The war in Ukraine threatens to upset the delicate peace in the Balkans. In a conversation with DER SPIEGEL, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama warns that Vladimir Putin is deliberately seeking to destabilize the region.
Von Susanne Koelbl
The prime minister welcomes his guests barefoot. Edi Rama is a tall man with a furrowed brow and deep-set eyes. He is wearing black shorts and a white T-shirt, just no shoes.
Together with his wife, Rama is lounging in the backyard of a beachfront house. Initially built in the 1960s for Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, the villa is located near the idyllic coastal village of Dhërmi, surrounded by parasol pines. Police officers stand guard outside the door. The most powerful man in Albania is enjoying a bit of vacation.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 36/2022 (September 3rd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
“You’re not disturbing us,” Linda Rama tells the DER SPIEGEL journalists. She’s wearing a white cotton shirt and a cap over her curly black hair. With her husband’s job, she says, you don’t really get any real vacation.
Albanians elected Edi Rama as their prime minister with a large majority 11 years ago. At the time, the famous artist was antithesis of corruption and the hunger for power.
As mayor of the capital city of Tirana, Rama had streets brightly painted and declared war on the corrupt judiciary. Today, critics accuse Rama of maintaining personal contacts with the mafia, an allegation he denies. Either way, Albania today remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
And corruption is by no means Albania’s only problem. The war in Ukraine, only 1,000 kilometers away, is currently reopening old wounds in the region. Once again, the major powers are tugging at the already fragile Western Balkans. In recent months, the tone between Serbia and Kosovo, which is closely linked to Albania, has once again intensified.
At stake is nothing less than peace in Europe. Like Ukraine, Serbia is threatening to become a bone of contention between Russia and the West. The country aspires to join the European Union, but is also wary of breaking with its ally Russia.
Even as Putin turns off the gas tap to Europe, Russia continues to supply Belgrade with particularly cheap energy – and with weapons. In return, Russia wants loyalty, a demand that is tearing Serbia apart. “No one will be able to destroy our relations with Serbia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said recently after his planned trip to Belgrade was cancelled at short notice because Serbia’s neighbors denied access to their airspace. It sounded like a threat.
Russia, after all, has made no secret of its desire to contain American influence in the Western Balkans.
Behind Rama, the turquoise sea sparks and the concrete skeletons of half-finished luxury hotels rise from the hills skirting the bay in Dhërmi. Several five-star hotels are scheduled to open here soon, making it all the more difficult to imagine that, two decades ago, Albania was on the verge of civil war itself. Back then, the country was struggling with gangs, militias and local vigilantes after the collapse of the communist system. Today, Albania is betting on the tourism industry.
Albania is smaller than the German state of Brandenburg, and with 2.8 million people, its population is less than the city of Berlin. Nevertheless, the Western Balkans country is important for strategic defense, also against possible disruptive maneuvers from Moscow. A NATO member since 2009 and a European Union hopeful, Tirana acts as a kind of trans-Atlantic counterweight to Serbia.
A Divided Region
Shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, NATO had just begun converting an old airport in southern Albania into an air base. In addition, Rama’s government has also offered to establish a NATO naval base near the port city of Durrës for the trans-Atlantic alliance. Were Serbs and Albanians to ultimately engage in conflict – in northern Kosovo, for example, which is home to a significant population of Serbs – Tirana would likely play a central role.
The region’s population is divided between opponents of Putin and those who support him, Rama explains. “Russia would be thrilled if anything moves toward conflict in the Balkans,” he says.
“A good 80 percent of Russian Orthodox Serbs think positively about the way Putin is showing the West his balls in Ukraine right now, if I may put it that way,” says Rama. The fresh tensions in the Balkans run pretty much along the old Soviet and Western lines of influence. In Albania, by contrast, Rama says, only 0.7 percent of the population approves of Putin’s action. The figures, he says, come from a poll his government commissioned.
Albania’s prime minister on vacation at the seaside. Foto:
Aggelos Barai / DER SPIEGEL
Rama believes that sympathies for Moscow are “strong” in Serbia, even “very, very strong” in the Republika Srpska, one of the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Montenegro, on the other hand, a deep chasm is emerging between the Montenegrin and Serbian populations. “We should be aware that this influence can turn into something terrible,” he says.
Even 23 years after NATO troops marched into Kosovo, the territory is still guarded by the Western military alliance. Kosovo finally declared its independence in 2008.
But the dispute with Serbia has never been resolved politically. To this day, Belgrade is pained by the loss Kosovo, which was long a province of Serbia despite its majority Albanian population. Many Serbs view the current situation as peace at the barrel of a gun.
Could Catastrophe Strike Again?
In 1999, NATO had to break its own rules to stop the murder of thousands of Albanians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The attack against Serbia and the bombing of Belgrade was not supported by a United Nations mandate, because Russia and China, who have veto powers on the Security Council, were opposed to it. Politicians in Washington and Berlin justified the move as a “humanitarian mission.”
Around 100 countries have since officially recognized Kosovo as a country. But Russia, China and some EU member states, including Spain and Greece, have not. One could say that NATO’s Kosovo operation back then serves as a kind of justification for Putin’s aggressive annexation policy today in Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Abkhazia and Georgia. It was likely the start of today’s crisis.
Could the Yugoslavian catastrophe be repeated?
Rama answers with a question of his own: “Have you heard how often Putin mentions Kosovo in his speeches?” the Albanian politician asks. “Over and over again he says: ‘Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo.'” He believes the Russian president is deliberately picking at “the most painful of all unsolved problems” in the Balkans, and doing everything he can to light a new fuse.
The prime minister sees Albania as being firmly anchored in the West. He is one of the few politicians in the region who has grasped the world of diverse interests and maintains contacts in places as diverse as Riyadh, Istanbul, Paris and Washington.
When Hillary Clinton called a year ago and asked if he would take in a few thousand Afghan refugees without papers, Rama immediately agreed. Because of the support they provided during the Kosovo war in 1999, Rama says he would never want to have to deny a request from the Clintons. He once said that Albanians are “more American than Texans.”
The National History Museum on Skanderbeg Square in Tirana: in the shadow of world crises Foto: Ekin Yalgin / Alamy / mauritius images
During the transition years following the collapse of Hoxha’s dictatorship, Rama, a lecturer at the Art Academy in Tirana and the son of a well-known communist sculptor, joined the democracy movement. There weren’t many like him at the time: a good athlete, an artist unencumbered by historical baggage and an inspirational speaker.
But Rama’s struggle for recognition of a sovereign Kosovo can sometimes take on Albanian nationalist tones. He has repeatedly brought up the idea of a joint government between Pristina and Tirana, an idea seen as a provocation in Belgrade, which fears the establishment of a “Greater Albania.” It doesn’t make establishing peace in the region any easier.
Rama grew up in an isolated country, with many considering Albania to be the European equivalent of North Korea. The difficult balancing act Rama is attempting is a product of that experience: He wants to integrate the Western Balkans internationally and secure Kosovo’s status as an independent state, while at the same time trying to heal the pain inflicted on Serbia by that loss. Is such a thing even possible?
“It was the right thing to do,” Rama says of the decision for Kosovo’s independence, spreading his large hands in the warm summer air. At the end of the day, there is now a “peace and reconciliation process,” he says, even if it is one that has dragged out for a very long time.
A More Open Balkans?
But in the shadow of the crises around the world, there have actually been a few encouraging signs in the Balkans recently. After winning the election and becoming prime minister in 2013, Rama traveled to Belgrade for his inaugural visit, the first by a head of government from Tirana in 68 years.
Once there, however, at a reception with sparkling wine, he called on the Serbian government to recognize Kosovo, and his counterpart Alexander Vučić pulled him aside. Vučić told him that members of his staff were urging him to throw out his impertinent guest. Rama says he replied to Vučić by saying that these stupid people were only his employees, but that he was smarter, which is why he was the head of government. “Then we moved on.”
In the near future, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro plan to open a kind of mini-Schengen area to improve trade and jump-start their crippled economies. He says the project unites him with his “dearest enemy Aleksandar Vučić.” Government leaders call it the Open Balkans initiative, and the freedom of movement between Albanians and Serbs that comes with the agreement even includes the Kosovars, a minor sensation.
Toward the end of the visit, Rama says he wants to add that the idea originally came from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He says that she helped him and his Serb counterpart Vučić to develop a stable working relationship, “despite our history of pain and blood.”
In 2014, he says, the chancellor invited the six leaders of the Western Balkans to Germany, calling it the “Berlin Process.” “She told us we were Europeans, even if not yet members of the European Union. Until then, we should use the time to think together about the future.”
Then the leaders then sat together at the same table once a year, for the first time in the history of the Balkans, Rama says, and always in a different European city – London, Paris, Trieste and Vienna. Until her retirement in 2021, the chancellor always personally attended the meetings. “It changed everything,” says the Albanian prime minister.
He says the six Balkan leaders accepted during those talks that they just don’t agree. But they all shared one common desire, he says: To turn over a new leaf in history.