Dash for Bul­gar­ian pass­ports emp­ties Al­ba­nian vil­lage

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Trebisht in north­east­ern Al­ba­nia looks like a ghost vil­lage, emp­tied of its res­i­dents by a rush to get Bul­gar­ian pass­ports that open the door to the Euro­pean Union. Ar­man Kadriu has an Al­ba­nian name, but the 12-year-old boy says he con­sid­ers him­self Bul­gar­ian. “I don’t want to stay here tak­ing care of cows. I want to be a foot­ball player,” he said, cov­ered in sweat, as he jug­gled a ball with his feet on a dusty road in the vil­lage in the Golo Brdo re­gion. “In Eng­land, with a Bul­gar­ian pass­port, it’s pos­si­ble,” he said, switch­ing lan­guages to say “Dovizh­dane!”-good­bye in Bul­gar­ian.

Bul­garia and Al­ba­nia do not share a bor­der. And non-EU mem­ber Al­ba­nia, where a law on mi­nori­ties is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, does not count Bul­gar­i­ans among its rec­og­nized eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, un­like the Greeks, Mace­do­nians or Serb-Mon­tene­grins. The eth­nic­ity of his­tor­i­cally Slavic-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties in parts of Al­ba­nia’s east has long been fluid and dis­puted-neigh­bor­ing Mace­do­nia claims they are eth­nic Mace­do­nians.

But ac­cord­ing to the State Agency for Bul­gar­i­ans Abroad, which helps in ob­tain­ing a pass­port, Bul­gar­ian fam­i­lies have been set­tled in Al­ba­nia since the 5th cen­tury and their de­scen­dants are part of its di­as­pora. No sta­tis­tics are avail­able, but Bul­gar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions in Al­ba­nia estimate that there are around 100,000 of these de­scen­dants. The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment seems to agree: in Fe­bru­ary, it re­quested of Ti­rana “that the rights of peo­ple with Bul­gar­ian eth­nic­ity in the Prespa, Golo Brdo and Gora re­gions be en­shrined in law and en­sured in prac­tice”.

The rec­om­men­da­tion “has given re­newed hope. Ev­ery day at least seven or eight peo­ple come to ask about ob­tain­ing Bul­gar­ian cit­i­zen­ship,” said Haxhi Pirushi. He heads the Pros­per­ity Goloborda as­so­ci­a­tion, which pro­vides cer­tifi­cates of Bul­gar­ian ori­gin to Al­ba­ni­ans and is rec­og­nized by the gov­ern­ment in Sofia.

Mass em­i­gra­tion

Perched on a hill, Trebisht is a sleepy place. A few men spend their day on the ter­race of the “Democ­racy” bar and oth­ers work the land, while young peo­ple travel three kilo­me­ters to cross the Mace­do­nian bor­der for tem­po­rary work. Once the vil­lage counted “around 6,000 in­hab­i­tants, but more than 2,500 left four or five years ago when they had the op­por­tu­nity to ben­e­fit from a Bul­gar­ian pass­port,” ex­plained res­i­dent Tahir Mucina. In the neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Ver­nice “there is hardly any­one left”, said the 31-year-old.

Since Bul­garia joined the EU in 2007, its cit­i­zens have been able to work and re­side wher­ever they want within the bloc, with all the re­stric­tions lifted in 2014. Mucina said he was also “on the look­out” for pass­ports for him­self, his wife and their three chil­dren. Al­ba­nia, as a whole, is a na­tion of mass em­i­gra­tion, spurred by an av­er­age wage of 340 euros ($388) and an un­em­ploy­ment rate af­fect­ing nearly one in three young peo­ple. So it does not mat­ter that Bul­garia is the poor­est coun­try in the EU. Seen from Trebisht, it is the gate­way to Ger­many, Eng­land or some other promised land. And it suits Bul­garia to claim these peo­ple as their own.

“It has to do with (Bul­garia’s) policy on Mace­do­nia/Mace­do­nians who also have ac­cess to Bul­gar­ian cit­i­zen­ship be­cause they are seen as eth­nic Bul­gar­i­ans,” said South­east Europe ex­pert Dim­i­tar Bechev at the Univer­sity of North Carolina. “Com­mu­ni­ties who live on the other side of the bor­der... qual­ify as well.” He said Bul­gar­ian MEPs have suc­cess­fully lob­bied the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment to take a stand on the is­sue. “If Mace­do­nia were an EU mem­ber, things would have worked an­other way, of course,” Bechev said.

In 1939, at the be­gin­ning of World War II, Bul­gar­i­ans from 19 lo­cal­i­ties in Al­ba­nia asked Sofia to de­fend their rights in what was then an Ital­ian pro­tec­torate, ac­cord­ing to the State Agency for Bul­gar­i­ans Abroad. “The to­ponymy (study of place names), the preser­va­tion of an ar­chaic Bul­gar­ian lan­guage and the lo­cal di­alect and tra­di­tions are ev­i­dence of the Bul­gar­ian char­ac­ter” in the re­gions con­cerned, Sofia says.

Il­le­gal path

Trebisht res­i­dents who said they con­sider them­selves Bul­gar­ian spoke to AFP in Al­ba­nian, but said they spoke Bul­gar­ian at home with their fam­i­lies. “I live in Al­ba­nia,” said the 60-year-old Gani Shahini, “but my ori­gins are Bul­gar­ian”. Be­tween 2001 and 2016, a to­tal of 4,470 Al­ba­nian na­tion­als ap­plied for a Bul­gar­ian pass­port and 2,608 of them were suc­cess­ful, ac­cord­ing to Sofia. But these fig­ures do not reflect the full ex­tent of the phe­nom­e­non. Some choose to take an il­le­gal path, pro­vid­ing a mar­ket for forged pass­ports.

Three peo­ple were ar­rested in De­cem­ber 2015 and later found guilty of mak­ing Bul­gar­ian pass­ports on demand for be­tween 4,000 and 10,000 euros. Since May 1, Sofia has re­quested doc­u­ments prov­ing the Bul­gar­ian ori­gin of a par­ent or grand­par­ent after Bul­gar­ian pros­e­cu­tors found abuse of the sys­tem. “The only in­ter­est of these peo­ple is to ob­tain a pass­port al­low­ing them to move freely in the Euro­pean area,” said Al­ba­nian his­to­rian Pel­lumb Xhufi.


TREBISHT, Al­ba­nia: An el­derly woman rides her don­key in the vil­lage of Trebisht, some 160 km south-east of Ti­rana.

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