The Albanians are reputedly descendants of Illyrian and Thracian tribes that settled the region in ancient times. The area then comprised parts of Illyria and Epirus and was known to the ancient Greeks for its mines. The coastal towns, Epidamnus (Durrës) and Apollonia, were colonies of Corcyra (Kérkira) and Corinth, but the interior formed an independent kingdom that reached its height in the 3d cent. A.D.
After the division (395) of the Roman Empire, Albania passed to Byzantium. While nominally (until 1347) under Byzantine rule, N Albania was invaded (7th cent.) by the Serbs, and S Albania was annexed (9th cent.) by Bulgaria. In 1014, Emperor Basil II retook S Albania, which remained in the Byzantine Empire until it passed to Epirus in 1204. Venice founded coastal colonies at present-day Shkodër and Lezhë in the 11th cent., and in 1081 the Normans began to contest Byzantine control of Albania. Norman efforts were continued by the Neapolitan Angevins; in 1272, Charles I of Naples was proclaimed king of Albania. In the 14th cent., however, the Serbs under Stephen Dušan conquered most of the country.
After Dušan's death (1355), Albania was ruled by native chieftains until the Turks began their conquests in the 15th cent. In return for serving the Turks, a son of one of these chieftains received the title Iskender Bey (Lord Alexander), which in Albanian became Scanderbeg. Later, however, he led the Albanian resistance to Turkish domination and, after his death in 1468, was immortalized as Albania's national hero. Supported by Venice and Naples, Albania continued to struggle against the Turks until 1478, when the country passed under Ottoman rule.
Many Albanians distinguished themselves in the Turkish army and bureaucracy; others were made pashas and beys and had considerable local autonomy. In the early 19th cent., Ali Pasha ruled Albania like a sovereign until he overreached and was assassinated. Under Turkish rule Islam became the predominant religion of Albania. However, the Albanian highlanders, never fully subjected, were able to retain their tribal organizations. Economically, the country stagnated under Ottoman rule, and numerous local revolts flared. A cultural awakening began in the 19th cent., and Albanian nationalism grew in the aftermath of the Treaty of San Stefano (1877), which Russia imposed on the Turks and which gave large parts of Albania to the Balkan Slavic nations. The European Great Powers intensified their struggle for influence in the Balkans during the years that followed.
The first of the Balkan Wars, in 1912, gave the Albanians an opportunity to proclaim their independence. During the Second Balkan War (1913), Albania was occupied by the Serbs. A conference of Great Power ambassadors defined the country's borders in 1913 and destroyed the dream of a Greater Albania by ceding large tracts to Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece. The ambassadors at the conference placed Albania under their guarantee and named William, prince of Wied, as its ruler. Within a year he had fled, as World War I erupted and Albania became a battleground for contending Serb, Montenegrin, Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, and Austrian forces.
Secret treaties drafted during the war called for Albania's dismemberment, but Albanian resistance and the principle of self-determination as promoted by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson helped to restore an independent Albania. In 1920 the Congress of Lushnje reasserted Albanian independence. The early postwar years witnessed a struggle between conservative landlords led by Ahmed Zogu and Western-influenced liberals under Bishop Fan S. Noli. After Noli's forces seized power in 1924, Zogu fled to Yugoslavia, where he secured foreign support for an army to invade Albania. In 1925, Albania was proclaimed a republic under his presidency; in 1928 he became King Zog.
Italy, whose political and economic influence in Albania had steadily increased, invaded the country in 1939, forcing Zog into exile and bringing Albania under Italian hegemony. The Albanian puppet government declared war on the Allies in 1940; but resistance groups, notably the extreme leftist partisans under Enver Hoxha, waged guerrilla warfare against the occupying Axis armies. In 1943–44, a civil war also raged between the partisans and non-Communist forces within Albania. Albania was liberated from the Axis invaders without the aid of the Red Army or of direct Soviet military assistance, and received most of its war matériel from the Anglo-American command in Italy.
In late 1944, Hoxha's partisans seized most of Albania and formed a provisional government. The Communists held elections (Dec., 1945) with an unopposed slate of candidates and, in 1946, proclaimed Albania a republic with Hoxha as premier. From 1944 to 1948, Albania maintained close relations with Yugoslavia, which had helped to establish the Albanian Communist party. After Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia broke with Stalin, Albania became a satellite of the USSR. Albania's disapproval of de-Stalinization and of Soviet-Yugoslav rapprochement led in 1961 to a break between Moscow and Tiranë.
Chinese influence and economic aid replaced Soviet, and Albania became China's only ally in Communist Eastern Europe. Albania ceased active participation in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, withdrew from the Warsaw Treaty Organization. In the early 1970s continuing Soviet hostility and Albanian isolation led the Hoxha regime to make overtures to neighboring Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy. The alliance with China lasted until 1977 when Hoxha broke ties in protest of China's liberalization and the U.S.-China rapprochement.
Ramiz Alia became president in 1982 and, following Hoxha's death in 1985, first secretary of the Albanian Communist party. Alia began to strengthen ties with other European nations, notably Italy and Greece, and restored diplomatic relations with the USSR (1990) and the United States (1991). His government also began to allow tourism and promote foreign trade, and permitted the formation of the opposition Democratic party.
In the elections of Mar., 1991, the Communists defeated the Democrats, but popular discontent over poor living conditions and an exodus of Albanian refugees to Greece and Italy forced the cabinet to resign shortly thereafter. In new elections (1992) the Socialists (Communists) lost to the Democrats, Alia resigned, and Democratic leader Sali Berisha became Albania's first democratically elected president. With unemployment and inflation accelerating, the new government took steps toward a free-market economy. Although the economic picture showed some signs of improvement during the 1990s, poverty and unemployment remained widespread. The Berisha government prosecuted former Communist leaders, including Ramiz Alia, who was convicted of abuses of power and jailed. In 1994, Albania joined the NATO Partnership for Peace plan, and in 1995, it was admitted to the Council of Europe.
Berisha's party claimed a landslide victory in the 1996 general elections, which were marked by irregularities. In Mar., 1997, following weeks of rioting over collapsed pyramid investment schemes, Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi, a Democrat, resigned. Berisha, however, was elected to a new five-year term and named Bashkim Fino, a Socialist, to head a new coalition government. Parliament declared a state of emergency as rebels gained control of large sections of southern Albania and threatened the capital. Thousands of Albanians fled to Italy, and an international force from eight European nations arrived in Apr., 1997, to help restore order.
The Socialists won parliamentary elections held in July, and Berisha resigned, succeeded by Socialist Rexhep Kemal Meidani. Fatos Nano became prime minister in 1997 but resigned in 1998 and was succeeded by fellow Socialist Pandeli Majko. Majko resigned in Oct., 1999, after he lost a Socialist party leadership election and was succeeded by Socialist Ilir Meta. Albanians approved their first post-Communist constitution in 1998. The country was flooded with refugees from neighboring Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. In the June, 2001, parliamentary elections the Socialists were returned to power. After Meta resigned in Jan., 2002, Majko again became prime minister; following Majko's resignation in July, Nano succeeded him. In June, 2002, a compromise candidate, Alfred Moisiu, a former general and defense minister, was elected to succeed President Meidani.
Parliamentary elections in July, 2005, resulted in a victory for Berisha's Democrats, but Socialist challenges to some of the results delayed certification of the vote. In September, however, Nano resigned, and Berisha became prime minister. In July, 2007, after a protracted series of votes in parliament, Bamir Topi, a Democrat, was elected president. In Apr., 2009, Albania became a member of NATO.
The June, 2009, parliamentary elections resulted in a narrow victory for the Democrats, who formed a coalition with the small Socialist Integration Movement (LSI). The Socialist party denounced the results as manipulated, boycotted parliament, and called for an investigation. The Socialist ended their boycott in May, 2010, in conjunction with EU-sponsored talks on the deadlock. The situation remained unsettled, however, with tensions at times spilling into the streets, and the May, 2011, election for Tirana's mayor, narrowly declared for the Democrats, revived partisan animosities.
In June, 2012, Bujar Nishani, a Democrat and minister of the interior, was elected as President Topi's successor. The LSI withdrew from the government in Apr., 2013, having formed a pre-election coalition with the Socialists. The Socialist-led coalition won a sizable majority in the June elections, and in September formed a government with Socialist Edi Rama as prime minister.