By Linda Karadaku
Greece may be drowning in debt and awash in protests stemming from unpopular austerity measures, but that has not deterred thousands of Albanians from trying to claim Greek heritage and formally change their nationality.
The impetus is the promise of benefits afforded those next door. Albanian daily Shekulli has reported that these include a pension of 400 euros per month.
“It is shameful that Albanian citizens are not proud of their nationality and because of financial motives ask to change their nationality. It is unacceptable to have this process finalised because of political-financial bargaining,” High Council of Justice Vice-Chairman Kreshnik Spahiu said.
“I know a lot of cases of people who got Greek documents to benefit and these are more the kind of people who have found other ways to take the documents and not by following the roots of their predecessors,” Greek Albanian Adela Jani, 28, told SETimes.
Jani is head of Enterprise Systems & Business Intelligence Section, in the Albanian Mobile Communications. Born of a Greek mother and an Albanian father, she has papers from Greece — permanent permission to stay, live and work in the country — but did not change her Albanian nationality to Greek. Neither did her father.
They are not alone. A movement is under way led by a group calling itself the Red and Black Alliance that is staunchly opposed to changing nationality.
It has also spearheaded a petition drive aimed at eliminating questions about ethnicity and religion from the national census, which will be conducted in October.
The group says it collected 20,000 signatures from around the country, which it delivered to parliament on Wednesday (June 22nd). The petition seeks a referendum about holding a census containing such questions.
The courts are getting involved as well. In Korca, a handful of people are being prosecuted for allegedly changing their nationality from Albanian to Greek and then presenting the papers to the Greek consulate in order to be granted the status of “homogenous”.
Spahiu was among the first — back in February — to sound the alarm about changes of nationality, saying such a phenomenon should be prevented.
Spahiu points out that most requests come from Albanians in Korca, Gjirokastra and Permet. He said these potentially significant changes of nationality violate the constitution and he blames a misinterpretation of a law passed in 2002, considered lenient in terms of changing nationality.
Weeks ago, he said there were 192 such cases in Korca, 1,600 in Gjirokastra and 469 in Permet. Spahiu vowed that every one of them would be reviewed during the next meeting of the High Council of Justice and pointed out that such changes in nationality could artificially inflate the size of minority communities ahead of the census.
It was the Greek consul in Korca, Theodhoro Ikonomus, who triggered a wave of controversy in February when he called on all people to declare their ethnicity.
“Yes, Greeks exist in Korca. Yes, Vlachs are Greeks. Greeks, don’t be afraid of the census, proclaim your real origin,” Ikonomus urged in speech later aired by Albanian media.
“If in doubt,” he urged them “Go and check the names and the language on the graves of your predecessors.”
The Vlachs priest in Korca immediately rejected the statement as irresponsible.
“The consul asked me to declare myself a Greek Vlach to give me visas. I felt persecuted. I told him I am an Albanian Vlach and he refused me visas,” Father Dhimiter Veriga told Albanian TV News 24.
The Macedonian minority also reacted. Vasil Sterjovski, chairman of the Macedonian Association, dismissed the comment as “unacceptable and damaging for the communities living in Albania. We consider this an intervention in the internal issues of Albania,” Sterjovski told local media.
The Albanian Foreign Ministry summoned Greek Ambassador to Albania Nicolas Pazios, seeking clarification of Kamarinos’s remark. “The Foreign Ministry made its position on these statements clear, calling them unacceptable. Such statements do not reflect the content of the Albanian-Greek relations and affect the spirit of friendship between the two countries,” the ministry said in a press release afterwards.
“I don’t want misunderstandings and I will be very clear on the position of Greece on this issue. I can tell you that we consider the ethnic Greek minority in Albania as a bridge of co-operation and friendship between the two countries and the two people,” Gregory Delavekouras, spokesperson of the Greek Foreign Ministry told reporters in Athens.
He urged Tirana to fulfill its obligations towards minorities as a precondition of European integration. “This includes respect and protection of their rights all over the territory of Albania, not limiting it only in the minority areas,” Delavekouras said.
Albanian veteran politician Sabri Godo told Albanian daily Telegraf that nationality can not be changed and “we have to protect that idea.” “Those who have projected it will better understand that most citizens do not like that. And a law which most of the citizens do not like, should be changed as the citizens can not be changed,” Godo said.