THE YUGOSLAV STATE AND THE ALBANIANS, part IV
THE BORDER FRONT
The first preventive incident of the taking over of strategic points on the “Albanian front” was performed by Serbia in 1913. By this armed action, intrusions of “kacac” gangs were disabled; rebellion prevented; and attempts to expand Albania territorially cut. The intrusion of the troops of the Hasan Prishtina on the territory of Serbia in February 1915 provoked an armed response by the Serbian government with the purpose of preventing the action of the “kacak” gangs and pacifying the situation in the area of Elbasan – Tirana – Durrës. The incident in November 1918 was also derived from the necessity of protecting vital state interests (communications and frontier towns) from intrusions of armed plunder gangs and to stop riots which came from Albania to the area of Kosovo and Metohija in waves.
On the territory of Albania the policy of the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia conflicted with the pretensions of Italy which tried, exactly through that country, to penetrate into the Balkans. Italy got the strength for such a policy in the London Agreement from April 1915, the inter-ally agreement signed on October 7, 1918 in Paris, and the secret Italian-French agreement from November 20, 1918. The cited “agreements” gave Italy the “right” to take full military initiative in the area of Albania, determined the zones of its operative actions, and applied pressure on the surrounding Balkan countries. Unaware of the Italian-French agreements, the Supreme Command of the Serbian army made the decision to keep their troops on the Demarcation Line north of Beli Drim, in Peshkopi, in Golo Brdo and in the Donji Debar district. The interest of protecting Yugoslav territories was only discovered when Italy began its expansionism into the Balkans.
Pressed by obligations towards Italy the Ally Command from Thessalonica requested on November 30, 1918 that the Serbian troops retreat from Kruma and Bican. In the beginning of January an order was sent to stop Serbian advances from the direction of Djakovica towards Spas and Pukë to allow the taking over of strategic positions in northeastern Albania. Urgent retreat was demanded. The effort of the Yugoslav state to gather and organize the remains of the military organization of the Esad pasha was followed by complaints. In June 1919 the commander in chief of the ally troops general Franchet d’Espèrey once again asked for a response to the question as to why the Yugoslav units were still found at Crni and Beli Drim and in Kukës and ordered their urgent retreat.
Anarchy in the border areas gained in strength when the Peace Conference in Paris began. Propaganda was intensified; rapid preparations were made for the impending attacks on the border; intrusions of “kacac” detachments were intensified; the amount of money by which the “services” of the Albanian leaders were paid increased; and the presence of Italian officers became more visible. The aim was to provoke riots and show the great powers that the whole area settled with Albanian population was to be joined to Albania. An alternative plan existed on the other side. There was a readiness in Belgrade that if the Peace Conference did not grant the area up to Drim with Shkodra to the Yugoslav state, that it be reached by combined military-political action. By a skillful policy, on the spot, some parts of the Albanian tribes were attracted to opt for Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia (Hasi, Gaši, Krasnići, Bitići and later Nikaji and Merturi). Money served to attract certain prominent politicians and “beys”, lead “a policy favorable for us” among the Albanian population, organize propaganda “committees” and establish battalions of “armed Albanians”. By decisive military action the protection of strategic, communications and economic interests of the state were provided.
The military forces along the long border front were not enough to bind the propaganda campaigns of Great Albania and disable the intrusions of “kacac” gangs. Hence “help” from battalions of “organized Albanians” and representatives of “Esad’s authorities” was necessary. Loyalty was achieved only with money. When there was no money the state settled its obligations by “closing their eyes” in front of the lack of discipline, smuggling, looting and terror which the battalions of “organized Arnauts” carried out. With the passage of time, essentially, they became the real masters of the border. Under their pressure Serbian clerks were replaced by Albanian ones in the border areas. The frequent murders of people who did not have the same political opinion threw a shadow on the political leaders close to the Esad “pasha” and leaders of the battalion of “organized Albanians”. Organized plunder and the smuggling of cattle across the border, the burning of houses, attacks on merchants and craftsmen were also part of the terror carried out by the “Arnaut battalions”. The interest to defend the border and avoid incidents that would have an international echo became directly opposed to keeping order and punishing the culprits for crimes, which again, most directly discredited the state authority.
In summer 1919, when the Peace Conference started to deal with the issue of Albania more intensely, conflicts of the Yugoslav and Italian forces on the “border front” became more frequent. The reason behind Italy’s increasingly aggressive military, political and propaganda attack was the occupation of the territories of the Gash, Krasnichi and Bitichi tribes with the assent of prominent Albanian leaders – the Ismet bey Derala, Cen bey Krieziu and Izet Beg, the “good will of the population” and the guarantee of “full autonomy”. The border line “from Prokletije to the curve of Veliki Drim” was hence established. Indications of the retreat of French troops from Albania caused strengthened activity of Greek troops, the Italian army and Albanian detachments in the vicinity of Korçë, the Orhid lake basin and the region of Debar. The situation was additionally dramatized by the conclusion of the Italian-Greek Agreement (Titoni – Venizelos) according to which Greece, as compensation for Epirus with Korçë and Gjirokastër, left the total domination of Albania to Italy. Italy stirred up the dissatisfaction of the Korçë “beys” with Serbia and Greece. The Greeks worked on strengthening their authority. The Yugoslav authorities secretly helped the rebellion of the Albanian population against Italy in middle and south Albania. The French openly came out as protectors of Italian interests. The Albanian leaders were convinced that the mutual conflict between Greece, Italy and the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia would bring them the most favorable results. The fate of the area, despite local conflicts, was solved by major European diplomacy in Paris.
The border front between the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia and Albania survived in 1920 too. It contained numerous contradictions, strivings, desires, interests and tragic failures. Not only was it a matter of the “demarcation line” mastered by “people of dangerous craft”, but also the major European policy that was cooking up around it, the interests of the Balkan states, and the presence of outside of Balkan powers. In the summer months of 1920 the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia and Albania became increasingly alike a war zone. Riots blazed in Albania. The military authorities requested an increase of soldiers on the border “because of the situation on the Albanian front and in areas settled with an Arnaut element”. Standpoints that “Arnauts and Bulgarians can be forced to order and obedience only by force, when no other legal means can force them” became more and more frequent. The politicians and soldiers agreed that the reputation of the country should be kept “by all means”, although money, by which “peace” could be bought, should be spent more sparingly. This opened the door to anarchy and intensified the penetration by Italy. Attacks on state institutions and state clerks, which were frequent in the summer of 1920, were not only the most expressive form of negating the Yugoslav state on the occupied territories but also a sign of the nonexistence of an organized and capable authority. The spirit of the Great Albania idea, which in February 1920 had already spread over to the territory of the “demarcation line” (Has, Ljuma, Djakovačka malesija, region of Debar), stirred up the riots even more and gave the events a “political dimension”. Requests for the formation of an independent Albania were heard at the gatherings in Tirana, Malësia, Has, Krumë, Ljuma and Donji Debar. They were followed by the menace of using arms as well as ultimatums to Rome and Belgrade to leave the “occupied regions”. All of this indicated a greater conflict and increased the spiral of violence on the border.
Written by Djordje Borozan, Ljubodrag Dimic