On 17 January, Turkish President Erdogan visited Albania. The two countries enjoy a close relationship but the delayed common process toward EU membership and human rights concerns on Gulen’s movement repression cast a shadow on it
On 17 January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Albania. Accompanied by a large state delegation, Ankara's head of state and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama inaugurated a residential complex in the northern town of Lac, with 522 housing units, 37 commercial properties, and a 375-vehicles parking lot. Turkey invested 42 million Euros to build the whole complex as a donation for Albania, hit by a devastating earthquake in November 2019. After this ceremony the two high officials also inaugurated in Tirana the Hajji Et'hem Bey Mosque, recently renovated by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency . Seven bilateral agreements were signed regarding cooperation in the fields of natural disaster management, governmental press agencies, diplomatic protocol, law enforcement training, state archives, and culture.
This was the first foreign visit of the Turkish president in 2022 and signals a further strengthening of the close bilateral relationship between the countries, officially committed to turn it into a full strategic partnership. Bilateral cooperation has reached high levels following Turkish aid in Tirana to deal with the consequences of the earthquake and the Covid-19 pandemic (through the logistical assistance to obtain the CoronaVac vaccine and the rapid construction of a hospital in Fier) and the close personal relationship between Erdogan and Rama.
For Albania, Turkey is an important bridge as a NATO member country linking the Alliance with the Middle East, while Albania (together with Montenegro) offers Turkey an Eastern Adriatic route. In the Balkan peninsula, Ankara plays a role as a regional power, achieved through free trade agreements (the one with Albania has been in force since 2008), extensive interstate diplomacy, cultural influence deriving from the common heritage coming from the era of Ottoman rule in the area, and investment in education.
After the end of the Ottoman period, a friendship treaty between Turkey and Albania was signed in 1923 as the basis for an interstate relationship, which has remained in very good terms since then. However, in 2012 there was a strong diplomatic disagreement when Sali Berisha, Rama’s predecessor, let down Erdogan’s (then Prime Minister) expectation to have Tirana aligned on his diplomatic lobbying to accord Palestine non-member observer state status at the United Nations. Taking into account the US' opposition, Albania abstained at the UN’s General Assembly vote.
Prime Minister after defeating Berisha in 2013, Rama set himself the goal of improving the relationship, seeing Turkey as an ally of the whole Albanian factor in the Balkans and Albania in particular. Both diplomacies promptly recognised Kosovo’s independence in 2008 and struggle to support the reconition process while keeping a constructive connection with Serbia, which still considers the Albanian-majority state as a breakaway province. After the earthquake of 2019 Erdogan, in addition to the construction in Lac, committed to collect financial aid to Albania from the member countries of the Islamic Development Bank. In January 2021 in Ankara the two leaders signed a joint political declaration to create a high-level Strategic Cooperation Council. Turkey aims at increasing its diplomatic presence in the Land of Eagles by opening a new consulate in the southern Albanian town of Vlora.
Economic exchange between the two countries has been growing for years, with Turkey second trading partner of Tirana (after Italy) and fifth in terms of monetary value of the FDI stock in the country, which up to September 2021 reached 2.025 billion Euros and are mainly concentrated in the processing, mining, and energy industries. About 15,000 Albanians work in Turkish-run businesses across the country. In the field of air infrastructure, Turkish Airlines holds 49% of the shares of the Albanian national airline Air Albania, while in 2018 a Turkish consortium consisting of the companies Cengiz, Kalyon, and Kolin submitted an official request for the construction of the planned Vlora international airport, withdrawing the offer a year later. Ankara invests heavily in cultural “soft power”: Yunus Emre cultural centres operate in Tirana and Shkoder and the construction and renovation of new mosques is financed throughout the country, with Namazgah's destined to become the largest in the Balkans. The Maarif Foundation, financed by the Ministry of Education, runs a university and several schools.
In a very close relationship, the only cloud is the FETÖ factor. As estimated, many Turkish citizens considered to be members of the movement founded by Fethullah Gulen live in Albania. Ankara officially labels FETO a terrorist organisation and blames it for the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016. In 2020, the UN reacted with concern to the expulsion from Albania to Turkey of a Turkish citizen arrested by Albanian authorities for trying to enter the country on a forged visa and considered by Ankara a member of Gülen’s movement (he had been sentenced to 8 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organisation). After meeting Rama in 2021, Erdogan declared that the authorities of the two countries were "in agreement" that FETO posed a threat to both countries. In his speech to the Tirana Parliament on 17 January, the Turkish president explicitly stated: “We expect Albania to take immediate measures against FETO structures in the country and not allow our relations to be poisoned. In the next visits that I will carry out in Albania I hope that the matter will be definitively resolved”.
The EU should be a very interested observer of Turkish penetration in the Western Balkans because the latter could undermine its influence. In 2018, French President Macron, one of the leaders of the Union, explicitly stated that he did not want to see the region turn towards Ankara or Moscow, but nevertheless their appeal has not faded since then and Paris is reluctant to accept the full membership of the 6 Balkan candidate countries. Pending the date for the first intergovernmental conference of accession negotiations with Brussels, Albania – together with Skopje – is intensifying regional approaches by promoting the Open Balkan Initiative with Serbia and North Macedonia, which aims to implement the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital between the three countries. The EU endorses this trilateral project and a common regional market in the Western Balkans. Recently invited by Rama to be more proactive in the area also in the digital transition, green, education, and emergency management, Brussels plans to hold a conference on the region during the current EU’s French presidency, while Turkey, formally also an aspiring EU member, has found a valuable ally in Tirana.
In January 2020 we dedicated an investigation to the pervasiveness of the authoritarianism of the Erdogan regime even beyond the borders of Turkey. Go to the 4 episodes
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