George Protopapas: Rama visits Ankara – The Albanian tightrope walk between Greece and Turkey

Rama visits Ankara - The Albanian tightrope walk between Greece and Turkey, Giorgos Protopapas
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Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama met with President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara at the invitation of the latter, who expressed his deep concern over the Greek-Albanian agreement on referring to the Hague Tribunal the EEZ demarcation dispute. Although Rama is a close ally of Erdogan, he seeks to balance his ties to the West with Turkey.

The agreement between Greece and Albania to appeal to the Hague Tribunal, approved by Rama, has alarmed Erdogan, who is expected to put pressure on him to annul it. Rama has stated that it is “Greece’s right and is based on the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, which clearly states that any country can expand its maritime borders, where possible.” Obviously with Albania, this is not the case and that is why we need the agreement. It is absolutely legal for the Greek side to say that.”

Rama seeks to maintain close relations with Turkey but also not to distance himself from the West, in order to eliminate the accusation of being a “pawn” of Erdogan in the Balkans. Rama, when in opposition, had submitted to the Supreme Constitutional Court for an annulment of the Greek-Albanian agreement on the EEZ in 2008, signed by the then prime ministers Sali Berisha and Costas Karamanlis. Turkey bribed members of the Supreme Constitutional Court to annul the EEZ agreement.

Erdogan may take advantage of Rama’s internal reactions to the agreement with Greece. His critics say Albania has relinquished part of its territorial sovereignty and is giving Greece the opportunity to strengthen its position in the International Court of Justice.

The Greek-Albanian agreement provoked a strong reaction from Albanian President Ilir Meta, who accused Rama of relinquishing territorial sovereignty and secret talks with the Greek side. However, Rama will have to set up a negotiating team for The Hague, which will have to be approved by Meta, who also has the opposition reacting to the Greek-Albanian agreement. President and Prime Minister have opened a long-standing vendetta and neither shows any intention of backing down.

Albania expects the start of accession negotiations with the EU, which when done will be credited as a success to Rama, who has become a target of opposition and society for his authoritarian policies. Accession negotiations have been blocked by Bulgaria’s veto on northern Macedonia, as Brussels considers the two cases together as a package. Rama also receives criticism from MEPs for not going ahead with the reforms set by the EU.

Close relationships

During a joint press conference in Ankara, Rama and Erdogan signed a “Strategic Partnership Agreement” as well as co-operation agreements on health, education, construction, infrastructure, and culture. They also signed an agreement on the establishment of a High Council for Strategic Cooperation between Albania and Turkey.

Rama, who has taken over the government of Albania since 2013, has made Turkey particularly important for Albanian foreign policy and is considered an important strategic partner. Rama’s close relationship with Erdogan had developed before the former came to power. Moreover, after the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, Rama was one of the first foreign leaders to express his support for Erdogan.

The close relationship between the two men is also proven by the fact that Rama was also invited to the wedding of Erdogan’s daughter. At the same time, Turkey is an important economic partner of Albania as it invests heavily. Çalik Holding is the “spearhead” of Turkish investments, as it operates in the fields of energy, mining, construction, economy, and telecommunications.

In 2007, Çalik Holding acquired a majority stake in ALBtelecom, an Albanian state-owned telecommunications company with subsidiaries in Kosovo. Turkish investments are also expanding in the aviation sector. State-owned Turkish Airlines owns 49% of Air Albania with a tripartite agreement signed in February 2019 between Albcontrol, Turkish Airlines, and private companies.

Turkish penetration

The Turkish penetration into Albanian society is also impressive, as Erdogan exploits the Muslim religion to advance his strategic plans. The construction of a large mosque in Tirana by Turkey is considered, from a religious and cultural point of view, an important exercise of “soft power” diplomacy.

The mosque will be the largest in the Balkans, with a capacity of 10,000 people, a cultural center, a library, a meeting room, and will offer Turkish language courses. Its construction cost amounts to about 30 million euros. In addition, Turkey has a significant presence in the Albanian education system and acquired it after the fall of the communist regime. Private schools have been open in Albania since 1993 and teach Turkish.

The close relationship between Erdogan and Rama is a given, but from the moment the Albanian prime minister agreed with Greece to refer to the International Court of Justice, he knew that he would provoke Turkish reactions. After all, he was the one who initiated the procedures for the cancellation of the 2008 Greece-Albania agreement for the EEZ.

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