The western part of the Balkan Peninsula is known to the ancient Greeks as Illyria. The Illyrians, a group of Indo-European tribes, have been in the area since at least 2000 BC. Their region becomes prosperous during the Roman Empire and is devastated by the subsequent passage of Visigoths and Huns on their way into Europe. But these waves of people, however destructive, merely pass through.
The next to arrive in the Balkans, in the 6th century AD, are the Slavs – and they come to stay. Gradually they predominate in the entire region of Illyria except for mountainous Albania. The Albanians become the only identifiable group descending directly from the Illyrians.
In its strategic but exposed position, Albania is a pawn in the shifting patterns of power through the centuries. It is in the Byzantine Empire, it is prey to Norman adventurers from southern Italy, it is in the Latin empire of Constantinople, its ports are occupied by Venice and finally it is absorbed within the Ottoman Empire.
Early rule by the Turks is repeatedly frustrated by the achievements of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. Son of an Albanian princely family, he is taken as a hostage to Istanbul and is brought up to be a Muslim warrior. But when sent into service in the Balkans, he changes sides, proclaims himself a Christian and leads a movement to liberate his people.
From 1443 to 1467 Skanderbeg frustrates a succession of Turkish armies sent to subdue him, on occasion even armies led in person by the sultans Murad and Mehmed II. But after his death, in 1468, Albania sinks into an uninterrupted four centuries of subjection to Turkish rule. Sealed off from the constant struggles between Christian nations and the Turks elsewhere in the Balkans, Albania becomes fully absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Education is only in Turkish; the only chance of advancement is in the Turkish administration or army. Eventually more than two thirds of the Albanian population are Muslim, with the rest being divided between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. As a result a nationalist movement develops later in Albania than elsewhere in the region. But in the late 19th century there are attempts to print some works of literature in Albanian – an activity forbidden by the Turks and made more difficult by the lack of an agreed alphabet.
The defining moment of Albanian nationalism is a congress held at Bitola in 1909, which adopts a standard way of writing and spelling the Albanian language in Roman letters. The same congress appoints a committee of national union, aiming at this stage only for autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. But events move faster than the committee could possibly envisage. Three years later, turmoil in the region leads almost instantly to Albanian independence on 28 November 1912.
Largely agricultural, Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. A battlefield in World War I, after the war it became a republic in which a conservative Muslim landlord, Ahmed Zogu, proclaimed himself president in 1925 and king (Zog I) in 1928. He ruled until Italy annexed Albania in 1939. Communist guerrillas under Enver Hoxha seized power in 1944, near the end of World War II. Hoxha was a devotee of Stalin, emulating the Soviet leader’s repressive tactics, imprisoning or executing landowners and others who did not conform to the socialist ideal. Hoxha eventually broke with Soviet communism in 1961 because of differences with Khrushchev and then aligned himself with Chinese communism, which he also abandoned in 1978 after the death of Mao. From then on Albania went its own way to forge its individual version of the socialist state and became one of the most isolated—and economically underdeveloped—countries in the world. Hoxha was succeeded by Ramiz Alia in 1982.
Elections in March 1991 gave the Communists a decisive majority. But a general strike and street demonstrations soon forced the all-Communist cabinet to resign. In June 1991, the Communist Party of Labor renamed itself the Socialist Party and renounced its past ideology. The opposition Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the 1992 elections, and Sali Berisha, a former cardiologist, became Albania’s first elected president. The following year, ex-Communists, including Ramiz Alia and former Prime Minister Fatos Nano, were imprisoned on corruption charges.
But Albania’s experiment with democratic reform and a free-market economy went disastrously awry in March 1997, when large numbers of its citizens invested in shady get-rich-quick pyramid schemes. When five of these schemes collapsed in the beginning of the year, robbing Albanians of an estimated $1.2 billion in savings, Albanians’ rage turned against the government, which appeared to have sanctioned the nationwide swindle. Rioting broke out, the country’s fragile infrastructure collapsed, and gangsters and rebels overran the country, plunging it into virtual anarchy. A multinational protection force eventually restored order and set up the elections that formally ousted President Sali Berisha.
In spring 1999, Albania was heavily involved in the affairs of its fellow ethnic Albanians to the north, in Kosovo. Albania served as an outpost for NATO troops and took in approximately 440,000 Kosovar refugees, about half the total number of ethnic Albanians who were driven from their homes in Kosovo.