Athens-Tirana: a difficult relationship

TIRANA – President Costis Stephanopoulos was categorical when pressed by Albanian journalists to comment on the issue of reparations for Cams, ethnic Albanians forced out of northern Greece at the end of World War II. During a joint press conference last week with his Albanian counterpart Alfred Moisiu in Tirana, Stephanopoulos drew attention to the potentially negative repercussions of any attempt to revive this issue. «The Cam issue, which there is no cause for us to discuss, is a very old one, raised 60 years ago when not only was the relationship between our two states very difficult, but when Greece also had claims against Albania, although these no longer exist. Greece has abandoned any such thoughts… Talks between governments are one thing, but personally I consider this a non-existent problem, as it refers to a period when conditions were totally different,» he said. «If we remember that period, then we must also remember Greece’s demands from Albania. How can we be discussing such matters?» he said. The message was clear, as was the warning: Albania would be the loser if Greek-Albanian relations stagnated in a hostile, postwar climate due to the Cam issue. The president was just as clear in his message to ultra-nationalist circles within Albania’s ethnic Greek minority who either overtly or covertly entertain illusions of seceding Albanian territory and annexing it to Greece. «Greece has ceased laying claims to territory since the Helsinki Treaty it signed in 1975. Since then, all signatories to that treaty have decided to maintain their existing borders,» Stephanopoulos told a gathering of ethnic Greeks in Dervicani on Wednesday. Way to EU via minority The Greek president also wished to make clear that as adamant as Athens is in defending the rights of the ethnic Greek minority, it is just as adamant that the members of that minority remain citizens of Albania. «With the help of both your homelands – Greece and Albania – you will move forward, forgetting the difficult days of the past so that our children can live better than we have… with the support of both governments and the absolute observance of minority rights,» said Stephanopoulos in Dervicani. He also warned of the consequences of any foot-dragging by the Albanian State in observing the rights of the Greek minority. «If some people are lying, then they are only hurting themselves because lies will be obstacles to Albania’s entry to the EU. If the Albanian government and people sincerely want a future in Europe, then they will have to implement all the provisions, from A to Z, in the international conventions regarding minority populations,» he said. Stephanopoulos even referred to the issue at the official dinner given in his honor by the Albanian president. «The rights of the members of the ethnic Greek minority living anywhere in Albania are enshrined in European and international treaties and inextricably linked with process of Albania’s inclusion in Europe. This was reiterated in a recent declaration by the European Union,» he said. During Stephanopoulos’s visit, nearly all the thorny issues in bilateral relations were felt in one way or another. The foundation of these relations is, for one thing, asymmetrical. Greece’s interest is focused on the rights and the destiny of the ethnic Greek minority. Albania’s interest is mainly centered on the economic and social inclusion of Albanian immigrants in Greece. The question of reparations for Cams applies to very few, but is frequently given great attention by the media, not only for political purposes but above all because it reflects a large sector of Albanian public opinion which is not particularly friendly toward Greece. Albanians’ suspicion and hostility are continually fueled by the traumatic experiences of thousands of Albanian immigrants in Greece, by incidents such as the outrageous xenophobia displayed by Greek schoolchildren and their parents against Albanian children who top their class in Greek schools, and the atrocities after Greece’s defeat in a soccer match with Albania. Greeks’ suspicion is fed by crimes committed by some Albanian immigrants, by the Albanian authorities’ discrimination against ethnic Greeks, for example, regarding schooling and property ownership, as well as extremist proclamations by some Cams who seek the annexation of part of Epirus by Albania. Economic dependence The problems are there, but prospects for improving relations are clearly stronger. On the economic level, based on data presented by Deputy Foreign Minister Evripidis Stylianidis, Greece makes a major contribution to Albania’s survival. Albanians working in Greece send home about 700 million euros a year, while total Greek investment in Albania totals about 460 million euros, more than in any other country. Greece is Albania’s second largest trading partner, accounting for 30 percent of its total trade. Remittances from Albanian immigrants have made a major contribution to their country’s «economic miracle,» above all in the housing sector. Driving from Tirana to the Greek-Albanian border, those of us accompanying the president were amazed to see that in the villages we passed, over 90 percent of the homes had been built within the last decade. Construction methods may have been poor, town planning arbitrary and anarchic, but the houses were nearly all new. Combined with the clear lack of economic structures capable of providing employment for most of the population and the paucity of agricultural land under cultivation, one can only conclude that for years to come the Greek economy’s ability to absorb the Albanian workforce will have a decisive effect on Greek-Albanian relations at the political level. The Greek government should exploit these factors in building a long-term beneficial relationship with Tirana. National integration Naturally, Athens’s strategy regarding its relations with Tirana cannot ignore the main problem plaguing its neighbor, for, like it or not, Albania’s integration as a nation is an unsolved issue. Within Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) there are almost as many ethnic Albanians as within Albania itself, which has a population of 3.2 million people. If national integration is achieved at the beginning of the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the 20th, that is, with war and bloodshed, as in Kosovo and in FYROM, there is no guarantee that even bloodier conflicts are not in store. Greece is fortunate in not having an Albanian minority, in contrast to Serbia and FYROM, so objectively speaking, Tirana has every interest in and plenty of scope for developing its relations with Athens in all sectors. The hundreds of thousands of Albanians working in Greece could indeed be a bridge toward strengthening bilateral relations. There is prejudice on both sides, rooted both in the past and the present. There is also injustice, both at the expense of the Greek minority as well as at Albanian immigrants in Greece. The superiority of Greece’s economy is countered by the arrogance of peoples demanding their nation’s integration, as Albanians are in the process of doing, creating political, social and psychological barriers that threaten to annul the potential for strengthening cooperation between the two countries. Some appear to believe that Albania’s accession to NATO and the EU would be a panacea. However, this is a prospect that would only partially and temporarily prevent conflict. EU enlargement – particularly with 35-40 member states that would include Albania – would provide far less scope for incorporating new states and far smaller economic incentives than today in ensuring political discipline among its members. Therefore, the effort to create strong Greek-Albanian relations should be paramount; using the European framework should only be secondary, even though at present it is clear that Tirana would do anything to get money from Brussels. This is indeed a transitional stage.