Rival Plans of Autonomy, and How They Conflict with
Albania's Desire for Independence
[The New York Times/Current History, August 1917]
This article, written by a native Albanian now in the United States, summarizes the latest attempts to solve the knotty problem of what shall be done with Albania.
While the diplomatic pourparlers for the abdication of King Constantine and for the clearing up of the situation in Greece were going on, the Allies were taking the necessary steps toward the settlement of another important and vexatious question concerning the Balkans. On June 3, 1917, the Italian Government proclaimed the independence of Albania, in apparent accord with England and France, and placed the new State under Italian protection, marking a new turning point in the Balkan situation.
Albania had proclaimed her independence early in 1912, and the London conference of the same year recognized and guaranteed her autonomy by placing the new principality under the collective protection of the six great European powers who undertook to organize it. They placed on the throne of Albania Prince William of Wied, a German Prince. With the outbreak of the European war, the Prince was forced to abandon his realm, after a troubled reign of about seven months, and Albania fell a prey of her neighbors, Serbians, Montenegrins, and Greeks. After several changes of occupants, her territory came into the possession of Austria and Italy, the former holding Northern and Central Albania, about two-thirds of the whole territory, and the latter the rest of it.
The Italian action in proclaiming the independence of Albania took place as a result of two tentative steps made separately by France and Austria.
In October, 1916, an Anglo-French detachment took possession of the City of Koritza and of the adjoining territory in Eastern Albania, by expelling therefrom the Greek royalist troops. On Dec. 10 the French commander, Colonel Descoins, proclaimed the autonomy of the region of Koritza, a district of about 100,000 inhabitants, under French protection. The French commander was forced by the Albanian militia of that region to issue a formal proclamation, and according to a duly signed protocol the tiny State was made a provisional republic.
Following the action of France, which had deeply impressed the Albanians living under Austrian occupation, the commander of the Austro-Hungarian troops in Albania issued on March 9, 1917, a ringing proclamation to the Albanians by which he guaranteed, in the name of his Government, the independence of the whole of Albania, under Austrian protection, and invited the Albanians to join the Austrian troops in the war against the allied forces in the Balkans.
Next it was Italy's turn. She had declared, on entering the war against the Central Powers, that one of her chief war aims was the re-establisment of the independence of Albania and the elimination of Austrian influence in that part of the Balkans. She had irritated Greece by wresting Southern Albania from her, and had crossed even the frontiers decided upon in the London Conference, by occupying a large part of what is called Albania Irredenta. On June 3 General Ferrero, commander of the Italian troops in Southern Albania, read a formal proclamation at Argyrocastro, before a crowded assembly of Albanian notables. The text is as follows:
To the whole people of Albania:
Today, June 3, 1917, the memorable anniversary of the establishment of Italian constitutional liberties, I, General Giacinto Ferrero, commander of the Italian expeditionary forces in Albania, do solemnly proclaim, in accordance with the orders of his Majesty, King Victor Emmanuel, the unity and independence of the whole of Albania, under the shield and protection of the Italian Kingdom.
By this proclamation you, Albanians, have a free Government, an army, tribunals, schools, all made up of Albanians, and are free to use as you wish your property and the fruits of your labor, for your own benefit and for the enrichment of your country.
Wherever you are, whether free in the land of your birth, an old and honorable race, or in exile in other countries and under foreign domination, we are bringing you back to the civilization of the Romans and of the Venetians.
You know the bonds that unite the Italian and Albanian interests. The sea divides them, and at the same time the sea binds them together. Let all good citizens, then, stand unitedly, having faith in the future of your beloved nation. Come, all of you, under the flags of Albania and Italy, and pledge yourselves to Albania, which is today proclaimed independent, in the name of the Italian Government and under its friendly protection.
This proclamation of the Italian Government was the subject of copious comments throughout the allied countries. For many days the Italian newspapers devoted columns and pages to the great importance of the proclamation, emphasizing the paramount necessity of such a measure to bar Austria from the Adriatic Sea. La Tribuna of Rome on June 5 stated that many misgivings in regard to the aims of Italy have been in the air, but that the proclamation of the independence of Albania was proof that Italy was acting in accordance with the principle of nationalities. Il Giornale d'ltalia, the organ of Baron Sonnino, saluted the independence of Albania in these words:
"Italy, well aware that there is no sacrifice too great for the inestimable boon of liberty, salutes with joy and with confidence in the triumph of justice the ancient people of Albania."
The impression made in Petrograd, however, by the proclamation of the Italian protectorate on Albania was the reverse of what it was expected to be, and M. Terestchenko, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked for more ample explanations as to the meaning of the "protectorate." On the other hand, when questions were raised in the House of Commons and the French Chamber of Deputies on the same subject, tord Cecil replied, on June 13, that the Italian protectorate over Albania did not convey any material privileges to Italy, and Jules Cambon declared that the Italian protection must be considered in the light of the exclusion of Austrian influence only.
The attitude of the Albanian press was anything but complaisant. Commenting editorially on the Italian action, the newspaper Dielli, (the Sun,) organ of the nationalist Albanians in America, wrote on June 8:
"The proclamations by Austria and Italy, which came one after the other, are neither welcome nor well sounding. These powers are disputing between them the right of protection over Albania. The way in which each desires to reorganize and dominate Albania cannot meet our approval. We acknowledge with boundless pleasure any friendly protection, but we cannot even for a moment agree that Albania be reduced to the state of a vassal country. The Albanians are fighting for the real independence of Albania, and for this we can rely on the assistance of her friends only. The Albanians desire that Albania should be for the Albanians. They do not wish her to be the tool of either Austria or Italy. Such a servile Albania would be the worst element in the Balkans, a fire-maker in the already troublesome peninsula…."
Acrimonious criticisms in the press and in diplomatic circles of the allied powers, as to the Italian protection, led Baron Sonnino, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to make further official declarations. On June 22 he stated that the independence of Albania was a thing to be desired, being in accordance with the principles expounded by President Wilson and espoused by the Allies.
The situation in Albania is likely to be further complicated by the advent of M. Venizelos as Premier of Greece. The Greek statesman is understood to make the participation of Greece in the war by the side of the Allies conditional upon the elimination of Italy's ambitions in Albania.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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