In July 2021, Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia signed an agreement in the framework of the ‘Open Balkans’ initiative for cooperation in disaster situations. The agreement was strongly propagated and even brought critivs against the countries that rejected the initiative, for example Kosovo. A verification by Faktoje shows that at a time when the ‘Open Balkans’ agreement was not implemented, as was the case with the fires, Kosovo offered immediate help to Albania.
“Today, we have signed an agreement to be together in any case where, however far away, each of our countries faces the forces of nature,” declared Prime Minister Edi Rama, after the “Open Balkan” forum held in Skopje in July 2021.
Faktoje decided to verify the implementation of this agreement, for which Prime Minister Rama targeted the non-participating countries of the “Open Balkans” initiative, saying that ” what harm would it do for Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia to join the this initiative, which paves the way for our emergency forces to interact together.’ Faktoje has obtained a copy of the agreement in question. Referring to the document signed by Prime Minister Edi Rama, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, the purpose of the cooperation agreement for disaster protection in the Western Balkans is for the signatory countries to help each other in the event of disasters, when one of them is unable to cope with the consequences of the disaster with their own resources.
Article 11 of the agreement clearly defines that aid must be requested, accompanied by information on the disaster, the type and degree of aid requested, the institutions and persons with whom communication is established, as well as a proposal on how to provide aid. Just three days after the signing of this agreement, at the beginning of August 2021, the Ministry of Defense reported on a critical situation of fires, with dozens of active foci throughout the country, which were extinguished with the help of the Netherlands and the Czech Republic , in the framework of the activation of the Civil Protection Mechanism of the European Union. In the summer of 2021, another country that came to help Albania in extinguishing fires was Kosovo . A team of the Kosovo Security Forces (FSK) and other firefighting vehicles helped extinguish the fire on the mountain that lies above the Kalimash tunnel in Kukës. Even during this year, Albania has reached out for help. The fire that fell on the island of Sazan in June of this year, was extinguished thanks to the intervention from the air with the Greek aircraft type Canadair CL 415, as support of the Civil Protection Mechanism of the European Union.
In all three of these cases, the “Open Balkans” agreement on disaster protection has not been implemented. Help has come to Albania from Kosovo and the countries of the European Union.
“This agreement means that in case of flooding, fire or natural disasters, each of the countries that were not damaged has the obligation to provide assistance to the country affected by the natural disaster. So this means that the Republic of Albania should have asked for help or should have received help from these two countries in the case of recent floods and powerful fires during the summer season.” – Colonel Dritan Demiraj explains to Faktoje, adding that Kosovo is the only country in the region that has come to Albania’s aid in times of disaster.
“Not only did they come in record time, in some cases even without the invitation of the Albanian government, but they helped with a lot of professionalism, giving good lessons to the Albanian army not only in terms of skills which they have several times higher, but also in terms of equipment (I remember the case of the earthquake when the Albanian units didn’t even have search dogs, no special equipment, but only pickaxes and shovels like in the 19th century).” – emphasizes Colonel Demiraj.
And why has Albania not asked for help from Serbia and North Macedonia?
The Media and Information Agency (MIA) informs that none of the three participating countries of the “Open Balkan” initiative has requested the activation of the cooperation agreement for disaster protection.
“We inform you that until now there is no decision of the Council of Ministers after the signing of the “Cooperation Agreement for Protection and Rescue from Disasters in the Western Balkans” dated 07.29.2021, to activate the agreement in question. There is no official request from our country or from other Western Balkan countries to put this mechanism into action.” – writes the Media and Information Agency in an official response to Faktoje, but without providing clarifications as to why the agreement has not been implemented, given that Albania has reached out several times for help in cases of fires.
Meanwhile, Faktoje found an objective reason why Albania did not ask for help through documents. The agreement signed in July 2021 in Skopje was approved by the Council of Ministers on October 26 of this year, so Albania could not activate the aid mechanism from North Macedonia and Serbia.
Likewise, the country has a similar agreement with Kosovo, and recently it is a full member of the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which, referring to the facts, have functioned leaving the “Open Balkan” on paper.
Agreement on mutual assistance between Kosovo and Albania
In October 2020, Albania and Kosovo signed the agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Cases of Natural Disasters and other Disasters. Unlike the ‘Open Balkans’, this agreement has been implemented. In an official response to Faktoje, the government of Kosovo clarifies that the agreement was approved in principle in August 2020, while the decision entered into force on the date of signing the agreement between the parties, on 02.10.2020.
“Since the signing of the agreement, Kosovo has assisted Albania once, in 2021, in the case of fires in the Kalimash mountains. In addition, Kosovo and Albania have always had a practice of cooperation and providing mutual assistance for such cases, especially when disasters have been greater, such as the case of the earthquake in Albania in 2019 in Albania.” – emphasizes the government of Kosovo.
While in Albania, according to Faktoje’s verification, the agreement was approved by the Council of Ministers on November 18, 2020.
Albania’s membership in the European Civil Protection Mechanism
On June 13 of this year, Albania officially applied to join the European Union Mechanism for Civil Protection. On November 18 , the country officially became part of this disaster risk management system. Established in 2001, the European Civil Protection Mechanism consists of 33 countries, 27 EU member states and six countries such as Turkey, Serbia, North Macedonia, Norway, Iceland and Montenegro. This system aims to strengthen cooperation between EU member states and states participating in civil protection to improve prevention and response to natural disasters.
In an official response to Faktoje, the Ministry of Defense clarifies that the activation of the European Civil Protection Mechanism is done at the request of the National Operational Center. This request is sent to the Emergency Response Coordination Center (ERC) which is the heart of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.
“The initial steps are to receive the minutes from the municipalities affected by the disasters and to assess the damages from the disasters. The parties must organize meetings of experts, seminars, conferences and exercises in the field of civil defense, as well as exchange of experiences and best practices, through joint meetings,” the Ministry of Defense clarifies in its response.
Meanwhile, time has shown that Albania received help from this mechanism even when it was not a member with full rights, but with its membership, as the Prime Minister claims, ‘every natural disaster of ours is simultaneously a natural disaster of the European Union’ .
Edited by: Viola Keta & Aimona Vogli