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Albania - People

Albanians commonly joke that more Albanians live outside Albania than in it. Albania is a country of approximately 3.6 million comprised of ethnic Albanians (95 per cent), Greeks (3 per cent) and other groups, such as Roma (Gypsies), Serbs, and Macedonians. While Albania was isolated from the rest of the world from 1955 to 1991 during the communist period, when communism fell, the country opened up and tens of thousands of Albanians living in Albania left the country. One United Nations estimate states that one in five Albanians left the country between 1990 and 2001. For many years, there have been many ethnic Albanians living outside Albania in neighboring countries, such as Macedonia, Greece and Kosovo.

There are no accurate official data about the number of Albanians living abroad because much work-related emigration has been illegal. According to recent studies done in both Albania and in host countries, 600,000 Albanians live in Greece, 250,000 in Italy, 150,000 in the US, 50,000 in the UK and another 30,000 spread throughout the EU. The studies estimate that half of all immigrants do not have legal work status and work in seasonal agricultural, construction and tourism jobs. According to various sources, over one million Albanians live in Turkey, over 500,000 in Macedonia, 440,000 in Greece, 200,000 in both Italy and the UK, and more than 100,000 in both the U.S. and Germany, with nearly as many in Switzerland, and about 30,000 in Montenegro.

These various groups range from newly arrived immigrants to individuals and families who have lived in other countries for decades, if not longer. They are often recognizable in their various communities and have distinct political representation in some countries such as Macedonia. Some of these groups at times have relationships with entities in Albania. For example in 2001, when fighting involving an ethnic Albanian separatist movement erupted in neighboring Macedonia, the GOA supported greater rights for the Albanian minority but condemned the rebels' violent tactics.

Large numbers of ethnic Albanians lived outside the country, in Italy, Greece, Turkey, the United States, and especially in Yugoslavia or its former republics. Estimates based on Yugoslav census data indicated that the number of Albanians in Yugoslavia in 1981 totaled more than 1.7 million, or almost 8 percent of the country's total population, of which about 70 percent resided in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, 20 percent in Macedonia, and 9 percent in Montenegro. The predominantly Albanian Kosovo had the highest birthrate in Europe and one of the highest in the world: 29.9 per 1,000 in 1987. Persons under twenty-seven years old accounted for 60 percent of Kosovo's total population, and students--a reservoir of political ferment--over 30 percent. In 1981 only 12 percent of the Albanian population in Kosovo was employed.

Among ethnic Albanians there are two major subgroups: the Gegs, who generally occupy the area north of the Shkumbin River, and the Tosks, most of whom live south of the river. The Gegs account for slightly more than half of the resident Albanian population. Ethnic Albanians are estimated to account for 90 percent of the population. The Gegs and Tosks use distinct dialects; there are also linguistic variations within subgroups. Well into the twentieth century, ethnic clans exercised extensive local authority, particularly in the north. Some progress was made during the reign of King Zog I (1928-39), however, toward bringing the clans under government control and eliminating blood feuds.

After taking power in 1944, the communist regime imposed controls intended to eliminate clan rule entirely and waged a continuing struggle against customs and attitudes that believed to impede the growth of socialism. Blood feuds were repressed. Party and government leaders, in their effort to develop national, social, and cultural solidarity in a communist society, publicly tended to ignore ethnic differences. Communist leader Enver Hoxha, first secretary of the Albanian Party of Labor and head of state until his death in 1985, who came from the south and received the bulk of his support during World War II from that area, frequently gave preference to persons and customs of Tosk origin. Most party and government executives were Tosk speakers and of Muslim background. The Gegs, who had dominated Albanian politics before 1945, were educationally disadvantaged by the adoption of a "standard literary Albanian language," based on the Tosk dialect.

Because of their greater isolation in the mountainous areas of the north, the Gegs held on to their tribal organization and customs more tenaciously than did the Tosks. As late as the 1920s, approximately 20 percent of male deaths in some areas of northern Albania were attributable to blood feuds. Under the unwritten tribal codes, whose purview included the regulation of feuds, any blow, as well as many offenses committed against women, called for vengeance. Permitting a girl who had been betrothed in infancy to marry another, for example, could set off a blood feud. The besa, a pledge to keep one's word as a solemn obligation, was given in various situations and sometimes included promises to postpone quarrels. A man who killed a fellow tribesman was commonly punished by his neighbors, who customarily would burn his house and destroy his property. As fugitives from their own communities, such persons were often given assistance by others.

A man who failed to carry out the prescribed vengeance against a member of another tribe or that individual's relatives was subjected to ridicule. Insult was considered one of the gravest forms of dishonor, and the upholding of one's honor was the primary duty of a Geg. If the individual carried out the required act of vengeance, he was in turn subject to retribution by the victim's relatives. Women were excluded from the feud and, when a man escorted a woman, he too was considered inviolable. In other respects, however, a woman's lot in society generally was one of deprivation and subjugation.

The isolation from influences beyond his community and the constant struggle with nature tended to make the male Geg an ascetic. Traditionally his closest bonds were with members of his clan. Obstinate and proud, the Gegs had proved themselves, ruthless and cruel fighters. Visitors from outside the clan generally were suspect, but every traveler was by custom accorded hospitality.

Less isolated by geography and enjoying slightly less limited contact with foreign cultures, Tosks generally were more outspoken and imaginative than Gegs. Contacts with invaders and foreign occupiers had left an influence and, before 1939, some Tosks had traveled to foreign countries to earn money to buy land, or to obtain an education. The clan or tribal system, which by the nineteenth century was far less extensive in the south than in the north, began to disappear after independence was achieved in 1912.

The Greek minority, Albania's largest, has deep roots in the country's two southeasternmost districts, Sarand and Gjirokastr, in an area many Greeks call Northern Epirus. Estimates of the size of the Greek population in 1989 varied from 59,000, or 1 percent of the total (from the official Albanian census); to 266,800, or 8 percent (from data published by the United States government); to as high as 400,000, or 12 percent (from the "Epirot lobby" of Greeks with family roots in Albania). Greeks were harshly affected by the communist regime's attempts to homogenize the population through restrictions on the religious, cultural, educational, and linguistic rights of minorities. Internal exile and other population movements served as instruments of policy to dilute concentrations of Greeks and to deprive Greeks of their status as a recognized minority. Despite improvements in Greco-Albanian relations during the late 1980s and a significant increase in cross-border visits, reports of persecution, harassment, and discrimination against Greeks, as well as other minorities, persisted.

Smaller ethnic groups, including Bulgarians, Gypsies, Jews, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Vlachs, altogether accounted for about 2 percent of the total population. Persons of Macedonian and Bulgarian origin lived mostly in the border area near Lake Prespa. The Vlachs, akin to modern Romanians, were most numerous in the Pindus Mountains and in the districts of Fier, Kor, and Vlor. A few persons of Serbian and Montenegrin derivation resided around the city of Shkodr. There were small Jewish communities in Tiran, Vlor, and Kor; and Gypsies were scattered throughout the country.

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