For the past six months, news headlines, discussion panels and television studios have been nourished by hypotheses generated from the situation created between Albania and Greece. The reason behind this conflict is the imprisonment of Fredi Beleri, a member of the Greek minority who won the election as Himara Mayor, while being arrested on charges of electoral fraud. Is this a matter of human rights, or is it a two-sided political and historical issue? Influenced by narratives of involved parties and lacking an EU official position on the matter, every claim about the situation falls under the realm of speculation.
Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, and his Greek counterpart Mitsotakis “clashed” with each other over local elections in Albania. The reason was the detention of the elected Mayor of Himara, Fredi Beleri, who was arrested on the eve of May 14th.
Directorate of Prisons denied the special permit requested by Beleri in order to fulfill the procedure for taking the mandate he had won in the local elections.
Since the beginning, Greece linked Albania’s position on Beleri’s case with candidate status for EU integration, labeling its actions as being inconsistent with EU accession process. The ‘threatening’ statements escalated during July and August 2023 and peaked with Mitsotakis’ declaration during the high-level conference in Brussels in July, where he described Beleri’s case as an ‘element of Greek assessment of Albania’s European path”.
Prime Minister Rama has completely ‘ignored’ Greece’s concerns. He initially referred to it as an internal matter of Albania and then described it as an issue in the hands of the judiciary with which the government has no involvement.
Subsequently, Greece made efforts to elevate the issue to the European level. In the report prepared by the European Commission for Albania in July, Greece included an amendment supported by the European People’s Party and the Left Eurogroup stating:
“The Parliament expresses concern over the arrest of the newly elected mayor of Himara Municipality, Fredi Beleri, on the eve of the municipal elections in May, which undermined the presumption of innocence and hindered the elected mayor from assuming office, as he remains in custody to date; it emphasizes that this issue is related to the overall respect for fundamental rights, to the suspended issue of properties of ethnic Greek minority members in the municipal area, and to the accusations of state violations.”
The situation escalated at the end of November when media, initially the Greek ones, and then those of the region, reported the news that Greece would block opening of first chapters of negotiations between Albania and EU. The news referred to a written statement through which Greece informed the Permanent Representatives Committee of the EU (COREPER) that it would block the negotiation process for Albania if the rights of the Greek minority, specifically those of Fredi Beleri, are not respected.
The news that Greece decided to veto the opening of first chapters of the negotiation ‘came to light’ shortly after the meeting in Brussels on December 12-13, where the European Council approved the report with conclusions on the EU enlargement process. This was also caused by Prime Minister Rama’s statement who, in a press conference, referred to the Greek veto as unreasonable and not based on European values.
‘Blocking’ of negotiations?
Apart from parties’ statements, source-based news or media positions, there is no official document confirming the narrative raised around the Greek veto against Albania.
“Regardless of political rhetoric or media’s position, at no point can we confirm that there has been a decision during the European Council meeting to hold the second intergovernmental conference between EU and Albania, which would lead to the opening of Cluster 1, and that this decision has been blocked by a member state, specifically, the Republic of Greece,” says Nino Strati, coordinator of the Cluster1Albania project, which aims to support Albania’s negotiation process with EU regarding first clusters, as part of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Governance.
In the conclusions of the Council regarding the enlargement process, the European Council reasons that Albania should open the first cluster as soon as possible.
Noting the diplomatic language typically used by EU institutions, we cannot confirm whether only Greece has been against the opening of Cluster 1 (it is possible, but not certain) or if any other country has expressed reservations or if it has been a decision of a political nature,” – Strati argues.
Despite the limited information about what happened in Brussels, Greece’s blockade against Albania received different interpretations and various baseless justifications.
One of them was an article published in Italian, claiming that Çamëria region was the cause of strong clashes between Greece and Albania; therefore, it is important to understand the history to better grasp what is happening today between Greece and Albania, regarding the blockade that the Hellenic state imposed on Albania’s negotiations with EU.
The news, where Fredi Beleri is not mentioned at all, was also reflected in the Albanian language, further spreading the thesis that Çamëria stands at the core of the Greek blockade.
The thesis gained widespread attention in the region, primarily in North Macedonia, due to the fact that Albania and Macedonia are on a joint path towards EU membership. The lack of comprehensive information about what happened, coupled with the complex processes within European Union entities on one hand and the ‘race’ to report current news on the other, led to some misleading headlines.
Some media outlets in North Macedonia reported ‘Greece’s veto on the opening of EU negotiations with Albania.
In fact, negotiations between Albania and the European Union were officially opened in 2022 with the holding of the first intergovernmental conference between EU and Albania.
Another narrative raised in media, aimed at gathering clicks, is that of the ‘war’ between the two countries.
Greece and Albania at war – the veto threat arrives – writes a Serbian portal, emphasizing that the two NATO member countries are “still officially at war”.
This Serbian portal has taken the information from an article by Deutsche Welle and has modified it with the aim of misleading the readers.
The bells of war between Albania and Greece were also heard in Skopje.
“Greece, as a member state of the European Union, has all the chances to raise issues that, in its opinion, violate EU principles, standards, or rules. On the other hand, Prime Minister Edi Rama, supported by a statement from the EU spokesperson Peter Stano, considers the case a matter of relations between the two countries, ‘minimizing’ the role it could play in Albania’s integration process.
Ermal Hasimja, Researcher and International Relations Scholar, considers the mentioned veto by Greece a political decision.
“The Greek veto is a political position. Prime Minister Rama knows that he can defend himself with the principle of judicial independence, especially in front of EU. Maybe his hope is that Greeks will suffer enough to abandon their claim.” – Hasimja argues.
Nino Strati suggests avoiding comments on the political positions of specific individuals, whether they are government leaders like Mitsotakis and Rama, as when it comes to European integration, they never serve that purpose.
“Albania will need to progress through the adoption of legislation and implementation of EU principles, regardless of the rhetoric in member states. In the end, an economically developed, democratic Albania with independent institutions serves the well-being of its citizens and their daily lives. Therefore, the focus of politics, as well as the media, should be on how to push forward the implementation of reforms and the democratization of the country, rather than encouraging debates with a historical or ethnic background.”