The Restored Serbian State and the Albanians, part I

The Restored Serbian State and the Albanians


europe 1815

Relations between the Serbs and Albanians during the 19th century were historically determined, yet contradictory in their reality. These relations were diverse and the resulting friction manifested in bitter conflicts, extreme hostility and spontaneous rapprochement. They contributed to a conscious, planned political commitment to overthrow Turkish rule through the joint efforts of both nations. The position of Serbs and Albanians in the state system of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries also determined their specific and individual attitude towards the empire. But their approach towards the Turks was also part of their historical reality, the latter stemming from the position they both shared under Turkish rule.

This study’s objective is to critique with facts, insofar as possible, existing relations between the Albanians and Serbs by describing the historical setting and general circumstances in which they developed and the general course of their joint history.  This study is based on research but does not propose that all relative issues have been exhausted, or most thematic aspect which historians have barely touched upon.

 Until the end of the 18th century the Ottoman Empire of Turkey ruled most of the Balkan peninsula.  At the end of the century, the empire waged war with Austria and Russia – which a contemporary Serbian historian, Jovan Rajić, called, “a dragon’s war against eagles” – i.e., an important role was played by the Serbs and the Turks. Two Balkan peoples with strong aspirations for freedom and superior fighting ability, both under the administration of the Porte’s officials and dependant on the political and fiscal institutions of the Ottoman Empire, found themselves at a turning-point in their history. Although the Porte emerged from the war without territorial losses, it slipped into a serious state, financial and social crisis, marked by numerous insurrections and internal difficulties of various causes. Thus, both Serbs and Albanians, like other Balkan peoples, faced questions of existential significance: first, could the Serbs and Albanians free themselves from centuries of foreign rule? Secondly, how and by what means could this be accomplished? As is known, the Serbs in Serbia tried to resolve this question of freedom through the First and Second Uprisings (1804-1815), followed by the restoration of the Serbian state. However, historical circumstances and certain specific features of Albanian social reality (quite different from that of the Serbs) steered Albanian history in another direction. Though constantly in latent or actual opposition to the Turks, the Albanians were unable to obtain freedom and their own state until the 19th century.

Of special significance for Serbo-Albanian relations, particularly the political relations of the Serbian state with the Albanians during the 19th century were the administration of the Ottoman Empire and certain characteristics of their social and folk history. In order to gain a better understanding of the nature and problems of Serbo-Albanian relations in the 19th century, it is necessary to first point out certain aspects of the status of Albanians under Turkish rule during the late 18th early 19th centuries.

Two facts of great historical consequence dominated in Turco-Albanian relations during the 18th century: the incorporation of the biggest Albanian feudal clans into the system of Turkish administration, and the efforts of the Turkish state to Islamize the majority of the Albanian population. Both processes left a deep imprint on the Albanian folk heritage and national history in subsequent decades. But if these two processes were significant for Serbo-Albanian relations, primarily among the population in border regions, they also affected political relations between the restored Serbian state in the 19th century and national representatives from various parts of the geographical entity now known as Albania.

Thus, towards the end of the 18th century, the Turkish state administration enjoyed the support of the Albanian “begs” whose representatives were distinguished in the Turkish war of 1788-1791. Because of their wartime services, the “begs” gained economic power based on the acquisition of estates (“citluk”) and forcibly raised feudal dues, but also political clout. This authority eventually declined into anarchy, much like the medieval Faustrecht,’s “rule of the strongest”. Christian subjects in Turkey were affected the most, regardless of whether they were Slavs, Greeks or Albanians under the administration of these “pashas”, (or attached by agrarian-legal ties to the “citluk” estates owned by “begs” and “agas”.

The incorporation of local “begs” into the economic and administrative system of the Turkish empire, regarding internal social and political relations, also meant their “Turkization” and separation from the social environment of the Albanian people. This definitely promoted Turkish state interests and the Porte’s authority among the Albanians. Conversely, the separation of the “begs” weakened the social and economic position of the Albanian peasant population:, on the one hand, because of increased dues accruing from legal-agrarian relations, and on the other, because of the onerous tax and military obligations imposed by the Porte with the introduction of state reforms (“nizam-i-dzedid”). Entire “sanjaks” not only in geographical Albania but in the neighboring regions of Epirus, Macedonia and historic Old Serbia, were administered by these privileged Turkicized Albanian “begs” who were given appointments and titles, (e.g., “uctuglu” and “mirmirana-pasha”).

Other than the Bushati family of Skadar (Skutari), several other families attained political and real power in the late 18th century: Rotula (Rotulović) in Prizren, Begolia (Mahmutbegović) in Peć, Kruezia (Crnoglavic) in Djakovica, Dzinoglou (Džinić) in Prishtina, Avzi Pasha in Skopje, Shehsuvar (Shashit) Pasha in Leskovac. In the central parts of Albania—in the “sanjaks” of Elbasan, Kavaja, Tirana and Alessio, (and in Macedonia in the sanjaks of Debar and Ohrid)—the Turkish state administration was firmly in the hands of the pashas of Albanian extraction. In this way the process of Islamization and Turkization in the late 18th century led to an identification of the economic and socio-class interests of the Albanian “begs” and “pashas” with the political and state interests of the Turkish Empire. Furthermore, in these largely denationalized, Turkicized Albanian “pashas” and “begs”, the Turkish state administration found good civil servants and loyal military commanders.

They drew from their people an exceptional fighting force which on various occasions suppressed popular discontent with the Turkish administration, not only in Albanian districts but in other Turkish provinces inhabited by Christian populations. During the Serbian insurrections of 1804-1815, the Albanian administrative feudal structure of “begs” and “pashas”, “čitluk” estates and commanders of janissary units—as well as the irregular “bashibozuks”—played an important role.

Islamization, the conversion of Turkish Christian subjects from Christianity to Islam, the faith of the Ottoman conquerors—all appealed for various political, economic and psychological reasons to a large part of the Albanian peasantry, especially people who lived on imperial or “chitluk” estates owned by “begs”. In places where the old clan (“fis”) organization had been preserved as in Malesia, (the region north of lake Skutari), and Miredtie, Islam had little success, (among the Malësorët, the people of Malesia,) or none at all, (among the Mirëditët). The “fis” organization preserved the old social and national, (ethnic), organization of Albanian society in toto. On the other hand, with respect to Turkish authority, clan organizations retained numerous rights of self-government and features of Albanian folk institutions and life. This was also of importance for Serbo-Albanian relations as a whole—and for the formation of friendly relations between the Albanians and Serbian states of Montenegro and Serbia in the 19th century. However, in regions where the feudal system had taken root and social and economic relations changed, the old rights of self-government also disappeared, and Islamization – including exemption from agrarian-legal obligations – spread among the Albanian peasantry. In the mountainous region of Dukagjin, conversion to Islam was attributed to the need for exemption from dues, the military army tax (“bedel”), and especially the tax of livestock (“agnam, chitluk”).

The process of Islamization and feudalization weakened and largely destroyed the foundations of Albanian folk, national, social and religious life and led to their division with regard to both religious and legal-class relations towards Turkish authority. Late 18th century Albanian society was thus divided into supporters of Turkish state authority and its opponents.

In modern Albanian history religion, i.e,. the division into Christian and Muslim caused by the proselytizing efforts of the Turkish state administration and Islamization, contributed not only to the socio-political grouping of Albanians but was also reflected in their political aims, primarily their relations with the Ottoman Empire.

The problem of Turkish authority constituted the main driving-force in modern Albanian history, and all Albanian social classes were concerned. The question was only how individual social groups, individual clans of public figures, viewed the problem and the political solution. Two political viewpoints existed, publicly or secretly: one of them supported collaboration with the neighboring Balkan peoples and free Balkan states in the 19th century: Montenegro, Greece, and Serbia above all. In view of the distribution of socio-political forces among the Albanians, the Porte took advantage of the contradictory status of state Albanian social reality and found supporters for the political and state interests of the Ottoman Empire. The appointment of local figures to high-ranking positions in the state administration, and the granting of tax dispensation and privileges to those who accepted Islam were the usual means of maintaining and stabilizing the Porte’s political authority in Albania—and among the Albanians in general.

Through a policy of Islamization the Porte deliberately sought to recruit prominent members of the Albanian feudal and tribal society until the early 19th century. Through them it influenced the population in their respective administrative, feudal or tribal districts. The well-known principle of religious-political polarization dating back to the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe – (“cuius Regis eius religio” – in reversed Turkish circumstances – “whose religion his rule”)– was regularly put into practice in many parts of Albania and among the Albanians. The geographical distribution of the chief habitats, (for example of Catholic and Muslim Albanians), reveals the following: the “old faith”, Christianity, survived in northern Albania among the clans of economically poor Malesia and in Miredite.  Newly converted Muslims, however, dominated in areas of greater natural and economic potential where the Albanian tribal organizations had ceded to the encroachment of feudalism and Turkish administrative-police pressure from the towns of central and southwestern (coastal) Albania. The Tosks, inhabitants of central and southwestern Albania, largely retained the Eastern Orthodox faith in places where the tribal social organization still maintained established norms of common law and tribal social order, while yielding to Islam where feudalism had destroyed the once- strong tribal organization.

Therefore, in all major historical and political developments connected with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in wars with neighboring Christian states and the suppression of popular insurrections, the Islamized Albanian masses fought – much like the Islamized Slavs of Bosnia – in the regular and irregular (“bashibozuk”) units of the Turkish army, unlike Christian Albanians from Malesia and Toskeria, who fought only when forced by the Turkish authorities and Turkish pashas of Albanian extraction, for example, the Tosks, or when they were involved in border disputes with, say, Montenegrin or Serbian highlanders over tribal territory, like the Malësorët. Thus, an important historical fact illustrated how ideological indoctrination, and in this case religious indoctrination, could be used in the interests of a foreign conqueror, the Turks, changing the course of history of an entire people. It was a practice implemented throughout the Balkans, especially among the Albanians of the period. Much like the Islamization of part of the South Slav population in the Rhodopes, western Macedonia and Bosnia, the Islamization of the Albanians, in principle and in daily life, led to a kind of polarization and separation from the ethnic and social masses of Christian Slavs, or Christian Albanians, respectively, regardless of the preservation of a common language and certain traditions. It brought about a rapprochement with the Turkish state interests and political evolution of Islamization, and impacting their former socio-religious and ethnic community. One example is the Muslims in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and historic Old Serbia who, as an autochthonous population of “non-Turkish” origin, found themselves in accord with the Turkish religious-political community of colonists from Anadolia and conquerors. They acted in concert as a distinct and united force against the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians, fellow-countrymen, who kept to the old faith and remained outside the process of Islamization. This explains – and it is important to point this out – the joint action taken by the Catholic Albanians of Malesia with the Montenegrins against the “pasha” of Skutari, an Islamized Albanian, (from the village of Bushati near Skutari). Another example were the Orthodox Albanians, (“Tosks”), with the Greeks against the Turks, or the Catholic Albanians of Miredite with Serbs from the Principality of Serbia. The middle of the confessional-political confrontation destroyed the ethnic unity of the Balkan peoples: Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians and others—all in the interests of the Turkish state, political and economic system which rested primarily on the Islamic religious and legal foundations of the Ottoman Empire as a conquering state in the Balkan peninsula. The partial Islamization of the Balkan people was the greatest, and judging by its sociopolitical consequences, the most significant result of the Turkish occupation.

This historical phenomenon of paramount historical significance, especially in terms of its consequences, was characteristic of Kosovo and Metohija, the upper reaches of the Lim River, of historic Old Serbia. The 18th century was a period of intensive colonization and Islamization of Albanian settlers whom the Porte aided for political reasons and used in the pacification of the Serbian population. The Porte began appointing loyal Albanian “begs”, or their relations, to the administration in the “sanjaks” of Kosovo and Metohija. They were granted the once-inherited title of “pasha, and “čitluk” estates in Christian Serbian villages promoted the “Turkish”, i.e. Muslim, character of their districts by bringing in as colonists, poor hill people from various tribes and clans in northern Albania. However, parallel with this Islamization and its consequent assimilation, part of the Serbian population was forcibly Albanized. A typical example of these repressive measures denationalizing the Serbian population was the administration of Malić Pasha Džinić, and his son Jashar, which continued for three and a half decades in the 19th century. These “pashas”, whose ancestors had come from the surroundings of Skutari in the 18th century, received important positions in the Turkish administration in the Prishtina “sanjak”, following obligatory conversion to the Turkish faith, Islam. No better than his father and predecessor, Jashar Pasha evicted Serbs from dozens of villages and in a dozen more forced the villagers to change their religion. The First and Second Serbian Uprisings served merely as a pretense to exert great pressure – administrative, police, fiscal and religious – on the Serbs, some of whom fled and settled in the liberated parts of Serbia, after 1804 and 1815. There were several characteristics that typified these forced changes.

In 1807 and 1812, two French agents and diplomats, Pouqueville and Vas, traveled through the Prishtina “sanjaks” on their way from Bosnia to Salonica and Istanbul. They gave an account of the insecure conditions of life in this region where entire villages were reportedly burnt by brigands, leaving them deserted and the land fallow. A quarter-century later, the coercive role played by the Turkish authorities was confirmed by the Frenchman, Ami Boué and German Joseph Müller, both of whom were familiar with conditions in Kosovo and Metohija. In the early 19th century, according to Boué, there were still many villages with a Christian Serbian population, even west of Prizren and Djakovica. In 1838 J. Müller, (who spoke Serbian and was the physician to the “pasha” in Peć for several years), used the official Turkish census “nufuzi” in Djakovica, the largest Albanian community. In Kosovo and Metohija, he wrote, besides 17,000 Albanians of the Muslim or Catholic faith, there were 3,800 Serbian-speaking people—of which 2,600 were Orthodox and 1,200 were Islamized Serbs.  The fact that among the Muslims of Peć, and the Peć district, Serbian was spoken rather than Albanian or Turkish, suggests a process of Islamization among the Serbian population which later, in a second phase, ended in assimilation and Albanization, owing to political socioeconomic and psychological factors.

Unlike Metohija, which lost its Serbian characteristics in the 1840s, the Kosovo plains retained the characteristics of its Serbian majority until the Serbo-Turkish wars of 1876-1878. During this period, mostly through emigration and Islamization but also other means of coercion and physical liquidation tolerated by the Turkish authorities, the Serbian population disappeared from many communities in the Kosovo-Metohija “sanjaks”, and in many aspects of Serbo-Turkish relations the Albanian component was significant and effective. Religious motives served as an ideological pretext, though the reasons were desire for the land. It is in this light that the relations of the principality of Serbia should be seen regarding not only official Turkish provincial authority, but also the real protagonists and holders of this authority—the Turkicized “begs” who originated from northern Albania.

Written by academician Vladimir Stojancevic

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