Redi Shehu, head of Tirana-based Medius think-tank, explains why Europe is slowly fading away from Albanians’ focus, while the country's relations with Turkiye are becoming stronger.
TRT WORLD: Albania is one of the countries that has been hoping for EU membership for some time now, but nothing decisive seems to be happening from the EU's end. Where is the hold-up? Is the EU still a priority for the Albanians themselves?
REDI SHEHU: To understand the reasons for the many delays made in Albania's European integration process, it is necessary to understand what Europe is.
This raises some questions such as: is the European Union integrated into itself to the extent that it integrates other countries that are culturally different from it? Is Europe a new approach to the concept of colonialism, both economic and intellectual?
The exit of the European Union from its core during the enlargement process raises the question of where its geopolitical and cultural borders really are. Has Europe lost its old challenge of building a European citizen who rises above his nation?
In Europe, we have political boundaries, but we also have social and intellectual boundaries which make it change in itself clearly and strongly from cultural circumstances which have not disappeared and have not eliminated the differences within it.
Since its creation, the EU as a political-economic notion has been under pressure from two opposing forces, one political, which pushed it towards unification, and the other the national one, which pushed it towards borders and division. Whichever of these two forces prevails will determine the Europe of tomorrow.
There are many reasons for postponing the admission of new members from the Balkans. Starting with the migration policies, Brexit, the extreme right, immigrants, but above all the confrontation with aspiring countries whose culture and religion is different from that of the member states of the union.
All these have shown that the European body within which Albania seeks to integrate, in fact, is not yet integrated into itself. It has not yet morally determined what will be the only unchanging and final criterion of the membership of the new states, and above all, beyond the idealism by which the EU was created, it is showing that it’s totally unprepared to emerge from the colonial narrative which as a ghost stands above its policies.
Although Albania and Northern Macedonia have met all EU requirements, strange excuses are still emerging to delay the process of opening membership negotiations for these countries.
What needs to be said is that there really will be no stability of thought and action in the EU as long as there is an ideological wall dividing between European politics and the politics of those countries that represent a different cultural identity. A wall that threatens to replace that of Berlin, but in the Balkans.
Despite these events, the priority of Albanians in terms of EU membership remains high. Although in recent years, according to polls, the fatigue from waiting has caused some decline in this priority.
In recent years, Turkiye has been heavily involved in Albania in areas such as investment, education, art and culture, and earthquake relief. How is this commitment perceived in the country and how close are Turkish-Albanian relations after all the involuntary interruptions of the 20th Century?
RS: Yes, it is true that Turkiye-Albania relations since 2013 have undergone a significant increase under the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama, to come to the agreement of January 6, 2021 when the Strategic Cooperation Council of High Level pact was signed between the two countries.
Since the time of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the agreement of eternal friendship has been signed between the two countries, which has continued to exist even during the communist regime in Albania.
The same relationship has continued with the prime ministers Demirel, Turgut Ozal, Tansu Ciller, Ecevit, Erbakam. Whereas under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan this relationship has been concretised with a high level of Turkish investments in Albania amounting to 3.5 billion dollars, 600 companies and 15,000 employees. Not only that, but Turkiye donated 520 apartments to the victims of the earthquake, a regional hospital in the city of Fier and one million vaccines in case of a Covid pandemic.
This relationship, which is perceived as "brotherhood," has increased the affection of the Albanian people for the Turkish government as well as the Turkish people and culture itself, which according to surveys conducted by Western NGOs in Albania, show that the degree of increasing appreciation for Turkiye is greater than the rate of increase in appreciation for US and EU.
Albania and Turkiye are also NATO partners. Does this closeness have additional implications with regard to cooperation between the two countries in the security field? What developments do you expect in this regard in the coming years?
RS: The NATO alliance of Albania and Turkiye is an added value in their relations. Turkiye has been a constant supplier of the Albanian army and police with all the necessary military logistics and has been the leader of training and implementation of many international operations by Albanian troops in hot areas of the globe.
Everything has been done beyond the NATO framework, helping to build Albania's security capacity. The same can be said for the police force.
Seen in this light, security cooperation between the two countries will continue to be intensive, empowering Albania and increasing its capacities so that it becomes a factor of stability in an increasingly unpredictable Balkans.
Given the emerging rapprochement between Turkiye, Israel, Egypt and Arab Gulf monarchies, could Albania's greater involvement in this new process be an alternative to the EU accession process, which continues to be delayed?
RS: At the moment we are talking about, Albania is in a situation where even the European Union does not seem to be able to become a member, but even a clear crystallised organism on the other hand does not appear on the horizon.
European integration for Albanians still seems to be the main priority, but this does not mean that in the near future if the EU is tired of enlargement and does not want to introduce new members, Albania should not look for other alternatives which provide prosperity, the rule of law and security.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is coming to a head in the face of Bosnian Serb go-it-alone efforts. Do you expect an escalation and is there now also a risk of a flare-up within the Kosovo conflict?
RS: The Balkans, and especially the Albanians, are the product of an unnatural and imposed geopolitical equation of the last century. For this reason, the way this region is configured, especially the way the Muslim factor is fragmented, disrespecting ethnic borders as state borders, has made this region a consistently potential producer of conflicts.
The existence of these conflicts has only been kept in a state of "deep freezing" by organisations such as the EU and NATO, building an apparent status quo. An eventual shock of these organisms, in any form and at any time, provides potential for the emergence of old conflicts in the Balkans, as long as the ethnic equation in this region is established with all its constituent elements.
Even the situation with the Bosnian Serbs is just an indicator of this situation which, if not managed properly, will have a domino effect throughout the region. That’s why the US and the EU have special envoys in this area, that’s why Dodik and Vucic are called to Ankara by President Erdogan, precisely to ensure stability in the region.
As far as Kosovo is concerned, I believe that conflict is less likely to erupt, because the international community and especially the US and Turkiye have invested directly in Kosovo's security. Let us not forget that President Erdogan, when he visited Kosovo a few years ago, had stated that "Kosovo is Turkiye and Turkiye is Kosovo," marking a clear line on the inviolability of the latter.
The US has recently established a Special Forces base in Albania. There has been much speculation about the mission and significance of this decision. What can you tell us about this base and its significance?
RS: In my opinion, the opening of a US special forces base in Albania, confirms the fact that the US does not have a stronger ally in the Balkans than Albania. There is also Kosovo, but it’s still not considered a state with full rights in the UN.
In the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia in the Balkans, which is arming Serbia with the latest weapons, the opening of the American base in Albania, in my opinion, represents a milestone on the geopolitical map of the Balkans.
Albania currently, although in NATO, does not have an air defence or a fleet of aircraft. Its air patrol is carried out by other NATO members such as Greece and Italy.
The opening of such a base with a military airport inside it, passes air defence to the hands of the US. The Kucova military base in the city of Berat, was an old communist-era base which will now be rebuilt by the Americans. This implies an increased American military influence in Albania as a counterbalance to the increased Russian influence in Serbia.
All this, I believe, does not affect the Turkish-American alliance in the Balkans, but rather strengthens their position in the region.
[Note: The interview was originally published by TRT Deutsch.]