Al­ba­nian prime min­is­ter on the big is­sues

In an in­ter­view, Edi Rama raises Cham com­mu­nity claims and calls for all-en­com­pass­ing talks in a num­ber of con­tentious ar­eas

Kathimerini English - - Focus -

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

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.

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. “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.

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.

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?” 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 an­tiGreek 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.

Mar­itime borders

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.

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.

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.

Hi­mara de­mo­li­tions

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.

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.

WWII ceme­tery

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.

EU talks

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.

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.

Com­mis­sion chief Jean-Claude Juncker (r) with Edi Rama. ‘It is not gen­eros­ity from the Greek side to sup­port Al­ba­nia’s EU in­te­gra­tion; it’s in Greece’s in­ter­est,’ says Rama.

‘Since day one we have asked our Greek friends to sit down with a plan and go through all the is­sues,’ says Al­ba­nian Prime Min­is­ter Edi Rama.

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