Sunday, October 07, 2007


Crucial choices

by Nikos Meletis
The crucial choices faced by the Greek minority in Albania were brought to the fore in a particularly intense way in the recent municipal elections. The continuing depopulation of the areas where the minority lives, the lack of infrastructure, the conflict concerning minority properties, the problems with their education and the central governments aggressive assimilationist policies constitute an especially negative environment for the Greek minority.

I f we add to that the indifference of the Greek government, the personality clashes and conflicting interests within the minority, the situation becomes even more depressing. Despite this, the Human Rights Union Party (KEAD), the political wing of minority organization Omonoia (Concord), managed to retain the bulk of its voters, despite the truly difficult conditions.

The victory at Himare, was a crucial and symbolic one, since this area has never been recognized as a minority zone. However, much as this victory dominated the election news, it could not overshadow the intense divisions within the minority and the loss of votes to the Albanian parties, especially the ruling Socialist party.In some areas, such as Upper and Lower Deropolje (in the Gjirokaster prefecture), the presence of a very powerful Socialist Party cadre, MP Mr. Tsavos, has eaten into Omonoias electoral support. The personal conflict with KEAD president Vangelis Doule, who has lost twice to Mr. Tsavos in national elections, has contributed to that. In recent years, the Socialist government, with the construction of highways and the improvement of infrastructure, has allowed its local leaders, who are also financially very powerful members of the minority to boast that concrete improvements have been made.The level of rivalry between supporters of the Socialist Party and KEAD, through the local minority newspapers, with accusations and invective being hurled from both sides, was truly shameful.

Of course, such a situation can only work to the advantage of the Albanian establishment, whose standing goal is the gradual assimilation, political and cultural, of the minority.These last elections showed that part of the remaining minority, which had emigrated to Greece, has returned. The minority, however, is also more likely to follow the Socialist or the Democratic Party and thus acquire a closer relationship with the Albanian state rather than follow Omonoias autonomous and, often, dissident presence.

The future political representation of the minority is an important issue; it must avoid dispersal and degeneration through the penetration of the main Albanian parties. It is imperative for Omonoia to reach out to the other minority members who support the main parties.It is difficult for the Greek minority to forget that both big parties, like Enver Hoxhas communist regime had done earlier, tried to resolve the minority issue in a violent way or used it in order to exact all sorts of concessions from the Greek government.It is also vital for the minority to seek, to the greatest extent possible, a common representation transcending ideological and party differences. This role must be played by a new, renovated Omonoia.

Many conflicts within the minority also have their roots in areas where property issues, and conflicts, are the most acute, as in the areas of Sarande and, especially, Himare. Plans to turn Himare into a tourist resort have whet appetites.During the 1997 revolt and the anarchy that ensued, many properties belonging to the Greek minority, especially in coastal areas, were illegally appropriated, by other minority members who had stayed in Albania. Overnight, hotels and other structures sprouted in these properties as well as in communal land.People with strong ties to the central government, hoping that this illegal appropriation would become permanent, have opposed KEAD and Omonoia, which insist on the return of property to its legal owners.

Some land-grabbers, with the complicity of the Albanian authorities, sell land they do not own to Albanian buyers, leading ultimately to a colonization of formerly pure minority areas.Another issue of concern is the role of the Autocephalous Church of Albania. Archbishop Anastasios, a very important Orthodox leader, has made many significant contributions. The question is, what will happen after him, when he will most likely be succeeded by an Albanian Orthodox and the church will cease to be another voice of the minority. The Churchs effort to promote private education or to claim for itself the old communal (minority) property is laudable but certain section of the minority have reservations because they believe that the goals of providing a Greek education and returning property to its lawful owners are being undermined.

When, for example, a vocational school opened in Dervitsani, with the initiative and sponsorship of the Archdiocese, the number of students in the Greek section of Gjirokaster University, which had been founded after a great deal of effort, fell dramatically.The policy of the Greek government remains trapped in a longstanding pseudo-dilemma:- Acting as the advocate and guarantor of the Balkan states within the EU, or- Representing the interests of the minority, if sometimes only symbolically, and in the interest of petty party politics.The exclusion of areas where KEAD is dominant from EU assistance programs, and the failure of the Greek government to intervene; the unwillingness to exert pressure on Albania to recognize the area of Himare as a minority area and to resolve outstanding education and property issues; the thought, expressed without preparation, to provide double citizenship, which may contribute votes in Greek elections but would ultimately lead to the disappearance of the minority from Albania; all are symptomatic of the governments frivolous approach to the minority issue over the past dozen years, which makes the minority feel abandoned.

Even in this late hour, Omonoia must transform itself to adapt to changing conditions and Greece, finally, must take advantage of Albanias fervent wish for closer ties with the EU in order to demand and impose respect for the Greek minoritys rights.Only thus will conditions of security and prosperity be created, allowing Greek-Albanians who have migrated to Greece to return to their ancestral homes and create better conditions.This would eliminate a permanent source of conflict in Greek-Albanian issues as surely as willfully avoiding the issues will not.

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