LONDON: During a wide-ranging interview with Asharq News, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, has heaped praise on Gulf Cooperation Council countries, opened up about tensions with Iran, and expressed optimism about its path to joining the EU.
Speaking to Adhwan Al-Ahmari, host of the Asharq News talk-show Al-Madar, he expressed his admiration for the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC member states, describing their accomplishments as “a source of inspiration.”
“As for Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, we have very strong relations with the UAE, with Saudi and with Kuwait, and I wish they will become stronger,” said Rama, a painter, writer, former university lecturer, publicist and ex-basketball player.
“I see with admiration what is happening there, both in UAE and in Saudi (Arabia), and I praise a lot the leaders there that are showing vision and are lifting up these countries, and they are making them, in many ways, a source of inspiration.
“We can disagree on certain things but this is not a reason to not admire what they are doing, and we have a lot to learn from them. And I wish our bond will become stronger and stronger and stronger.”
By contrast, one Middle East country with which relations remain strained is Iran. Albania, a member of NATO, accused Iran of carrying out a cyberattack on July 15 last year, which temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Days later, a second cyberattack hit one of Albania’s border systems.
Tirana responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran and expelling Iranian embassy staff. At the time, Saudi Arabia condemned the cyberattack.
“We had to act on Iran because Iran was acting brutally against us,” said Rama. “They targeted Albania with a very vicious cyberattack.
“Why? Because we have given shelter to a few thousand Iranians, not to make Albania a political platform against the regime — although we have nothing to like about that regime — not to give them a platform against the regime, but to give them a shelter because their lives were in danger.”
Rama was referring to members of the anti-regime People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mojahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, who moved their headquarters from Iraq to Albania in 2016.
“We are a country that always honors human beings and human life,” said Rama. “Iran didn’t understand that well, or at all, and attacked us, so we had to sever diplomatic ties and kick them out.”
Rama appeared confident during the interview that his nation will soon be admitted to the 27-member EU bloc.
“I’m always tragically optimistic — I’m not pessimistic — but I must say that to me, the EU is the most fascinating thing in the world history of politics that humankind has created,” he told Al-Ahmari.
“A vision for peace and for security and an action to bring together countries with a long history of fighting each other, and to put common interests for the future above the separate ways of looking at history.
“And on the other hand, the EU has created an incredible experience of state functioning, of institutional functioning, of true separation of powers, of rights, of people being respected and of equality before the law.”
Albania applied for EU membership in April 2009 and was granted candidate status in June 2014. The EU held its first intergovernmental conference with Albania in July 2022.
Since then, the EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Council has praised Tirana’s progress on the rule of law, in particular its comprehensive justice reforms and battles against corruption and organized crime. It has, however, called for more tangible progress on freedom of expression and the consolidation of property rights.
“There are no unrealistic demands from the EU, I must say,” said Rama. “We have to do our homework and it’s very important to make sure that everyone understands that our homework is not something we have to do because of them, or for them. Our homework is something we have to do for our children, for the Albania of tomorrow.”
Besides Albania, there are seven other recognized candidates for EU membership, including Turkiye, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Albania’s road to EU membership has not been smooth, however, leading to suggestions of deliberate stalling or sabotage.
According to a 2011 census, 56.7 percent of Albania’s population adheres to Islam, making it the largest religion in the country. The remaining population either follows Christianity (16.99 percent) or are irreligious.
There has been speculation in recent months that a decision on Albania’s EU membership has been delayed because of misgivings over its Muslim-majority population on a continent that is historically Christian. Rama rejected this as a conspiracy theory.
“We might have a lot of Muslims in our country, God bless them,” he said. “And we have a lot of Christians, too. And we also have a lot of atheists.
“But the important thing, and what we treasure most, is that before all, they are all Albanians, they are all brothers and sisters, and we never had religious problems and we never had conflicts, and we always lived our life together. And it’s very common in our country that Christians celebrate Ramadan and Muslims celebrate Christmas. So I would say that we are really in a very good place and there is no space for (conspiracy) theories.
“Secondly, I know that in Europe there is not always, let’s say, an easy way to accept Muslims. And there is sometimes, unfortunately and disgracefully, one voice here, one voice there, one party here, one party there, that says it shamelessly.
“But overall, the EU is not a place where Muslims are seen as a danger or seen like a problem, and they are being quite welcomed and integrated.”
Bulgaria’s veto over North Macedonia joining the EU stalled Albania’s progress because the bloc is treating both countries as part of a single membership package. However, the path was finally cleared in July last year.
Rama said any suggestion that Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, plans to put further obstructions in the way of Albania’s accession would be news to him.
“No, this is not something true, I believe,” he said. “Or at least if this is true, it is the first time I’m hearing about it — and I would be very, very surprised. But with Bulgaria we have a very friendly relationship and we have never had a problem.
“Yes, we had some debates in the past but not about Albania, about North Macedonia, which is our beloved neighbor. But no, Bulgaria would never do such a thing to please Russia and veto the integration of Albania in the EU.”
Similarly, Rama said he sees little chance that EU member Greece will stand in the way of Albania’s EU membership, regardless of past disputes.
“On the contrary, Greece has been good to us, has been supportive to our integration process,” said Rama. “And there are hundreds of thousands of Albanians that live in Greece and they are integrated, they work there. And there are a lot of Greeks coming here for tourism. So we are brotherly countries.”
While Albania has set its sights on closer ties with Europe, other powerful players, including China, Turkiye and Russia, have made inroads into the Western Balkans region.
“I would not put the three of them in the same basket because they are three different actors with different reasons and also different will in approaching the Balkans or other areas,” said Rama.
A communist state from 1946 to 1991, Albania split from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin, which Albania’s leader at the time, Enver Hoxha, viewed as a departure from the ideological principles of communism.
Rama said strategic relations with Russia did not serve the interests of the Balkans back then and they do not serve them today, as demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia has (revealed) itself fully by attacking Ukraine brutally in the third decade of the 21st century at the gates of the EU, by investing in a war, killing people, and (revealing) itself in a way that is really shocking. It’s a completely imperialistic vision of the world,” said Rama.
“What Russia wants in the region, it’s easy to understand, and we are not interested in having any type of substantial relationship with Russia because of our history, for good or for bad. Of course it is not the same Russia (now). But it’s not very different and so we’re not interested. They also have understood, in time, that Albania is not a field to plant their seeds of division with Europe, with the West.”
Instead, Albania has prioritized ties with Western countries, he said.
“We are totally dedicated to the Euro-Atlantic community, because history has taught us some very important lessons and it is the best place to be for reasons of peace and security,” he added.