Letter from Albania

Countries like Albania and Kosovo hardly needed economic advice from anybody. Least, of all from the United States. If one listens to Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia professor who a couple of years ago shared the Nobel Prize for economics and, as of June 2008, happens to be the most cited economist in the world, the underlying cause of the economic collapse in several countries was the misguided financial liberalization that Washington has urged upon developing countries over the previous few years. Yet Albania – known as Shqiperia by Albanians, a country famous for its diaspora and bunkers – depends heavily on Washington. Not necessarily just for economic advice. The main reason is that it needs to be welcomed to NATO – and eventually into the EU. While I was there last week, Albania’s prime minister admitted that their economy would be affected by the global economic downturn. Most of all, Tirana fears a slowdown in emigrant remittances, which account for almost 1 billion euros a year, and which mainly come from compatriots working in Greece. On the other hand, the good news is the US president’s recent assurances that the first steps to admit Albania and Croatia – both countries that once were in the «shackles of communism,» as he put it – had been authoritatively taken. As a Greek, one feels much at home in this neighboring country. Corruption and crime reign. During the past few days, the Albanian opposition has restarted its demand to hold an extraordinary parliamentary hearing to grill PM Sali Berisha and Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha over ties to Bosnian businessman Damir Fazlic. The trip I took to Albania – to Koritsa (Korce) – was organized by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) Premier Athens Chapter, which supports Hellenic educational and religious institutions in the region that the indigenous call South Albania and the Greeks Northern Epirus. It was the chapter’s fifth annual trip, coinciding with «Ochi» (No) Day, which marks the first Allied victory against the Axis powers in World War II in the autumn of 1940. The group donated supplies for the Homeros Greek primary school in Korce, an esteemed educational institution supported by the Greek Plan for the Economic Reconstruction of the Balkans. It is a bilingual elementary school, with further secondary education grades planned for the years to come. The AHEPA group participated in the Ochi Day celebrations staged by the Albanian students in Greek, laid a wreath at the war memorial at Boboshtica, near the rebuilt Aghia Maria Monastery, and attended the baptisms of two young Albanian girls. We also went to Moskopoli, a place of forgotten glories. Just a small mountain village, today called Voskopoja, some 18 kilometers from Korce. «Are you Albanian or Greek?» I asked someone who spoke perfect Greek to me. «I am neither! I am Vlach, Aromanian…» Indeed, contrary to what I learned at school, Moskopoli is an important part of the culture of the Vlachs. In 1788, it had a population of 60,000. Today just 700 people reside there. Memories of the lost city of Moskopoli still remain an important part of Vlach culture. The 1769 sacking and pillaging by the Ottomans was only the first in a series of attacks which culminated with Moskopoli’s razing in 1788 when the troops of Ali Pasha, who had his headquarters in Ioannina, entered the prosperous city. The survivors were forced to flee. The herdsmen went to Thessaly, the commercial elite to Vienna and Budapest. The city never returned to its earlier status. Of the old city, only five Orthodox churches survive and these lie in ruin. In 2002, they were put on the World Monuments Fund’s watch list of the 100 most endangered sites. Consulting my laptop on October 27, I found the message Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama sent to the Greek-American community on the 68th anniversary of October 28, 1940 (the original Ochi Day) praising the Greek people’s heroic contribution to the battle against fascism in World War II. No, Republican presidential candidate John McCain did not figure among the luminaries who sent similar congratulations, as far as I learn on Google. Yet, didn’t John McCain greatly disappoint Greek Americans some six months ago when he failed the expectations of the Greek Orthodox faithful after declining to answer a question about his refusal to co-sign a letter which was to be sent to President George W.Bush on religious freedom in Turkey and the protection of the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Last Monday, the AHEPA group and their friends were invited to a lunch in Koritsa hosted by Greek Consul General Constantinos Moatsos. I ventured the following question to him: «I was told that there is a black market of Greek visas here. They are sold, I hear, for from 1,500 to 3,000 euros… Is it true?» He countered, «They are counterfeit visas…» So, they exist!