Albanian guerrillas. In the Albanian violent past political matters were often settled the armed way.

Kneeling before the flag.
Painting by Abdurrahim Buza.

Skanderbeg. Monument in Kruja, the ancient seat of the Albanian statehood.

The establishment of the fascist dictatorship in Italy in 1922 almost immediately reflected on Italy's foreign policy, and particularly brought revitalization of the old imperial ambitions of Rome seeking a "promised land" in Africa and the Balkans. The relatively young Italian imperialism already had quite a way past behind, and although the overall balance of its effects did not look much impressive, there were events and phenomena to satisfy its beneficiaries.

In February 1885 the Italians started to build the foundations of their colonial power as they set their foot in the port of Massawa on the Eritrean coast in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In 1887 Italian forces first time had invaded Abyssinia in attempt to annex it, but against all the Rome's hopes they had suffered a severe defeat in the Dogali Gorge. Nevertheless the Italian government would not give up its plans. In 1888, on the occasion of domestic troubles in Abyssinia, the Italians occupied the whole Eritrea. Of course, Rome was not going to satisfy its permanent and ever growing imperial appetites just with the Eritrean bite. In December 1894 the Italian army of 17,000 men commanded by General Oreste Baratieri entered Abyssinia with the task of occupying of the whole country and turning it into an Italian colony. Soon it occurred that this task outgrew the Italian forces of that time. After two years of guerrilla fights the Italians suffered a defeat in the battle of Adua. The dreams of conquering Abyssinia burst like a soap bubble. The modern Roman empire had to postpone this conquest till 1936 when Mussolini's troops eventually took Addis-Ababa. Meanwhile the Italians compensated their Abyssinian failure in North Africa, where after the war with Turkey (1911-1912) they incorporated to their possessions Cyrenaica and Tripolitannia (Libya), but that did not satisfy their ambitions.

Finally in 1914 came the First World War, and together with it came probably the biggest disappointment of all those politicians, who expected that it would open the way to new conquests. Italian imperialism was the weakest one, but nowhere least aggressive. It is enough to recall, that in exchange for their alignment with the Entente against their yesterday allies - Germany and Austro-Hungary - Italian politicians, during the conference in London in the spring 1915, demanded Triest, Dalmatia, Albania, Southern Tyrol, confirmation of their sovereignty over the Dodecanese, as well as recognition of their special rights in the Asia Minor and in the African Horn. Four years later the Treaty of Versailles did not comply to those demands. Despite of renewed demands, the peace conference did not grant territories, reparations, or raw materials as expected.

Yet disappointment with the lousy outcome of the Great War did not change the once assumed course of the Italian policy, especially that a new power emerged on the political horizon - the fascism. The fascism was seen as the most convenient and the most efficient form of further activities. The real rulers of Italy - landowners, bankers, industrialists, and Catholic clergy from the backward south to the dynamically developing north saw in fascism a handy weapon to fight radical social moods in Italy, as well as an instrument of the big political game among the powers.

No wonder that Benito Mussolini preserved the traditional direction of the Italian expansionism: Mediterranean, Africa, and Balkans. As far as the Balkans are concerned, il duce thought about the direct conquest of Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia, and the indirect harnessing of Bulgaria and Hungary to the chariot of his foreign policy. Yet a conquest of, or even just limited victory and territorial changes in Greece or Yugoslavia exceeded Italian possibilities of that time. It was mostly due to the resistance of both countries, as well as the stance of Great Britain and France, with whom they were allied. Therefore the easiest bite to swallow seemed to be Albania, and that is why Mussolini turned his attention to that country. He saw in Albania not only an easy prey, but also the key to the Balkan Eldorado.

Albania is a small country of the area of 28,700, at that time inhabited by about 1.5 million people. The country is mostly mountainous (north, east and south) and densely forested (about 45% of the whole area); only in the west it smoothly turns into plains stretching down to the sea and cut by the valleys of rapid rivers of Drin, Semani and Vjosa. The beauty of this mountainous landscape would not be complete without extraordinarily picturesque lakes of Shkodra, Prespa and Ohrid. In the first half of the 20th century Albanian economy could be classified as predominantly agricultural. There were cultivated corn, wheat, millet, barley, rice, cotton, tobacco, sugar beats, grapes, citrons, and olives. Some part of the population was making living from husbandry of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. The industry was dominated by food, leather, textile and lumber production. With time started mining petroleum, copper and chromium, as well as the first small oil refineries and metal foundries were built. Electrical power was provided by first small hydro-generators. Railways were almost non-existent, hence the main mean of transportation were the beasts of burden, and with time also vehicles. Main cities of Albania are Tirana (the capital), Shkodra, Berat, Elbasan, and Korca. Albanian window to the outer world are ports in Vlora and Durres; they handled almost entire Albanian exports, which chiefly comprised agricultural products, and with time also petroleum, chromium, and asphalt.

So, Albania possesses few industrial minerals, which on top of that were not then well-explored. In the backward country Albania was, their mining was just at the initial stage, and production was very little. So it was not the wealth, and certainly not the beauty of that mountainous country, which attracted attention of the politicians in Rome. It was the country's geographic location. To the Italian fascism, just like to its historic ascendants, Albania constituted an extension of Italy just located on the other, Balkan, shore of the Strait of Otranto, which separates the Apennine and the Balkan peninsulae, and links the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea. In Rome, and not only there, they knew that he, who possesses both shores of the Otranto, possesses the control over the Adriatic exit to the Mediterranean. Without the control over the strait the Italian dream about mare nostrum, by Mussolini elevated to the level of the Italian "to be or not to be", could only remain a dream if not a naïve illusion. At that time the Strait of Otranto was likened to the Black Sea straits (Bosphorus and the Dardanelles), Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), English Channel (La Manche), and Danish straits (Belt, Sund, Kattegat and Skagerrak). Yet to the Italians setting the foot on the Albanian soil militarily meant something more than just fulfilling the dreams about mare nostrum; it was something, which can be called a seizure of the threshold of Greece and Yugoslavia. From Albanian Korca one can unfold an advance to the Greek cities Yannina, Florina, Kastoria and Metsovon, and farther to Salonika and Yugoslav Skopje; from Shkodra one can advance down to Kotor and Dubrovnik. Of course, that was a further perspective, but how distant?

To emphasize the geopolitical aspects of the Italian plans towards Albania it is proper to pay some attention to her past, which fully reflects her geopolitical location. Complex and rough history of that land confirms its significance as the southern, seaboard key to the Balkan hinterland. Already 1400-1200 years BC territories of modern Albania were inhabited by Indo-European Illirian tribes, which lived in western and south-western parts of the Balkan Peninsula. In the 3rd century BC emerged Illirian realms; in the 2nd century AD they were conquered and subdued by the Rome. Albania became a Roman colony, and in 395 it became one of the Byzantine provinces. As the centuries were passing, historic storms were overcoming Albania, changing rulers, invaders and conquerors. In 4th-7th centuries it was dominated by Slavonic tribes. Since the 10th century new powers rivalled in Albania: Serbia, Bulgaria, Byzantium, and Venice. A short-living balance of power let the Albanian highlanders to establish their independent state in the 12th century, but it did not last. In the 13th century Albania was conquered by Epirus, and in the 14th century by Serbia. But the real drama came in the 15th century, when the first wave of the Turkish conquest reached Albania. In fact the era of the Turkish rule was interrupted by the victorious uprising of the Albanian highlanders. Their ruler - prince George Kastrioti, the legendary Skanderbeg - established an independent Albanian state, but it did not last either. After his death in 1479 Albania again found itself under the Turkish yoke with all its consequences - extermination, Islamization, cultural deformation, and civilization underdevelopment. Since then the times were passing, when Albanian matters merely constituted a fragment of broader problems of the great Ottoman Empire. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the situation changed radically together with the decline of the once mighty Turkish state.

In 1912 the less and less fortunate to Turkey international situation deepened its domestic crisis. A national uprising broke out in Albania. The government of the Young Turks, created after the abdication of sultan Abdulhamid II, had to capitulate before the demands of the Albanian insurgents, and accept most of their predicaments: reforms of treasury, military, schools and road construction. The thereto parliament was disbanded. On 28 November 1912 the independence of Albania was proclaimed in Vlora, but Albania still had to recognize sovereignty of Constantinople. Yet soon broke out the First Balkan War - Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Albania unanimously stood against Turkey. The Turks suffered defeat after defeat. On 17 December 1912 great powers decided to proclaim the creation of the autonomous Albania. It was so-called Treaty of London, which limited Albanian sovereignty to the sultan's supremacy as well as the control of six great powers - Great Britain, France, Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia and Italy. One of the articles of the Treaty of London mentioned "special interests" of Italy and Austro-Hungary in Albania.

Meanwhile the Turks undertook yet another attempt to reverse the fates of war, and without waiting for the outcome of the Treaty of London they renewed military activities against the victorious coalition. Yet they led to a total disaster. In the peace accord signed on 30 May 1913 Turkey had to confirm everything it agreed to in December. In case of Albania there was no more question of the sultan's sovereignty. Albania became an independent country, although without established borders; this problem had to be solved by another conference of big powers. The outbreak of the Second Balkan War, which brought Turkey some successes and a chance to recover some territories, did not change the situation in Albania. On 29 July 1913 representatives of the big European powers gathered in London proclaimed the Organic Statute of the Independent and Neutral Principality of Albania.

In August 1914 broke out the First World War. Albania declared neutrality. Nobody intended to respect it. In November 1914 the Greek army marched in to the southern Albania. Italy, which declared neutrality and was calculating, with which side of the conflict should it align for bigger profits, on 30 October 1914 occupied the Albanian island of Sazan (Saseno), and on 26 December also the port of Vlora (Valona). Since Prince Wied, ruling in Albania by the great powers' grace, did not enjoy much trust in London, Paris and Rome, a coup d'état was staged in Tirana. The prince was chased away, and Albania got a new ruler - temporary prime-minister Esad Pasha. His dictatorship was not to last long though - only till 1916. Once again the big powers "took care" of Albania. On 26 April 1915 was concluded the second, secret, Treaty of London between Great Britain, France and Russia on one side and Italy on the other. This treaty provided for partitions of Albania. Italy - in return for her entry to the war along the Entente - was promised western Albania and protectorate of a puppet statelet, which was to be established in central Albania. Italy agreed for incorporation of northern and southern Albania to Montenegro, Serbia and Greece.

So, the cards were dealt, and the plan of game agreed upon, but the events went in a completely different way than the parties expected. In 1915 - due to the development of the military situation - Montenegrin troops entered northern Albania, and Serbian troops entered central Albania and occupied Tirana. Soon after the Bulgaro-Germano-Austro-Hungarian offensive brought the occupation of the northern and central Albania by the Austro-Hungarian forces, which withdrew as late as in the summer 1918 - after Bulgaria's military defeat. As the Austro-Hungarian troops pulled out of Albania, they were replaced by Italian troops, which had occupied almost the whole territory of the country.

In those circumstances on 25 December 1918 convened in Durres the so-called Albanian Congress. It brought to power an Albanian government with Turhan Pasha in van, and composed of Italophilae. This government did not even try to oppose the Italian occupation. This policy came not without the support of the Italian envoys, who spared neither money nor promises for future to the influential feudal circles of Albania just to achieve their goals. Italian representatives conducted a vigorous political campaign not only in Albania, but also on the international scene. Thus they managed to arrange secret negotiations with the representatives of the victorious powers. On 29 July 1919 in Paris the Italian foreign minister, Tommaso Tittoni, and the Greek prime-minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, signed a secret agreement, which provided for the Greek consent - in exchange for acquisition of a part of the Italian Dodecanese - for an Italian occupation of a big part of Albania. Representatives of the Italian government had also achieved a similar success in secret negotiations with the representatives of the ruling circles of England and France. They got the consent to have the fates of nearly the whole Albania entrusted to the Rome.

In spite of strict secrecy democracies' bargaining of Albania's fates very soon ceased to be a secret of barely few diplomats. The Russian revolution opened secret diplomatic archives, and the Russian Bolsheviks made public the provisions of the Entente treaties. More news were coming to Tirana from Paris and Rome, Athens and Belgrade. They displeased the society and ignited unrest. The mounting dependency on the Italians fostered more and more visible resistance of a big part of the Albanian people. This resistance conditioned the atmosphere and moods of the National Congress, which convened on 21-23 January 1920 with the participation of representatives of all the Albanian regions. The Congress, gathered in Lushnja, withdrew support for the Turhan Pasha's régime and brought to being a new government with Sulejman Delvina in van. This government issued a firm protest against all the secret treaties and agreements, which violated the sovereign rights of the Albanian people, and supplemented this protest with a declaration of independence of Albania. The declaration proclaimed that Albania would be a constitutional monarchy, and until the election of the king his duties would be entrusted to the Highest Regency Council. After the closure of the Congress, the new government moved to Tirana to assume legal power in the country. It is worth to add that Sulejman Delvina, who at the time of his election was in Paris, immediately undertook efforts aimed at obtaining European democracies' support for the Albanians defending their independence. Those efforts were not successful though. Quite contrary, the decisions made in Lushnja spurred Italy and Greece to force their way to occupy and partition Albania.

In those circumstances the new Albanian government also intensified its activities. One of its most active members became the minister of interior, young, barely 25-years-old Colonel, Ahmet bej Zogu. The tensions were mounting throughout the whole country. The national liberation movement was consolidating and mobilizing its forces. On 20 May 1920 in a small hamlet Borsh (Barcala) near Himara patriots created the Committee for National Defence, which initiated the formation of its own armed forces. In the beginning of June 1920 Albanian popular forces surrounded Italian-occupied Vlora. In the course of fights, which lasted more than a month they liberated the city and the port. In such a situation, on 2 August 1920, it came to the signature of the Albano-Italian protocol, which fixed the Italian consent to relinquish the whole Albanian territory occupied by the Italian forces, as well as the official recognition of the Albania's independence by Italy. The only concession made in favour of Rome was the Albanian government's consent to extend the lease of the Sazan Island for ten years. Another serious success of the new power was admittance of Albania to the League of Nations (17 December 1920), which constituted the recognition of her independence on the general, international forum.

However, independence and diplomatic successes of Albania did not mean yet normalization of her domestic affairs. The struggle for her borders was still under way, and a civil war for political power was flaring up. In 1921 Albanian army in course of numerous clashes and skirmishes forced the Yugoslav troops to abandon territories they occupied. During those fights was formed a new government, in van of which stood the aforementioned Zogu. Tied with the feudal circles from northern Albania, he started a more and more reactionary policy, which fostered protest of the democratic elements. Zogu's agents, afraid of fast and quick growth of democratic influences, on 20 April 1924 perpetrated an outrage on one of the opposition leaders - Avni Rustemi. Rustemi's funeral became signal for a popular uprising. On 10 June 1924 insurgents took Tirana. The country got a new, democratic government led by a great Albanian politician and intellectual, bishop Fan Noli. His program foresaw many radical democratic reforms, among others an agrarian reform. This program, which was nothing less than a classic example of the realization of a democratic social revolution, caused unrest among conservative and reactionary elements of the Albanian society, and united them against the government of reforms. Rightist forces concentrated in the north of the country, and in van of them stood again Colonel Zogu. He obtained support of the Yugoslav troops as well as formations of north Albanian tribal chieftains - so-called bajraktars. In Autumn 1924 they marched on to the capital, and after zealous fights took it on 11 December 1924. The Albanian democratic revolution was suppressed. A reactionary, feudal government took power, and Ahmet Zogu became its prime-minister (January 1925 - September 1928).

Albania's neighbours, especially the Italians, were closely watching the development of her domestic troubles. The Italians were still thinking about playing the Albanian card the most profitable way. The abortive attempts to subdue Albania in the beginning of the inter-war period did not put an end to the expansionist plans towards that country. The victory of fascism in Italy, and Mussolini's predicament to turn the Mediterranean into an "inner Italian sea" only strengthened tendencies, still alive in Rome, to grab the lands on the other shore of the Adriatic. The economically and militarily weak Albania, ruled by Ahmet Zogu since January 1925 as her prime-minister, and since 1 September 1928 as her king, seemed to be an easy area of expansion. Originally the Rome concocted three projects: 1) partition with participation of Greece and Yugoslavia, 2) economical subordination leading to unchallenged Italian political domination, and 3) annexation. The last option won. However, before it came to the triumph of the annexationist option, Italian rulers used the whole arsenal of means of so-called peaceful penetration through conclusion of appropriate bilateral merchant, military and political treaties.

While going for the gradual wrapping Albania in the web of invisible political, economical and military dependency, designed as the prelude for the final swallowing the prey, Rome proposed Tirana a number of services, which reportedly were supposed to deliver an efficient support for the Zoguist régime. As early as on 27 November 1926 representatives of the governments of Italy and Albania signed in Tirana the first of so-called Pacts of Tirana concerning mutual relations and security; the pact, whose leitmotiv was that Italy be recognized as the guardian of the Albanian independence and sovereignty. About the way what that independence and sovereignty were to look like speaks one of the articles of that document, which forbade Tirana concluding treaties with other countries, which in any way could compete with Italian interests. Another article granted the Italians a full control over the Albanian army. The pact also provided for giving an important commanding post in the Albanian general staff to an Italian officer, as well as creating posts of Italian advisers in all the state and military institutions.

Meanwhile Ahmet bej Zogu, who at that time enjoyed full Italian support and in his turn also put full trust in the Italians, consolidated his régime and gradually liquidated the remnants of the democratic opposition. On 1 September 1928 he made the final move, which brought him to the top of his personal career. On that day he put the end to the republican system, and proclaimed himself the King of Albanians. As he prepared for that extraordinarily important step, Zogu obtained assurances from Italy, that in case of any opposition "friendly" troops would come with all the necessary aid to His Royal Majesty. Simultaneously Zogu, fully aware of the damage he made to the national interests, and the hatered he gained among his countrymen, wanted to gather at least a token of the social support. Thus on 13 April 1930 he issued a decree on the agrarian reform - a reform, which never went ahead, due to the determined resistance of the circles of northern Albania's bajraktars, who enjoyed an extraordinary influence. So everything was left the old way and king Zog I could further lead his country along the once assumed path of national treason and reactionary dictatorship.

Zogu's régime in 1925-1939 was a typical totalitarian dictatorship, which focused all of its attributes - ban on political parties and social organizations, strict control of the press, and huge budget spendings on the army, police and the judicial system. The Italians organized the National Bank of Albania, and controlled the finances. They had monopoly on military advisory. They had created a network of companies, which gradually grasped the control over the key branches of the national economics, especially petroleum, coal, iron, copper, and chromium mining. Economical subordination of the country was formally reflected in further Pacts of Tirana. In 1926-1927 Mussolini was personally interested in attracting Albania into the Italian sphere of influence. In witness whereof hundreds of documents concerning Albanian affairs signed by the Italian dictator. It is also reflected in the diaries of then ambassador in Tirana, Ugo Soli. The latter emphasizes, that many officials at Palazzo Chigi were puzzled that il duce's interest for the Albanian affairs was even bigger than for the Abyssinian ones. This interest was the main driving force behind the Italo-Albanian alliance concluded on 22 November 1927. It was the answer to the French-Yugoslav alliance concluded on 11 November 1927, and attempts to attract Albania to it.

In the autumn 1928 Zogu proclaimed himself the king of the Albanians - not the king of Albania. Since then the Albanian irredenta could be used by Italy to pressurize Yugoslavia and Greece. Close relations with Albania in 1927-1930, which were given the appearance of an equal partnership, ended in 1931, when king Zog refused to renew the Pacts of Tirana, which made him completely dependent on Italy. But he had not created a party of his own, and he had never allowed creation of an Italian-style fascist party, since he was afraid, quite rightfully, that such a party would become a Rome's instrument against himself.