Detention of ethnic Greek mayor puts Albania’s EU accession progress at risk

Detention of ethnic Greek mayor puts Albania’s EU accession progress at risk
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left) with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis (centre) at an exhibition of Rama's works in Athens, two months before Himara mayor Fredi Beleri's arrest. /
By bne IntelliNews August 9, 2023

Greek politicians have stepped up their rhetoric over the months-long detention of Fredi Beleri, the ethnic Greek mayor of Himara in Albania, warning Tirana that the country’s EU accession progress may be at risk if the case is not resolved.

Beleri was arrested ahead of the May 14 local elections in Albania, accused of buying votes, and has been in police custody ever since. Despite his detention, he won the mayoral election in Himara, which has a large Greek minority, though he risks losing the position if he remains in prison. 

The case has caused a rift between Albania and its southern neighbour Greece, where top officials, including Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, current Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis and his predecessor Nikos Dendias have called for Beleri’s release. Ordinary Greeks have mobilised on social media under the #freebeleri hashtag. Albanian officials, meanwhile, insist his arrest was not politically motivated and say justice must take its course. 

The latest to comment on the case was Gerapetritis. During an appearance on a Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) programme on August 8, he warned that if Albania's authorities fail to take the necessary steps to release Beleri and allow him to assume his duties, there could be a severe deterioration in the diplomatic relationship between Albania and Greece. 

“[T]he Albanian side is probably shooting itself in the foot," said Gerapetritis. 

The minister told ERT that there is “no way” that Albania's EU accession process will proceed when there is “such a violation of the rule of law”. 

The minister disclosed that he had engaged in two "challenging phone conversations" with his Albanian counterpart Olta Xhacka about this issue, yielding no tangible results. As a result, he recently sent a letter to fellow EU foreign ministers and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell outlining Greece's stance and the impediments that Albania's actions presented to its EU integration progress.

This is not the first time the case has been raised at the level of the EU, an organisation of which Greece is a long-standing member, whereas Albania has only been a candidate country since 2014. 

MEP Kostas Papadakis submitted a question to Borrell on the issue back in June, when he claimed that Beleri was “being detained at the behest of the Albanian government in an attempt to hinder the political activities of the Greek minority [in Albania]” and asked what was being done in response to calls for his immediate release. 

Borrell’s written response was that the European Commission “does not comment on ongoing investigations and recalls the need to ensure that due process is upheld”. 

On July 12, the European Parliament plenary approved an amendment to the 2022 European Commission report on Albania put forward by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) on the request of Greece’s ruling centre-right New Democracy. “[A] clear, resounding message was sent today from Brussels, that the tactics of the Albanian authorities against the Greek minority are not tolerated, not by the Greek government, nor by the European Parliament, and that the European path for Albania passes through the observance of the rules of the rule of law and the respect of the human rights of all its citizens,” said a statement from New Democracy. 

At the end of July, Albania’s Higher Court rejected a request for Beleri to be released from police detention, which his lawyer had argued was disproportionate. 

This prompted a response from European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, also of New Democracy, who argued in a letter to EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi that Albania, as an aspiring EU member, must face repercussions if Beleri continues to be barred from assuming office.

Schinas wrote that Beleri's continued incarceration raises serious doubts about the due process and could be interpreted as an effort to intimidate voters. He emphasised that the European Union cannot remain passive in the face of such transgressions and must respond appropriately.

Greece has previous form on using its position as an EU member in its relations with its neighbours. The country formerly known as Macedonia had its attempts to start EU accession negotiations repeatedly vetoed by Athens, which objected to the use of the name “Macedonia”, which is also the name of a Greek province. The issue was eventually resolved when the government in Skopje changed the country’s name to “North Macedonia” in 2019 following the signing of the Prespa Accord in June 2018. 

Prior to Beleri’s arrest, Albania and Greece enjoyed relatively good relations thanks to their historic and cultural links, and shared membership of Nato and other international institutions. While thwarting Skopje’s ambitions, Greece has long advocated Albania's EU candidacy, and Albania eventually secured candidate status during Greece’s presidency of the EU Council in 2014. 

Despite their geographic proximity, however, trade between Albania and Greece is relatively low. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently described the two countries’ trade exchange as being “less than the value of [footballer] Cristiano Ronaldo”.

There are also some outstanding political issues between the two states – including that they are still formally at war, never having declared an end to the war that started when the Italian occupiers of Albania attacked Greece in 1940. 

The rights of the Greek minority within Albania are an issue that even before Beleri’s arrest had strained Greek-Albanian relations. Issues of conflict include property rights, Greek language education and sporadic violence against the Greek minority. 

The so-called “trial of the five” back in 1994 dragged relations between the two countries to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, when five prominent figures from Albania's ethnic Greek community were tried for espionage and illegal possession of weapons.

Tensions re-erupted in 2010 when a group of Albanian youths beat Greek shopkeeper Aristotelis Goumas to death, and again six years later when Albanian nationalists attacked local ethnic Greeks and their property following a UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying match between Albania and Serbia, during which Serb supporters raised a Greek flag. 

This time there have been no apparent moves to back down by Tirana in the face of increasing Greek warnings that Albania’s EU accession process could be affected by Beleri’s continued detention; both Rama and Xhacka have argued that vote-buying is a serious breach of the law. The next likely step is that Beleri may lose his position as mayor, as his detention has prevented him from carrying out his official duties. That would only worsen the growing crisis between the neighbouring countries.