The vision of pan-Albania lurks on the horizon as grievances among Albanians in the Western Balkans continue to intensify. Widespread disappointment with national governments, mainstream parties, economic conditions, and international agencies can be exploited and exacerbated by ambitious politicians to promise national unification. Five key developments will fuel the pan-Albania project: domestic frustration, stifled EU aspirations, Belgrade’s Greater Serbia agenda, American missteps, and positive visions of unification as salvation.

In Albania and Kosova there is widespread frustration and anger with corrupt politicians and institutions, economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and poor governance in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Elections change little as the state is dominated by interest groups who use their period in office to enrich themselves and remain in power. Limited job opportunities force young, educated, and ambitious people to emigrate. The new Vetëvendosje government in Kosova has committed itself to stamping out corruption and stimulating the economy, but the public will only be impressed by results.

Lack of any realistic prospects for EU accession for Albania, North Macedonia, Kosova, and Montenegro also contribute to public resentments. The EU’s reputation has taken a severe blow and will further deteriorate if it fails to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. EU members agreed in 2019 to launch talks with the two countries but the process has been postponed, mainly because Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s path. The government in Sofia is playing the nationalist card by insisting that its dispute with Skopje over history and language must be resolved before the talks can begin.

Numerous other EU failures have contributed to the malaise. Frustration with Brussels has been compounded by painfully slow progress in providing coronavirus vaccines to the Balkans, convincing some to turn to China and Russia for doses. The denial of visa liberalization  for Kosova makes Albanians the only ethnic outcasts on the continent. Inadequate EU economic investments in the poorer Balkan states contribute to out-migration and can also fuel poverty and radicalization.

Albanian grievances are compounded by what is widely viewed as EU tolerance of Belgrade’s Greater Serbia project. Under President Aleksandr Vučić the pan-Serbian agenda has been revived to incorporate neighboring territories with large Serbian populations and to dominate nearby states. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Montenegro stand on the front lines in defending their sovereignty but receive insufficient political and security assistance from the EU. Meanwhile, Serbian irredentism is directly backed by Moscow to disrupt the region and create a stronger Balkan ally against NATO enlargement.

For Albanians, the inconclusiveness of the Prishtina-Belgrade talks, the non-recognition of Kosova’s statehood by five EU members, and Kosova’s inability to enter major multi-national  institutions such as the United Nations, drives perceptions that pan-Serbianism is condoned in the major EU capitals. And this despite the fact that both Albania and Kosova, unlike Serbia, have largely followed foreign policies congruent with that of Brussels.

Another danger is U.S. distraction with more pressing global problems and its missteps in dealing with the region. There are already signs of this, with Washington’s failure to confront the coalition government in Montenegro that is heavily influence by Belgrade to whittle down Montenegro’s identity and independence. Selective bans on Albanian leaders from entry to the U.S. because of corruption charges, as is the case with ex-Prime Minister Sali Berisha, may be viewed as discrimination against Albanians if other high-profile Balkan politicians under corruption allegations are excluded from sanctions.

In these depressing conditions, the idea of Albanian national unification in one state structure can become a message of hope for ordinary people. Kosova’s unification with Albania would evidently consolidate its separation from Serbia, ensure its protection under the NATO umbrella, provide Prishtina with greater global access, and enable Kosovars to gain Albanian passports. If support for unification mushrooms then a broader array of politicians will start competing on the pan-national agenda. Some major political figures are already toying with the notion, both to send a signal to international actors and to gauge public reactions.

Albanian unification is reportedly gaining traction, with opinion polls indicating that in the event of a referendum a majority of citizens in both Albania and Kosova would vote in favor. Former Kosova Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has asserted that he will push for a referendum on unification if he returns to high office. Before his election Prime Minister Albin Kurti claimed that if a referendum was held on Kosova joining Albania he would vote “yes.” This would need to entail constitutional changes, as under the current document Kosova cannot join another country. Logically, if Kosova is fully independent then there can be no restrictions on its international allegiances and state mergers following referenda in both Kosova and Albania.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has asserted that a common state is inevitable, although in Tirana this is usually couched in terms of an internally borderless EU. Albania and Kosova have already signed various integration agreements, including plans for a customs union, a common foreign policy, and shared embassies. Until now, Albania has been focused on EU accession so it has not openly promoted unification with Kosova. But the longer membership is postponed the more appealing will state merger become.

Belgrade manipulates the specter of a Greater Albania in asserting that Kosova must remain part of Serbia in order to prevent destabilizing the entire Balkan peninsula. North Macedonia and Montenegro are also concerned by potential pan-Albanianism, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are subject to Greater Serbia pressures and fear that the two major “pan” movements will strengthen each other. In the optimistic scenario, all state enlargement projects will be successfully neutralized through pan-European unification. In the pessimistic scenario, the grievances that drive them will become a ticking time bomb in an already volatile region.

Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is entitled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture