The process of cultural transition in the Balkans’ mountains has been anything but slow.  From empires to nation-state political systems, feudal to socialist and capitalist, totalitarian to democratic, folk to market economy, are just some of the rapid culture changes that occurred during just the last several generations.  Peaceful harmony, however, was seldom achieved during the transitional period.

Rather, the change frequently resulted in a (cultural) conflict.  Among the main reasons was the inadequate amount of time for people to adapt to the foreign cultural traits that were introduced to replace those that previously formed the bedrock of their tribal folk lifestyle.  It takes much longer than several generations to lose established practices and accept often-forcibly imposed new cultural traits.  One of the most difficult aspects in this process is an acceptance of administrative, economic, and social power of the State (government) over traditional ways.  Under the guise of modernization, the State has, on its own terms, sought to transform the social and economic fabric of individuals and communities.

The result is a mess.  Politically (administratively), the State could integrate tribal structures into its framework even at the local level, but social issues and interaction continued to revolve around tribal traditions.  Under close scrutiny, it becomes evident that the manifestation of forced symbiosis between tribes and the State is still an issue that merits consideration.  Similar conditions exist in a number of mountainous regions in eastern Europe and western Asia.

Figure 1. Learning about the impact of change is like visiting this valley in northeastern Montenegro; one can drive along its length on a government-built road in fifteen minutes, visiting all the villages, while gaining very little knowledge about the local way of life.  To learn even the rudimentary aspects of a culture takes much more time. (All photographs by the author.)

Isolation versus Access, Oppression versus Acceptance

In the tribal mountain environment elevation changes rapidly, but folk culture traits do not.  The traditional purpose of high-elevation residences was to serve as a physical and cultural refuge against outside influences.  This choice of residence was a method of survival designed to preserve independence.  Governed mostly by an unwritten set of customs and traditions, devoid of the administrative and political structure of the modern state, such areas generally experienced fewer conflicts (contrary to many popular beliefs that the “mountain savages” are in constant feud and warfare with outsiders and each other).

Figure 2.  An example of a rapid elevation increase.  Access is limited to a single, recently-paved road cutting through and winding between sharply-edged mountain slopes.  The view is from the highlands of northern Albania’s historic region of Malësia, looking westward towards the lowlands around Lake Skhodër (Skadar in Montenegrin language).

Figure 3. As elevation increases the valley entirely narrows into a steep-sloped canyon, with only a small amount of non-terraced land available for cultivation or other uses.

Figure 4. Light colored objects in the background (to the right) are houses grouped in a small hamlet.  Note the increasing degree of slope with increasing elevation.

Figure 5. On the Montenegrin side of the border conditions are similar.  Looking westward across the Morača region, which, like the northern Albanian highlands, is a natural tribal fortress bounded by the mountain ranges like those in the background.  Willful isolation and remoteness have helped the residents preserve independence, identity and their way of life for centuries.

Historically, in terms of the interaction with the outside world, mountain peoples voluntarily choose which cultural traits to accept and embrace.  They control access and accept what works for them, rejecting what does not.  Unsurprisingly, conflicts in the mountain areas rapidly accelerate when an outside force tries to alter their cultural system.  It means that the cultural institutions regulating life in the mountains for centuries must accept unwanted institutions in a period of years.  From the perspective of cultural evolution, that process is tantamount to an overnight change in the very core of a people’s traditional way of life.

No one wants or is able to reject his/her way of life overnight, not willingly and certainly not unwillingly.  What was gained through generations if not centuries of cultural evolution cannot be erased by a brief cultural revolution.  The main problem is that the outside institutions they are being forced to accept are totally alien to their experience and cannot co-exist within the context of their traditional ways of living, thinking, and doing.  This often involves the forced imposition of such traits as an authoritarian centralized state, forced taxation on property, economic change (e.g., planned economies), social mores (e.g., female emancipation), and land nationalization.

Figure 6. An example of the power of coercion and conviction in the process of northern Albania’s culture change: relics of the bunkers (erected during the Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship) “protecting” the Albanian villagers from an invasion and a modern, recently-built guesthouse offering accommodation for foreign and domestic tourists and travelers.

Figure 7.  Folk cultural system’s tribal traditions also heavily emphasize religious affiliation among the highlanders as connecting tissue against the outsiders, even if people individually are not particularly religious.  During the Ottoman era it was to avoid conversion to Islam by Catholic northern Albanians and Eastern Orthodox Montenegrins, while during the Communists’ rule it was to abandon religion altogether.

The State primarily expands control over peripheral mountainous areas via military campaigns, and is not spreading “modernization” from the goodness of its heart.  Its actions are for sake of complete control of what it perceives as being otherwise ungoverned areas.  Thus, what the State may consider as implementing modernization, people in the mountains may consider as involuntary servitude designed to destroy their identity.

[Note: Tribal areas in Eurasia, from Pakistan westward, do not consider themselves ungoverned or lawless on basis of their own cultural systems.  When terms “ungoverned” and “lawless” are used to describe such areas, they are almost exclusively used by the proponents of strong (nation) state and centralized government; i.e., supporters of a method of ruling from far away while subjugating small independent territorial units against their will.]

It Takes a Village to Run a Village

The State does not extend power over people through the power of conviction (acceptance).  Rather, it relies on the power of coercion (conquest), because people do not want to buy what it has to offer.  If a State were a store selling television sets and competing with free-market forces, no one would ever purchase a television set in a state-owned store.  As a monopolist, however, State can coerce people by requiring them to pay for a TV license fee, whether they want it or not.

Let us further examine this analogy.  Ancient tribal laws in western Asia and southeastern Europe were practiced for centuries through a population’s acceptance of them.  Each generation was born into this cultural system.  People understood unwritten laws as a bona fide cultural foundation of their societies and accepted them as a way-of-life.  The laws regulated social and economic aspects such as the manners of personal behavior (honor), interaction, conflict resolution, kinship, religious practices, and land use and tenure.  This, in a nutshell, is an example of the power of cultural conviction for the sake of cultural and physical preservation of tribes (and smaller units within tribes such as clans).

[Among northern Albanians, and their ethnic kin in Kosovo and Montenegro, ancient tribal codes often have a higher meaning and status than any contemporary law.  The unwritten Code (Kanun) of Lekë Dukadjini—assembled in 15th century and put in written form almost 500 years later—is an aggregate of tribal customs and traditions that predated Dukagjini for centuries, if not millennia.  Compare them with that of other Eurasia’s mountain tribes and you will notice a striking similarity.]

In order to function, a folk cultural system is (a) voluntarily accepted and (b) entities (tribes) are autonomous from coercive unchallenged rule by a single tribe or individual.  In addition, tribes tend to physically separate places of residence to minimize potential for conflicts.  This setting also develops people’s strong attachment to their village or a mountain valley, which they are eager to defend at any cost.  If tribal cultural systems are to be compared to a modern political philosophy, they would be the closest to libertarian.

To my knowledge, no contemporary nation is governed by a libertarian party; states do not exist to give power away to the people, but to acquire and solidify more power from them.  A folk cultural system is by default an archenemy of the state.  Tribes and state can co-exist like evolutionists and creationists teaching about the existence of God and earth history; i.e., pretending that they can operate along each other, while practicing and supporting diametrically opposite philosophies.  Such an arrangement cannot last without a conflict.

The State is much more powerful, aggressive, and intrusive, seeking to eliminate folk cultural traits and impose control over tribes [For example, it was not the people from the Caucasus who marched on Moscow to extend their territorial control and impose their system on the 19th century Imperial Russia, nor the Kohistanis in the late 1970s Afghanistan, or the northern Albanian tribesmen in Tirana after the World War II; the process of conquest was exactly the opposite].

Figure 8. Some tribal societies—like the nomadic Pashtuns in Afghanistan, or the Bedouins—emphasize social connections over an attachment to a place.  Among the mountain peoples, like here in northern Albania, a village is a very important spatial unit within which social connections are built.  This creates fiercely independent groups physically inseparable from their land.  Land is a precious commodity with well-defined parcels (to prevent land disputes and blood feuding), some of which is private land, and the rest reserved for communal use. Land reform and nationalization of property, which State’s bureaucrats try to implement in many countries, goes exactly against the traditional way of life in the mountains.

State’s ultimate goal is to eventually destroy the social fabric of mountain societies.  When encountered with pushback, it justifies the failure not for its own actions, but because of the mountain people’s rebellious nature, and describes them with epithets like these: backward, primitive, undeveloped, ignorant, and uncivilized.  It is the State, of course, not the mountain tribesmen, which decides who/what is considered civilized or primitive.

Destabilizing Stabilization Efforts

When we look at tribal behavior in the countries in conflict, an enthusiastic support for centralized government coming from the highlands is not easily found.  People dislike supporting the system that forcefully changes their traditions.  If the change from outside is imposed quickly, their reaction will be equally as rapid.  For this reason so many tribes in areas peripheral to the capital city—labeled “rebellious” and “warlike”—are willing to pick up arms and fight for what they believe.  Their mountains and valleys are then labeled as “unstable” and “ungoverned.”

Like everyone else, people in the mountains are not inherently against change, but it must be on their own terms.  Such an attitude stems not from selfishness, but an understanding that for centuries any kind of outside influence almost always arrived in the form of conquest.  When the State wants to conquer their living area and change their way of life, it is understandable why they want to control the intensity and magnitude of change.

People in northern Albania and Montenegro mountains, too, wanted a better life with roads, schools, and hospitals built, but not if it is accompanied by an Ottoman Janissary’s sword, or a communist commissar’s firing squad.  Throughout the past millennia, mountainous tribes in various other regions have all shared a similar fate when dealing with outsiders.

Yet, when we also look at how the stabilization operations work in currently “unfixable” war-torn regions, like Afghanistan, it is almost exactly the way I described above—agitation of the tribal areas for sake of centralization of State’s power.  In a perpetual continuum of trying to squeeze a 14-size foot in a size-10 shoe, the Western experts and advisers, whose paycheck depends on supporting the government, are baffled over the failure of their stabilization plans, programs, and other measures.

Even if the war in Afghanistan ends tomorrow, the country and the “rebellious” areas will remain dysfunctional.  From a cultural viewpoint, it is impossible to integrate the two diametrically opposite systems and expect harmony in a generation or two.  But who has enough patience to wait? This is why so many corners of the Balkan region remain continuously dysfunctional, always at the edge of some conflict, and why Afghanistan, or the Caucasus region, will not become model oases of peace any time soon.  They are “ungoverned” lands after all.

Culture Change and Conflict in the Mountains (of Montenegro and Northern Albania)
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One thought on “Culture Change and Conflict in the Mountains (of Montenegro and Northern Albania)

  • February 21, 2017 at 12:51 am

    Brilliant essay. Most folks don’t understand the concept of cultural diffusion and its significance. That, combined with mountain provincialism, contributes to the situation so well described in this essay. A glimpse of the mountain areas described in this essay can be better understood by considering conditions in Appalachia a century ago.


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