Serbia and Albania: more than just a sporting clash

Sam Raby 21 October 2014

Last week, what had promised to be a tense European Championship qualifier between neighbouring Albania and Serbia exploded into violence as a drone bearing the flag of ‘Greater Albania’ (a region incorporating parts the disputed territory of Kosovo and the Preševo Valley of Serbia) flew over the pitch. Albanian player Herolind Shala reported that his team were pelted with cones and rocks, whilst members of the crowd chanted death threats at them. The world is left wondering one question: will this lead to an even worse relationship between the two countries?

Tensions between Albania and Serbia are already highly fraught, and violence between members of two ethnicities spread beyond the confines of the football ground. Reuters reports that Albanian football officials were reportedly attacked by Serbian police officers as they escaped the ground, the Albanian embassy in overwhelmingly Serbian Montenegro was ‘pelted’ with stones, and Albanian bakeries in some Serbian towns were firebombed. On a state level Serbia’s interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic denounced the state of Albania as ‘not mature enough as a state to join the European family’.

As serious blows as these incidents may seem, we would do well to appreciate them in the broader context of their history with one another. The relationship between the two is incredibly frosty as it is, and a few instances of violence surrounding a football match, whilst shocking, are but a drop in the ocean compared with the mass slaughters of the 1990s.  At a state level both nations want EU membership. Generating conflict with other European countries is unlikely to impress Brussels, and as such we can expect no more than a little verbal sniping between the two; assuming that more serious events do not occur. As for whether they will, this writer would tentatively expect, and indeed hope, that no more violence comes to pass. The violence at the football match can be partially attributed to the heightened tribalism that sport itself can evoke, and to the fact that Serbian authorities did little to prevent the fanatical, often violent, ‘Ultra’ fans from attending the match. Let us also not forget that, according to the Guardian, many Serbians took to Twitter to denounce the violent actions that notorious football hooligans had carried out on the day.

As the events of last week clearly show, whether or not Albanian PM Edi Rama makes his landmark trip to Belgrade in a week; the relationship between Albania and Serbia is likely to remain cold and resentful. However, given the small scale of the incidents and unlikeliness of escalation, this writer expects that the relationship will quietly ebb back into the bitter peace that we have come to expect from the Balkans.