Athens, Greece – Greece is threatening to hold up Albanian progress towards European Union membership, even as the EU attempts to inject greater urgency into a stalled accession process for the Western Balkans.
The reason is the imprisonment on May 11 of an ethnic Greek mayoral candidate in Himare, a sleepy town of fewer than 10,000 votes on the Adriatic coast with a large ethnic Greek cohort.
“This decision will have repercussions on the EU’s relationship with Albania, which depends on … European rules and the rule of law,” announced the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last month said the case “overshadows” relations with Albania and “reverses” any improvements that were made. In recent weeks, he visited Albania, and his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, held an exhibition of his art in Athens.
Fredi Beleri was elected mayor while in prison, but has not been sworn in because Albania’s courts have turned down five applications to release him or to allow him to be sworn in while imprisoned.
Beleri, who won by 19 votes, is accused of buying eight of them, and courts claim he could attempt to tamper with prosecution witnesses, his lawyer told Al Jazeera.
His case goes to court on Thursday.
Beleri has pleaded innocent to the charges. His son, Petros Beleri, said his arrest had a political purpose.
“It terrorised people, especially in the ethnically Albanian villages that are quite a way away from the town of Himare,” Petros Beleri told Al Jazeera.
“People were afraid and voted for Rama’s man. More than 1,000 votes were lost that way. The prime minister knew he was headed for a big loss in Himare … the message people got was, ‘I am in charge in Himare, and whoever disagrees will get this treatment’,” Petros Beleri said.
Former Justice Minister Ili Maniani agreed, calling the arrest a “pure power interference in free elections”.
Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whose opposition Democratic Party supported Beleri, called him a “political prisoner”.
The Council of Europe, too, expressed its concerns over Beleri’s ongoing detention, saying it countermands the presumption of innocence.
Rama took a personal interest in the Himare election. A week before the vote, he campaigned for the socialist incumbent, Jorgo Goro, and denounced Beleri.
“There was a whole section of his speech where he called [Beleri] illiterate, ugly, stupid, a representative of Greece and unworthy of Albanian office,” Thodoris Goumas, president of the ethnic Greek Hemariots’ Union, told Al Jazeera.
Beleri’s party leader said Rama’s interest in keeping the municipality under socialist control revolved around land.
“All these years Himare is subject to the aggression of politicians who want to destroy the property ownership structure – people who are clients of the prime minister and represent his interests. It is a strategic goal for them,” Vangelis Doules, leader of Omonoia, short for the Democratic Union of the Greek Minority, told Al Jazeera.
Himare is one of two ethnically Greek-dominated municipalities and encompasses 60km (37 miles) of some of Albania’s most picturesque coastline. Rama’s hopes for bringing prosperity to Albania largely rest on developing tourism, and much of the coastal real estate where that might happen belongs to ethnic Greek Albanians.
“There are billions at stake,” said Petros Beleri. “Rama’s clients have seized huge estates and they’ve built resorts.”
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 [late Russian writer Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, but a guy under arrest for corruption charges in a democratic country,” Rama wrote to Al Jazeera.
Rama claimed that the justice system acted independently. “I learned of his arrest when the operation was already under way,” he told Kathimerini newspaper last August. “I called the chief of police and told him … ‘you’d better be sure about what you’re doing. This can go very badly, so you’d better have unshakeable evidence.’”
Communist redistribution of land
Some of the problems with land ownership go back to the communist regime that ran Albania from 1945 to 1991.
The communists nationalised all land after World War II. Just before their regime collapsed, they redistributed it.
“There was a parcelling out of land for cultivation. So if you had, say, half a hectare [before the war], you never got all of that back. You got some back, and the rest went to your neighbours,” said Goumas. “This is how land was redistributed in the ownership documents the Communist Party gave out in 1991, and that is the basis of all the land claims being made now.”
The Albanian Ombudsman, an independent body, said in this year’s report that the government still owes pre-communist landowners 860 million euros ($912m) for land it confiscated and redistributed.
Even those 1991 title deeds were not fully honoured by post-communist governments because of lost documents, feuds, land grabbers and corrupt officials.
In 2020, Rama passed Law 20, which promised to sort things out.
“The law said if people submitted their papers proving ownership, their properties would be entered in a land registry. Eight thousand applications were submitted [in Himare],” said Doules, most of them by Greeks. “Three years later, just 30 have been settled.” Only five of those are from ethnic Greeks.
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 the data on registered properties is incorrect,” the report said.
Ownership issues are not the only obstacle to tourism development. Land use is another.
The communist title deeds handed out in 1991 allowed the land to be used for only agricultural purposes. The planning office in Vlore theoretically has the power to rezone the land for construction, but in practice, it has granted that to only strategic investors ordained by Rama’s cabinet.
“There’s very little a mayor can do when it comes to strategic investors, but even that little annoys Rama because a mayor can introduce transparency and ask for explanations and court audits,” said Doules.
That could open up judicial investigations embarrassing to the socialists. Beleri has already launched 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 murky property dealings, Doules believes there is an anti-Greek agenda.
“There’s no declared plan for ethnic cleansing that can be proven, but when someone can’t own their property, can’t develop their property, and can’t elect their chosen representative, doesn’t that lead to an exodus?” said Doules.