EVANGELOS VENETIS *
One of the most geopolitically sensitive areas in the world, the Balkans is a reference point to geopolitical developments internationally. Today the region is again being tested by the huge wave of refugees and migrants coming from the Middle East and elsewhere. The Western Balkan states' prospects of European integration and joining the Schengen Area that had developed over the past two decades have been shaken by the refugee crisis, which has led to a shift in their European orientation. Due to the geopolitical failures of the West, Turkey’s inability to control the illicit people-trafficking network on its soil and the closed-border policy of Austria and its Visegrad allies, Greece has more or less been cut off from the rest of the peninsula, leaving the sea route to Italy as the country's only connection to the rest of Europe. This situation has brought Greece, already straining under an unrelated economic crisis, to the brink of having to declare an emergency situation.
The collective memory of nations is the basis of the existence of their culture and determines their behavior. The older a nation, the deeper its history and its collective memory. Greece and Albania are the two oldest nations of the Balkan Peninsula, each with its own collective memory. The memory of having to flee their homelands is still fresh in the memory of both countries. In Greece, people today still remember the Greek refugees who fled Asia Minor in 1922, as well as the waves of mass emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hence they have a personal understanding of the refugee issue and many among them have tried to offer the refugees hospitality, despite the acute economic crisis and the un-European stance of some other European states.
For their part, Albanians also keep alive the memory of their recent waves of emigration, to Turkey on several occasions in the 20th century, and mainly to Greece and Italy some 25 years ago. They remember the harsh scenes of August 7-8, 1991 when thousands thronged the port of Durres to board ships and cross the sea to Italy. They remember how there Albanian refugees were greeted by the Italian Carabinieri in Bari: Some reports say 12 were killed by Italian gunfire and many fell into the sea from the ships. Meanwhile, Albanians remember that Greece, in contrast to Italy, opened its border and Epirus Greeks welcomed hundreds of thousands Albanian refugees in a hospitable manner, welcoming them, giving them food, water and shelter, providing them with accommodation and helping them to move south to the major urban centers of Greece. Greeks gave them work and they in response helped the Greek economy to grow further. In austerity-hit Greece today there are hundreds of thousands of Albanians workers who send valuable revenue back home. Understanding what it means to be a refugee, many Greeks did then what many are doing today. But what is the Albanian government doing?
While the Albanian people maintain their collective memory of this period, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama seems to have forgotten. As a result he has increased security at the border with Greece, theoretically refusing entry to refugees currently trapped in Greek territory. It seems that the Albanian prime minister did not listen to his Socialist MPs, behaving in an un-socialist manner and giving reason for opponents within his own party to challenge him, for they know that the Albanian people think differently from him. The fact of the matter is that instead of first cooperating with neighboring Greece on a mutual basis, Mr Rama prefers to assign the security of Albanian territory to Italy, forgetting the events of 1991 and giving the impression that Albania is unable to handle its own security by itself.
On the contrary, Greeks and Albanians have sent their message to Mr Rama. The inhabitants of Konitsa summarized the message of Albania's moral obligation to behave reciprocally toward Greece and to open the border. It's true that the reciprocity being sought today is not quite the same as in 1991 because today the refugees to Albania are not Greek. However, it can be said that Greece, like Albania then, is facing a crisis in terms of both social conditions and state security.
Thus, instead of closing the borders, Mr Rama needs to understand that now spring has arrived, the snow is melting and mountain passes are opening. At the same time, refugees are already moving northward to the border with Albania. And he cannot do anything to stop them from crossing the high mountains of Epirus. Rather than relying on the Italian police, surely it would be wiser to share the expertise of Greece in terms of management of refugee reception centers. Along with Athens, he would be able to handle refugee flows better.
Today, with Greece being completely isolated – without deserving such treatment by its European peers – developments urge the Albanian government to act on a moral basis in cooperation with Athens to cope with the refugee crisis and respond in a proper manner to the humanitarian call for the protection of refugees. How civilized a country is is not measured by how technologically advanced it is or high standards of living, but by the hospitality it offers. The long-term benefits for Albania will be multiplied if it cooperates with Greece than if accepts the ephemeral rewards of the northerners. Any hopes of maintaining a united Europe rest with the generous attitude of Greece and Albania in the refugee crisis.
Nowadays, the ongoing refugee crisis triggers strong memories for both Greeks and Albanians. Both peoples have besa, or faith. Today, in the person of Mr Rama, Albania is invited by history to display besa to Greece. If Mr Rama refuses to remember, he will be forgotten by his own people.
* Evangelos Venetis is head of the ELIAMEP Middle East Research Project, Athens, and the Refugee Studies Program, Stavros Niarchos Center for Hellenic Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.