The idea of a Greater Albania that was formulated some 130 years ago has floated back and forth between the realms of daydreams and realistic policies. It is essentially the concept of shifting Balkan borders one more time, to enable all ethnic Albanians to live in a single state. Now, with elections coming up in Kosovo, the idea may be returning to the Balkan political agenda.
Holidays, particularly big dates such as the Albanian national day, best illustrate the dispersion of Albanians beyond the country's borders. On these days, Albania's blood-red flag with its black double- headed eagle adorns houses in Presevo in southern Serbia, Tetovo and Struga in Macedonia, nearly all of Kosovo and parts of Montenegro.
They are raised, sometimes despite risk of legal prosecution, by Albanians who are citizens of other countries - Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and even Greece. Representatives of ethnic Albanians from all those places recently gathered in Tirana, the capital of Albania-proper, to sign a manifest declaring as their goal the establishment of a common country of all their compatriots.
Albania's political leadership did not openly endorse the effort, and Belgrade-based business magazine Ekonomeast scoffed at the idea saying it was "impossible." But is it really? After all, in Kosovo, which lies at the heart of the territory inhabited by Albanians, 90 per cent of the 2 million inhabitants are Albanians. Eighty per cent of them say they back the idea of a Greater Albania.
In Serbia's former province, the project is propelled by the Vetevendosje, or "self-determination" movement, led by former the former student leader and Serbian political prisoner, Albin Kurti.
Kosovo holds early elections onDecember 12 and Vetevendosje is taking part for the first time. As far as surveys can be trusted, it could create a major impact on the political scene.
In neighbouring Macedonia, Albanians make up close to 30 per cent of the 2 million inhabitants and more than half of them, 52 per cent, also support the idea of an all-Albanian state.
Political leaders in southern Serbian municipalities along the Kosovo border, where the around 100,000 ethnic Albanians make a local majority, also lined up behind the plan.
The Tirana writer and "politicologist" Koco Danaj is considered the "new father" of the project to shift borders to encompass all Albanians into a single country. And Danaj, 59, spares no effort to stir things up among his compatriots in neighbouring countries.
In his next move, in January, he plans to lodge a complaint against the 1913 London Conference at the United Nations' InternationalCourt of Justice in The Hague.
The conference in London extracted Albania from the Ottoman Empire, but some parts with Albanian population remained in other countries, including Serbia, today's Macedonia and Greece.
Contemporary proponents of the Greater Albania employ a two-pronged strategy to gather supporters. "We are a social-welfare movement." Vetevendosje chief Kurti said. He seeks to draw support from the reservoir of energetic young people, frustrated by economic hopelessness, poverty and unemployment.
The other direction of Vetevendosje action is to play up allegations of discrimination of Albanians in Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Various sources estimate the number of Albanians in the Balkans at around 6 million. There are hundreds of thousands of more in emigration, mostly inGermany, Austria and Switzerland. Should they all become citizens of one single country, Albanians it would become the second-largest in terms of population in the region, behind Serbia, with 7 million.
But that would also change very quickly, as Albanians are recording a real population explosion, while the number of Serbs has been declining owing to emigration and a low natality rate.
And the prospect seems glum to Serbian leaders, already wounded by defeats in the wars of the 1990s and the loss of territories seen as Serb in Croatia and, particularly, Kosovo. Politicians in Belgrade are speaking of an outrageous "provocation" when Albanians in the south spread Albanian flags on holidays they see as their own and order police to act. "You can arrest me, but southern Serbia will be a part of Greater Albania by 2015," OrhanRedzepi, an Albanian leader in the so-called Presevo Valley, told the Belgrade daily Press.
Others among the Albanians are more subtle - aware that the term "Greater Albania" spurs fear in the region, they have replaced it with "Natural Albania." Now many look to Kosovo elections to gauge how far the project can progress beyond the utopian ideal.