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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.1 (2001) 81-99

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Fallen Eagle:
An Examination of Italy's Contemporary Role and Relations with Albania

Joseph M. Codispoti


Italians and Albanians have shared at least informal relations since the beginnings of the modern Italian state in the 1860s and more formal relations since the founding of the Albanian state in 1912. What began as a meager trade relationship, based primarily on geographical proximity, developed into a quasi-colonial relationship that fed the imperial ambitions of Italian leaders and was meant to squelch rival ambitions, primarily Austrian, in the Balkans. With the rise of Mussolini's fascism in the early 1920s, Italy began to penetrate Albania in earnest. Italy's growing domination of Albania resulted in the 1939 invasion that added Albania to its other colonial conquests, which were in Africa. Following Italy's defeat in World War II, Albania shrank from the West and sank into a dark period of isolation under the tyrannical communist leadership of Enver Hoxha. Albania would not reconnect with Italy until the 1980s.

Modern Italy is appropriately labeled an "economic giant and political pygmy," a paradoxical description of its robust economy (the world's fifth largest) but rather meager influence on the world stage. In an effort to shed this rather dubious label, Italy has developed a more assertive foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. It is perhaps most evident in the Balkans, specifically in Albania, toward which Italy feels a special responsibility. 1 This [End Page 81] essay explores the emerging bilateral relations between Italy and Albania and the major challenges for Italy inherent in expanded relations with its recalcitrant neighbor. It will further explore potential directions for the relationship, while considering the regional, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and European Union pressures certain to shape Italian-Albanian relations.

Ascent from Isolation

One can fairly assess Albania's pre-Hoxha era as a time of mock independence and foreign domination, predominantly Italian, and the Hoxha era as a time of autocratic repression, stagnation, and virtual isolation. Bilateral ties with the leading communist states--Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China--nominally tempered the isolation, although each relationship was somewhat predatory in nature at Albania's expense. In each case, Hoxha broke off ties for political reasons, and Albania returned to its shell, obsessed with a damaging interpretation of Mao Zedong's concept of state self-sufficiency. The result of Hoxha's crippling policies was a downward spiral fed by a dearth of modern technology, hard currency, and exports, exacerbated by a puny domestic market. 2

After Hoxha's death in 1985, Albania began to emerge under the leadership of Hoxha's hand-picked successor, Ramiz Alia. Recognizing that Albania had no traditional allies in the Balkans, Alia extended a broad offer of friendship to any nation wishing to respond with friendship. He was looking to supplant Albania's largest trading partners, Yugoslavia and Greece, since neither neighbor could be considered a friend. 3 Alia hoped to spur robust trade with the West and in particular with Italy, which was considered a safe partner. By the late 1980s, Alia had instituted trade relations with Italy, Austria, West Germany, and Canada; but the most prominent trade partner by far was Italy, which accounted for 20 percent of the West's exports to Albania and 16.5 percent of imports from Albania. 4 By the end of Alia's term, [End Page 82] Italy and Albania had concluded a long-term trade agreement and established maritime links between Dürres and Trieste.

While Alia succeeded in nudging Albania from nearly forty years of isolation, 5 it was his successor, Sali Berisha, who truly began to institute the reforms necessary to reach Italy and the West. Riding a wave of pan-Albanianism, Berisha was democratically elected in 1992 on an ardent anticommunist platform. His three broad objectives for Albanian foreign policy were increased interaction with the West, increased international economic aid, 6 and protection of ethnic Albanian rights. 7 The first two objectives would naturally orient Berisha...


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