Greece and Albania are having a small diplomatic tiff. If reading about that sort of thing interests you, read on.
So: two weeks ago, Greek President Karolos Papoulias’ was scheduled to meet with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu, in the southern Albanian town of Sarande. I’m pretty sure this was the first meeting of Greek and Albanian heads of state in a long time. So, fairly big deal by regional standards.
But it didn’t happen, because of the Chams. About 200 of them. They showed up outside the hotel in Saranda where President Papoulias was staying, waved signs, shouted, and generally made a nuisance of themselves.
President Papoulias didn’t take this at all well. He cancelled the meeting with President Moisiu and went back to Greece in a huff. A day or two later, Greece issued a demarche to Albania. (A demarche is a formal diplomatic note from one country to another. It’s about a 5 on the diplomatic hissy-fit scale, higher than merely expressing disapproval but lower than recalling your ambassador.) The demarche expressed regret that Albania did not “take the necessary precautions so that the meeting between the Greek and Albanian Presidents could take place without hindrance.” Worse yet, they did not “take the necessary measures to discourage certain familiar extremist elements which, in their effort to obstruct the normal development of bilateral relations, continue to promote unacceptable and non-existent issues, at the very moment when Albania is attempting to proceed with steps fulfilling its European ambitions”.
Got that? Okay, now comes an obvious question.
What, exactly, are Chams?
Right. We fire up the Wayback Machine and go back to 1913, when Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia — having just defeated the Ottoman Turks in the First Balkan War — are dividing up Turkey’s possessions in Europe. Greece got, among other things, a chunk of territory called Chameria. Chameria is in what’s now northwest Greece, and in 1913 it was inhabited by a mixed population of Muslim Albanians, Orthodox Albanians, Turks, and Greeks. We won’t delve into the hotly disputed issue of how many of which, but suffice it to say that the Muslim Albanians were at least a large minority.
The Turks all left in 1923, and the Orthodox Albanians… well, it’s not clear what happened to them. Some probably became Greek. Never mind that now. That left the Muslim Albanians, now a minority in a frontier area. Unsurprisingly, the Greek state didn’t treat them very well.
So, come 1941, the Muslim Albanians of Chameria welcomed the Germans with open arms. For the next three years, they fought with the Axis occupiers against the Greeks.
So, when the Germans left Greece in 1944, the Greeks turned around and drove the Muslim Albanians out of Chameria. Well, some they just killed, but somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 of them got away, either fled or were expelled, and went over the northern border and into Albania. Where they became known as the Chams.
(It’s not widely realized that Greece underwent a small wave of ethnic cleansing in 1944, followed by a bigger one in 1948, at the end of the Greek Civil War. Pretty successful ethnic cleansing, too. But that’s a story for another post.)
Still with me? Okay, so the new Communist government of Albania did not exactly welcome the Chams. They may have been fellow Albanians, but they were also Axis collaborators, and the Communists’ first claim to credibility was that they were anti-Axis. So the Chams weren’t granted citizenship in Albania until the 1950s, and were second-class citizens for a long time thereafter. And because they weren’t integrating so well into Albania, the Chams held strongly to memories of their lost homeland.
Sixty years later, they still do. The Chams who were protesting outside President Papoulias’ hotel were asking that the Greek government (1) acknowledge that ethnic cleansing took place, and (2) recompense them for their lost homes, farms, and property. Okay, their grandparents’ lost homes and property, but the principle is the same.
As to the protest: it seems to have been fairly peaceful. It’s possible that it may have been arranged with the connivance of the Albanian government — there were claims that some of the Chams had been bussed in from northern Albania, 200 km away — but this is not certain. The Greek President certainly wasn’t in any danger. (He wasn’t even in the hotel. He was at the Greek consulate in Gjirokaster, miles away.) The Albanian President’s office described it as “a peaceful demonstration of minor dimensions and under the complete supervision of security services,” and the Greeks have not denied this. So apparently just the appearance of the Chams was offensive enough to cause the Greek President to cancel his trip on the spot.
Okay. So what, if anything, does this tell us about Greece and Albania today?
One, the Greeks still have a tender spot about ethnic minority issues. Very tender. (Greece basically pretends it doesn’t have ethnic minorities. Long story.) Go back and check out that demarche again. “Extremist elements”. “Unacceptable and non-existent issues”. And, of course, the veiled threat about Europe. Keep this up, Albanians, and see how far your EU candidacy gets.
Two, there’s a broad consensus in Greek politics that they shouldn’t take any guff from uppity Albanians. All the major Greek parties issued statements on the Cham episode, and all pretty much said the same thing. PASOK, the main opposition party, joined with the government in insisting that Albania “must prevent the activity of extremist elements in every way”. Even the Communists said that the “abuse ” against the Greek President was “part of a general negative framework being shaped in the region as a result of imperialist interventions and rivalries.” So, Greece is not likely to budge on this issue.
Three, it could be that the new Berisha government in Albania is feeling its oats. From 1997 until about two months ago, Albania was governed by Fatos Nano. Nano was broadly pro-Greek… so much so, that Albanians gave him the nickname “that Greek bastard”. More generally, he was more interested in economic development than in nationalism.
Berisha is something else again. He’s a serious old-fashioned Balkan nationalist, and he doesn’t much like Greece at all. So, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that the Chams were indeed bussed into Saranda, and that this was a test of the waters.
So. What do I think will happen now? Not much. But if it is Berisha’s people at work, then watch for the Chams to pop up again at some time convenient for the Albanian government. Like, when they really want to distract public attention, or unify public opinion against the Greeks.
Possible consequences? Well, so far Greek threats to derail EU accession have been pretty much empty bluster. At various times, Greek politicians have implicitly or explicitly threatened to veto the accession of theTurks, the Bulgarians, and the Macedonians. Adding Albania to the list gives Greece the dubious honor of being the only country to threaten a veto against every single one of its neighbors. But, to date, it’s been only threats. I doubt Albania will be different…
…unless Berisha is even more whack than I think he is. (And I think he’s kinda whack.) In which case, who knows? The Cham thing could turn into a nasty game of brinksmanship. A really stupid nasty game of brinksmanship, but that’s far from unknown around here.
— What do I think should happen? Well, I feel sorry for the Chams, but supporting the Axis in WWII was a bad idea, and sixty years is a long time. I’d put them in the same category as the Sudeten Germans. They should get an acknowledgment from the Greek government that they were ethnically cleansed, and maybe some token recompense, but otherwise I wouldn’t disturb the status quo.
Of course, the “Greeks acknowledge ethnic cleansing” part is simply not going to happen. The Greeks won’t acknowledge what they did. And without that, there’s no way the Chams will forgive or forget. Memories are long around here.