Albanian Question, European Answer? What the European Union can learn from its own and other’s narratives on the Albanian-Macedonian border

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This thesis highlights the social construction of the Albanian Macedonian border. The Albanian nation state only forms a small part of the territory inhabited by ethnic Albanians. The borderlands at both sides of the Albanian-Macedonian border are largely Albanian-inhabited. It is suggested that in situations where a border is drawn with little reference to the ties of blood and/or culture, it is interesting to negotiate people’s identity. In the past, the Albanian border situation induced aspirations for Albanian reunification along ethnic lines (i.e. a Greater Albania). Today however, Albania can be located in a region-wide pro-European Union discourse and the stability-seeking and (thus) border preserving EU rhetoric is gaining dominance in debates on the Albanian border, identity and territory. This thesis scrutinizes the dominant EU, nationalistic and post-nationalistic (i.e. idealist) storylines that form the border. Upholding that nor identity nor the border are given, unalterable phenomena, we will elicit how the open-ended social project of reiterating or mitigating the border is taking place through storylines. Semiotics expressed by groups with power on bordering practices often bear an ideological package from which the interest of the specific group can be distilled. Simultaneously, to bring about association, these messages often link in, relate to or, alternatively, sharply contrast to bigger storylines. This thesis identifies three of those bigger storylines that hold sway in the construction of the Albanian-Macedonian border. The three so called Discourse models (gleaned from the literature of J.P. Gee) we will come up with are: the Obsolete (the erring nationalist who seeks to reify a Greater Albania), the Pragmatist (who follows the EU and therefore holds more ‘correct’ or ‘accepted’ conceptions of how the border should be addressed) and the Idealist who believes in a cosmopolitan zone devoid of borders. The name and content of the models do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author, but rather should be seen as tentative categorizations that emanate from the socio-spatial history of the area. The models serve us to value and locate semiotics in current discussions on the border in question. The agents who construct and apply discourse models are in the first place, as appears from literature on the social construction of spaces, national elites – but this thesis will foreground that a lot may get lost when only focusing on this specific level. Not only because the EU acquired a critical position in managing spaces in its own Eastern European hinterland, but also because we suggest that the power to embrace, alter and subvert storylines may not only pertain to politicians, but also to people who are dealing with spaces on a daily base. Therefore, we link our models to one of the finer channels of the states’ ideological apparatus, that is: education. Through a number of semi-structured interviews with geography and history school teachers, the author inquires to what extent educators are full-fledged participators in the social construction of spaces or rather should be seen as obedient transmitters of the predominant state ideology. The acquired data underpins that local interlocutors have at their disposal some power to steer, mitigate and subvert state-prompted storylines. Before we have reached this point however, this thesis first reveals how the historic background of Albania played a vital role in constructing the contradictions and quandaries that are still rife in the storylines on Albanian territory. The most evident germ of socio-spatial problems arose when as a result of a compromise between regional contenders and great powers a national frontier was drawn that captured only a small part of the actual Albanian-inhabited territory. This sowed the seed of what is, in literature, referred to as the Albania Question. Subsequently, in the one hundred years that the nation exists now, Albania has been witnessing an intriguing history of detachment and bonding; of overconfidence and minority complexes; of internationalist aspirations and isolation and of fighting cumbersome enemies, real or imagined. Once we have painted these shackles of history we will explain how this Albanian sociohistorical background, combined with the broader historical and geographical context the country can be located in, flow into the aforementioned three models. This leaves us well-equipped to test to what extent these models resonate with the storylines that are put forward by Albanian elites and Albanian educators. The thesis wraps up with the conclusion that the conceptions held by the inquired interlocutors cannot be fully lodged in our preconfigured models, but are much more hybrid and diffuse. E.g., the predominant model among elites assumes the shape of a more fluid Idealist Pragmatist model: a model where EU aspiration is universally carried and where pragmatism is central, but that integrates the alluring features of Idealist storylines. Educators, on their turn, tend to take for granted the importance and inevitability of the European future, but in general they not feel too much commitment to the route towards EU that elites present them. Our final suggestion is that all levels of socio spatial action matter for geographers and that, opposed to the widespread EU-support in the region, it is far from settled that the EU will offer a final answer to the Albanian question.
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