Stereotypes, paradoxes and myths hold back Albania-Greece relations, AIIS conference shows

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 28, 2018 15:19

Stereotypes, paradoxes and myths hold back Albania-Greece relations, AIIS conference shows

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  • Greece’s Ambassador to Tirana Eleni Sourani says that false perceptions as identified by an AIIS study on Albania-Greek relations is a challenge that has to be overcome

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AIIS conference on "Re-examining Albania-Greece relations: challenges of the present, prospects for the future" Photos: AIIS

TIRANA, March 27 – Century-old stereotypes, paradoxes and myths dating back to Albania's independence and World War II continue to hold back relations between Albania and its southern neighbor Greece even after a quarter of century from the collapse of communism in Albania when about half a million of Albanians moved to live and work in Greece, and the larger and more prosperous neighboring country is NATO ally and supporter of Albania's EU integration and top investor and trading partner in Albania.

The comments came at a day-long conference on "Re-examining Albania-Greece relations; challenges of the present, prospects for the future" organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS), one of the country's top think tanks, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Tirana, bringing together experts, diplomats, politicians and students.

The two countries have been intensively negotiating in the past few months to overcome barriers such as a maritime border dispute, a 1940 war law still in force in Greece, and property and travel rights related to the Cham community who were expelled and stripped of their citizenship and property in northern Greece at the end of World War II under accusations that they cooperated with invading Italian and German forces. Greece also wants its Greek minority rights in Albania respected and that new cemeteries are built in Albanian territory for the Greek soldiers that died on Albanian soil during WWII.

Addressing the conference, Greece's Ambassador to Tirana Eleni Sourani, said that false perceptions as identified by a 2013 AIIS survey on Albania-Greek relations from the eyes of the Albanian public is a challenge that has to be overcome.

"When one listens to various political commentators or reads articles in the media, they have the impression that there is enmity and insurmountable problems between Greece and Albania. That is not true. It is just a false perception which in my view is the most important challenge of the present," said Ambassador Sourani.

"It is high time we changed the page. False perceptions, obsolete stereotypes and unfounded prejudices should be buried once and forever. We are two sovereign countries, two neighboring nations with distinct historic and cultural identities, each proud of its own, allies in NATO, with a perspective of becoming partners in the EU, with full respect of each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty," the Ambassador added.

The 2013 AIIS survey in Albania showed about a fifth of Albanians perceived Greece as a major threat and the border, Cham and Albanian migrants issues as the most pressing.

Meanwhile, another survey conducted by AIIS's Greek partner, the Hellenic Foundation for Foreign and European Policy, ELIAMEP, found almost half of Greek citizens perceive relations with Albania as neither good nor bad with the Albanian migration and expansionism and the Greek minority in Albania as the hottest issues.

"The two countries are in the process, in full speed I could say, in a spirit of openness and mutual respect, to address all issues, some of which based on stereotypes and prejudice still prevailing in our relations. Both sides have demonstrated so far commitment and strong political will so as to make this process which started upon Greek initiative, a true turning point in our relations. Therefore let's move ahead," said Ambassador Sourani.

"We need to bring our relations in the real world of 2018, i.e. in an era when the borders of Europe are fully recognized and secured, where there are no territorial claims, the protection of human rights including minority rights is an international norm and obligation of states and relations among countries are based on the principle of sovereign equality," she added.


'State of war law'

Greece's 1940 war law, in force even after almost eight decades from its decree under World War II when Italy invaded Greece from Albania, contributes to prejudice on the Albanian side and should be abolished as soon as possible, said Mimi Kodheli, the head of Albania's parliamentary committee on foreign affairs.

"Differently from France and Germany and other European neighbors, Albania and Greece have never fought a real and classical war. However, as we all know, Greece under a royal decree of November 10, 1940 declared the 'state of war' with Albania and the so-called war law against Albania is still in force. This war law has negatively contributed not only to prejudice and bad feelings, but also in economic and property issues. The issue of the Cham population and their successors' human rights is also related to that," Kodheli told the AIIS conference.

"That's why in order to turn a new page in our relations, the 1940 Royal Decree should be abrogated together with its effects. We are today all happy that this stupid 'war law' is part of negotiations between the two governments in order to repeal it," she added.

Greece repealed the war law with Italy in 1949 but left it in force for Albania which Italian fascist troops used as a transit country to invade Greece.

The two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1971 following a 30-year halt but relations remained minimal until the early 1990s when the communist regime in Albania collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Albanians left the impoverished country to live and work in neighboring Greece, as one of main two destinations along with Italy.

The head of Albania's parliamentary foreign affairs committee described political and economic relations between the two countries as very good.

"Politically, relations can be considered as very good and in constant improvement. They have strategic importance to us. Greece is part of the strategic quadrilateral along with Italy, Austria and Turkey. Greece is a good partner and cooperative in NATO. It has been and continues to be a supporter of Albania in its EU integration process," said Kodheli.

"From the economic and commercial point of view, Greece is the main foreign investor in Albania and the second largest trading partner. From the legal point of view, we have a Friendship Treaty since the 1990s, but the bilateral legal framework has not yet yielded the expected positive results. In addition, our countries are interconnected by the big presence of the Albanian community in Greece and the Greek minority in Albania," she added.

According to Kodheli, the settlement of the border issue between Albania and Greece in the European spirit of good neighborliness will be an important signal to the European Commission in its upcoming decision on whether to launch accession talks with Albania, an EU candidate since mid-2014.


Paradoxes and myths

Albert Rakipi, the head of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, says paradoxes and myths related to the past hold back relations between the two countries.

"Understanding Albanian-Greek relations in the post-Cold War environment is not possible without understanding and explaining the paradoxes and myths created by history. And undoubtedly, the future of those relations is not possible without overcoming myths and paradoxes," says Rakipi.

"Most paradoxically, the Albanian-Greek relations after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism and Albania's opening to the West developed in two different spheres: One of them is the peace sphere, within which there are real relations in economy, trade, investment in parallel to social exchanges, communication between the two societies in the field of arts and culture and there is also the other 'sphere of war' which in fact is virtual and involves political discourse, political elites, the media and various groups, especially peripheral, populist and nationalistic groups," he adds.

"Within this noisy sphere, the discourse is almost totalitarian, populist and mainly involves contested issues stemming from history, the Cham question, the so-called Northern Epirus question and the Greek minority," says Rakipi.

According to him, the first sphere is the real one and the second one is the virtual one.

"Although both those spheres seem to be developing and operating in parallel, there is a level of interdependence and influence. The almost cyclical crises in Albanian-Greek relations after the end of the Cold War were determined by the interdependency of those spheres," says Rakipi.

"The first one is a real world dealing with relations between the two peoples, economic and cultural cooperation and communication and cooperation between the two societies, and the second one has been built and functions based on paradoxes and myths which in the best case preserve the status quo in these relations without allowing their development and strengthening and in the worst case produces cyclical crises which have damaged and could damage relations in the future," he adds.

Besnik Mustafaj, a writer and former foreign minister of Albania, says 'inat' a common word for resentment inherited from Turkish and used by all Albanians, Greeks and Serbians in the same form is a common thing which both Albanians and Greeks should archive and leave it to the past while looking forward to build a common future.

"Problems stem from distant history and not from the political class in the past 25 years which is something that facilitates overcoming them," he said

Bashkim Zeneli, a veteran diplomat who served as Albania's Ambassador to Greece from 2002 to 2006 when ties between the two countries received a boost, says relations between the two countries have been and continue to remain strategic.

"Greece has continuously supported Albania following the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. There are some 800,000 Albanians migrants in Greece who have integrated into the Greek society. We should look forward to overcome problems," says Zeneli.

According to him, relations between Albania and Greece have been rather frozen after Albania's Constitutional Court turned down a 2009 deal between the two countries on the maritime border, but are now moving back to a spirit of confidence.

"Political and diplomatic language between the two countries should be more careful," said Zeneli.

Selami Xhepa, an Albanian economic expert, said the two countries have not fully made use of economic opportunities despite Greece being the top foreign investor and traditional second largest trading partner.

According to him, there has sometimes been rivalry instead of cooperation between the two countries such as in regional road infrastructure projects.

Andrew Liaropoulos, a European studies professor at Greece's Piraeus University, says Greece and Albania are now interdependent also by the major Trans Adriatic Pipeline bringing Caspian gas to Europe through Greece, Albania, already in its final construction stage and set to bring first gas flows by 2020.

Referring to a 2013 study that the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS) conducted, Alba à‡ela, the deputy director of the AIIS unveiled how Greece was mistakenly perceived as a threat to Albania's national security and a barrier to Albania's EU integration by a considerable part of Albanians at a time when it has been one of the major supporters of Albania's Euro-Atlantic integration.

Andi Balla, a media expert, said discrimination and hardships faced by Albanian migrants in Greece have contributed to misperceptions, but remittances from Greece, the main source country for money sent home by migrants, have played a key role for Albania's development.

"In many ways, Greece has left more of a mark on post-communist Albania than any other country. The two countries' peoples have for centuries been similar in culture, temperament and outlook for the world, but the past three decades have increased contacts and led to increased similarities and synergies between the Albanian and Greek people," said Balla.

"As the two governments look at bilateral relations, these people-to-people ties should be seen as a priority. Migrants are and should be viewed as a bridge between the two countries, not as a pitfall," he added.

Some 500,000 Albanian officially live and work in Greece, the country's second largest trading partner. Greece is the top foreign investor in Albania where its companies are present in almost every sector of the Albanian economy, including banking, telecommunication, construction, energy and health with total investment of more than €1 billion.

However, the Albanian migrant numbers and trade links between the two countries have sharply dropped in the past decade as the neighboring country faced its worst ever recession in the aftermath of the 2008 global crises that saw its economy contract by a quarter.

Prospects for Albanian migrants in Greece have become more optimistic in the past three years as the neighboring country gradually escaped recession and is set to register positive growth rates of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in 2017 and 2018 on improving consumer and investor sentiment and a boost in its key tourism industry.


Kosovo in-between?

 The fact that Greece hasn't still recognized Kosovo, a majority ethnic Albanian Balkan country that declared independence from Serbia a decade ago, also contributes to misperceptions about Greece in Albania, said Ledion Krisafi, a senior AIIS researcher.

"The Greek position towards Kosovo is two-fold: on the one hand, it has recognized Kosovo's passports, it has a diplomatic representation office in Pristina, there have been meetings between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries; but on the other hand it doesn't recognize Kosovo's independence," said Krisafi.

"Of the 5 EU member states that haven't recognized Kosovo, Spain has problems with Catalonia and the Basque county, Slovakia has a large Hungarian minority in the south, Romania also has a large Hungarian minority, Cyprus has been divided for a half century; only Greece doesn't have a large minority concentrated in a part of the country that may seek autonomy or independence. In this view, the justification of the other 4 countries for not knowing Kosovo isn't valid for Greece," he said.

According to him, Greece's non-recognition of Kosovo is the result of geopolitical calculations and historical-religious ties with Serbia.

"On the geopolitical side, Kosovo's independence has weakened a close ally of Greece and has strengthen the Turkish influence in the Balkans, because since 2003, based on the ideas of the Turkish former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's influence has been concentrated on the Muslim-majority areas in the Balkans. I think that there is a Greek-Turkish rivalry for economic and political influence in the Balkans, and Kosovo's issue in relation to Serbia is part of this rivalry.

"The geopolitical considerations go even further than this rivalry. They involve the respective allies. To the Greek public, Kosovo is an American project and in 1999 the bombing of Serbia was interpreted as a sign of U.S. imperialism in the Balkans, while on the other hand, the Russian sympathies of the Greek public and the current SYRIZA government are well-known," he adds.

The AIIS researcher believes Greece will recognize Kosovo only when there is a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, "an agreement under which the Serbs will also be satisfied, if such an agreement could be reached."








Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 28, 2018 15:19