The Rise of Albanian Nationalism
The 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War dealt a decisive blow to Ottoman
power in the Balkan Peninsula, leaving the empire with only a
precarious hold on Macedonia and the Albanian-populated lands.
The Albanians' fear that the lands they inhabited would be partitioned
among Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece fueled the rise
of Albanian nationalism. The first postwar treaty, the abortive
Treaty of San Stefano (see Glossary) signed on March 3, 1878,
assigned Albanian-populated lands to Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria.
Austria-Hungary and Britain blocked the arrangement because it
awarded Russia a predominant position in the Balkans and thereby
upset the European balance of power. A peace conference to settle
the dispute was held later in the year in Berlin.
The Treaty of San Stefano triggered profound anxiety among the
Albanians meanwhile, and it spurred their leaders to organize
a defense of the lands they inhabited. In the spring of 1878,
influential Albanians in Constantinople--including Abdyl Frasheri,
the Albanian national movement's leading figure during its early
years--organized a secret committee to direct the Albanians' resistance.
In May the group called for a general meeting of representatives
from all the Albanian-populated lands. On June 10, 1878, about
eighty delegates, mostly Muslim religious leaders, clan chiefs,
and other influential people from the four Albanian-populated
Ottoman vilayets, met in the Kosovo town of Prizren. The delegates
set up a standing organization, the Prizren League, under the
direction of a central committee that had the power to impose
taxes and raise an army. The Prizren League worked to gain autonomy
for the Albanians and to thwart implementation of the Treaty of
San Stefano, but not to create an independent Albania.
At first the Ottoman authorities supported the Prizren League,
but the Sublime Porte pressed the delegates to declare themselves
to be first and foremost Ottomans rather than Albanians. Some
delegates supported this position and advocated emphasizing Muslim
solidarity and the defense of Muslim lands, including present-day
Bosnia and Hercegovina. Other representatives, under Frasheri's
leadership, focused on working toward Albanian autonomy and creating
a sense of Albanian identity that would cut across religious and
tribal lines. Because conservative Muslims constituted a majority
of the representatives, the Prizren League supported maintenance
of Ottoman suzerainty.
In July 1878, the league sent a memorandum to the Great Powers
at the Congress of Berlin, which was called to settle the unresolved
problems of Turkish War, demanding that all Albanians be united
in a single Ottoman province that would be governed from Bitola
by a Turkish governor who would be advised by an Albanian committee
elected by universal suffrage.
The Congress of Berlin ignored the league's memorandum, and Germany's
Otto von Bismarck even proclaimed that an Albanian nation did
not exist. The congress ceded to Montenegro the cities of Bar
and Podgorica and areas around the mountain villages of Gusinje
and Plav, which Albanian leaders considered Albanian territory.
Serbia also won Albanian-inhabited lands. The Albanians, the vast
majority loyal to the empire, vehemently opposed the territorial
losses. Albanians also feared the possible loss of Epirus to Greece.
The Prizren League organized armed resistance efforts in Gusinje,
Plav, Shkodër, Prizren, Prevesa, and Janina. A border tribesman
at the time described the frontier as "floating on blood."
In August 1878, the Congress of Berlin ordered a commission to
trace a border between the Ottoman Empire and Montenegro. The
congress also directed Greece and the Ottoman Empire to negotiate
a solution to their border dispute. The Great Powers expected
the Ottomans to ensure that the Albanians would respect the new
borders, ignoring that the sultan's military forces were too weak
to enforce any settlement and that the Ottomans could only benefit
by the Albanians' resistance. The Sublime Porte, in fact, armed
the Albanians and allowed them to levy taxes, and when the Ottoman
army withdrew from areas awarded to Montenegro under the Treaty
of Berlin, Roman Catholic Albanian tribesmen simply took control.
The Albanians' successful resistance to the treaty forced the
Great Powers to alter the border, returning Gusinje and Plav to
the Ottoman Empire and granting Montenegro the mostly Muslim Albanian-populated
coastal town of Ulcinj. But the Albanians there refused to surrender
as well. Finally, the Great Powers blockaded Ulcinj by sea and
pressured the Ottoman authorities to bring the Albanians under
control. The Great Powers decided in 1881 to cede Greece only
Thessaly and the small Albanian-populated district of Arta.
Faced with growing international pressure "to pacify" the refractory
Albanians, the sultan dispatched a large army under Dervish Turgut
Pasha to suppress the Prizren League and deliver Ulcinj to Montenegro.
Albanians loyal to the empire supported the Sublime Porte's military
intervention. In April 1881, Dervish Pasha's 10,000 men captured
Prizren and later crushed the resistance at Ulcinj. The Prizren
League's leaders and their families were arrested and deported.
Frasheri, who originally received a death sentence, was imprisoned
until 1885 and exiled until his death seven years later. In the
three years it survived, the Prizren League effectively made the
Great Powers aware of the Albanian people and their national interests.
Montenegro and Greece received much less Albanian-populated territory
than they would have won without the league's resistance.
Formidable barriers frustrated Albanian leaders' efforts to instill
in their people an Albanian rather than an Ottoman identity. Divided
into four vilayets, Albanians had no common geographical or political
nerve center. The Albanians' religious differences forced nationalist
leaders to give the national movement a purely secular character
that alienated religious leaders. The most significant factor
uniting the Albanians, their spoken language, lacked a standard
literary form and even a standard alphabet. Each of the three
available choices, the Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts, implied
different political and religious orientations opposed by one
or another element of the population. In 1878 there were no Albanian-language
schools in the most developed of the Albanian-inhabited areas--
Gjirokastër, Berat, and Vlorë--where schools conducted classes
either in Turkish or in Greek (see Education: Pre-Communist Era,
Albanian intellectuals in the late nineteenth century began devising
a single, standard Albanian literary language and making demands
that it be used in schools. In Constantinople in 1879, Sami Frasheri
founded a cultural and educational organization, the Society for
the Printing of Albanian Writings, whose membership comprised
Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Albanians. Naim Frasheri, the most-renowned
Albanian poet, joined the society and wrote and edited textbooks.
Albanian émigrés in Bulgaria, Egypt, Italy, Romania, and the United
States supported the society's work. The Greeks, who dominated
the education of Orthodox Albanians, joined the Turks in suppressing
the Albanians' culture, especially Albanian-language education.
In 1886 the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople threatened
to excommunicate anyone found reading or writing Albanian, and
priests taught that God would not understand prayers uttered in
The Ottoman Empire continued to crumble after the Congress of
Berlin. The empire's financial troubles prevented Sultan Abdül
Hamid II from reforming his military, and he resorted to repression
to maintain order. The authorities strove without success to control
the political situation in the empire's Albanian-populated lands,
arresting suspected nationalist activists. When the sultan refused
Albanian demands for unification of the four Albanian-populated
vilayets, Albanian leaders reorganized the Prizren League and
incited uprisings that brought the Albanian lands, especially
Kosovo, to near anarchy. The imperial authorities again disbanded
the Prizren League in 1897, executed its president in 1902, and
banned Albanian- language books and correspondence. In Macedonia,
where Bulgarian-, Greek-, and Serbian-backed terrorists were fighting
Ottoman authorities and one another for control, Muslim Albanians
suffered attacks, and Albanian guerrilla groups retaliated. In
1906 Albanian leaders meeting in Bitola established the secret
Committee for the Liberation of Albania. A year later, Albanian
guerrillas assassinated Korçë's Greek Orthodox metropolitan.
In 1906 opposition groups in the Ottoman Empire emerged, one
of which evolved into the Committee of Union and Progress, more
commonly known as the Young Turks, which proposed restoring constitutional
government in Constantinople, by revolution if necessary. In July
1908, a month after a Young Turk rebellion in Macedonia supported
by an Albanian uprising in Kosovo and Macedonia escalated into
widespread insurrection and mutiny within the imperial army, Sultan
Abdül Hamid II agreed to demands by the Young Turks to restore
constitutional rule. Many Albanians participated in the Young
Turks uprising, hoping that it would gain their people autonomy
within the empire. The Young Turks lifted the Ottoman ban on Albanian-language
schools and on writing the Albanian language. As a consequence,
Albanian intellectuals meeting in Bitola in 1908 chose the Latin
alphabet as a standard script. The Young Turks, however, were
set on maintaining the empire and not interested in making concessions
to the myriad nationalist groups within its borders. After securing
the abdication of Abdül Hamid II in April 1909, the new authorities
levied taxes, outlawed guerrilla groups and nationalist societies,
and attempted to extend Constantinople's control over the northern
Albanian mountainmen. In addition, the Young Turks legalized the
bastinado, or beating with a stick, even for misdemeanors, banned
carrying rifles, and denied the existence of an Albanian nationality.
The new government also appealed for Islamic solidarity to break
the Albanians' unity and used the Muslim clergy to try to impose
the Arabic alphabet.
The Albanians refused to submit to the Young Turks' campaign
to "Ottomanize" them by force. New Albanian uprisings began in
Kosovo and the northern mountains in early April 1910. Ottoman
forces quashed these rebellions after three months, outlawed Albanian
organizations, disarmed entire regions, and closed down schools
and publications. Montenegro, preparing to grab Albanian-populated
lands for itself, supported a 1911 uprising by the mountain tribes
against the Young Turks regime that grew into a widespread revolt.
Unable to control the Albanians by force, the Ottoman government
granted concessions on schools, military recruitment, and taxation
and sanctioned the use of the Latin script for the Albanian language.
The government refused, however, to unite the four Albanian-inhabited
Data as of April 1992