‘Let him be sworn in,’ Greece tells Albania

The behind-the-scenes messages that were ignored and Athens’ attempt to defeat Tirana at its game with imprisoned mayor

‘Let him be sworn in,’ Greece tells Albania

Athens is concerned that Fredi Beleri, the ethnic Greek who was elected mayor of Himare in southern Albania in the municipal elections of May 14 (but has not been allowed to be sworn in as he was arrested for alleged vote-buying two days earlier), may lose his seat as a consequence of the tricks played by the government of Edi Rama over the past three months.

The Albanian prime minister reportedly offered behind-the-scenes assurances to Greece immediately after the second Greek election in late June that “the case of Beleri will be settled.” Today it is understood that he may have been bluffing to buy time so that the three months of pre-trial detention expire and the process moves into the next phase, which is the automatic disqualification of Beleri from the mayoral office. According to the Albanian municipal code, a mayor is obliged to have a residential address within the boundaries of his municipality. Beleri’s current address is that of the prison in Vlore where he is being held, as the law stipulates for every prisoner after the three months of detention.

“Technically, the three months expire on Sunday, August 20,” a legal source said. As a consequence, the Albanian Ministry of the Interior can claim, as of Monday, that Beleri cannot take his oath of office since he does not live within the boundaries of his municipality and may automatically be removed from office.

The protest rally

Athens’ hardening stance manifested last week with the demonstration in favor of Beleri, in which the mayors of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis and Thessaloniki Konstantinos Zervas took part, in consultation with the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The move was aimed at sending Rama the message that Greece is not going to accept such schemes without raising questions about the quality of democracy in Albania. “Democracy cannot be imprisoned,” Bakoyannis said at the rally in downtown Himare, implying that Greece will denounce Albania to the European institutions and negatively affect the forthcoming report on the Balkans, expected in October.

European Commission Vice President for Protecting the European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas, who participated in the demonstration via a pre-recorded video message, stated that “this issue cannot and must not become a barrier, a wall, to the country’s and the Albanian people’s European aspirations.” The message was received by Tirana, but it is not certain that Rama will change his stance. What is it that sustains the Albanian prime minister’s obsession? Why is he ready to risk the recent improvement in Greek-Albanian relations?

In Athens, the issue is being handled by state ministers Makis Voridis and Stavros Papastavrou. Voridis, in particular, has studied the history of ethnic tensions between the two communities in depth, while he has also spoken with the lawyers defending Beleri. The elected mayor (and former president of ethnic Greek Omonoia organization) is being held on the basis of an apparently weak and unsubstantiated indictment, they say. It is alleged that his aide, Pantelis Kokavesis, who was also arrested on the same day, attempted, before the elections, to buy the support of 14 voters for 50 euros each. There is no evidence, only an allegation that the transaction took place in the restroom of the meeting place. “Compared to you, even [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is a champion of democracy,” Beleri stated recently from prison, addressing Rama.

Beleri was elected with the support of former prime minister Sali Berisha’s party. Rama and Berisha are sworn enemies, which means that Himare has become another battleground for their rivalry – with Beleri becoming a victim

Athens understands that it is not prudent to question the independence of the Albanian justice system, so the rhetoric has shifted slightly: Let’s put aside the issue of a prison release: just allow Beleri to take the oath, which can be done even from prison. This is today the message of the Greek government, whose sources emphasize that the alleged crime does not stand in the way to Beleri being sworn in. Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis has repeatedly asked his Albanian counterpart, Olta Xhacka, to simply allow Beleri to take the oath. But it seems that if this were to happen, it would throw a spanner in the works of Rama plan.

Ethnic Greek property

The Albanian prime minister is being accused of supporting (morally) Albanian businessmen eyeing the property titles of Greeks which have never been properly settled after the collapse of the communist regime. The local community has only been assigned titles for cultivation, which are bought for pennies by large interests. The titles can be “converted” into property titles and operating rights on Himare’s coastal strip, a process that is regulated through decisions of the city council. Based on this interpretation, Beleri’s election threatens the plans of the Albanian establishment. The ethnic-Greek politician is also not much liked by the Albanians. He is said to have had at least some contact as a 20-year-old with the paramilitary organization Northern Epirus Liberation Front (MAVI). However, what makes him unwelcome in Tirana is not his “hyper-patriotic past,” it is cold hard cash. But there is more.

Beleri was elected with the support of former prime minister Sali Berisha’s party (ending a long-standing rivalry between them). Rama and Berisha are sworn enemies, which means that Himare has become another battleground for their rivalry – with Beleri becoming a victim. Balkan experts say that Rama can afford to play a tough game with Athens because Berisha is “undesirable” in Washington. On May 19, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said so clearly, because of Berisha’s involvement in cases of corruption. In fact, according to some sources, Beleri does not have a visa to the United States.

Rama says that the court responsible for Beleri’s case is independent. It was established in 2019, following pressure from the US to reform the Albanian justice system. This is the famous SPAK (Special Anticorruption Structure), which includes three bodies: the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, the National Investigation Office and the Special Court of First Instance for Corruption and Organized Crime. On August 2 it was announced that Beleri will be tried for “active corruption in elections” by the Special Court of First Instance. It is, therefore, assumed that his latest request for release (which will be heard on August 21) will be rejected.

It should be added that the American Embassy in Tirana and, in particular, its very active Ambassador Yuri Kim, who left on July 10 and was promoted to US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, played an important role in the creation of SPAK and more broadly in the reform of Albanian justice (and was often the target of critical comments from Albanian anti-Americans). Suffice it to say that an advertisement to fill six vacancies in the country’s Supreme Judicial Council and Supreme Prosecutor’s Office is currently on the website of the American Embassy. For those interested.

Consequently, Rama is taking the risk he is because he probably thinks that he is relying on the Americans, who view Berisha (and Beleri) very negatively. An advanced scenario, which sees Beleri loosing the mayorship (with or without being released) and then his replacement in Himare by a “moderate” ethnic Greek outside Berisha’s circle of influence has been discussed in some capitals, and may eventually materialize, but for now, Athens insists on supporting Beleri and does not want to adopt such a proposal under any circumstances.

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