Towards the formation of the “Northern Epirus”
The rise of Albanian nationalism was significantly delayed. Until 1878, only a few intellectuals considered Albanians a nation, and fewer believed there was any chance of forming an independent state. However, the intention of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to create a protectorate in the Western Balkans, combined with the fear of some Muslim Albanian-speaking beys about the Greek and Serbian claims for Epirus and Kosovo respectively, fueled the Albanian national movement.[i]
The Albanian national awakening began some decades before the Balkan Wars (1912 – 1913), a series of conflicts that caused the modification of the borders in the Balkan peninsula. In particular, the victorious Greek Army occupied the most significant cities of Epirus (Ioannina, Argyrokastro, Korce, Chimara), inhabited for centuries by thousands of Greek-speaking Christians. The Serbian soldiers did the same in Kosovo and the Montenegrins in Shkodër. At the same time, Albanian nationalists like Ismail Kemal Bey approached Vienna and succeeded in gaining its support. In this way, in 1913, the Great Powers decided in London to permit the creation of an independent Albania.[ii]
The southern borders of the newly established state were defined with the Florence Protocol (December 1913). The Protocol cut Epirus into two parts: the northern part was granted to Albania, while the southern part was granted to Greece. The Greek government was forced by the Great Powers to accept the newly established borders despite losing control of several Greek-speaking orthodox communities. However, the “Northern Epirots” (the Greeks who lived in the northern part of Epirus) did not have the same opinion: in February of 1914, they revolted, asking for their autonomy. After numerous battles between the Greek guerrillas and the Albanian gendarmerie, the two sides compromised with the Corfu Protocol (May 1914). According to that, the people of Northern Epirus remained under the authority of the Albanian Prince Wilhelm Wied but received self-governing, as well as extended educational and religious freedoms. Some months later, taking advantage of the political chaos in Albania, the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos ordered his troops to occupy the region again (October 1914).[iii]
The Greek military occupation of the Northern Epirus did not last for a while. During World War I, Italian and French troops invaded there, abolished the local Greek authorities, and promoted Albanian nationalism. Venizelos tried once again to cede the territory at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), but his defeat at the elections of 1920 had negative results for the whole effort. In 1921, Albania entered the League of Nations with the borders determined by the Florence Protocol (1914).[iv]
From the recognition of the Greek minority to Beleri’s imprisonment
The Great Powers accepted Albanian application at the League of Nations under one condition: the Balkan state had to respect the rights of the Greek minority in Northern Epirus. Indeed, in October of 1921, the Albanian representative in Geneva, Ilias Vrioni, signed the Declaration of the Minority’s Protection, promising that his country would face the Greeks who lived there with justice, and it would allow them to have their schools and churches.[v]
Despite Tirana’s promises, the Albanian government (especially its leading figure at the Interwar Period, Ahmet Zogu) faced the Northern Epirots with hostility. For example, 1933 – 1935 ordered the close of every non-government school, which significantly affected the Greek minority. After the latter’s resistance, the League of Nations forced Albania to step back, but the deterioration of the relationships between the two parts was apparent.[vi]
In 1939, the Italian troops occupied Albania; the subsequent year, they attacked Greece. The Greek Army proved it was a difficult opponent: it defended its lands and entered Northern Epirus once again, hunting its enemies. The Northern Epirots saluted their compatriots as liberators, believing the dream of unification with the Greek Kingdom would come true. However, it would not. In fact, the German intervention resulted in the defeat of Greece in 1941, and the Greek soldiers had once again to retreat from the territory.[vii]
At the end of World War II, the Greek government once again claimed the Northern Epirus. Except for its army’s contribution to the Allies’ victory, Athens noted that Albania had come into power with a communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. However, on their part, the United States and Great Britain had no intention of allowing a change in the Balkans’ map, while the Soviet Union openly supported Hoxha. So, Greece lost one more opportunity to cede the area.[viii]
Hoxha faced the Northern Epirots as separatists. During the years of his domination, thousands of members of the Greek minority were jailed without any reason, while others lost their properties. The fall of his regime in the decade of 1990 provided hope to them, but very few things would change.[ix]
Approximately thirty years after the fall of the communist regime, the situation of the Greek minority in Albania remains tragic. Despite the gradual improvement in the Greco-Albanian relations, the violence against the Northern Epirots continued. The murder of Aristotelis Goumas (2010) because he spoke Greek and the numerous efforts of the Albanian government to influence the elections in the area makes clear that many things must change.[x]
The last incident of a chronic process of oppression is the imprisonment of the elected mayor of Chimara, Fredi Beleri. Although the authorities accused the latter of corruption during an obviously contrived incident, Beleri’s case covers Tirana’s intention to gain the properties that the local Greeks own and not to allow the free speech of the minority.[xi]
In the past, the Greeks living in the Northern Epirus often faced hostility from the Albanian government. That hostility changes faces but continues to occur nowadays. The critical question is: why? The main reason is that from 1913 to the present, Albania faced those populations as separatists who endangered the state’s existence. If that was true until 1945, obviously, it is not in 2023: Greece would never claim any further territory than it already has. So, Tirana must see the minority as a tool for improving the Greco-Albanian relations and embracing peaceful coexistence in the Balkans.
On the other side, Greece has a multifaceted duty: on the one side, it must protect the Northern Epirots and provide political support to them, while on the other, it has to stop the nationalistic cries of irredentism at the interior of the state. That’s because, in the 21st century, Albania could be a helpful strategic partner in a fragile region. Significantly, the financial development of the Western Balkans has as a prerequisite the political stabilization and the cooperation between the states. The future of the Greek National Minority of Albania could be considered the future of Greco-Albanian relations -at least if these countries face this in this way.
[i] Vickers, Miranda. 2001. The Albanians. A modern history, I.B. Tauris: London and New York, pp. 32-76.
[ii] See: Collective. 2000. The Struggle for Northern Epirus, Hellenic Army General Staff: Athens.
[iv] Popescu, Stefan. 2004. “Les Français et la République de Kortcha. (1916-1920)”, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 213 (1), pp. 77-87.
[v] UN, R1654/41/13617/9835, “Protection of Minorities in Albania”, 21-6-1921.
[vi] Manta, Eleftheria. 2010. I ekpedefsi tis ellinikis mionotitas stin Albania kata ton Mesopolemo [The education of the Greek minority in Albania during the Interwar period], Thessaloniki: Institute of Balkan Studies.
[vii] Kondis, Vasilis. 1994. Evesthites Isorropies. Ellada ke Albania ston 20o eona [Delicate Balances. Greece and Albania in 20th century], Thessaloniki: Paratiritis, pp. 159-172.
[ix] Peponas, Manolis. 2023. “The Greco-Albanian Relations During the Period 1974-1996: From Irredentism to Political Realism”. HAPSc Policy Briefs Series 4 (1), pp. 64-69.
[x] Hellenic Republic – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry spokesman’s reply to questions regarding an article in today’s Albanian press on the murder of Aristotelis Goumas”, MFA, 6-7-2011, https://www.mfa.gr/en/current-affairs/statements-speeches/foreign-ministry-spokesmans-reply-to-questions-regarding-an-article-in-todays-albanian-press-on-the-murder-of-aristotelis-goumas.html. Retrieved in 10-10-2023.
[xi] Parliamentary question – E-001776/2023, “The arrest of Himara’s mayor, Fredi Beleri”, European Parliament, 2-6-2023.