Athens, Greece – Greece is threatening to delay Albania’s progress toward European Union membership, even as the EU tries to inject greater urgency into a stalled accession process for the Western Balkans.
The reason is the May 11 imprisonment of a candidate of Greek origin for mayor of Himaré, a sleepy town of fewer than 10,000 votes on the Adriatic coast with a large cohort of Greek origin.
“This decision will have repercussions on the EU’s relations with Albania, which depend (…) on European rules and the rule of law,” announced the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last month that the affair “overshadows” relations with Albania and “undoes” all the improvements that have been made. In recent weeks he has visited Albania and his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, organized an exhibition of his art in Athens.
Fredi Beleri was elected mayor while in prison, but did not take the oath of office as Albanian courts rejected five requests to release him or allow him to take the oath while incarcerated.
Beleri, who won by 19 votes, is accused of buying eight, and courts allege he may try to tamper with prosecution witnesses, his lawyer told Al Jazeera.
His case will go to court on Thursday.
Beleri has pleaded innocent to the charges against him. His son, Petros Beleri, said his arrest had a political objective.
“It terrorized people, especially in ethnic Albanian villages which are quite far from Himare city,” Petros Beleri told Al Jazeera.
“People were afraid and voted for the man from Rama. More than 1,000 votes were lost. The Prime Minister knew he was heading for a big loss in Himare… the message people received was: ‘I am in charge in Himare, and anyone who disagrees will get this treatment,’” said Petros Beleri.
Former Justice Minister Ili Maniani shared this opinion, calling the arrest “pure interference by those in power in free elections.”
Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whose opposition Democratic Party supported Beleri, called him a “political prisoner.”
The Council of Europe has also expressed concerns about Beleri’s continued detention, saying it calls into question the presumption of innocence.
Rama took a personal interest in Himaré’s election. A week before the vote, he campaigned for the socialist incumbent, Jorgo Goro, and denounced Beleri.
“There is a whole part of his speech where he called (Beleri) illiterate, ugly, stupid, a representative of Greece and unworthy to hold Albanian office,” Thodoris Goumas told Al Jazeera. president of the Union of Greek Hemariots.
The Beleri party leader said Rama’s interest in keeping the municipality under socialist control revolved around land.
“All these years, Himare has been subjected to aggression from politicians who want to destroy the ownership structure – people who are clients of the Prime Minister and who represent his interests. This is a strategic objective for them,” Vangelis Doules, leader of Omonoia, short for Democratic Union of the Greek Minority, told Al Jazeera.
Himare is one of two predominantly ethnic Greek municipalities and encompasses 60 km (37 miles) of some of Albania’s most picturesque coastlines. Rama’s hopes of bringing prosperity to Albania rest largely on developing tourism, and much of the coastal real estate where this could happen is owned by ethnic Greek Albanians.
“Billions are at stake,” Petros Beleri said. “Rama’s clients took over huge estates and built hotel complexes.”
Rama declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he was “fed up with this nonsense.”
“Albania is not (the) Soviet Union and (Beleri) is not (the late Russian writer Alexander) Solzhenitsyn, but a man under arrest for corruption in a democratic country,” Rama wrote at Al Jazeera.
Rama said the judiciary acted independently. “I learned of his arrest when the operation was already underway,” he told the Kathimerini newspaper last August. “I called the police chief and said… ‘you better be sure what you’re doing.’ This can go very badly, so you better have ironclad evidence.
Communist land redistribution
Some of the problems with land ownership date back to the communist regime that ruled Albania from 1945 to 1991.
The communists nationalized all land after World War II. Just before the fall of their regime, they redistributed it.
“There was a division of land to cultivate it. So if you had, say, half a hectare (before the war), you will never get all that back. You got some of it back and the rest went to your neighbors,” Goumas said. “This is how land was redistributed in the property documents issued by the Communist Party in 1991, and it is the basis for all land demands made today. »
The Albanian Ombudsman, an independent body, said in its report this year that the government still owes pre-communist landowners 860 million euros ($912 million) for land it confiscated and redistributed.
Even these 1991 land titles have not been fully honored by post-communist governments due to loss of documents, feuding, land grabbing and corrupt officials.
In 2020, Rama passed Law 20, which promised to set the record straight.
“The law stated that if people presented their papers proving their ownership, their properties would be registered in a land register. Eight thousand applications were submitted (to Himare),” Doules said, most of them from Greeks. “Three years later, only 30 have been installed. » Only five of them are of Greek origin.
The European Commission identified land registration as an area of particular concern in its 2022 report on Albania. “It is estimated that approximately 80% of recorded property data is incorrect,” the report said.
Property issues are not the only obstacle to tourism development. Land use is another.
Communist land titles issued in 1991 allowed the land to be used only for agricultural purposes. The Vlore planning office theoretically has the power to rezone building land, but in practice it has only granted it to strategic investors ordered by Rama’s cabinet.
“A mayor can’t do much when it comes to strategic investors, but even that annoys Rama because a mayor can introduce transparency and demand explanations and judicial audits,” Doules said.
This could open up embarrassing legal investigations for socialists. Beleri has already filed a lawsuit against the government for granting strategic investor status to the husband of a cabinet member, former foreign minister Olta Xhacka.
In addition to the murky real estate deals, Doules believes there is an anti-Greek agenda.
“There is no declared plan of ethnic cleansing that can be proven, but when someone cannot own their property, cannot develop their property and cannot elect their chosen representative, it does not lead to isn’t there an exodus? Doules said.