A new diplomatic row has erupted between Greece and Albania amid Albanian local elections that have led Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to threaten to disrupt Albania’s EU accession process.
Albanians went to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors and local councilors in 61 municipalities. But in the municipality of Himaré, in the south of the country and home to a Greek minority community, unrest began on Friday.
Fredi Beleri, a Greek expatriate running for mayor under the banner of a Greek minority party aligned with an opposition coalition, was arrested Friday on suspicion of vote buying. Police said he was going to be charged with active corruption in the elections, which Beleri denies.
In an interview with Greek media, Mitsotakis said on Sunday that the behavior of the Albanian authorities was to the detriment of EU unity and that if this continues, it will have an impact not only on bilateral relations but also on aspirations from Albania to the EU.
“I will not accept such behavior at the expense of the Greeks. What happened to Fredi Beleri is unacceptable and unimaginable,” he said.
The Greek Prime Minister added: “Albania must know very well that if such a policy continues, it will affect our bilateral relations and its path towards the EU. I will not accept such attitudes to the detriment of the Greek minority… He added that this would have significant effects on Greek-Albanian relations and their path towards the EU, which we declared that we would support,” a- he added.
On the day of his arrest, Mitsotakis said he had filed a complaint with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which he said was based on “non-existent accusations.”
Rama responded to the outrage by tweeting that the case is a “test for justice.”
“The detention of the opposition candidate for Himara F. Beleri on the orders of the prosecution constitutes a big test for justice on the eve of the elections, which means that a violation of the law on his part must be proven and his detention legally motivated,” Rama wrote.
The Greek Ambassador to Albania, Konstantina Kamitsi, and the Greek Minister of Civil Protection, Takis Theodorikakos, also raised the issue with the authorities in Tirana.
Beleri’s lawyer, Edmond Dema, said there was no evidence against his client.
“Fredi Beleri maintains his position and declares that he did not touch any money with his hand, that he did not give any money, that he did not receive any money.”
Vote buying remains a significant issue in Albanian elections, with claims that all parties engage in some level of buying and pressure on voters. Arrests before and after the elections are commonplace and hundreds of observers were on the ground throughout Sunday to monitor the elections.
During the 2021 general election, an attempt to intervene in a citizen’s vote buying resulted in a shooting and murder.
When it comes to Albania’s Greek community, approximately 0.9% of the population identifies as being of Greek descent, although this is controversial in some political circles. While several communities in the south of the country speak Greek and some road signs appear in Greek, Albanian nationalists say they simply identify as Greek to obtain Greek (and de facto European) passports and foreign money. Athens, which local communities vehemently deny.
A census, although delayed, is planned for fall 2023.
The incident comes just months after Mitsotakis canceled a trip to Himare the day before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, after Rama told EURACTIV in an interview that Greece had cheated in its accession process to the EU.
The comments quickly went viral across Greece and the Albanian prime minister addressed the issue during a bilateral meeting at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana.
“I’m sorry for something I heard, that I said strange things about Greece, about how it achieved certain things – maybe we’ll go back to the times of Troy – but this n “It’s not something that concerns the present, and it hasn’t been. It doesn’t concern Greece today in any way.”
This also occurs in the context of prolonged disagreement over maritime borders this should be decided by an international court.
In an interview with EURACTIV in December 2022, Berisha – considered closer to Athens – revealed that Ankara, a long-time foe of Athens, had made a “very strong intervention” to block a deal on the maritime border between Albania and Greece in 2009.
Greece also threatened to withdraw its support for Albania’s EU membership over the Chameria issue.
The Chams, inhabitants of Chameria, which Greece calls Epirus, were forcibly expelled by Greece between 1913 and until June 27, 1944. Albania reports that until 30,000 Cham Albanians were forcibly expelled from Greece, hundreds were massacred and around 2,400 died due to lack of food and other difficulties on their way to Albania. June 27 is declared the day of the genocide of the Cham Albanians by Greece.
In May 2022, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias suggested that Albania’s pursuit of the Cham issue could lead to problems with its EU membership hopes.
“Greece is ready to discuss only those issues that it considers to exist… no such issue exists. Any attempt to create and discuss non-existent issues could raise membership questions, he said.
Despite media reports to the contrary, Beleri remains in police custody at the time of publication.
(Alice Taylor | Sortie.al)