The Yugoslav-Albanian War, which began with the Tito-led Yugoslav invasion of Albania of 1953 and ended with the annexation of Albania as a part of Yugoslavia in 1956, was a minor war on the Balkan Peninsula which shaped the future of the Cold War on that peninsula.
The relationship between Albania and Yugoslavia had been close to full-out annexation in the late 1940s, but following the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform, Albania realigned toward the Soviet Union, which effectively made this war a proxy conflict between the Soviets and the Yugoslavs and led to later issues for the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
Relations between Yugoslavia and the Russians had been historically very cordial and friendly. World War I was primarily caused by the close alliances held between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Serbia, and World War II in the Eastern Front was also largely impacted by Nazi invasions of both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Following World War II, the Yugoslav state, reformed as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito, began talks with the communist People's Republic of Albania discussing possibilities of Albania joining Yugoslavia as a Socialist Republic.
As Tito began discussion with the larger People's Republic of Bulgaria, Stalin and Soviet foreign minister Molotov called Yugoslavian, Bulgarian, and Albanian ambassadors to Moscow to discuss Soviet interests in the region. After Tito refused to let Yugoslavia fall under the Soviet Union like the rest of Eastern Europe, his ambassadors left the Moscow Conference.
The Tito-Stalin Split then quickly spiraled toward a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia. Stalin's CPSU charged the Communist Party of Yugoslavia with Trotskyism and tried to manipulate other Yugoslavian leaders into leading a coup d'etat against Tito, but his strong personal popularity managed to keep him in power.
The split continued to escalate until, in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, causing Stalin to refocus his attention elsewhere. Until Stalin's death in 1953, he gave up on Yugoslavia, which then began to turn away from Stalinist/Leninist communism and adopted socialism and almost joined NATO.
When Stalin died in early 1953, the Soviet Union became engaged in a political struggle between Lavrentiy Beria and Georgy Malenkov against Nikita Khrushchev. It was after a few months of this infighting that Tito decided to take a risk and invade Albania.
PlanningAs designed by Tito's main general, Konstantin "Koča" Popović, the invasion of Albania was intended to be an extremely fast invasion. Popović has stated that the Yugoslavian military strategy used in the Yugoslav-Albanian War draws heavily from German style Blitzkrieg, which Yugoslavia experienced during World War II, and employs both aerial and armored attacks on important military installations as well as cities.
Popović's strategy involved a three-pronged land invasion as well as a coordinated naval landing at the southern end of the Bay of Vlorë, with the intention of shutting down the second-largest port while blockading all exits by the Adriatic Sea. The three prongs were:
- From Montenegro, South into the northern quadrant of Albania targeting the cities of: Shkodër, Lezhë and Gjonëm
- From Macedonia, Southwest into the southern quadrant of Albania targeting the cities of: Korçë, Përmet and Gijrokaster
- From Kosovo (Serbia), Southwest into the quadrant of Albania targeting the cities of Kukës, Peshkopi and Burrel
After all three land invasion contingents had secured their quadrants, they would converge upon Tirana with the naval invasion contingent from Vlorë, at which point Tirana would fall into Yugoslavian hands.
WarfareAfter the formal declaration of war on November 14, 1953, the Yugoslavian People's Army (which was already mobilized along the border) quickly launched its multi-pronged assault.
The Yugoslav Ground Forces led the assault, utilizing all available technology, including plane, tanks, and rockets.
Fighting was especially fierce in the Southern Quadrant, as Popović had expected them to complete a full sweep of the region before returning to Tirana for the final assault, but the mountainous terrain proved to be more difficult for the contingent, which had not adequately prepared.
The Northern and Eastern Quadrants were both swept through quite quickly, with decent fighting and resistance at Shkodër after the crossing of the Dinaric Alps.
The naval invasion went off without a hitch as Vlorë and the surrounding region was unprepared and the Yugoslavian military was stationed under 30 miles from the coast prior to the declaration of war. Vlorë fell on December 9, and the naval contingent marched north along the coast to Tirana.
With the Southern Quadrant still resisting the Yugoslavian military and Tito growing weary of possible Soviet intervention, he ordered Popović to commence the attack on Tirana prior to securing the Southern Quadrant.
Potential Soviet Intervention
By the time the three active fronts of the Yugoslavian People's Army had reached Tirana in early March of 1954, Tito's fears had been realized as the Soviet Union, led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov was ordered to take a large contingent of his troops had begun bombings in northern Serbia.
Zhukov, who was a staunch supporter of Khrushchev, ended up not invading Yugoslavia as he was contacted by telegram that Malenkov only sent Zhukov and his loyal army so the Malenkov-Beria faction would have total control militarily over the Soviet Union
Battle of Tirana
The Battle of Tirana was operated quite effectively by the Yugoslavian military. Popović planned for a naval blockade and long-term siege. Ideally, Tito wanted the city to be fully intact so his planned Socialist Republic of Albania would be able to rebuild efficiently.
Popović had debated the merits of a full-on frontal assault of the city, but opted for a siege because he was unaware of just how many Albanian troops were stationed within the city. He also expected severe resistance. Tito decided that the best way to break any possible resistance is for a siege to starve the local population and then be able to give out food to loyal Albanians who swore allegiance to Yugoslavia and the Socialist Republic of Albania.
All told, the siege of Tirana lasted just over 11 months and ended on February 23, 1955.
The Yugoslav-Albanian War was the first major action taken by Yugoslavia to challenge the hegemony of the Soviet Union. This conflict would greatly strengthen the Yugoslav nation.