A memorial built in Tirana’s central park for the fallen of the failed Turkish coup in 2016 has been publicly shunned. Turkey’s assertive foreign policy toward the region, and Rama’s close personal relationship with Erdogan has many worried about Ankara’s malign influence in Albania.
Politics of Space
Turkey and Albania enjoy a strong bilateral relationship. For decades these ties have been bolstered by increased trade, people to people exchanges and aid. Yet, the formers association with the Ottoman period is often contentious in Albania. Its neo-ottoman approach to Albania in particular and Albanians in general continues to cast doubts over Turkey’s influence, as in the case of the monument.
The monument was built by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) to mark the third anniversary of the failed coup, an event which has by enlarge defined Turkey’s domestic politics ever since. Its ramifications are being felt by small Balkan countries as Ankara seeks to diminish the influence of Fethullah Gülen and his FETO organization which Turkey blames for the coup.
FETO has a strong presence in Albania through its educational institutions, considered the best of the country, where children of the country’s elite are educated. The influence of the Gülen movement on the next generation of Albanian leader is seen as a threat to the Turkish government. As a result, Turkey’s efforts to undermine the organization and its representatives have been multidimensional and assertive.
In 2016, the Turkish embassy in Tirana submitted a request to local authorities through which it sought to ban FETO schools from using Turkish symbols such as the flag or being identified with the country. To curb their influence, Ankara has deployed Maarif Foundation, a state organization created in the aftermath of the coup, to challenge FETO’s educational presence in the world. Three years since and Maarif has vastly expanded its presence in Southeast Europe, and Albania in particular. Through a series of acquisitions, among which Tirana’s highly regarded University of New York, Ankara is seeking to outmuscle and undermine FETO’s reputation and influence.
In addition, for over three years, Turkey has pressured Balkan governments, including Albania, to extradite designated FETO representatives whom it dubs dangerous to both Turkey and host countries, and holds them responsible for playing their part in the coup. Last year, six designated representatives of the organization were forcefully deported through questionable coordinated action by Kosovo by the Turkish and Kosovar intelligence services. A parliamentary investigation conducted in its aftermath found that 31 laws and procedures were breached in the process. Kosovo’s Prime Minister claimed to have not been informed.
What happened in Kosovo should serve Albania and other countries as a warning sign of Turkey’s intent to bully allies, export its domestic problems and undermine local laws. Instead, ever since, the government of Albania led by Edi Rama has forged a closer alliance, both at the institutional and personal level. Until now, Tirana has not complied with the request, but recent developments point to a change of approach.
Recently, Rama paid an unexpected visit to Turkey where he met with the Turkish president at his residence in Marmaris. Days afterward, the Interior Minister of Turkey paid a visit to Albania and was received by both Rama and Sander Lleshaj, Albania’s Minister of Interior. The Turkish minister gave a carefully planned interview for Turkish media. Standing tall in front of the monument, inaugurated weeks before by the local Turkish ambassador following a “Triumph of Democracy March” from Tirana’s main boulevard, he noted that his counterparts’ approach toward the Gülen Movement, pleased Turkey and him personally.
Locals, largely deprived of information on the matter, were left wondering if this marked a new beginning in the government’s approach toward FETO. Others were infuriated by the lack of transparency and institutional consideration due to the missing significance of the event or the victims to Albania. Notably, the Municipal Council had not discussed, nor approved its construction.
This usurpation of public space for a monument with no connection to Tirana or Albanian citizens is telling for two reasons. First, the lack of consideration for due processes by local authorities demonstrates how disturbingly unaccountable and weak they could be. The construction of the monument is important for another reason; it exposes Turkey’s intent to export its internal political problems abroad. More worryingly, it shows Ankara’s ability to impose its own agenda in Albania.
The government of Albania has provided no public justification for the construction. Instead, it has resorted to silence typically used for publicly unpopular matters. Tirana municipality has been equally non-transparent. The only reaction to date has come from the mayor who sufficed to say, “Tirana has enough space for all.” This intentional avoidance of accountability is telling for the nature of bilateral relations between Turkey and Albania.
Given the monuments lack of connection with Albania, both the local and the central government were susceptible to public backlash its construction would ignite. This explains the governments missing justification and its attempt to keep a low profile. This is the reason government officials, including the media savvy Mayor of Tirana sought to avoid appearing at the ceremony.
Following strong reactions against its construction in social media, the municipality has provided guarded the monument from potential vandalism. A video of an elderly gentlemen challenging the guards was captured by the media and went viral for its content. In the video, he dubbed the monument an attempt to export Turkey’s problems to Albania by Erdogan. An anonymous letter left at the monument captured the essence of objection, noting: “Respect for those who don’t live anymore, but this monument does not belong to us, it belongs to our former occupiers.”
To such reactions, some locals who seemed unbothered by the presence of the monument, refuted these claims and added that such language and opposition is indicative of the Turkophobia or Islamophobia that exists among Albanians. Yet, the gentleman whose video went viral specifically disclosed he is a practicing Muslim and his last name was Islam. An Imam based in New York reacted by saying that such “Islamists” were confusing a stance against Erdogan as a stance against Turkey or Islam, the religion.
Days later, news broke out that the monument had been vandalized. Press reactions were more composed while neither the municipality nor the embassy have publicly reacted to the act. Even the state police, which daily releases a composed list of police operations has not reported on the act. A few days after the incident, a blurred picture of a middle-aged man extracted from CCTV cameras was circulated in local media channels. Yet, to date, the identity of the author or authors remain unknown.
The incident adds more to the mystery surrounding the construction of the monument. Its vandalism contributes to the list of questions that remain unanswered. It is unclear whether Turkish authorities will seek an explanation for the vandalism and ask for its reconstruction. Either way, the public has had its say by shunning the monument prior to vandalism. What remains to be seen is whether local authorities and the embassy have received the memo.
Turkish – Albanian or Rama – Erdogan Cooperation?
The impact of the personal, be it of attitude, character or skill is unavoidable in international affairs. Yet, in terms of Albania’s bilateral relations with Turkey, it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw the line between Turkish and Albanian institutional relations, and personal ties of Mr. Rama and Mr. Erdogan.
While this may be indicative of the nature of governance in both countries where institutions are bent to the will of their leaders, this is hardly a sustainable approach for bilateral relations. This should serve as a warning to Albania and other Western Balkan countries that avoiding institutional accountability and cozying up with authoritarian leaning regimes has its drawbacks. It is for this reason they must be mindful of the nature of cooperation they seek with such partners.
After all, bilateral relations between Turkey and Albania cannot evolve solely on the merits of the relationship between their respective leaders. Even more importantly, cooperation between Ankara and Tirana must first and foremost reflect public interest on both countries. Undermining accountability is hardly the way to reflect this, nor a good foundation on which to build a sustainable partnership. And when governments, including municipalities shun scrutiny and criticism on affairs such as the construction of the monument, the public is right to believe its leaders are susceptible to unsolicited foreign influence.