Home » Ethnic Greek mayor’s conviction threatens to derail Albania’s EU accession process
Albania Europe Featured Global News Greece News Politics

Ethnic Greek mayor’s conviction threatens to derail Albania’s EU accession process

An Albanian court convicted Fredi Beleri, an ethnic Greek Albanian and the elected mayor of the city of Himara, to two years in prison for buying votes, on March 5, in a ruling that has already exacerbated tensions with neighbouring Greece.

Beleri was elected mayor of Himara despite being arrested ahead of the May 14, 2023 local elections on accusations of vote buying. The months-long detention of the elected mayor has sparked strong criticism from Greece, souring relations between Tirana and Athens, which has threatened to obstruct Albania’s EU accession process over the issue. 

Athens has repeatedly appealed for Beleri to be granted the opportunity to take the oath as the mayor of Himara. Although he won the election, he could not be sworn in while under arrest.

Greek officials have warned for months that Albania — a candidate country since 2014 — risks jeopardising its EU accession progress if Beleri is not released. 

However, Albanian politicians, including Prime Minister Edi Rama, insist that justice must take its course through the court system.

Beleri described the judicial proceedings as a “sham trial”, reported eKathimerini. He criticised the lack of evidence and witnesses, vowing to continue fighting to clear his name.

“With a fake criminal record, no evidence, no other witnesses except one who was bribed by the police, with an ‘appointed’ judge, in a glass cage without communication with my lawyer, the Albanian court sentenced me today to two years in prison,” Beleri said in a statement quoted by eKathimerini.  

“My crime is that my countrymen elected me mayor against the plans of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama,” he added

The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs also condemned the verdict, stating that it raised concerns about the objectivity of the process and the presumption of innocence. The ministry said the punishment was disproportionate to the alleged offence.

“Today’s sentence by an Albanian court against the elected mayor of Himara, Fredi Beleri, adds to the concerns raised about the objectivity of the process,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its website. 

“The selective enforcement of court decisions and the discounting of court decisions are not in accordance with the principles of the rule of law. The Greek government will closely monitor the case and will wait for a fair and objective judgment at the second level of jurisdiction.” 

Beleri has become a cause celebre in Greece, with his supporters mobilising on social media under the hashtag #freeBeleri. 

The verdict has also been widely discussed and strongly criticised in the Greek press. One strongly worded article in eKathimerini writes of Albanian Rama’s “choice to cut ties with Athens”.

Greece has previous form on using its position as an EU member in its relations with its neighbours. The country formerly known as Macedonia had its attempts to start EU accession negotiations repeatedly vetoed by Athens, which objected to the use of the name “Macedonia”, which is also the name of a Greek province. The issue was eventually resolved when the government in Skopje changed the country’s name to “North Macedonia” in 2019 following the signing of the Prespa Accord in June 2018. 

Prior to Beleri’s arrest Albania and Greece enjoyed relatively good relations thanks to their historic and cultural links, and shared membership of Nato and other international institutions, despite occasional issues relating to the Greek minority in Albania. Before Beleri’s arrest, Greece had advocated Albania’s EU candidacy, and Albania eventually secured candidate status during Greece’s presidency of the EU Council in 2014. 

Source: BNE