Erdogan's pain in the neck
Text by Alessandra Briganti
Pictures by Ivo Saglietti
Disputed Albania, Erdogan’s Pain in the Neck
“There are three million of us and we are all cousins, we know everything about everyone here”. It is like a collective mantra which you hear often when travelling through Albania. And yet, even in the best of families, there is always something that it is preferable not to reveal, or at least, not say out loud. And so, in the land of eagles, things are disclosed without being said. Behind the veil of formalism, an underground battle is taking place. A battle which dates back to 15 July 2016, an ordinary Friday when Turkey, under Recep Tayyp Erdogan, began its metamorphosis. The night of the failed coup put an end to Turkish democracy and opened a new chapter in the country’s history. A chapter made of persecutions, summary trials, arbitrary arrests. Caught in the crosshairs was Feto, the movement led by Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen and his alleged or actual affiliates. Man-hunting obsessed the Rais. A hunt which crossed Turkey’s frontiers, and which violated alliances consolidated over the decades. No one was spared. Neither the United States, where the alleged leader of the coup lived, nor Europe, guilty of turning its back on its Turkish ally that night. And not even the Balkans, the region where Erdogan invested so much in terms of money and minarets with the illusion of reviving the Ottoman empire.
One country in this corner of the world is under special surveillance: Albania. It is considered the “centre of Gulen activities in the Balkans,” as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defined it. And it is not due to chance. Since the fall of the communist regime, Gulen, at the time supported by the Rais, began to take over the commanding centre of the Albanian state through organizations, establishing a profound rooting, especially in those institutions where Albania’s current and future elite were forged: some of the country’s most prestigious schools, universities, cultural centers. A new course of relations developed between Ankara and Tirana. For five centuries Albania had always been the Ottoman Empire’s land of conquest despite the Albanian princes’ attempts to resist, first and foremost national hero Skanderbeg. Those were the years of Albania’s conversion to Islam, and to this day Albania remains one of the few European countries with a Muslim majority.
Turkish rule of Albania had already come to an end before the fall of the Ottoman empire. However, mistrust between the two countries did not cease. A mistrust which was to be overcome only following the debacle of communism and the Balkan wars, when Ankara strived to avoid the conflict expanding to Albania. The former invader became an ally, with Islam as the element of conjunction. A sunny Spring day. Namazgah park is buzzing with people, casually strolling past the mosque of discord. Until a short while ago Muslim worshippers had the habit of spending the night there. They requested that a mosque be built, as promised in 2010 by Tirana’s mayor Edi Rama and before that, in the nineties by former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
Communism had transformed Albania into the only atheist country in the world. Mosques, cathedrals, orthodox churches were destroyed, abandoned, confiscated, converted into museums. Then the period of reconstruction of places of worship ensued. For all religions except Islam. A discriminated majority, according to Albanian writer Fatos Lubonja, because theirs continued to be considered the “religion of the invaders”. The paradox was resolved years later by Erdogan. With a 30 million Euro investment, the Turkish Raìs contributed to the construction of the Great Mosque in Tirana. Not the first, nor the last, but certainly the most monumental in the Balkans.
“The Mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, the faithful our soldiers,” recited Erdogan in 1997, quoting the verses by Ziya Gokalp and for which he was condemned to ten months of prison, accused of inciting religious hatred. However, those verses represented a lot more. Erdogan’s was a true political manifesto. Over the last years, Turkey had intensified its support to Islamic communities throughout the world, including Albania. He did so through his governmental humanitarian agency (Tika), and his powerful Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), two institutions which played a key role in the restoration of Ottoman-era cultural institutions and in financing mosques, religious associations and mobility programs for youngsters to study in the Middle East.
The road connecting Ankara to Tirana is not only dotted with minarets but also paved with investments and commercial exchanges. The investments made in Albania last year by Turkish companies such as Kurum, ALB telecom, Eagle Mobile and Bkt the country’s major credit institution, controlled by the Turkish group Kalik, amounted to more than two billion Euros. While future investments include the construction of Vlora airport, with the allocation of a total of 90 million Euros made by the same companies that contributed to the construction of Istanbul airport. The project also ties up with the launch of Air Albania, the first national airline, thanks to a massive investment by Turkish Airlines which owns 49% of the property.
Since the free trade agreement was enforced in 2008, Albania and Turkey have intensified commercial exchanges. Last year the volume of trade between the two countries amounted to just under 400 million Euros according to reports by Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. An important figure, making Turkey a fundamental partner in Albania’s economic growth. And yet the idyll between Tirana and Ankara now risks being shattered. It is said without telling, but the thorn in the side is once again him, Fetullah Gulen. The attempted coup had not yet been staged when for the first time Erdogan asked for all Albanian schools with ties to the Gulen Movement, which according to Turkish authorities were attended by 6500 students, to be shut down. It was May 2015. The reply came from Albanian President Bujar Nishani in these words: «The head of State declares that the schools do not represent a threat, neither for Albania nor for Turkey». And to make his message all the more powerful, the next day he visited Tirana’s Turgut Özal College, one of the schools closely tied to the Gulen organization.
The day after the coup the situation began to deteriorate. Ankara insistently asked the Albanian Minister of the Interior to investigate the proceeds and activities of schools, foundations, NGOs, cultural centres and hospitals believed to be owned by the Gulen organization. From Tirana to Scutari, from Kavaja to Elbasan and Berat. The Gulen network spanned across Albania and investigations, searches and inquiries needed to be made throughout the country. Yet Tirana resisted Turkish pressure and accused the country of interfering in Albania’s internal affairs.
March 2019. The underground conflict surfaces and reaches the heart of Albania’s Muslim community. In the very days of the election of Albania’s Grand Mufti. Previously the position was held by Skender Brucaj, accused by the Turkish media of being a member of the Gulen Movement. Brucaj suddenly dropped out of the race to replicate his mandate only a few days before elections. Behind this decision was, once again, Erdogan who rumour has it, threatened not to participate in the inauguration of Tirana’s Grand Mosque that same year. But plans failed. And another Gulen supporter, Bujar Spahiu, Muftì of Elbasan was elected.