On January 17, 2022, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Albania with an agenda that included the inauguration of infrastructural works, specifically the apartment complex built in Lac with the funds of the Turkish government, to shelter families affected by the 2019 earthquake that hit Albania, resulting in 51 people dead, over 1000 wounded and 17.000 others displaced. Turkish-funded works included the restoration of 2 schools and a square that, as a sign of gratitude, was named “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”. The “Honorary Citizen” title was awarded to the President of Turkey.
In addition, the Turkish President inaugurated the Ethem Bey Mosque in the center of Tirana, a valuable and unique monument of the Ottoman Era in Albania, restored by TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency).
The plan included strengthening bilateral ties, which was finalized by signing seven cooperation agreements. During the meeting, Turkish President Erdogan and Prime Minister Edi Rama praised the close cooperation between the two countries, especially in economics, culture, law enforcement, etc. According to the latest report on Foreign Trade in Albania, Turkey ranks second after Italy in terms of the value of exchanges, thus making Turkey an important strategic partner.
It is worth noting that the meeting was discussed in terms of ‘brotherhood between the countries’. “What I want to emphasize is the principle-belief that the sign of brotherhood is not to come when called, but to come when the brother is in need. Therefore, we will continue to stand by you”, President Erdogan stated.
But does this brotherhood come unconditionally?
If we see the continuation of the meeting and the words of the President himself: “It deeply harms our nation that FETO can still operate in … Albania. In the coming period, our sincerest expectation is that more concrete, persistent and swift steps will be taken against FETO structures in Albania,” we can say that the brotherhood comes with a request, if not with a condition.
“FETO” is the so-called organization of supporters of the exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen that Erdogan and his government accused of being a terrorist organization as well as of orchestrating the failed 2016 putsch that killed over 270 people.
“It wounds our nation that had its children martyred that FETO can still find areas of activity in friend and sibling Albania,” Erdogan said.
The beginnings of Gülen’s investments started in Albania in 1992 with the opening of the “Mehmet Akif” college for boys, and now it controls the traditional Islamic schools in Albania, known as Turkish madrasas and colleges, as well as operates in different other organizations.
The organization has a significant impact in the Balkans. According to data published by the Turkish Anadolu News Agency, it operates in about 40 schools, including 15 schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 12 in Albania, 7 in Macedonia, 5 in Kosovo, and one in Serbia.
The pressure of the Turk government on the Balkan countries in this regard began in 2016. The government stopped the Turkish-owned schools from using Turkey’s flag and other symbols. Since then, Albania has officially refused to act with the Turkish authorities for the hand of most members of the Gülen movement.
Moreover, since 2016 Albania has not allowed the takeover of the Gülen-affiliated educational institutions by the Turkish-state-run Maarif Foundation, but the Albanian Government gave permission to Maarif Foundation to open their own schools.
About the condition set on January 17, the head of the Albanian government said that Albania owes nothing to Erdogan or Turkey, just as neither Turkey nor Erdogan owe Albania anything. “There are no debts between friends and brothers,” Rama said, thus responding again to Erdogan’s request against the Gülen Movement with refusal.
This meeting was widely discussed in local and foreign media. The local press commented that the conference coincided with the 554th anniversary of the national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti (Skanderbeg), the symbol of Albanian resistance to the occupation of the Ottoman Empire in Albanian territories and beyond throughout the Balkans. Through a lengthy article posted on social networks, Prime Minister Edi Rama reacted by listing some points that, according to him, show that there is no connection between the two events.
Opinion leaders and politics analysts in Albanian saw this meeting not as a brotherhood but as a “vassal”. According to them, his expressed brotherhood makes Albania fewer Western-oriented, values that Albania has embraced. This was also commented in the Greek media where earlier, the Penta Postagma had viewed the visit’s purpose to allow Erdogan to unify Greater Albania, which according to the article, he saw as a province of the Great Empire.
In conclusion, we can say that Turkey’s involvement in Albania and the Balkans, in general, is part of its larger strategy: It seeks to improve its image as an honest partner through economic and humanitarian aid in the Balkans and draw away attention from the EU. As a medium-long term objective, Turkey aims to increase its influence in Europe, strengthening its hand and presence through continuous debates with the EU.
By Xhina Cekani