Deep divisions prevail within Albania’s ethnic Greek minority

GJIROKASTER, Albania – As President Costis Stephanopoulos was mounting the podium to address hundreds of ethnic Greeks gathered in the main square of Dervicani, tension reigned on the sidelines. In view and within earshot of the official Greek delegation and Archbishop Anastassios of Albania, minority officials were having a heated argument as to who should introduce the president, whether it should be the Union of Human Rights Party delegate, the minority’s official parliamentary representative, or the local ethnic Greek authority, elected with the backing of the Socialist Party. Outright conflict was averted by the intervention of a Greek diplomat who reprimanded them with an exhortation to «at least respect the president.» A compromise was reached for the local authority, in Pavlos Tolis, to welcome Stephanopoulos and for the president of the Omonia Party, Yiannis Yiannis, to make a public declaration of the minority’s demands. It was not one of the best moments of President Stephanopoulos’s tour of Albania’s ethnic Greek villages and the scene was a bitter reminder to the official Greek delegation of the deep divisions within the ethnic Greek minority that have weakened its case with the Albanian State as far as defending its rights. In Tirana, Stephanopoulos stood up for the ethnic Greeks’ rights in the most decisive manner, but upon traveling south toward the ethnic Greek strongholds, he found them divided. In private conversations with local Greek officials, as well as in public talks in Dhrovian, his grandmother’s home village, he urged them to uphold the name of their party, «Omonia» (Concord), and to be united at least when seeking satisfaction of their demands. The wounds run deep however, and the differences within the ethnic Greek community reflect a clash of perceptions regarding their political expression and action, that is, whether they should rally together and present their claims within their own organizations, Omonia and the Union of Human Rights Party (KEAD) or to join forces with major traditional Albanian parties as many ethnic Greeks have done as deputies, ministers and municipal authorities. They have not even decided whether they want to live in a democratic Albania with their rights fully consolidated, or whether to remain bound by the irridentist aims of the past, something that Stephanopoulos, in his own way, asked them to forget about. It would not necessarily be a bad thing if these concerns emerged at the level of an internal democratic debate not complicated by disputes, financial interests, personal strategies and excessive ambitions. In the minority villages in the Dropoli district, there are cafes for KEAD supporters and others for the «Socialists,» where coffee is not served to supporters of the rival party. The political influence of minority representatives with the Albanian leadership, regarding issues that concern them directly, is negligible precisely because of the discord among them. The three KEAD deputies, for example, could not agree on a joint stance when the Albanian Parliament was debating a bill on the return of assets, a high priority issue for the minority. Two of the deputies in fact threatened to walk out – if they have not done so already – and to join forces with opposition leader Sali Berisha even though their own party is a member of the Nano government coalition. The ethnic Greek deputies, irrespective of their party membership, were not able to reach agreement on issues that directly concern their minority. Life has improved in most ethnic Greek villages. Those who never left have been joined by those who have returned to reopen their homes. They now amount to some 30,000 people although precise figures are difficult to ascertain. Infrastructure has considerably improved, direct state terrorism has disappeared, young ethnic Greeks are working in businesses in Gjirokaster, Dropoli and Sarande. Others are farming and many employ ethnic Albanians. Those over the age of 65 are receiving a pension from the Greek State of about 200 euros per month, and all travel freely to and from Greece. However, future prospects depend on the restoration of mutual trust between the ethnic Greeks of the south and the Albanian political leadership in Tirana. The former do not trust the latter. When, in Dervicani, Stephanopoulos referred to promises made by Prime Minister Fatos Nano and President Moisiu, there were cries from within the crowds of «they are liars.» As for most Albanians, the ethnic Greek minority is Greece’s Trojan Horse in its effort to break up their country. As long as Greek-Albanian relations are pervaded by stereotypes, suspicion and prejudice, the ethnic Greek minority will remain at a disadvantage, their relations with Albanians problematic.