The protests of the students of the “Mehmet Akif” boarding school in Tirana – Youtube

The protests of the students of the “Mehmet Akif” boarding school in Tirana – Youtube

One week after the start of the lessons, on 22 September, the Albanian government suddenly closed the 'Mehmet Akif' Turkish women's boarding school in Tirana. A drastic decision with unclear reasons. The interference of the Turkish authorities is in the shadows

11/10/2022 -  Gentiola Madhi

Under a grey sky that threatens an imminent rain, a group of girls march in protest towards the government headquarters in Tirana. Some put on the sidewalk cups won in international competitions, chanting in chorus: "Cancel the closure of the school!". They are the students of the Turkish "Mehmet Akif" boarding high school, who for the umpteenth day protest against the arbitrary decision of the government, taken on 22 September, a week after the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

With a broken voice, a student talks about her disappointment and the shattering of ambitions for a quality education that she believes could change her life. She comes from a remote area in the north of Albania, where time has stopped and economic hardship prevails over women's emancipation. Thanks to her scholarship she could dream big.

The same happened a few days earlier to the "Zubeyde Hanim" kindergarten, attended by 255 children and owned by a company registered in the Netherlands by citizens of Turkish origin. It is not the first time this has happened. In 2020, the government closed two madrasas and the Memorial International School in Tirana following a similar script.

The school of the elite

Founded in 1996 by the Gulistan Foundation, the 'Mehmet Akif' boarding school quickly became a reference point in Albania for quality teaching in a foreign language (mainly English and Turkish). In a country torn apart by the 1997 conflict and the political instability that followed, the boarding school – characterised by rigour and discipline and enjoying an excellent public image – offered parents security and a passport to the future for their daughters.

Over the years up to 2,000 students from all over the country have taken part in the entrance test - mostly excellent students, recipients of scholarships. Over time, many graduates have become part of the Albanian intellectual elite.

The pretext of the government

The fate of the 159 students currently enrolled in the college changed with the sudden decision of the government, that also specified the duties of the institution regarding the transfer of students to other schools and the reimbursement of fees. But the reason for which the license is revoked or any violation of current regulations is not indicated.

In a post on Facebook, Minister of Education Evis Kushi made it clear that the revocation took place because the college committed "a series of violations of current legislation", as it held the lessons in a location other than the authorised one. The minister rejected speculations on the real causes of the decision, related to frequent pressure exerted by the Turkish authorities on the closure of all schools linked to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, former political ally of President Erdogan.

The school representatives claim they had officially communicated to the ministry in June the request for the transfer of the headquarters, carrying out the necessary interventions to make the spaces in accordance with the law, and had not received any feedback on the matter. They reiterate that this decision "has nothing to do with education or the implementation of the laws of the country". As reported in the press release of the Albanian section of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, the on-site visit of the representatives of the ministry took place only on September 14, two days after the start of the lessons, and recorded that the headquarters did not comply with certain criteria, without however setting a deadline to fix the issue.

Given the public reaction, Prime Minister Rama initially reacted on Twitter, arguing that "the students of the closed school must protest against the owners who have sold the school building and moved the business elsewhere, without obtaining the necessary permission". The historic building of the college is actually owned by the Municipality of Tirana, which has granted use to the Gulistan Foundation for 30 years.

Later, in a speech for the media, the premier returned to the issue denying firmly that the decision is in any way related to the demands made by the Turkish President for the closure of Turkish schools.

Erdogan’s insistence

"We expect Albania to take measures against FETO and not allow our relations to be damaged", Erdogan said last 17 January in front of the Albanian parliament. He was on an official visit to Albania to inaugurate the 522 apartments built with Turkish funds in the city of Lac, in favour of families who lost their homes during the 2019 earthquake. The year before a hospital had been donated in Fier, worth 40 million Euros, inaugurated a few days before the policies of April 2021.

Leveraging on the special friendship that binds him to Albania, Erdogan publicly reiterated in January that the Turkish people were "deeply hurt" by the fact that the Gulen movement continued its work undisturbed, reiterating Tirana's need to take all measures necessary to avoid the worst. Thus, the friendship rather resembles a transaction and exchange of political favorus. At the same time, more than a warning, his statement was interpreted as a precondition for the development of future relations between the two countries.

Since the 2016 coup attempt, Turkish authorities have exerted continued pressure on Tirana, with an ambivalent government response. Faced with the challenges that emerged from the earthquake and pandemic, Tirana however accepted various aid but not without costs: it increased its dependence on Turkey. In addition, the close personal relationship between Rama and Erdogan has raised perplexity in public opinion: their frequent meetings are in fact accompanied by little transparency. The risk is that over time the boundary between interstate and commercial relations between the two countries will further blur, leading to personalisation of power and interests.

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