Illyria / June 22, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Albania's treatment of its Greek minority became the subject of scorn and hostility during a Congressional hearing last Wednesday during which one prominent speaker after another attacked President Sali Berisha's policies.
More than 100 people crowded into the small conference room as journalist and author Nicholas Gage, Nicaraguan celebrity Bianca Jagger, Albanian opposition politician Gramoz Pashko and Human Rights Watch consultant Fred Abrahams testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The panel was chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who in 1990 became the first American government official in half a century to visit Albania.
Gage, recently barred from traveling to Albania after he publicly criticized Berisha during the president's 1995 visit to the United States, told the panel that the situation for ethnic Greeks is in many ways worse under Berisha than under Enver Hoxha.
"While ethnic Greeks in Albania, who are concentrated in the southern region of the country called Northern Epiros, had expected that their full rights to educate their children in their mother tongue, to preserve their culture, and to practice their religion freely would be restored to them after the fall of communism, they have been deeply disappointed," he said.
"Clearly, the aim of these new restrictions is to send the message to ethnic Greeks in Albania that their children will not be able to learn any Greek if they stay in the country, and to pressure them to move their families south to Greece. It is a subtle form of ethnic cleans-ing and violates all existing international norms regulating the treatment of minorities."
Gage -- whose book on the Greek civil war, "Eleni," became a best-seller -- also claimed that "while the Berisha government has made a lot of noise about permitting the restoration of religion in the country, scores of churches belonging to Greek communities as well as church schools, monasteries and tracts of land have not been returned. Valuable icons and religious artifacts have not been returned either, and the government shows no inclination to restore them to communities from which they were seized or the Albanian Orthodox Church."
Sitting next to Gage was Pashko, who spoke not about Albania's Greek minority but about the recent presidential elections, which he deemed "fraudulent."
Interestingly, no one from the Berisha government or the Albanian Embassy in Washington appeared to defend the government's policy towards its Greek population -- particularly Gage's charges that "public officials use their positions to harass, threaten and exploit ethnic Greeks, who have no recourse to the courts or the security forces because they are barely represented in them. When ethnic Greeks are robbed, raped or beaten, or when their homes, businesses or churches are set on fire by gangs of thugs, the authorities take little interest."
Thus, the hearing took on the appearance of a one-sided attack on Albania, though all the witnesses were careful to point out, as Jagger put it, that "we have nothing against the Albanian people, only the government."
The testimony came on the second day of hearings on human rights in Albania. The hearings were organized by Lantos, founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and himself a Hungarian Jew who as a teenager fought in the underground against the Nazis and was one of thousands saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
Upon welcoming the witnesses to the hearing, Lantos compared the plight of ethnic Greeks in Albania to the burning of black churches in the American South.
"Repeatedly throughout our visit, we were intimidated and threatened. I launched an official complaint. This complaint is still pending, and I will not rest until every American citizen is free to travel in Albania," he said. "Albania must become a democratic society and will respect the rights of all its citizens, including Greeks. It is a profound disappointment to have this important election be such a shameful spectacle, reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. We will not sweep this issue under the rug."
Lantos' concerns were echoed by Rep. John E. Porter, an Illinois Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is also interested in Balkan issues.
"Just at the moment we thought we were making real progress, we see repression of the Greek minority, and the use of thugs to shut up anyone who disagrees with the regime," Porter told the audience.
Despite the testimony, Abrahams, a consultant to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, said "the status of the Greek minority has improved."
"These problems should not be viewed solely as an ethnic problem. It has a lot to do with democracy. The vote on May 26 was marred by extreme violations that some international monitors called the worst in post-communist Eastern Europe."