Monday, August 15, 2005


The recent elections in Albania were treated with foreboding by the Greeks of Northern Epirus, especially given that all polls gave the notorious Dr Sali Berisha a clear lead. Sali Berisha, the leader of the Democratic Party was Prime Minister during the infamous pyramid scandal of 1997 that wiped out the life savings of a much of the population/ His term in office was also characterized by anti-Greek sentiment, stemming from the bi-polarity of Albania, divided as it is, culturally and linguistically into north and south. The southerners, Tosks by race are generally left-leaning and culturally close to Greece, while several hundred of thousand of them are also Orthodox Christians. They form the core support of the Socialist party which until recently, most Greeks have supported or at least sympathized with. The north, the heartland of Berisha country is conservative, anti-Greek and for the most part anti-Orthodox, as it is feared that the Orthodox Church within Albania is nothing but a front for Greek irredentist designs there.
Indeed, as Prime Minister, Sali Berisha presided over one of the worst periods of Graeco-Albanian relations. In 1991, Greek shops were attacked in the Northern Epirot town of Agioi Saranda while in 1994, Sali Berisha proposed an amendment to the Albanian Constitution, requiring that all heads of religious groups be Albanian born. This was a direct attack on the Orthodox Church, whose hierarchs were all Greek-born and it was only because of Archbishop Anastasios' stellar efforts in assisting in the reconstruction of Albania that this racist and thoroughly divisive amendment was voted down. Nonetheless, this had already been preceded by further attacks on the Greek minority. In the spring of 1993, an ethnic Greek Orthodox priest, Archimandrite Chrysostomos Maidonis was expelled from Albania for allegedly taking part in subversive, anti-Albanian activities. He was accused by Berisha of abusing his ministry by preaching separatism and enosis among the Greek minority. In widespread unrest in the Greek villages, local leaders were arrested and there were well-attested accounts of human rights violations in the area, including the sentencing of the mayor of Dervitsiani, the heartland of Northern Epirus, to six months in prison for raising the Greek flag on Greece’s national day. This was followed by a noticeable expansion of surveillance of the minority by the reformed secret police in the minority areas, as well as a revival of the population movement controls that originated under the Communist regime.
Dr Sali Berisha then has not traditionally enjoyed much popularity among the Greeks of Northern Epirus and this can be evidenced by the fact that the Greek minority led the protests and the civic unrest that ensued as a result of the pyramid banking scandals. Some of the strongest oppositional activity focused in the most densely Greek-populated areas. Allegations of Greek involvement in the leadership of the uprising were made by the Berisha government, and the popular unrest led to early elections and the return of the Socialist government to power in June 1997.
Since that time, the Northern Epirot's political representation on the Albanian political scene has been bi-fold. Since 1992 and at the insistence of the Socialists, the Greek political party OMONIA has been barred from participating in elections on the grounds that it is a party based on race and thus illegal. Following strong protests by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the United States, and other powerful international actors, this decision was reversed. However, OMONIA now participates in the political process under the name of the Party of Human Rights, a party that encompasses a multitude of minority races and cultures but still predominantly represents the interests of Greeks and Vlachs with a Greek consciousness. While in 1992 this party won seven seats in the 140-seat Assembly, in the penultimate elections, this has shrunk to 4, owing to Socialist domination of the Party's traditional constituency and a climate of intimidation as we shall see further. It is interesting to note that despite the predictions of eminent Albania-watchers such as James Pettifer and despite the tensions and animosity felt towards this Party by all sides of Albanian politics, OMONOIA, under the guise of the Human Rights Party has been able to form a coalition with the socialists and control two key ministries over the past five years.
The Socialist Party, being the reinvented Communist Party also enjoys great support among the Northern Epirots, despite the fact that it generally works against Greek interests and tries to subvert expressions of Greek ethnicity wherever it can. It is generally supporters by Greeks who collaborated with the criminal totalitarian Hoxha regime. Thus it is commonly acknowledged that the stabbings and intimidation of Greek voters during the municipal elections at Cheimarra were organized by the Socialist Party so as to inhibit OMONOIA's victory there and intimidation by Tosks and their Greek collaborators is the order of the day.
In the most recent elections, the ethnic Greek Socialist member for Argyrokastro, Pandeli Tavo organized posses of Tosks to beat up known OMONOIA supporters and to bribe the adherence of others. Characteristic of why Greeks as a whole can never unite in order to be a persuasive force is the following incident: The top student of Dervitsiani High School introduced the OMONOIA candidate for Argyrokastro, Spyros Xerras at his campaign launch. The very next day, the principal of her school, a known supporter of the Socialist Party, the unspeakable Mr. Malioukis, refused to permit her to sit for her final exams. It was only when he exacted a promise from her that she would attend all of Pandeli Tavo's campaign rallies and introduce him at one of these, that he finally relented. It appears too that this descendant of Ephialtes is not alone in betraying the interests of his countrymen for a few crumbs of self-interest from the table of Albanian repression. Indeed given the mania the Socialists seem to exhibit in attempting to extirpate the last vestige of OMONOIA from its heartland in Northern Epirus, it is no small wonder that this party has not only survived but valiantly 'gone to bed with the Devil' in order to defend the rights of the Greeks of Northern Epirus, rights which especially with regards to schooling and religion, are still heavily compromised.
It comes as a surprise and it really is a testament to the devotion and patriotism of OMONOIA and its supporters despite the climate of intimidation and harassment that exists against them, that they have been able to secure 4.2% of the overall vote in the recent elections and elect three members to the Parliament, Vangelis Doules, the leader of the Human Rights Party and a close personal friend, P. Siolis, and finally, in a triumph for the region of Cheimarra, whose Hellenic character has constantly been denied by all Albanian political parties, their own candidate,. Sp. Petsis, though it is whispered that already these latter two have been approached by the Socialists…..
It is also a paradox that the Human Rights Party finds itself in coalition with its traditional open enemy, the Democratic Party led by Dr Sali Berisha, and again holds two ministries. Though relations between Greece and Albania have generally improved since the heady days of the early nineties and though OMONOIA has de facto dropped from its political platform the quest for autonomy of the ethnically Greek areas of Albania along the principals of the Corfu Protocol of 1914, the Greek minority's experience of the populist Berisha has left a bitter taste in its mouth and it views its future with fear. The coalition with the Socialists has proven that being in government grants no immunity against persecution and it can only be foreseen that the hapless Northern Epirots' woes will increase. It is never easy to be a buffer or a wedge between competing interests and yet that is exactly where the Northern Epirots find themselves. In Northern Epirus, they are surrounded by hostile Socialist Tosks and their Greek quisling apparachiks, as well as by innately hostile Muslim Democratic Party supporters along the border villages of Chameria. On top of that, their Party finds itself in coalition with its sworn enemy. Talk about Balkanisation. It can only be hoped that for once, the Greek government will act effectively to obtain international protection for the hapless minority it has consistently neglected and that finally, its woes will cease.
First published in NKEE on 15 August 2005