An agreement to merge the Albanian and Kosovo consular services abroad has sparked concerns in parts of the Balkans that the deal is a step towards realising "Greater Albania ".
The accord was approved by Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha's cabinet on October 20th. It would halve the two countries' consular costs, the government said.
"Albanians should feel the same in Tirana and in Pristina," Berisha said, calling also for similar deals in the fields of customs and taxes, as well as in the education, social, cultural and environmental sectors "and everything else".
"We have to strengthen co-operation within the same legal framework and practices in order to reduce bureaucratic barriers between citizens of Albania and Kosovo," he said.
Kosovo analyst Seb Bytyci heading the Pristina-based Balkan Policy Institute echoed Tirana's arguments.
"Kosovo and Albania are small countries without resources to have consulates everywhere," he told SETimes. "This deal enables them to provide better services to their citizens. Similar deals are common even among richer countries, who still feel the need to cut costs."
The foreign ministries of Macedonia -- which signed an agreement for joint consular representation with Slovenia -- and Montenegro told SETimes they respect every country's right to conduct its external and internal affairs.
"We welcome every initiative targeted at improving the regional co-operation," the Macedonian foreign ministry said, but added it "would not comment the statements and the relations between Kosovo and Albania".
"I don't see why should this disturb Montenegro," Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Milic told SETimes.
Macedonian diplomacy expert Lazar Lazarov cautioned there is more to this kind of agreements than meets the eye.
"In the first phase you have rapprochement, joint customs and economy, but the second phase in this process usually is unification," Lazarov told SETimes. "It will be difficult for Kosovo to maintain its statehood in these circumstances. Both Albania and Kosovo seem to work on the 'Greater Albania' project, mentioned first in 1878."
Lazarov referred to the plan promoted by Albanian political organisation Prizren League, which aimed to unify in one state Albanians scattered across Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece in the 19th century.
Kosovo pledged in its 2008 independence declaration full respect for its neighbours' territorial integrity and for the borders assigned on Martti Ahtisaari's plan for a settlement to the Kosovo status issue, approved by the UN.
Ian Bancroft, co-founder of the Belgrade-based TransConflict, argues the Ahtisaari Plan clearly states Kosovo can not seek to unite with another state, hence Berisha's intent should be treated with a great deal of concern.
"If the government in Pristina will not uphold this important element of the Ahtisaari Plan, then it is hard to expect that it will uphold the other safeguards provided, which will breed further mistrust amongst Kosovo's Serbs and other non-Albanian populations. The EU, in particular, therefore needs to be more explicit in its criticism of such steps," Bancroft told SETimes.
He added the agreement adds to existing concerns across the region about the assertion of Albanian ethno-national identity. "[It] has motivated, in part, the boycott of the census in south Serbia, the abandonment of Macedonia's census and tensions within Albania over the number of ethnic minorities, likely to provoke further mistrust in neighbouring countries such as Montenegro and Greece."
Insisting that Kosovo is still a UN protectorate, Serbian government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic said in comments for SETimes that Belgrade could not support any initiative that is not in accordance to UN Security Council Resolution 1244.
According to Bytyci, the consular agreement could fan "the paranoia about 'Greater Albania'", particularly among "fringe politicians in countries neighbouring Albania and Kosovo".
"Regarding other deals, we can expect more integration as a result of increases in trade and economic co-operation," he said, adding the road to stronger co-operation between Kosovo and Albania is likely to be rocky.
"At the same time, because of lack of progress in EU integration, political and societal pressure for more integration between the two countries, as well as others, such as Macedonia and Montenegro, will increase," Bytyci said.
Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje, Nedjeljko Rudovic in Podgorica, Igor Jovanovic in Belgrade and Muhamet Brajshori in Pristina contributed to this article.
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