Albanians call their country Shqipëria, and trace their roots to the ancient Illyrian tribes. Their language is descended from Illyrian, making it a rare survivor of the Roman and Slavic influxes and a European linguistic oddity on a par with Basque. The Illyrians occupied the western Balkans during the 2nd millennium BC. They built substantial fortified cities, mastered silver and copper mining and became adept at sailing the Mediterranean. The Greeks arrived in the 7th century BC to establish self-governing colonies at Epidamnos (now Durrës), Apollonia and Butrint. They traded peacefully with the Illyrians, who formed tribal states in the 4th century BC.
Inevitably the expanding Illyrian kingdom of the Ardiaei, based at Shkodra, came into conflict with Rome, which sent a fleet of 200 vessels against Queen Teuta in 229 BC. A long war resulted in the extension of Roman control over the entire Balkan area by 167 BC.
Under the Romans, Illyria enjoyed peace and prosperity, though the large agricultural estates were worked by slaves. Like the Greeks, the Illyrians preserved their own language and traditions despite centuries of Roman rule. Over time the populace slowly replaced their old gods with the new Christian faith championed by Emperor Constantine. The main trade route between Rome and Constantinople, the Via Egnatia, ran from the port at Durrës.
When the Roman Empire was divided in AD 395, Illyria fell within the Eastern Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire. Three early Byzantine emperors (Anastasius I, Justin I and Justinian I) were of Illyrian origin. Invasions by migrating peoples (Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths and Slavs) continued through the 5th and 6th centuries.
In 1344 Albania was annexed by Serbia, but after the defeat of Serbia by the Turks in 1389 the whole region was open to Ottoman attack. The Venetians occupied some coastal towns, and from 1443 to 1468 the national hero Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti) led Albanian resistance to the Turks from his castle at Kruja. Skanderbeg won all 25 battles he fought against the Turks, and even Sultan Mehmet-Fatih, the conqueror of Constantinople, could not take Kruja. After Skanderbeg’s death it was only a matter of time before the Ottomans overwhelmed Albanian resistance, taking control of the country in 1479, 26 years after Constantinople fell.
For more than 400 years Albania was under Ottoman rule. Muslim citizens were favoured and were exempted from the Janissary system, whereby Christian households had to give up one of their sons to convert to Islam and serve in the army. Consequently many Albanians embraced the new faith.
In 1878 the Albanian League at Prizren (in present-day Kosovo) began a struggle for autonomy that was put down by the Turkish army in 1881. Further uprisings between 1910 and 1912 culminated in a proclamation of independence and the formation of a provisional government led by Ismail Qemali at Vlora in 1912. These achievements were severely compromised when Kosovo, roughly one-third of Albania, was ceded to Serbia in 1913. The Great Powers tried to install a young German prince, Wilhelm of Weld, as ruler of the rump of Albania, but he was never accepted and returned home after six months. With the outbreak of WWI, Albania was occupied in succession by the armies of Greece, Serbia, France, Italy and Austria-Hungary.
In 1920 the capital city was moved from Durrës to less vulnerable Tirana. A republican government under the Orthodox priest Fan Noli helped to stabilise the country, but in 1924 it was overthrown by the interior minister, Ahmed Bey Zogu. A northern warlord, he declared himself King Zogu I in 1928, but his close collaboration with Italy backfired in April 1939 when Mussolini ordered an invasion of Albania. Zogu fled to Britain with his young wife Geraldine and newborn son Leka, and used gold looted from the Albanian treasury to rent a floor at London’s Ritz Hotel.
On 8 November 1941 the Albanian Communist Party was founded with Enver Hoxha as first secretary, a position he held until his death in April 1985. The communists led the resistance against the Italians and, after 1943, against the Germans, ultimately tying down 15 combined German-Italian divisions.
After the fighting had died down, the communists consolidated power. In January 1946 the People’s Republic of Albania was proclaimed, with Hoxha as president and ‘Supreme Comrade’.
In September 1948 Albania broke off relations with Yugoslavia, which had hoped to incorporate the country into the Yugoslav Federation. Instead, it allied itself with Stalin’s USSR and put into effect a series of Soviet-style economic plans – rising the ire of the USA and Britain, which made an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the government.
Albania collaborated closely with the USSR until 1960, when a heavy-handed Khrushchev demanded that a submarine base be set up at Vlora. Breaking off diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1961, the country reoriented itself towards the People’s Republic of China.
From 1966 to 1967 Albania experienced a Chinese-style cultural revolution. Administrative workers were suddenly transferred to remote areas and younger cadres were placed in leading positions. The collectivisation of agriculture was completed and organised religion banned.
Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Albania left the Warsaw Pact and embarked on a self-reliant defence policy. Some 700,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers serve as a reminder of this policy. The communist authorities made progress in draining the malarial swamps of the central coastal plains, building hydroelectric schemes, raising the literacy level and laying down the country’s railway lines.
With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the changes that followed in China after 1978, Albania’s unique relationship with China also came to an end, and the country was left isolated and without allies. The economy was devastated and food shortages became more common.
Hoxha died in April 1985 and his long-time associate Ramiz Alia took over the leadership. Restrictions loosened half a notch, but the whole system was increasingly falling apart. People were no longer bothering to work on the collective farms, leading to food shortages in the cities, and industries began to fail as spare parts ran out. The party leadership promised reform, but remained paralysed.
In June 1990, inspired by the changes that were occurring elsewhere in Eastern Europe, around 4500 Albanians took refuge in Western embassies in Tirana. After a brief confrontation with the police and the Sigurimi (secret police) these people were allowed to board ships for Brindisi in Italy, where they were granted political asylum.
After student demonstrations in December 1990, the government agreed to allow opposition parties. The Democratic Party, led by heart surgeon Sali Berisha, was formed. Further demonstrations produced new concessions, including the promise of free elections and independent trade unions. The government announced a reform programme and party hardliners were purged.
In early March 1991, as the election date approached, some 20, 000 Albanians fled the country’s crumbling economy and nonexistent infrastructure, seeking a ‘better life’ abroad. They set out from Vlora to Brindisi by ship, creating a crisis for the Italian government, which had begun to view them as economic refugees. Most were eventually allowed to stay.
The March 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule. After the resignation of Alia, parliament elected Sali Berisha president in April. In September 1992 former president Alia was placed under house arrest after he wrote articles critical of the Democratic government. In August 1993 the leader of the Socialist Party, Fatos Nano, was also arrested on corruption charges.
During this time Albania switched from a tightly controlled communist regime to a rambunctious free-market free-for-all. A huge smuggling racket sprang up, bringing stolen Mercedes-Benzes into the country, and some former collective farms were converted into marijuana plantations. The port of Vlora became a major crossing point for illegal immigrants from Asia and the Middle East into Italy. A huge population shift took place as collective farms were broken up and reclaimed by former landowners, pushing the peasants off the land. Tirana’s population tripled as people, now able to freely move to the city, joined internal exiles driven off the old collective farms.
A severe crisis developed in late 1996 when private pyramid-investment schemes – widely thought to have been supported by the government – inevitably collapsed. Around 70% of Albanians lost their savings (in total more than US$1 billion), resulting in nationwide disturbances and riots. New elections were called, and the victorious Socialist Party under Nano – who had been freed from prison by the rampaging mob – was able to restore some degree of security and investor confidence. But the new wave of violence destroyed many of the remaining industries still left from the communist era. Towns where the whole working population was employed by one mine or factory were left destitute as the economy collapsed again.
In spring 1999 Albania faced a crisis of a different sort. This time it was the influx of 465,000 refugees from neighbouring Kosovo during the Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign. While this put a tremendous strain on resources, the net effect has in fact been positive. Substantial amounts of international aid money have poured in, the service sector has grown and inflation has declined to single digits.
Since 2002 the country has found itself in a kind of miniboom with much money being poured into construction projects and infrastructure renewal.
The general election of 2005 saw a return of Berisha’s Democratic Party to government. Albanian politics and the economy have been stable, but work still has to be done to ensure that there is an end to electricity shortages and other infrastructure deficiencies that plague the country. Hopes are high that NATO membership will be achieved by 2008, while an invitation to the EU club remains an elusive goal.