We talk to a Bulgarian Albanologist – Anton Panchev, about the controversy between Albania and Iran and Bulgarian-Albanian relations
Anton Panchev is a professor of Albanian language, culture and society at Sofia University. He is also one of the editors of the website Obshtestvo.net, which is the de facto Bulgarian media link between the Albanian and Bulgarian-speaking world.
Albania’s severing of ties with Iran
Mr Panchev, Albania broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after it accused it of a hacking attack on its state institutions. How does this conflict fit into the foreign policy line of Tirana, which is a NATO member and is trying to open negotiations with the EU?
On 15 July 2022, Albania’s e-government systems collapsed (as of 1 May, the whole country went e-government). Prime Minister Edi Rama immediately announced that a “foreign power” was behind the cyber attack, and Iran was subsequently blamed. Iranian officials categorically denied any state involvement, but the authorities in Tirana felt they had evidence of a hostile act and closed the Iranian embassy.
Following the severing of diplomatic relations with Albania, a hacking attack on Albanian border crossings took place on 10 September 2022, with the Albanian border crossings having their systems taken offline for several hours, this time with Iranian hackers claiming responsibility and saying this was “just the beginning”. In the first week of September 2022, hacking attacks were reported on institutions in other Balkan countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro. US officials said they fully support and assist Albania in the investigation and subsequent decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran. The US has also announced sanctions against Iranian officials in connection with the allegation. Authorities in Tirana said the measures were taken “in coordination with partners” and were supported at NATO level.
Albania and the Iranian opposition
One of the reasons for tensions between the two countries is that in 2014 Albania hosted the Iranian opposition organisation, called the People’s Mujahedin. It claims to be fighting the Iranian government through peaceful means. At the same time, over the years, various countries, including the US, UK and EU, have temporarily placed it on their list of terrorist organisations. How did Albania, of all places, come to accept this organisation on its territory? How were members of the People’s Mujahedin received and hosted? How did relations with Iran evolve after Albania received them?
During 2013-2015, the relevant authorities in the United States were looking for an option to host fighters and their families from the organization you mentioned. In 2013, in his last months in power, Sali Berisha, then Prime Minister of Albania, agreed to let his country host 270 mujahideen after a visit by Hillary Clinton. Albania’s Socialist Party, which came to power the same year, 2013, agreed to host about 3,000 people. Camp Ashraf was set up around the town of Manza (Durres), and unofficial figures estimate that the total number of people sheltered over the years was around 3,500. It is a settlement built with American funds, which provides all the basic needs of these people. During these years, there were fears among the Albanian public that Albania would become a target for Iran, that among these people were many fighters trained for terrorist actions. There have also been criminal acts committed by members of this community and rumours that hundreds of them have managed to leave Albania illegally and move to Western European countries such as France. Interestingly, until the adoption of the mujahideen, there were no real active contacts between Iran and Albania in any field, and Albania did not have an embassy in Tehran. The main link between the two countries is cultural, as Sami and Naim Frasheri, the most important figures of the Albanian Renaissance in the late 19th century, both wrote in Persian, a language they knew perfectly well, and Naim wrote a grammar in Persian, as well as the poem Kerbala, in which he praised the Battle of 680. It was precisely the accommodation of the mujahideen that sparked Iran’s interest (anger) towards Albania, with Albanian authorities announcing over the years that they had arrested Iranian agents, and the Iranian ambassador being declared persona non grata at the end of 2018, leading to the decision a few days ago to close the Iranian embassy in Tirana and cut off diplomatic relations.
How do you assess the foreign policy of Prime Minister Edi Rama, who earlier this year angered some Bulgarians with his ironic statements about Bulgarian policy towards North Macedonia. Until the adoption of the so-called French proposal for a settlement of the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute, Bulgaria had stopped the start of negotiations on Macedonia’s accession to the EU, and therefore the start of negotiations with Albania, which was considered to be in package with North Macedonia…
Bulgaria never hindered Albania in its European integration process. It is a matter of hypocrisy – some Western European countries (France, the Netherlands, Denmark) did not want Albania to start accession negotiations and “bundled” it with the Republic of North Macedonia, without any justification for using this pretext; hypocritical is also Edi Rama, who tried to cover his government’s failures with accusations against Bulgaria, but also to bet on bundling with Skopje as a kind of guarantee that Albania would not receive a veto from any Western European country.
Albania’s integration into the EU has faced and continues to face obstacles of various kinds. It is not possible to deal with all of them, but it is worth mentioning the actions of Rama, who, as leader of the then opposition Socialist Party, blocked, between 2010 and 2012, the adoption by Parliament of laws important to the European integration process because of his claims to local power in the Iron City. After that, Rama, now as prime minister, ignored resolutions by the German and Austrian parliaments setting specific conditions for Albania to start negotiations. In 2019, when North Macedonian leaders wanted Skopje to secede from Tirana because the start of negotiations had been blocked by France due to problems over the political asylum claims in France of tens of thousands of Albanians, Edi Rama insisted on a “package” move. The failures of Rama’s three successive governments in the fight against corruption and organised crime will continue to be a major stumbling block to Albania’s European integration.
The other problems in this direction will continue to come from Greece, which succeeded in imposing in the negotiating framework adopted in June the settlement of its territorial disputes with Albania (in particular the maritime border) as a condition for Albanian accession to the EU. Tirana’s official problems with Greece have other dimensions, linked to Greece’s relinquishment of all claims to restitution of property and other rights to the heirs of Albanians expelled from Epirus in 1944, the modification of all teaching materials in Albania referring to Albanian heritage on Greek territory, the rights of the Greek minority in Albania and other issues of a similar nature. Greek officials clearly state that Albania’s accession to the EU can only be achieved after full and strict implementation of all Greek requirements.
The Bulgarian minority in Albania
Albania recognised the existence of a Bulgarian minority on its territory in October 2017. The existence of an Aromanian minority is also recognised there, with Bulgarians and Aromanians often living in the same areas – for example, in Korça. What is the state of these two communities today? To what extent can Bulgaria and Romania cooperate in Albania, given that there are links between Bulgarians and Aromanians there?
This recognition was a success of Bulgarian policy and was above all the result of the active work of local Bulgarian organisations, supported by Bulgarian institutions and MEPs. Bulgaria made such attempts in the period 1913-1914, as well as in the early 1930s, but despite the fact, repeatedly acknowledged by the Albanian authorities, that compact Bulgarian Christian and Muslim communities live on Albanian territory, for various reasons this was not formalised. I am not familiar with the situation of the Bulgarian community in Albania, but they enjoy the rights laid down in the Albanian Constitution and laws. To some extent, Albanian Bulgarians are also supported by private Bulgarian institutions and foundations.
A census will soon take place in Albania (already postponed several times) which will show how many Albanian citizens declare themselves Bulgarians. In this case, the conflict is between political activists of the so-called Macedonian minority, which was officially recognised in the early years of Enver Hoxha’s regime on the basis of reciprocity with Yugoslavia. These activists, with the help of Skopje, are systematically threatening Albanian citizens with Bulgarian identity for the census and more active support from Bulgarian institutions is needed for the implementation of cultural projects of Bulgarians there. In such a situation, I do not think that the representatives of the Albanian community or the Romanian state would seek cooperation with the Bulgarian organisations in the area or with Bulgaria, because they would be taking part in the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute.
Albania’s foreign policy course after the severing of ties with Iran
What do you think is next for Albania’s foreign policy relations? Is this escalation with Iran similar to that caused by the intensification of contacts between Taiwan and Lithuania, one of many acts in international relations that was the result of tensions between the United States and its rivals in Asia?
Edi Rama has stated several times that Albania’s strategic partners, apart from the US, are Italy, Greece and Turkey. In this context, it should be noted that Albania, especially under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, strictly follows the US foreign policy line, and this is very clear, for example, from Albania’s support for resolutions in the UN General Assembly, as well as in the UN Security Council, where Albania started its term as a non-permanent member from the beginning of 2022. Albania is also active in Serbia’s “Open Balkans” initiative and the involvement of Turkey, Hungary and Italy is being sought. Albania has fairly limited contacts with Asian countries, with efforts by the authorities in Tirana focused on attracting investment from wealthy Arab countries. It is fair to predict that these will be the main directions of Albanian foreign policy in the coming years, alongside the main objective – progress in EU accession negotiations.
Photo: Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (source: YouTube)