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The Ups and Downs of Greek-Albanian Relations

Over the past few months, Greece’s diplomatic position and influence in the Balkan area has been undermined. Greece, a country with the most influential strategic position in the Balkan peninsula, a member of NATO and the EU and a country with a significant power of armed forces, finds itself at  political and diplomatic crossroads after receiving massive blows on  the international stage. 

In this article, I examine how Albania has successfully undermined Greece’s influence in the area. Recent developments and actions bring on the horizon tremendous external and internal pressures on Greece. In order for Greece to achieve its full potential and regain its position as a dominant power in the Balkans, one has to review and analyze the threats coming from its neighbors and provide sufficient solutions for the state. Otherwise, the current stagnation and failure to react to those political threats will bring more tensions in the already fragile relations between the Balkan states. It is time for Greece to rely on realpolitik and not simply follow the instructions coming from Brussels and across the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, visited Athens to give a speech to Albanian migrants residing in Greece and close political party allies,  hoping to rally more support for his political position. At the event in Athens, Rama wished to maintain support within the Albanian diaspora and in doing so undermined the Albanian community's relationship with Greece and Greece’s relationship to Albania. Let me tell you how.

The atmosphere was electric with thousands of ethnic Albanians attending the speech. Edi Rama stressed  that he came to Athens to show his support for the Albanians that managed to escape communism and make  a better life for themselves and their kids in Greece. He highlighted that both countries are interconnected in their destiny and there is no need for enmity. They can all coexist peacefully. He expressed repeatedly that the purpose of his visit was not to provoke Greece but to meet the thousands of Albanians living in Greece. However, his visit was purposefully scheduled on May 6th. But why is that date important and what political manipulations are happening behind the scenes? The answer lies in  Greece’s choice to support the candidacy of the Greek jailed mayor of Himarë in Albania for the EU elections this July.

Fredi Beleri is a member of the Greek minority in the city of Himarë where most of the ethnic Greeks reside. Last year he was elected mayor of the city. However he is not sworn in as a mayor because of his controversial arrest from the Albanian authorities. He was charged and arrested for voting fraud, allegations that he denies. In my view, his arrest is nothing more than a political persecution instigated by Prime Minister Rama himself.

Another important fact to mention is that Mr. Beleri not only belongs to the Greek minority in Albania, but he also actively supports the property rights of Greeks residing in Himarë. As of today, there are thousands of properties in the city that belong to ethnic Greeks, yet the Albanian government refuses to acknowledge that. Not only that, but Mr. Rama himself refuses to grant access to the local owners to develop their properties. Instead, all the properties are co-owned by shadow investors that are determined by the government. This is a clear violation of the rights of the Greek minority.

Unfortunately, the rights of the Greek minority in Albania and the arrest of Fredi Beleri are not seen favorably in the West. There is an ongoing clash between Berlin and Athens regarding the political situation in Himarë. 

According to Aggelos Syrigos, an assistant professor of international law at Panteion University in Athens and a New Democracy MP, Berlin and Washigton do not view the case of Beleri’s arrest as an issue of democracy, rule of law and violation of human rights. He describes Greece’s efforts to bring the issue to the international stage as fruitless, as it is clear that the European elites of Brussels are pushing the accession of Albania in the EU without considering any democratic violations inside Albania. Greece has repeatedly threatened to block any talks about Albania’s accession in the EU, causing a political stagnation. This stagnation must continue in order to showcase the seriousness of the Greek government. If Greece crumbles under pressure from Brussels, it will reflect as a major weakness from the Greek side. Not only will Greece’s image as a powerful EU country be stained, but it will also shatter the image of the country as a major geopolitical player in the Balkans. 

To combat the continued threats and violations from Albania, Greece needs to stand up for itself and not wait for the green light from the West to act. To do so, there must be no talks about allowing Albania to be part of the European Union until the Greek minority in Albania is protected and until the territorial boundaries of Greece are respected. This should not be seen as a case of a power showcase but as a case of demonstrating to the Albanian side that respect is a two-way road. 

Albania has progressed a lot since the end of their communist regime and a door towards EU integration should be opened. However, in order to get through that door, there has to be an understanding from the Albanian side that the protection of ethnic minorities in their country is a vital step towards becoming an EU member state. 

Greece has demonstrated its will to help, but in the process the country should not fumble diplomatically and lose its position in the region. As a popular Greek idiom states: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

Image: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

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