Albanian border-jumpers ask, who will save the collapsing EU, if not us?by Witold Szabłowski 29 June 2012
KONISPOL, Albania | The village consists of a few dozen houses picturesquely scattered across green hills. You can stay overnight in almost any of them; it costs a few euros. At any one of them you can also ask for someone to guide you across the border – as the crow flies it’s less than two kilometers from Konispol to Greece.
“My great-grandfather used to guide people across the mountains in the Turkish era,” boasts Jani, who earns money as a guide himself. In the strictest secrecy Jani tells me that he shows his customers the way to Igoumenitsa, 29 kilometers from Konispol, and sometimes even to Ioannina, 55 kilometers away.
“What’s it been like during the Greek crisis?” I ask him. “Fewer customers?”
“Quite the opposite! I used to come back from Greece empty handed. Anyone who went there stayed until he was caught and deported. But now more and more I have customers for the return journey too.”
“Do they come back because there’s no work in Greece for Albanians?” I ask.
“There is work,” Jani says. “More of it even, because we work for much less money and more reliably than the Greeks. Some of them regularly come home to bring back their cash – no one trusts the Greek banks any more. But some come back for good and set up business here. Albania is having its five minutes – you can do better here nowadays than in Greece.”
Jani’s words are confirmed by the figures. According to the Ministry of Finance, since the Greek crisis began 70,000 Albanians have returned home. That’s about 15 percent of those who’ve been working there.
“The returning immigrants have pumped at least 2 million euros into our economy,” former Deputy Finance Minister Florjon Mima reckons. For Albania, which for several years has been experiencing a level of economic prosperity never known here before, this is an additional stimulus for growth. “We still have high unemployment,” Mima adds. “But the returning emigrants are bringing in new ideas, new energy, and new strength. Their return is invaluable.”
A CAT AND MOUSE GAME
You have to make quite an effort to get to Konispol. The Albanians are fighting for the European Union to recognize them officially as a candidate for membership. One of the conditions is to secure their borders, regarded as the Achilles heel of the entire bloc, so the military and police checkpoints begin a dozen kilometers before you reach the village. I have no problem driving through them. But if an Albanian has no passport or has a stamp in it to say the bearer has been deported from Greece, he or she won’t get into Konispol.
In October 2008 five people drowned in Lake Butrint, trying to avoid the checkpoints by boat. “I’d never take a risk like that,” says Izeti Guri, shaking his head. The 17-year-old from nearby Gjirokaster paints fishing boats at a port in Greece. He walks across the border on his own. He saves money on a guide, and, as he says, he knows every step of the way. “I’ve already walked across to the Greek side eight times that way, and there’s no reason to risk your life. Even if the Greeks catch me, they’ll just take me back to Konispol. I’ll pay five euros for another night’s stay and in the morning I’ll try my luck again. And so on, until it works. Only people whose boss has told them to be at work on a specific day might take a risk. Luckily my boss is flexible.”
“And they’ve never caught you?”
“Only once, two years ago. I left Konispol and was daydreaming or something, and I ran straight into a patrol. They deported me, but they were kind enough to let me watch the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League on TV at the police station first.”
“And do they often catch people now?” I ask.
“Apparently they don’t catch anyone at all!” Izeti says enthusiastically. And repeats a story which people in Konispol have been passing around with an unconcealed tone of Schadenfreude: “The Greeks know that without the cheap workforce provided by the Albanians their economy will collapse even further this year,” he says. “We do all the worst-paid jobs, usually without tax and insurance too. The government in Athens can see that the Albanians are leaving. So they’re doing everything to keep us there.”
The police in Gjirokaster, the regional capital, have also noticed that the Greeks haven’t been all that strict about catching illegal immigrants recently. Officially, the spokesman for the local police tells me to go to the ministry in Tirana, or to his Greek counterpart. But unofficially his colleagues are very talkative.
“Lately the pressure on their side has eased off a lot,” one said, requesting that his name not be used. This was in the spell between the hung May elections and the new vote in June that finally produced a coalition government. “I don’t know whether it’s a strategy, or just general slackness. But since the [May] election … they give the impression of having completely ceased to protect the border.”
In 2009, the Greeks threw 50,000 Albanians out of their country. A further 20,000 were turned back by the Albanians and didn’t even get as far as border villages like Konispol. This year the figures are sure to be much lower, they told me in Gjirokaster. How that will affect the negotiations with the EU, no one knows.
Albania’s prospects for full-fledged membership talks with the European Union are now the main political talking point. In November Brussels is to say whether the country is ready for official candidate status. The Albanians sip coffee after coffee – it’s the national drink – and try to figure out where exactly they are on the chessboard of Europe.
“Our chances are slender,” says Gjergj Erebara, a reporter for the newspaper Shqip, frowning. “The ruling Albanian Democratic Party has made the union into an artificial hare that has to be pursued, but you’re not allowed to catch it, because then the corruption would have to stop and lots of local arrangements would have to come to an end. Nothing will come of it in November.”
Edi Rama, leader of the Albanian Socialist Party, the main opposition party, is ready to tear the ruling party to pieces: “The whole EU has seen how Prime Minister Sali Berisha has rigged one election after another, first the parliamentary, then the local government elections,” he says. Rama was the mayor of the capital, Tirana, for three terms, but lost the 2011 race in what he says was a very strange way: He was ahead in all the polls, and led by a handful of votes after the first count. The election committee then ordered a recount, which Rama lost by a slightly less microscopic margin.
The Socialists have never stopped blaming machinations by Berisha’s party for their defeat in the 2009 parliamentary elections. They boycotted parliament for months; when opposition parties led a big demonstration against the government in January 2011, security forces fired on the crowd, killing three and fatally injuring a fourth protester.
“To this day no one has answered for that. How can a country where things like that happen even think of joining the EU?” Rama asks.
An EU diplomat accredited to Tirana admits off the record: “Since the shootings Berisha has been boycotted by union leaders. For over a year no one, apart from [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, has been willing to meet with him. It’s hard to conduct sensible negotiations in these circumstances.”
Berisha, Erebara admits, is a very canny politician. “And he’s extremely good at diverting public attention away from the real problems” – as when the affair of the pride parade blew up.
ENTHUSIASTIC, UP TO A POINT
Edi Marku is almost 60, he has on a peaked cap of the type gentlemen of his age like to wear, and he’s holding a placard which says “Hands Off My Butt!” He is one of several dozen people protesting against the gay pride parade outside the parliament building in Tirana.
“You know, I’d very much like Albania to join the European Union,” he tells me. “The EU will help us to build roads, it’ll support us financially, and our young people will be able to study abroad – I’ve got two daughters who are students. But if the price is acceptance for degenerates, then we’ve got to do some more thinking about it.”
Sexual minorities stirred up a great debate once before in Albania, in 2009. At that time Berisha jumped way ahead not just of his own electorate, but most countries in the EU, when instead of responding to the first stirrings of anger over the elections, he announced his support for the legalization of homosexual marriages. The Albanian public erupted, but Berisha is the head of a conservative party that sympathizes with Muslim organizations, so there was nobody to oppose him.
Early this year, when the Pink Embassy association announced plans to stage the first gay pride parade in Tirana, everyone waited to see what the prime minister would say.
“All the journalists, as journalists do, began looking for someone who was against it,” Erebara tells me. “And they found someone – the deputy minister of defense. He said all gays should be kicked in the butt. Next day, as if on command, the U.S. Embassy and the European Union representation responded, saying that everyone in the Albanian government should remember to respect the rights of the homosexual minority. In this way, a few months before this important decision, the debate about joining the EU changed into a debate for or against homosexuality,” he says, shaking his head. “Do we really have no more serious problems?” he asks rhetorically. And starts listing the problems himself: “Unemployment is up to 15 percent, and for the young, educated people there are no other prospects but to leave for Italy.”
The problem with the pride parade solved itself: the Pink Embassy, fearing for the safety of the participants, decided to postpone it. Berisha is the master of similar games with public opinion. When in 2011 the opposition began to bring people on to the streets, he announced that his government had just started negotiating to bring back from India the body of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the most famous Albanian in the world, even though she was born in Macedonia. Indian diplomats rubbed their eyes in amazement, because no one had ever mentioned it to them. But the goal was met: Albania forgot about the government’s difficulties.
“It might work once or twice,” Erebara says. “This time too, everyone is talking more about gays than about negotiations with the EU. But in the long run Berisha will lose. The Albanians are the most pro-EU nation in Europe, and they can’t understand why we aren’t in the community yet.”
Indeed, Albanian enthusiasm for the EU is unmatched. In Turkey public support for joining the EU struggles to climb above 50 percent. Support has fallen sharply in Serbia, which bought its candidate status by handing over war crime suspects Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic to the Hague Tribunal. Even the EU’s next member Croatia is far more euroskeptic than Albania.
“Support for EU membership has remained at 97-98 percent for years,” Erebara says. “No country in the history of the union has ever had such results. Here, by contrast with Turkey, for example, even the hard-headed Muslims are euro-enthusiasts.”
“We definitely support our country’s entry into the European Union,” Agron Hoxha of the Muslim Community of Albania agrees.
But what is to be done with this enthusiasm, if Albania isn’t driving the negotiations forward? “They’re counting on being able to join the EU on credit,” an EU diplomat says. “They joined NATO, even though they haven’t fulfilled the requirements. However, the alliance recognized that Albania’s strategic position was important enough to turn a blind eye. But I don’t think they’ll manage it this time. Albania is too far from the union’s standards, and Europe – after the crisis in Greece – is becoming more principled about these things. The union is sure to make certain gestures – for instance, Albania already has visa-free travel to the Schengen area, and it has a very good trade agreement. But until the government really starts to change the country, there’s no question of starting negotiations.”
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?
Life in Konispol dies out after 8 o’clock at night. The candidates for emigration go to bed before then, because most of them get up at 4 a.m., eat the standard local B&B breakfast of boiled eggs, a tomato, and a roll with jam, drink coffee and set off so as to reach Igoumenitsa by evening.
Those who cannot get to sleep sit it out in the centrally located café. I’ve arranged to meet Izeti Guri here. He tells me in English everything he’s found out about his fellow countrymen sitting here.
“This man has a brother in Greece, and they run an office cleaning business together” – indicating a middle-aged man with a moustache. “That one has a Greek girlfriend and boasts to everyone that he’s going to marry her and get an EU passport.”
Pointing to a couple sipping Coca-Cola by the wall, he says, “And this one could enter Greece legally, but his wife hasn’t got a passport.”
We sit down with the couple. In their early thirties, they’re from outside Tirana, and recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. Elton works in Thessaloniki demolishing buildings. His wife Zhujeta used to work as a secretary in a school. “A new principal came in and he hired a friend of his in my place,” she says. “I was left without a job. Elton asked the people where he works, and we were lucky. I’m going to work on an olive plantation.”
“Are you going away for long?”
Elton and Zhujeta look at each other. “At most a few months,” she says. “We have a 9-year-old daughter. She stayed behind with her grandmother. We’ll be missing her.”
“Life in Albania is getting better all the time,” Elton says. “We’ll put aside a few thousand euros and try to set up a small business, maybe a shop or a driving school – I used to earn some extra cash as an instructor, so I’d manage.”
“And why don’t you stay in Greece?”
“You know,” Elton muses, “I’ve been going there for 12 years. I’ve never heard a single good word from a Greek. The only thing they ever write in the papers is that we rob them, and they burn our flags and tell us to fuck off back to Albania. One time I worked for a guy who ran off with the money and never paid me a penny for six months’ hard slog, and I didn’t even have anywhere to report it. And suddenly, when the crisis began, they started to respect us! Even the tabloids have changed their tune – until now they only ever wrote about us to say that some Albanian murdered someone.”
The man with the Greek girlfriend, Jovan, feels the same way.
“Only a year ago my fiancée’s parents had a problem with her having a boyfriend from Albania. They refused to meet me,” he says. “They made jokes about keeping the car keys away from me. And now? They’ve invited me to dinner, they ask if there’s some way they can help me. I went to university in Shkoder, so my future father-in-law himself has started asking me how I can get my diploma validated.”
“Why the change?”
“They can see that they can’t manage without our manpower.”
“Only we can save Greece now,” someone says quite seriously, and the others nod.
“You see? The future of the entire EU is in our hands. But you bastards refuse to let us in,” 17-year-old Izeti says, laughing.