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Greeks in Albania

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    Greeks make up the largest ethnic minority in Albania. According to the 1989 census, there were 58,758 Greeks in Albania. The 2011 census recorded 24,243 self-declared Greeks in Albania, comprising 0.87 percent of the resident population. Other estimates are much higher. The size of the Greek minority is especially contentious on account of the history of claims to southern Albania made by the Greek government in Athens, and of the substantial support within Greece and among Greeks in Albania, for the establishment of an autonomous district of ‘Northern Epirus’. Hopefully, the census that was held during the autumn of 2023 will provide more accurate figures for the Greek minority population.

    Historical context

    The origin of the Greek minority is disputed. Many Greeks claim descent from the Greek population which settled in the Albanian lands during the pre-Christian period. Other sources indicate that Greeks moved into the region only much later, for instance as indentured labourers during the Ottoman period. It is impossible to evaluate the accuracy of these divergent accounts, although it may be that all contain elements of truth. Certainly, there appears to be a continuous history of Greek settlement in several of the Albanian coastal cities. Most of the present Greek population is, however, concentrated inland, south of a line running roughly from Vlora to Korça.

    Assimilationist policies practised by the interwar governments led to the closure of Greek schools and to discriminatory measures against Greek Orthodox monasteries. After the communist take-over, a number of Greeks were appointed to high positions. In general, the communists were less interested in discriminating on grounds of ethnicity than they were in limiting religious practice. In this respect, the campaign against the churches hit the Greek minority disproportionately since affiliation to the Eastern Orthodox rite has traditionally been a strong component of Albanian Greek identity.

    After the reforms of 1990, Greek Orthodox churches were reopened. The pressure group, and subsequent political party for the promotion of Greek human rights, OMONIA (Sociopolitical Organization – Democratic Union of the Greek Minority), founded in January 1991, took an active role in securing the return of ecclesiastical properties. A particular difficulty, however, was the absence of a trained clergy, which has led to a strong reliance upon priests coming from Greece. Greek-language education was additionally expanded, and bilingual education was permitted in the first eight grades of elementary school.

    Nevertheless, tensions remained which are caused principally by fears of Greek irredentism. Having won five seats in the parliamentary election of March 1991, OMONIA was banned since it violated Law 7501 (1991) which forbade ‘formation of parties on a religious, ethnic and regional basis’. On behalf of OMONIA, the Unity for Human Rights Party contested the 1992 elections, and OMONIA continued as a member of this party. Following a border incident in 1994, provoked by Greek nationalists from Greece, six leaders of OMONIA were convicted of illegal arms possession, and of spying for Greece. Their trial was widely regarded as unfair and the six were subsequently released. In a separate incident in 1993, a Greek archimandrite, Chrysostomos Maidonis, was expelled on grounds of expressing ‘openly territorial claims’ and engaging in ‘the distribution of maps, leaflets and brochures that present and demand the hellenization and annexation of southern Albania to Greece’. Demonstrations in support of the archimandrite were violently suppressed by the Albanian police. The Greek government responded to the expulsion of the archimandrite and to the OMONIA trial by deporting in 1994 about 100,000 Albanians working illegally in Greece.

    Tensions continued and during the local government elections in Himare in October 2000 there were a number of incidents of hostility concerning the Greek minority, including tensions and nationalistic rhetoric that arose between the Albanian majority and Greek minority, as well as the defacing of a number of signposts in Greek in the south of the country.

    Current issues

    While violent incidents have declined in recent years, the ethnic Greek minority has pursued grievances with the government regarding electoral zones, Greek-language education, property rights and government documents. Minority leaders complain of the government’s unwillingness to recognize the possible existence of ethnic Greek towns outside communist-era ‘minority zones’; to utilize Greek on official documents and on public signs in ethnic Greek areas; to ascertain the size of the ethnic Greek population; and to include more ethnic Greeks in public administration. While Greek-language public elementary schools are common in the southern part of the country, where most ethnic Greeks live, OMONIA complains that the community needs more classes both within and outside the minority zones. Every village in the Greek zones has its own elementary-middle (nine-year) school in the Greek language, regardless of the number of students, which has declined in recent years due to emigration to Greece; Gjirokaster has two Greek-language high schools. Teacher training is available for teachers of the Greek national minority at the Pedagogical High School in Gjirokaster, and there is a Greek language branch at Gjirokaster University.

    Language issues affect Albania’s Greek minority in different ways. The national minorities legislation states that local authorities should provide conditions conducive to the use of minority languages. This applies to areas where national minorities traditionally live or make up at least 20 per cent of the local population. The bylaw to implement this provision fully was still pending at the end of 2023. Meanwhile, according to community representatives, the law is only applied in three municipalities: Dropuli, Finiq (where ethnic Greeks are in the majority) and Pustec (where ethnic Macedonians constitute the majority). Greek representatives complain that they have been forbidden from speaking Greek at local council meetings, even when all those present belong to their community. There are also reports that Greek minority children are taken into care in circumstances where no Greek is being spoken even when they do not speak Albanian. The Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) urged the authorities in 2023 to apply the 20 per cent rule flexibly, especially in areas where national minorities have traditionally lived.

    Property rights and restitution are critical issues facing the Greek minority in Albania. Although property and tenure are not surprisingly questions facing the whole country, given its recent communist past, districts largely populated by minorities are disproportionately affected. Two distinct patterns have been noted as occurring in ethnic Greek areas, according to the Fifth Opinion of the Advisory Committee of the FCNM, published in 2023. One is that big construction companies are being granted licenses to build large-scale developments, destroying property owned by locals. The other is that property developers and individuals are using possibly fake documents purporting to have been issued by the Ottoman authorities to lay claim to already occupied land and buildings. Corruption in the construction sector contributes to these trends. As the Albanian tourism industry expands there is a risk that the Greek minority along southern coastal areas will be especially badly affected by these trends, affecting community cohesion and sustainability. A new property law was adopted in 2020 but as of 2023 was still awaiting its secondary legislation in order to be fully implemented.

Updated February 2024

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