to official source, was later displaced, or had emigrated, to Turkey and Albania.

Currently, there are no identifiable Muslim Albanian communities on the Greek side of the border, although there are certainly Albanian speakers. The latter have rapidly assimilated, and in fact one finds greater concentrations of Albania-speaking communities in the older settlements of southern Greece than in Epiros. On the Albanian side of the border, we find a concentration of greek speakers in the region of Gjirokaster and the Dropull valley. During the last century, ethnic Greeks have been absorbed into the national professional classes in Albania just as Albanian speakers have been assimilated in Greece. In Albania, a Christian Orthodox (morphologically Greek) name does not signify Greek ethnicity, and Albanians from Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds inter-marry. Thus, in the spirit of Albanian social ideology, a recent study of economic conditions in rural Albania carries no reference whatsoever to ethnic divisions. However, it seems that both local and class in-marriage prevailed in the Hoxha years, and this may help to explain the perpetuation of the ethnic Greek community.

The Greeks, of course, are not the only linguistic minority within southern Albania. The Roman conquest has also left its traces. The (traditionally) transhumant Vlachs or Arumani, who speak a Latin language (Arumanian) similar to Rumanian, have long pastured their flocks and engaged in commerce throughout the Pindus range in Albania and Greece. Some Vlachs speak Arumanian and Albanian, some speak Arumanian and Greek, some are trilingual, and some are monolingual, having adopted the state language (Greek or Albanian or Macedonian, etc.). In the nineteenth century, the "Hellenic" faction of some southern Albanian and Macedonian cities was primarily Vlach. Finally, Albanian territory also includes Macedonian-speaking villages.

The Arvanites: an Albanian "minority" in Greece?

During the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, many of those who fought against the Turks on the side of the Greeks were Albanian-speaking Epirotes - most famously, the Suliotes celebrated by Byron. A significant part of the Greek government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Albanian-speaking (i.e., bilingual).

Within Greece - in Attica, the Peloponnes, the Saronic Gulf islands, and the Aegean - substantial Albanian-speaking communities have existed since the late fourteenth century. Some of these Albanian speakers arrived as independent migrants, some were invited as mercenaries by the Byzantines, and some were brought by the Turks in various military operations and colonization schemes. In the nineteenth century, they were increasingly hellenized (without, until recently, necessarily abandoning their domestic language) through the influence of commerce, state education and the Greek Orthodox Church. The old families of Athens are descendants of Albanian speakers. Hellenized Albanian speakers in Greece are expressly distinguished from "Albanians" (Alvani) proper, being called Arvanites in Greek. Yet the two terms appear in the historical record simultaneously (in the eleventh century), initially with reference to Catholic Albanian speakers - the former with a political sense, the latter probably with a regional reference. (In the eleventh century, Orthodox Albanian speakers would have be classified together with Byzantine Greeks.)

There has been debate over the dialects of Albanian found in Epiros and in southern Greece. Modern standard Albanian, deriving from the northern zone of southern Albania, differs in various ways from the regional Albanian dialects spoken in Greece. The latter are older, derive from specific regional idioms, and have been influenced by integration in Greece. We have heard testimony from Arvanitika speakers that Albanian and Arvanitika dialects are mutually incomprehensible, and testimony from immigrants to Greece from southern Albania that the dialects are for all practical purposes identical.

The status and history of Albanian speakers in Greece and Greek speakers in Albania are very different. Certainly, in both cases there is the potential of stigmatization. Arvanitika speakers in Greece had no official status, and there has never been education in the Albanian language in Greece. Arvanites are typically not literate in Albanian (it was not a literary language until the turn of the twentieth century) and regard Arvanitika as a language of inferior status to Greek as "without grammar" or as "not a language at all." They often argue that they are Albanian-speaking by "accident," having adopted the language of immigrant neighbors or past rulers, and, however plausible or implausible as a theory of linguistic assimilation, this notion reflects the low prestige of an Arvanitika identity. They do not, in general, distinguish themselves culturally from Greeks, and they stress the contributions of Albanian speakers to the Greek War of Independence and to Greek history in general.

The Chams

The exception to this rule of assimilation would, of course, have been the Muslim Chams, who maintained a separate presence until their exodus during the 1920s and during and after WWII. Unlike the Arvanites, who settled as independent small farmers and stockbreeders in Greece, the Chams had composed land-owning class. The Chams were recognized as an "Albanian minority" by the Greek government in August of 1926 and, thus, but law exempted from the compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. (Some number of Chams had nonetheless already been expelled from 1924 to 1926.) While Greeks allege that most Chams fled in 1944 as a consequence of collaboration with Germans and Italians during the war, Chams do not accept these charges. The Albanian government has made the claim that the minority rights of the Chams were violated, and that exiled Chams have rights to lost property. The Chams links some of these claims to the deportations association with the exchange of populations, and to Greek land reforms of the 1920s.

Ethnic Greeks in Albania: education

Ethnic Greeks within Albania form a different sort of minority, traditionally linked strongly through education and religious practice with the Greek nation. Albanians argue that the present Greek minority is descended from poor sharecroppers who migrated in the nineteenth century to southern Albania to work for Albanian landowners. Greeks contend that the Greek population is indigenous, and that the elite - the educated, urban population - of Albania was always culturally Greek. Ethnic Greek consciousness is strongly tied to religious and educational practice, not merely domestic language.

Critical, then, to the question of the continuity of the Greek minority has been that of state-supported and private Greek language education in Albania. Greek schools were closed in the 1930s; during the communist period, they were opened again with limited resources. In the last three years some Greek language elementary schools in southern Albania again have been closed. Ethnic Greek factions claim that the closing of these schools is evidence of discrimination. They assert that there are no Greek language high schools, and that ethnic Greeks are prevented from establishing their own community-supported schools. Albanian officials maintain that schools have been closed because of dwindling enrollment, that the position of the Greek minority has vastly improved since the fall of the Communist regime, and that Greek schools from elementary to university level exist.

A recent UNESCO report documents the decline of educational resources in Albania as a whole: between 1990 and 1992, the number of student in some sectors of education fell by 60%; the education budget fell by more than 40% in both 1991 and 1992. It appears that after an expansion of state-supported, Greek language education in 1992-92, new policies were put into effect to limit the extent of Greek language teaching (particularly in grades 5 to 8, the terminal year of bilingual education). In addition, force was used to establish compliance with the new curriculum. Because of a continuing ban on private schools (based on laws passed in the early 1930s), independent schools are illegal and not accredited.

Ethnic Greeks in Albania: the Hoxha legacy

Those who identify themselves as ethnically Greek include bilingual as well as monolingual Albanians (and some ethnic Albanians are also bilingual in Greek and Albanian). Albanians of Greek-speaking parentage, who no longer speak Greek, may still be considered ethnically Greek. In popular understanding, descent (that is, the ethnic category of the parents) determines minority status. In Albanian and Greek society children take on the name of the father as their family name, and in most cases adopt the ethnicity of the father.

During the Hoxha period, communist ideology, the ban on religion, and regional isolation blurred the distinction between ethnic Greeks and Albanians. Since advancement in society was attained through party affiliation rather than ethnic affiliation, ethnicity lost its significance as a concept of political organization. Standardization of the way of life and education, as well as attempts to create a new Albanian social and political identity, contributed to the reduction of "traditional" differences by creating new patterns of life. At the same time, the regime claimed respect for minority rights: the Greek language was taught, nationality was indicated in passports, and minority citizens were appointed to prominent political positions.

Hoxha's attack on religion reduced the force of an ethnicity based strongly in religious affiliation. Villages with religious names were given new, "politically correct" names such as Partisan, Victory, etc. The old names were used in common speech, but ethnicity was politically and socially useless; many Albanians consider this to have been a positive achievement. Regional identity had become the primary identity and also an informal vehicle of political organization. Within Albania, ethnic Albanian and ethnic Greek southerners may see themselves as a cultural and political body with a shared history by contrast to northerners. It may be this regionalism that produce the paradoxical impression of unity and division.

The rhetoric of Albanian national identity that figured prominently in communist propaganda was cynically viewed by the younger generation, who grew skeptical of all appeals to ethnic or national identity. Thus despite the resurgence of ethnic ideologies in the last few years, there is no absolute articulation of an Albanian versus a Greek ethnic identity.

Religion, names, identity

The anti-religious campaigns of the Hoxha regime harmonized with the conventions of Albanian identity established at the turn of the century. These conventions located Albanian identity in a historical-linguistic-kinship matrix that minimized the significance of confessional divisions. Greek nationalism expressed as adherence to an Orthodox community has appeared to Albanians as "anti-modern" and dangerous to the unity of the Albanian state.

However, Albanian emigrants may exploit for practical purposes the ambiguity or multiplicity of Albanian religious identification. An Albanian citizen who emigrates to Greece may acquire through various channels a document that asserts that he or she is an Orthodox Christian of Greek parentage, of Greek ethnicity and "consciousness," and, therefore, a "Northern Epirote." The name on the document will be Greek, while the Albanian passport may show a non-Greek name. While not a work permit, the document facilitates relations with the Greek police. Alternatively, an Albanian may adopt Greek Orthodoxy in a conversion ceremony that also bestows upon him or her a Greek name. This makes possible the acquisition of Greek godparents for immigrants or for their children. For some of those involved, this process may reverse the conversion of an ancestro during the Ottoman period. In any event, a conversion may serve as a means to survival in the difficult conditions of exile.

The Greek minority 1990-1995

In early 1991, with the liberalization of Albanian politics, ethnic Greeks established a political party - "Omonia" or "Concord" - with a minority rights agenda. While five members of Omonia were elected to parliament in the first open Albanian elections, by 1992 Omonia was excluded from participation in future elections under new restrictions concerning "ethnically based" parties. In conformity with the new regulations, a new and ethnically more diverse party, the Union for Human Rights, was formed.

During the same period, Greek-national clergy were imported into Albania to help staff the newly revived Albanian Orthodox Church. While the Albanian Church is independent of the Greek Church, the long ban on religious practice in Albania had depleted the ranks of Albanian clergy. This presence of a foreign clergy has been controversial. In the spring of 1993, the Albanian government expelled a Greek-national priest for alleged anti-Albanian (irredentist) activities. According to a Minority Rights Group report (1994), "police beat between 10 and 15 members of the Greek ethnic minority, including several elderly women, in Gjirokaster" during a protest against the expulsion of the priest.

Despite the conciliatory position of Archbishop Anastasios (a Greek citizen and the current head of the Albanian Orthodox Church), there is no doubt that some clergy within Greece had been involved in irredentist activity. In the town of Konitsa (some 20 kilometers from the Albanian border), clergy have broadcast irredentist messages across the border and initiated an educational program for young Northern Epirotes that they might "continue the struggle for Hellenism" against Islam.

Both ethnic Greeks and Albanians are included within the Albanian Orthodox Church; any intrusion by the Greek Church is seen as potentially disruptive. On the other hand, the Albanian Orthodox Church wishes to remain independent of the Albanian state.

Albanian reaction to manifestations of Greek political allegiance on the part of Albanian citizens has been severe. A six month jail sentence was handed down to the Mayor of Dervician, a minority village in the Vjoses valley in autumn of 1993. He was cited for raising the Greek flag on a major Greek holiday (with potentially anti-Albanian resonance) and renaming a village street after Antonis Samaras, the renaming a village street after Antonis Samaras, the hard line nationalist leader of the Political Spring Party in Greece. On a more general level, there have been claims that ethnic Greek military and civil service personnel have been fired from Albanian state positions, that the Greek minority is under police surveillance, and that there has been economic discrimination in privatization. (The reverse claim, of preferential treatment, has also been made by Albanians.) In Minority Rights Group report, James Pettifer writes that there is a "sense" that ethnic cleansing and expropriation have begun.

The picture is complicated, however, by intense investment by Greece in southern Albanian land and industry. While the international press cites Greek investment as a positive contribution to neighborly relations, it is not perceived locally as an unequivocal good by Albanians. Greeks and Greek-Americans may invest for nationalist as well as economic motives; the influx of foreign entrepreneurs has provoked jealousy on the part of Albanians and was evident in ethnically-related riots in the port city of Sarande in 1992. The immediate cause of the riots was the news of the brutal abuse by the Greek police of an Albanian citizen in Greece. As an expression of resentment, the riots were directed against businesses owned by Greek citizens, and not against ethnic Greeks living in Sarande.

The most serious confrontations, nationally and internationally, were those of 1994. In April of that year, two Albanian soldiers at the Peshkopie barracks in southern Albania were killed (and three wounded), apparently by Greek paramilitary activists. In reaction, Albanian police cracked down on ethnic Greeks associated with the Omonia party. HRW/Helsinki reports that thirty people were held in police offices for up to three days and property was confiscated in a manner illegal under Albanian law. Five ethnic Greeks associated with the Omonia party were arrested and detained without visiting rights for three months. They were ultimately sentenced to six to eight years in prison by an Albanian court in September of 1994 for espionage and the illegal possession of weapons. Human rights organizations have asserted that the trial violated both Albanian and international law (as did other unrelated trials during the same period) and was neither fair nor impartial.

Greek response to the arrests was immediate. HRW/Helsinki estimates that 70,000 illegal Albanian immigrant workers were rounded up by police and expelled from Greece. Greece confronted Albania with a list of demands concerning the rights of the Greek minority. Albania reacted by raising the issue of the Chams and their claims to land in Greek Epiros. Albania insisted that Greece violates the rights of its "Albanian minority," while Greece responded that it had no "Albanian minority."

These exchanges were at cross-purposes in part because terms such as "consciousness," "nation," and "minority" have carried different significances in Albania and Greece. The Greek government holds that ethnic Greeks in Albania have Greek "consciousness" (synidisi) but Albanian citizenship. The slippage between "national" and "ethnic" consciousness makes this position problematic (and inconsistent with Greece's position towards its own minorities). Within its own borders Greece officially acknowledges only religious minorities (the "Muslims" of Thrace who by contrast to official usage may refer to themselves as "Turks"), although unofficially linguistic minorities are also recognized (e.g. the "Slavophone Greeks" who by contrast may refer to themselves as "Macedonians"). Albania similarly prefers to use linguistic markers for its minorities ("Greek-speaking Albanians"). The policy with reference to minorities is in both cases to segregate language or religion from "national" identification or consciousness.

The self-consciousness of ethnic Greek-Albanian citizens as a group, where it exists (and it should be stressed that many "Greek origin" Albanian citizens see themselves as "Greek in origin but Albanian in spirit") is strongly rooted in a representation of "Greek civilization." Greek is not simply a "local language," as Arvanitika has been throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for the Albanian speakers in Greece. This makes the situation provocative to the Albanian state. The conflation of "Orthodoxy" and "Hellenism" in Greek nationalism is (in principle) antithetical to Albanian multi-confessional self-consciousness.

Byzantine vandalism or Muslim conspiracy?

Inevitably, the question of the Greek minority in Albania has international dimensions. Berisha accuses the dissident Greeks of "Byzantine vandalism," by which he means religious fundamentalism with pan-Orthodox implications (especially with regard to the Serbs). Mainstream Albanian opinion considers the issue of the Greek minority to be "a game of Greek political forces." Albanian journalist Lazer Stani writes, "At the expense of their neighbors, the Greek politicians are trying to play the nationalist card in Greek political power games." Greek religiously-based irredentism seems to Albanians an irrational "obsession" incompatible with Greek claims to "civilization." (The ironic reference to civilization is part of a stock exchange between Albanian and Greek parties since 1912.)

For their part, Greek journalists allege that Albania, with the aid of the United States, is party to an Ankara-directed conspiracy with (former Yugoslav) Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. Greeks distrust the multi-confessional rhetoric of the Albanian state, which has been dominated de facto by northern Muslim and Catholic factions. They make the comparison, too, between Greece's interest in ethnic Greek Albanians and Albania's interest in the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo.

These international discourses, repeated in the national press, fan the flames of other, more local antagonisms. In southern Albania, particularly in the poorer areas, ethnic Albanians have resented the advantages that ethnic Greeks in theory possess through their connections abroad. The disastrous condition of the Albanian economy and the general state of reprisal against those associated with the former communist regime both complicate the picture. It is often difficult to separate deliberate ethnic violence from political retaliation. There is significant internal opposition in Albania to the measures taken against the Greek minority. Unfortunately, much of this comes from ex-government, formerly communist factions, which are also in political difficulty.

Recent Developments

The year 1995 has initiated a new and more promising phase in Albanian-Greekj relations. Berisha's proposed Albanian Constitution, which included a clause stipulating that Albanian religious leaders must be Albanian-born and Albanian citizens, was defeated in a referendum. This has removed for the present the legal and political challenge to the presence of Archbishop Anastasios in the Albanian Church. The General Confederation of Workers of Greece urged the granting of legal status to illegal immigrants as a measure to "normalize" the labor market and to "avoid racism" On february 9, Albania's Supreme Court reduced and simultaneously suspended the sentences of the remaining four defendants of the Omonia Five (the fifth had been released at the end of 1994), releasing them from prison. The action was hailed by the Greek government and the international community as a positive step in the normalization of relations between Greece and Albania.

A series of potentially inflammatory border incidents in February were neutralized by the restrained responses of both countries. In two separate incidents Greek border police shot (in at least one case fatally) illegal Albanian immigrants at or near the frontier, and several thousand Albanians were again deported from Greece. These events were glossed as local responses to unstable conditions at the border. More politically significant was the arrest by Greek police on March 19 of seven ultra-nationalist activists (three Greek citizens and four ethnic Greeks from Albania) associated with the Liberation Front of Northern Epirus (MAVI). A week later, Greek police arrested two more men suspected of being MAVI activists. Weapons discovered in that raid may establish the link between MAVI and the Peshkopie (Episkopi) barracks raise in April 1994. Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has condemned these ultranationalist activities as destabilizing in intention and contrary to Greek national interest. Not coincidentally, the raids immediately followed very positive bilateral talks between the Greek and Albanian foreign ministers, and Albanian Foreign Minister Serreqi has since opened the possibility of legislation allowing for bilingual private schools in Albania.

The case of Northern Epiros raises a number of issues of comparative significance. The history of Albanian-Greek relations demonstrates that minority consciousness has no natural character but is shaped in specific circumstances. When the concept of nationality was elaborated in the nineteenth century in the southern Balkans, it was explicitly with the notion of political community. The concept of ethnicity developed in different circumstances to represent "cultural" units in pluralist societies. Greek identity in Albania carries the weight of this dualism of nationality and ethnicity. The explicit repudiation by the Greek government of political violence and irredentism in "Northern Epiros" will help to clarify the status of Greek ethnicity in Albania. It remains to be seen what direction will be taken by the new Albanian democracy in the interpretation of minority and human rights.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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