Two days before the local elections, the police arrested the opposition candidate for mayor of Himara on charges of vote-buying. The event was accompanied by a strong reaction from the Greek government and a counter-response from Albania. In the media sphere, both in Albania and Greece, there was a clash of narratives that spread disinformation and panic regarding the Hellenization and dehellenization of Himara, a municipality that includes one of the tourist gems of the Albanian Riviera. Geopolitical conspiracy theories were not left out of the picture.
The arrest of Fredi Beleri, a representative of the Greek minority and the opposition candidate in the municipality of Himara, two days before the local elections, drew attention not only from the Greek government but also from local media, which have extensively covered the event in recent weeks. However, while in the Albanian media, Beleri’s arrest has been seen in the context of committing a criminal act such as vote-buying or attempting to sabotage the right-wing coalition, the Greek narrative has focused on the rights of the Greek minority. In numerous articles and opinions, Beleri’s arrest has been described as an attempt to suppress the Greek vote and as part of the history of persecution of the Greek minority in southern Albania.
On the one hand, this narrative from the Greek media has also spread in Albania. Some Albanian portals have reported that Fredi Beleri made a statement to Greek media saying, “I will restore Himara as a Greek town and Greek schools.” This news was later echoed by Prime Minister Rama, who, during an electoral speech in the municipality of Kamza, said that Beleri is running with the dark side to Hellenize Himara. Rama further continued with his statement, saying that Beleri has threatened immigrants that if they do not vote for him, he will cut their papers and take away their possibility to go to Greece.
These statements are based on observations from an interview that Beleri gave to the Greek newspaper Protothema. However, a verification of the content reveals that this article was poorly translated by Albanian media. During the interview, Beleri and the interviewer refer to the “Hellenization of Himara,” which in this case implies the Greek-origin population of the city. The journalist asks Beleri how important these elections will be for the Greeks of Albania, and in Greek, the word “Ελληνισμό” is used, which translates letter by letter to Hellenism but means simply Greek. Beleri responds: “The Greeks of Himara need to overcome all obstacles that prevent them from having good jobs, using their properties, and exercising rights that have been denied to us for 60 years, starting from education in the mother tongue at all levels, but also the opportunity to play a role in Albania’s integration process [into the EU].”
In this interview, Beleri also states that if elected mayor of Himara, he will assist the Greeks in Himara on their journey with the support of all Greek political forces… to help in the cooperation and friendship between both countries. It is precisely the statement about the journey of the Greeks that seems to have been portrayed in the Albanian media as the “Hellenization” of Himara. Beleri himself has provided a statement clarifying the same. “I have never said anything about the Hellenization of Himara. I have explicitly stated in Greek that we, as minorities, live in Himara as Greeks, here for many centuries,” Beleri said during an interview with TV Klan on May 11th.
The coverage in the Greek media
However, the rights of the Greek community in Albania have been the focus of media coverage in Greece regarding the Beleri case. This narrative about Himara seems to have preceded his arrest. On May 5th, Savros Tzimas wrote about the elections in Albania, describing Himara as the “epicentre of all battles” for the fragmented Greek minority. According to Tzimas, although Himara is not recognized as a minority area for geopolitical reasons, it holds symbolic power both for the Greek minority and Albanian nationalism. In this article, the situation of the Greek minority is depicted as being destroyed by the tactics of the Albanian government. These tactics include land expropriation for tourism purposes, which Tzimas sees as an attempt to de-Hellenize the villages in the area. It is true that the Albanian government has employed various tactics in the south to develop the Albanian Riviera. However, these policies do not appear to have specifically targeted the Greek minority but rather the entire population of the area.
Tzimas also mentions the issue of diaspora voting, referring to the fact that many of Beleri’s supporters do not have the opportunity to visit Albania to cast their votes. The issue of diaspora voting has been a recurring problem for years. As analysed by Faktoje, in 2017, Rama promised that diaspora voting would become a reality for the parliamentary elections in 2021, but this promise was not fulfilled. Around 1.3 million Albanians living in the diaspora have the right to vote, and about 30% of them are in Greece. However, in the absence of reliable surveys, there is no evidence that the diaspora in Greece would be willing to vote for Beleri in numbers that would alter the outcome.
This perspective on the suppressed rights of the Greek minority has intensified in the Greek media following Beleri’s arrest. Greek journalist Vassilis Nedos, in another opinion piece published in the newspaper Ekathimerini, describes Beleri’s arrest as a dictatorial act and his victory as proof of the Greek minority’s longevity in Albania. In the newspaper Ta Nea, we see the same narrative where the arrests of Beleri and Pandeli Kokaveshi are portrayed as an attempt to intimidate the Greek minority into voting for the socialist candidate. “Beleri’s supporters say that his election was seen as an obstacle to the uncontrolled advancement of powerful tourist interests, which serves the dispossession of minority properties with the ultimate aim of forcing them to leave and ultimately leading to the gradual dehellenization of Himara,” writes Ta Nea.
Just like in Albania, Greek media accused Rama of using his power to punish those who voted for Beleri—even when these news reports are unverified. In Albanian media, it is written that on May 17th, IKMT (Inspectorate of Territorial Management and Inspections) demolished a hotel in Himara for political motives. The parents of the owner, Fjorentin Beli, told A2CNN that their son was a vote counter at the centre where Beleri’s victory was confirmed. Greek media write something similar about the house of a Beleri supporter, which was also demolished by IKMT despite being entirely legal, according to her. “Urban planning, the army, the police, they all came (because I was in Beleri’s committee) to demolish my house. The house is legal, licensed, and everything, they have not given me any letter, nothing, just because I support Beleri,” said the owner to Greek media.
The Threats of Greek Media
Therefore, while in Albania there is talk of the fear of Hellenization of Himara, the panic raised by Greek media is completely opposite: the arrest of Beleri is seen as part of a broader and ongoing narrative of intimidation and suppression of the Greek minority, thus a de-Hellenization program of southern Albania. In fact, these articles spreading panic about the rights of the Greek minority were used by Greek media to push the Greek government towards a stronger response to Albania. “Athens must make Tirana understand – unequivocally – that Greece is not a naive partner ready to help those who do not want to help themselves.”
These articles describe the Greek government as a weak figure that has allowed itself to be deceived and manipulated by the Albanian government, especially Edi Rama, whom they portray as an almost authoritarian figure who has aligned himself with Erdogan to the detriment of Greece’s interests. “It is worth remembering that Rama has strengthened Albania’s ties with Turkey and has come to the support of Ankara during times of increased tension in Greek-Turkish relations,” writes Ekathimerini. In another article, Rama is portrayed as a highly influential figure on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, who is increasingly resembling the autocratic figure of Recep Erdogan.
In response, these journalists encourage the Greek government to take a tough stance against Albania: “These elections should raise the alarm in Athens that we are in a period where, in the Balkans, everyone is taking care of their minorities, using them as diplomatic tools in potential shifts of power balance,” writes Tzimas. The journalists from Ta Nea also support the statement of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. They write that if the situation with Beleri is not resolved, Greece should block Albania’s path to European Union membership. In the past, as in the case of North Macedonia’s name, the Greek government has not hesitated to use its voting power within the European Union to hinder the progress of Western Balkan countries in the EU, and it may well employ similar tactics against Albania.
In the European Parliament, Greek parliamentarian Nikos Papandreou has also said: “Greece has always supported the European path of Albania as well as all the countries of the Balkans, but such actions are not in line with Albania’s peaceful process of EU accession. We must defend the rights of the Greek national minority in Albania.”
In a statement issued by Papandreou’s party, PASOK-KINAL, they declare: “Respecting and protecting the rights of the Greek minority in Albania is a fundamental condition for the country’s European path,” making it clear that the issue of Beleri’s arrest can be used as a diplomatic leverage by Greece against Albania.
The reaction of the Greek Government to Beleri’s arrest
Beyond Mitsotakis’ strong statement, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has taken a somewhat more moderate stance on the situation. In the days following the arrest, he stated that Greece and Albania should maintain good neighbourly relations. “I strongly believe in Greek-Albanian friendship and that these two countries are very close,” Dendias declared to Greek media. However, he also affirmed that he would raise the issue of Beleri’s arrest in the Council of Ministers of the European Union.
On Monday, May 22nd, Dendias met with his Albanian counterpart Olta Xhaçka in Brussels. In an interview with Greek media ANT1, while the Court of Appeals had just extended the pretrial detention of Fredi Beleri, Dendias stated that the extension of pretrial detention contradicts the sense of public justice and the European perception of the rule of law. “We do not want to put anyone in a difficult position, but on the other hand, not only the Greek government but also the EU will not tolerate violations of the rule of law by any country in Europe,” Dendias said. At the moment, this indicates that the Beleri case will continue to be a point of disagreement between the two countries, and Dendias’ statements suggest that Greece may seriously consider the threat that this arrest will be used to slow down Albania’s negotiations for EU membership. Xhaçka stated on Twitter that the Beleri case is not political but legal and that no Albanian citizen is above the law. Prime Minister Rama has made the same statement in the past week.