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[OPINION] Albanian leader Rama becomes Erdoğan’s pasha

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Türkmen Terzi

Albania’s charismatic Prime Minister Edi Rama, the only Albanian prime minister in history to have won three parliamentary elections in a row, has been hard at work establishing a personal friendship with Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Albanian government’s decision to shut down schools affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement came as a surprise and serves as a clear indication that Rama was unable to resist Erdoğan’s tempting offers.

The Albanians are an ethnic group native to the Balkan Peninsula with a population of less than 3 million and remain immensely proud of their resistance to foreign invasions throughout history, including against Ottoman Turks. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has succeeded in coaxing many governments on different continents to shut down Gülen-affiliated schools. Rama initially rejected Erdoğan’s request calling for a crackdown on the followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen in Albania. “We have no debt towards the president of Turkey and Turkey, just as the president of Turkey and the Republic of Turkey owe us nothing because there can be no debt between friends and a brotherly friendship,” Rama said during an address at the Socialist Party headquarters following Erdoğan’s visit to Tirana on Jan. 17 of this year.

During his visit to Albania Erdoğan harshly criticized the Gülen movement in an address to the Albanian parliament. Erdoğan accuses Gülen movement members of orchestrating a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, although the movement strongly denies any involvement. Erdoğan’s speech was perceived in the assembly as an attempt at meddling by a foreign leader, and Rama stated on Albanian TV that his government had no evidence that Gülen supporters posed a threat to Albania, Albanian newspapers reported at the time. On the other hand, Rama and Erdoğan took part in the signing ceremony of a range of agreements between the two countries involving disaster and emergency management, the media, state archives, culture and art, security and youth and sports. Moreover, Rama attended the opening ceremony of the 5th Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey’s central province of Konya on Aug. 9 as a special guest of Erdoğan together with his Azerbaijani, Palestinian, Algerian and Turkish Cypriot counterparts.

The next day, Rama and Erdoğan had a closed-door meeting that reportedly lasted over an hour at the presidential complex in Ankara. The Turkish presidency revealed no details of the meeting. The Albanian prime minister also met with Erdoğan on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in March. It appears that after all these closed-door meetings, Erdoğan was eventually successful in convincing Rama to shut down the Gülen-affiliated schools because less than two months later, on Sept. 23, Rama’s minister of education, Evis Kushi, announced the closure of Mehmet Akif College.

Following a public outcry and student protests, Kushi confirmed on Facebook that “They [Mehmet Akif College] started the 2022-2023 academic year in another location and environment not approved by the Ministry of Education and Sports, which is without relevant legal certification in terms of building standards.” However, according to a statement from Mehmet Akif College, the school management only learned about the closure order from the media and plans on taking legal steps to challenge it. “The non-public High School ‘Mehmet Akif’ has been part of the Gulenist Foundation for 26 years in Albania, meticulously implementing the country’s legal framework, while enjoying a great history of success, as it has been consistently ranked at the top of the list of best schools,” Balkan Insight quoted the school as saying in a statement.

Rama also expressed anger following the student protests, saying that “the students should protest against the owners who sold the school building and moved elsewhere without obtaining permission.”

Turkey has funded the building of a 522-unit apartment complex at a cost of 42 euros million for Albanians who were left homeless by a magnitude 6.4 earthquake in 2019. Erdoğan and Rama attended a handing-over ceremony for the apartments in the northwestern town of Lac in January. Prime Minister Rama last August harshly criticized the European Union over its management of COVID-19 vaccine distribution since Albania did not receive vaccines for the coronavirus at the peak of the pandemic and instead received the vaccines from Turkey.

Rama’s flimsy excuses for closing his country’s first private school in post-communist Albania has received criticism from many Albanians as these schools are well known for their high-quality education in Albanian, English and Turkish for decades. Professor of Journalism at Tirana University Ervin Goci said that “education has been politicized,” and another professor, Erlis Cela, said the college was closed “because the Turkish President asked for this,” according to Balkan Insight.

Since Erdoğan’s visit to Albania in January, Rama has been calling Erdoğan his “friend,” going even further by saying it is more than a friendship and that it is a “brotherhood.” Rama’s close relationship is paying off because Albania has ordered the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones. Erdoğan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar is the chief technology officer of Baykar Makina, which produces Bayraktar combat drones. Rama said the drone agreement is worth $6 million. “These satellites will be followed very soon by [Bayraktar] drones. In line with new developments, we decided to complete them and buy combat drones,” Rama said at the signing of a satellite service contract between the Albanian National Civil Defense Agency and Satellogic USA to monitor the country with advanced defense and security technology, Turkey’s state-run broadcaster TRT reported.

Rama has been dogged by claims of corruption. Albanian opposition leader Lulzim Basha accused Rama of illegally donating 50 million euros to Albania’s ARMO refinery owner through unpaid taxes. Together with this, one of Rama’s closest associates is serving a 12-year sentence on charges of corruption, drug trafficking and being part of a criminal group.

Erdoğan and Rama have both been accused of corruption. Albania is a NATO member and an important ally for NATO member Turkey in southeastern Europe, with the region strategically important to Turkey due to historical and economic ties. But Rama’s personal friendship with autocrat Erdoğan will not help his country’s European Union membership accession process. Instead, the Albanian prime minister has already tarnished the image of his country in the democratic world by shutting down one of the best educational institutions in Albania.

Ottoman Turks ruled in Albania for 527 years, and many important pashas and grand viziers were ethnically Albanian. Ironically, Mehmet Akif, the name given to Turkish colleges in Albania, was ethnically Albanian.  Mehmet Akif is regarded as Turkey’s “national poet,” the composer of the lyrics of the Turkish national anthem, the “Independence March.” It appears that Edi Rama is less willing to obtain European Union membership than he is to become the pasha of “Sultan” Erdoğan.

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