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Mediterranean Quarterly 17.3 (2006) 26-42

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Albanian Nationalism and Unionist Ottomanization, 1908 to 1912

In the second half of the nineteenth century, more than three-quarters of a million Albanians lived in the Ottoman Empire. Residing in Albania proper, in the western departments of the Macedonian provinces (vilayets) of Monastir, Kosovo, and Epirus, the Albanian people were divided into Christian Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims, the last forming the majority. Tribal fragmentation, religious divisions, and geographical barriers in conjunction with the lack of an independent church and separate language had precluded Albanian attempts at the construction of a national identity and statehood. Unlike their neighboring Balkan states, the Albanians were devoid of both statehood and Great Power protection. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, this isolated Balkan people had preserved its customary way of living based on a horizontal, clan-dominated societal system.1

In their campaign for ethnic assertiveness and self-determination, the Albanians were not without means. For centuries, the Ottoman government had been deploying Albanian paramilitary units in the southern Balkans to police, curb, and often oppress its recalcitrant Slav and Greek subjects. More important, a significant number of ethnic Albanians had manned the Ottoman [End Page 26] civilian and military apparatus, thereby gaining an increasing share in the administration of the empire. More than thirty Albanians had assumed the leadership of the Sublime Porte as Ottoman grand viziers. As an outcome, Albanians had been allowed to establish a peculiarly privileged position in Ottoman society. Albanian tribes were exempted from conscription, disarmament, and tax-paying regulations. The Albanian-inhabited regions had become practically semiautonomous. By the end of the nineteenth century, mainly as a result of the inward infiltration of the Ottoman administration rather than the product of a militant centrifugal nationalism, the Albanian national movement had made strides in the southern Balkans.2

On 6 June 1878, shortly before the opening session of the Congress of Berlin, Albanian notables and chieftains representing all races and creeds assembled in the Kosovo town of Prizren. Fearing that the congress might allow the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in Europe and sanction Slav and Greek expansion in Epirus, Macedonia, and the Albanian mainland, the League of Prizren resolved to offer armed resistance against any foreign power that would attempt to occupy the "Albanian lands." The League of Prizren delineated the pillars of the Albanian political struggle, laying the groundwork for the development of the Albanian nationalist movement.3 In the following three decades, the key premise and objective of the Albanian nationalist program was to prevent the neighboring Balkan states from partitioning Albanian territories and to achieve, through European intervention, if not full political independence at least administrative autonomy within the Ottoman Empire.

The politics of enforced denationalization and Ottomanization, practiced by the Unionist regime in the period from 1909 to 1912 against the non-Turkish ethnic groups, not only undermined the traditional Turkish-Albanian racial solidarity, more important, it subscribed to the process of intertribal Albanian understanding and the Albanian nation-building effort.

In the early twentieth century, exploiting the gradual weakening of Ottoman authority and the imposition of European control in Macedonia since [End Page 27] November 1903, Albanian nationalists continued to work for the building of a distinct Albanian national identity through cultural affirmation, tribal unification, and revolutionary activity. In 1906, the Albanian nationalist leadership transferred its central headquarters from Korytsa to Monastir. This initiative underlined the Albanian decision to assume a more active role in Macedonian affairs. Under the direction of the Monastir center, clandestine Albanian societies and powerful leaders such as the Topouli brothers, Midhat Frasheri Bey, Fehim Bey Zavalani, and Halil Bey disseminated Albanian propaganda and attempted to counteract the Greek and Slav nationalist movement in Epirus and Macedonia. It is important to note that the Ottoman administration had granted its tacit consent to the growth of the Albanian movement.4 Having embraced the divide-and-rule notion, Sultan Abdul Hamit II and the Ottoman political elite shared the belief that Albanian activism might be useful in containing the proliferation of Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek revolutionary...


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