The apple of discord between Albania and Greece: the recent electoral campaign on the south Albanian riviera
1/2004 South-East Europe Review S. 139 – 142
A very short history
The most well-known regions of the south Albanian coast are Himara and Dhermi. Himara is the largest community on the entire Albanian riviera and stretches along the Ionian coast and the hills, about 20km from the village of Dhermi. It is a typical coastal area with a beach in the lower part of the town and olive- and citrus-clad hills around it. It has borne that name since the 6th century. Throughout its history, it has been a fortress of resistance for Albanian patriots against foreign invasions. It managed to be a region with special status during the Turkish invasion of the Albanian lands, preserving many self-governing privileges. In order to escape the attacks of the Turkish army, some of the inhabitants found shelter in the mountains of Kurvelesh (the name of a peak to the north of Himara) or emigrated to southern Italy. The castle of the town belongs to the 6th century, while the town is known as a centre of trade for the Ionian coast, with contacts especially with Greece, and is of great interest. There is a strong pro-Greek feeling in the area which, at its most extreme, would want unification with the Greek state. This desire can be understood by looking at the graffiti that are often seen on the town walls. However, deep inside, the Himarites remain Albanian.
Dhermi is a 14th century village built on a series of hills of olive groves and citrus trees. However, it can trace its history back to the 1st century. Its name comes from the Greek word Drymades. During its existence, the village has had economic and commercial relations with Greece’s Ionian coast and stands out for its strong Greek Orthodox religious feelings. In fact, the little village hosts numerous churches (thirty)which contain important frescoes. There has been a permanent emigration of village inhabitants since before World War II, mainly towards France and America. After the 1990s, the favoured destination for emigrants, as for the entire Albanian riviera,seems to have been Greece. It is noticeable that emigration here is much more prevalent than in other areas of Albania, with levels reaching 70% of the population. Emigration is so massive that, in the winter, one can see in the village streets only lonely elderly people and grazing donkeys.
The population of these two regions reaches almost 10 000 inhabitants, including citizens and émigrés to Greece. These areas are not included in the Greek minority of Albania within any European documents or agreements, but the Greek state, through the decades, has sought to achieve such a goal.
The Greek state argues as follows in respect of the local population:
- the spoken language in these areas is Greek
- the religion is Greek Orthodox
- their ‘logical emigration’ route is to Greece alone
- Greek governments during the last ten years have given the population a pension of €170 per month
- all the population possess the document of permanent residence in Greece and most enjoy Greek citizenship
- the people of these two regions have always demanded a referendum on their ‘Greek ethnic origin’, but this has been denied by the Albanian authorities.
In contrast, the Albanian state argues as follows:
- the regions are historically part of the Albanian history and tradition
- geographically, they belong to ethnic Albanian land which has no borders with Greece. Between Himara and the Greek border there are two more Albanian regions, Delvina and Saranda
- the Greek language is a remnant of the time when Albania was under Turkish occupation, when Himara remained an island of Christianity in an Islamised Albania. Over five centuries, the Himarites also established trade relationships with the Greek island of Corfu. In contrast, there is no Greek folklore in the tradition of the region
- the native origin of most Himarites is from the northern Albanian regions of Miredita and Kruja (the land of Skenderbeg, the national hero symbol of Albania) who escaped from the Turkish revenge five hundred years ago after the death of their king.
1/2004 South-East Europe Review S. 139 – 142
There was a significant manipulation of the results. The Party of Human Rights (a pro-Greek party) was ‘defeated’ by the Socialist Party with a voting count in favour of the Socialist candidate of 250:0. International observers expressed their disappointment at this manipulation by the Albanian government authorities, which represented, in their view, a backwards step by Albania in its efforts to be integrated within the European Community. Afterwards, this first result was corrected with the winner being declared as the ‘Greek party’ candidate. The ultimate winner, of course, was the Greek state: the case of Himara and Dhermi is nowadays included on the European agenda as a matter which must be discussed from the point of view of the ‘Greek minority’.
Greek support to the Himara-Dhermi region
There are a number of outstanding controversial aspects to Greek involvement in the region, chief among which are:
- financial support of €180 per person per month for those from Himara and Dhermi. This money comes legally from the Greek state and the Greek parliament
- during the summer of 1995, a Greek person on board an aeroplane intended for agricultural use flew over Himara, dropping thousands of leaflets on which it written in Greek that that region would very soon be under the Greek flag. The Albanian army did not shoot him down, but there was a diplomatic incident. The Greek authorities caught the person responsible but, following trial, he was found innocent as he had acted under feelings of patriotism
- during all types of election in Albania, Greek members of the European Parliament and deputies observe the electoral procedure in every village in the region of Himara and Dhermi. They are never seen in the legal Greek minority villages around Dropulli, where their presence could be justified, but they are present only in these two hot spots key to plans for the ‘Hellenisation’ of south Albania
- in every school book studied in Greek universities and high schools, students can read hundreds of pages on Vorioepirus which, according to Greek historical sources, was a Greek land invaded by Albanians during the First World War. Vorioepirus includes almost all the territory of south Albania and cities such as Korça, Gjirokastër, Tepelena, Vlora and Sarandë
- the most recent reference to Greek claims on the Himara region can be found in the Himara newspaper, a Greek monthly from Athens, specifically the October 2003 edition. In this paper, Alfredis Beleris and Angelos Kokaveshis, two Greek journalists, wrote with eminent bravery on their pages so that every reader could read the strategy for ‘liberating occupied Himara from these dirty Albanians’. On other pages, they wrote that ‘the election day of 12 October is the final day of the battle between Hellenism and Albanians’
- during the summer of 1994, a Greek commando killed two Albanian officers and wounded some Albanian soldiers in the Albanian village of Peshkwpia, some eight kilometres inside the Albanian border. Responsibility for these murders was claimed by the Vorioepirotic Organisation of MAVI, a Greek nationalist group from Athens
- on election day on 12 October in Himara, hundreds of people burned the Albanian flag and, holding in their hands Greek flags, shouted towards the TV cameras: ‘Albania equals al-Qaeda’, ‘Albanians-motherfuckers’, ‘Albanians-invaders’, etc. In all these events were present Greek citizens who had come to Himara that day for just that purpose. The Albanian state opened a trial after the events (including over the citing slogans against the Albanian race, nation and flag)
- absurd but true is that the Law on the war between Greece and Albania of 1940 is still in force.