Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has denied his country is following an irredentist foreign policy with its insistence on discussing the issue of claims made by the Cham community to the property they left behind when they were expelled from Greece during World War II.
In an interview with Alexis Papachelas on Skai TV broadcast late Tuesday, Rama said that the Cham claims were a “human rights issue,” adding that they must be included in negotiations that would tackle all outstanding bilateral issues dividing the two Balkan countries.
The Albanian premier also rejected claims that his country was pursuing a Greater Albania.
However, he reiterated the theory that the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis was saved from total destruction in the 17th century due to the efforts of an “Albanian” archbishop.
The big picture
How do you see your personal relationship with Greece and Albania’s relationship with Greece at this point?
I think if we look at the big picture, it’s a very important relationship and it has been clear also in our foreign policy strategy that Greece is a strategic partner, with whom we have many things to share and of course many things to achieve for a better future. But, at the same time, we have to go into the small picture, which has to do with pending issues that in my view need to be solved with dialogue, with mutual generosity and understanding, and with a clear conviction that the interest of both Greeks and Albanians is much bigger than what these issues can do to us in impeding our building a brighter future together.
When we interviewed you back in 2003, when you were mayor of Tirana, you said that the problem with the Balkan countries is that there is too much history. And then I saw your Facebook post about an Albanian saving the Parthenon, and I thought, “Something has changed with Edi Rama here.” Has something changed?
I couldn’t believe the buzz that post created in Greece, when I am simply maintaining a diary of photographs on my Facebook page which goes up every day at 8 p.m. and has to do with history, seen from the angle of someone who doesn’t believe that politics is about replacing historians, but that politics is about making history. So, I haven’t changed. On the contrary, I think this is a detail that shows a lot, about how we can get lost in translation. Because what I said was meant to be not only friendly, but also revealing about the relationship that goes back in time and that has so many shining examples of people that we know and people that we don’t know, Albanians and Greeks who have done very good things for each other and for our countries.
Irrespective of whether it’s accurate or not, you must have known that this would cause a stir in Greece.
No, no. On the contrary, the fact that Albanians have contributed to the good of Greece and Greek society, and the fact that many people were speaking Albanian at that time doesn’t make Athens an Albanian city. I wanted simply to say that this is about the very fact that we have been so close because of our history and because of these people, that we have to think about how many important things we can do for each other and how good we can be to each other, instead of drowning in the very obscure waters of nationalism, of hatred, of conflict and of media manipulation.
I want to ask you about this concept I think you call “Natural Albania.”
What is this “Natural Albania”?
I’ve heard the notion. Instead of Greater Albania, it’s the natural borders of Albania…
“Greater Albania” or “Natural Albania” or whatever different Albania in terms of size, in terms of geography, or whatever, are not notions that have been produced by us. So, “Natural Albania” is a notion that has been produced by others who have feared it or who have created it because of certain agendas, but it is like blaming Greeks today for the “Megali Idea,” which was a kind of idea of a certain period that has nothing to do with our time. So, the “Natural Albania,” if I may say, is the European Albania that needs to be part of this European family. And yes, we have a very interesting history, because we are a nation with two states. We have Albania, we have Kosovo, we have Albanian people living in the south of Serbia, in [the Former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia, in Montenegro. So, what? There is no plan, there is no foreseeable, sane idea to collect all these people into one “Natural” or “Greater Albania.” Yes, we can all be part of a “Greater Europe,” which would be really great if it would have all of us in it, like citizens, so that borders become irrelevant.
The other day the Greek police caught two people working for the Albanian government carrying literature with irredentist propaganda. We have also seen this kind of thing at Albanian schools, as well as maps of “Greater Albania.”
What does it mean, irredentist propaganda? I don’t think it is irredentist to tell people, to tell our kids, where Albanians lived and I don’t think it’s irredentist to tell people that Albanians lived in an area named “Tsamouria,” where they unfortunately – this is not what we tell kids, but this is what we are seeing – cannot even go. People cannot even drive to where their homes were, where their families were, because of what? We have no such claim – and nobody can have such a claim as a border change – or strategy to get part of Greece or to get a part of Serbia, or to get a part of Macedonia and to make it “Natural Albania.” No, we simply believe that it’s time to overcome all these obstacles of the past and to look each other in the eye and ask ourselves: Is it possible that people of 80 years old, women and men, that have been forced to leave their homes, cannot go back to visit? Is it possible that people that are from this region, Albanians, cannot cross the border of a great European neighbor like Greece? What is irredentist about that? Nothing. By the way, I want to say that by being hostage to such subjects and by looking at them with the eyes of the past, we nourish nationalism, we fuel nationalism, so why not see them differently? And why not say, “Yes, there is a problem”? These people have the right to claim their properties if they want.
One issue, as you know, is that there are many vivid memories from World War II, where some of these people – not these particular people but their parents and grandparents – committed crimes against Greeks during the German occupation. The other issue is that they can always go through the Greek legal system to the European Court of Justice to claim what they want.
Yes, but I am talking about crossing the border. I’m talking about traveling freely as they travel everywhere in Europe. I am talking about old people. Of course, there were people collaborating. But where in this world have generations been cursed with the impossibility to claim their rights because of predecessors that were collaborators? And where in the world have we seen an entire community labeled as a collaborator? That’s why I am saying that we should not go into these details. You know, once politicians start to write history they can do only harm. But politicians are obliged to read history and to take lessons. And last but not least, do the Greek people know that we are in a state of war, that there is a royal decree still in place? I told [former PM George] Papandreou, I told [Antonis] Samaras and I told Alexis Tsipras, “Why do we not get rid of this?”
But it was officially revoked in 1997.
No, no, no. We live in a perfect Balkan paradox. We have a friendship treaty with Greece and we have a state of war by law at the same time. These are things that we can easily solve, if we don’t think about the next elections, if we think about the next generation. I cannot stand the fact that there are people [in Greece] who think of me as a person with anti-Greek sentiments. I am happy because there are many people here [in Albania] who think of me as pro-Greek, so I must be doing something very right, because nobody seems happy.
There was an important agreement at some point to define the sea borders between Greece and Albania. You were instrumental in taking this to court and a decision was made to revoke it. Your opponent Sali Berisha said that a Turkish hand was at work in it all. What do you have to say about it now?
When this agreement was made, we got to know through some civil society people that there was a problem with it. And of course it was a moment where some people thought, “Let’s make it a big political point on our agenda against the government.” It’s always easy to play with national sentiments and score some points. But it’s the most harmful thing you can do to your country. So, I said no. I said, “Let’s put it in the hands of judges, experts, and let’s have a process.” I said to my friends in Athens, to all of them, “Listen, let’s sit down, solve it.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We have this view, based on our Constitutional Court decision, let’s solve it. I even proposed bringing in a third party, which can be chosen by both of us, consensually, and keeping it at the expert level, and not make of it a big Greek tragedy about who is going to win and who is going to die.
Our experts tell me that that in the decision of the Supreme Court, a couple of paragraphs that are “key” paragraphs are incredibly similar to diplomatic demands made by Turkey of Greece. Can you assure me that there was no Turkish hand?
I can assure you that there is nothing of the kind. It’s not a secret that we have also established a strategic partnership with Turkey, it’s not a secret that I am a good friend of the president and it’s not a secret that we have very good relations. But all this happened at a time when we were in the opposition and had no contact with anyone on the Turkish side. I met Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan a few months before I was elected. And I need to tell you that we never ever had this discussion. So it’s nonsense.
On the other hand, because we had a different position, we need to talk. In times when we have problems, we need to talk more, we need to discuss more, we need to put in more will and wisdom to resolve the problems because, in the end, we live in a region where people come to big blows over small things.
I’ve been told that because this agreement is in limbo you have asked for information regarding gas exploration by Greece in the Ionian Sea or Epirus. Is this the case?
We are talking about a contested area where supposedly there are also important oil and gas resources. I have always said, “Why we don’t see it as a big opportunity to sort it out together and why don’t we progress more in cooperation?” Albania can be such a fantastic opportunity for many Greek investors. But also Greece can have so many advantages by cooperating with Albania and Albanians.
Let me ask you about Himara. A lot of controversy has arisen from the decision to demolish the homes of ethnic Greeks there, particularly as it was on an important Greek national holiday.
I’ll give you facts and I challenge you to prove the contrary. I am ready to apologize, publicly. My government is engaged in a large-scale program for the renewal of cities, and because of it we have demolished in the last three years 9,150 buildings all over the country. Mostly illegal or partly legal. In Himara it’s the same thing. The mayor wants to renew public space. After having done the waterfront, now it’s the second big project and it concerns 18 buildings. Twelve of them are illegal, six are legal. The six of them are going through the legal procedure of expropriation. And when we talk buildings you should understand kiosks, car washes, one or two motels, one house which is being built by someone, some old houses that are completely in ruins. So, if in this case the procedure is not the very same that we have used all over the country for the 9,150 buildings that have been erased from the soil, I apologize.
Do you think this policy may be viewed as insensitive to local traditions, local culture?
I don’t want to enter into another discussion about what Himara is, whether it is a place where there are Greek-speaking Albanians or a place where there is a Greek minority. There is no country in the world where you are not subject to the law of the land because you represent a minority. There would be trouble if you are subject to an abuse of the law because you are a minority. But that is not the case. And it’s never been the case.
There are thousands of Greek soldiers buried in Albania from World War II and a lot of discussion about creating a cemetery. Why hasn’t this progressed?
I agree with you: It’s insane. But there are many things that need to be solved together because they are becoming insane. Since day one we have asked our Greek friends to sit down with a plan and go through all the issues – the definition of borders, the state-of-war law, the issue of burial of Greek soldiers and many small things that need to be gone through.
Are you concerned that a controversy with Greece could prompt Athens to use its veto in Albania’s EU accession talks? Greece was very generous in talks in 2014.
Listen, I think it’s a question people ask me a lot about our relations with Serbia, as people tend to think that our efforts and my personal effort to open a new chapter of cooperation with Serbia is a kind of generosity. It is not. It is in our interest. So it is not generosity from the Greek side to support Albania’s EU integration; it’s in Greece’s interest. Of course it suits us very well, just as it suits the Serbs that we are extending a hand of peace and cooperation. But it’s in our interest. You know what we would do and Greece would do if this country got worse and worse and was not on the path of integration. And you know something about the EU: The more you are in, the more you have to be accountable, so if there are problems of accountability, they can be solved better by having us in the EU. So I think that, yes, Greece has been a very loyal friend to us over the years and has supported our integration process no matter what – and it has done exactly what is in its best interest and should continue to do so. It is nonsense to think that, instead of solving our issues, we raise them to another level and we become another reason for people in Brussels to say, “What the hell?” You know? These guys are history producers.
Let me return to where we started. Are there any plans for a “Greater” or “Natural Albania”?
Listen, I’m too tall to think that I need to be taller. I have never suffered any complex of greatness and still I strongly believe that our future should be defined by our common will to be part of the EU, of the European family, whatever this should mean in the coming years. Maybe Europe will change one way or another and the Union will adapt one way or another to these changes, but there is no future in being isolated in a nationalist bunker. We had it for 50 years, so what the hell do we want to prove again? Our society needs to be as open as possible. We need to be Albanians, of course, but under the European family roof. So what do we do? Go to war? Change borders? For what? We don’t want to make Albania greater geographically, we want to make Albania greater in terms of democracy, in terms of prosperity, in terms of society.