Albania’s security expert, Ilir Kulla, says his country is not in danger from Russian influence. In an interview with The Geopost, he justifies this with the fact that Albania has no cultural ties with Russia while Albanians have an ethno-cultural background completely different from the Russians.
“I can tell you that Albania is the most impossible place for Russians to feel at home. We do not have xenophobia, just incompatibility,” says Kulla. According to him, the Russians are a great people and country, with a long history and a country of 2 continents, but he adds that they are “very far from our culture and traditions.”
Kulla calls the initiative of “Open Balkan” useless, and the last meeting in Tirana as a “pleasant party on the eve of Christmas”.
Kulla estimates that the West is wrong when it leaves other Western Balkan countries waiting because of Serbia’s double game.
“The point is that Europe has almost completely stopped enlargement in the Balkans and the Balkan countries have been left without perspective. There is a kind of desire of the West not to lose Serbia in the direction of Russia, but in the meantime it has taken hostage the European future of other countries. Examples are Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo with visas”, says Kulla in the interview given to The Geopost.
The Geopost: Do you think that foreign influence in the region is increasing, especially the Russian one?
Kulla: Russian influence and foreign influence in the Balkans is something historical. The Balkans have always been a land between empires. Consequently impacts have been inevitable. From the Roman Empire, to Genghis Khan to the Ottoman Empire … are part of our common history.
The Geopost: Russia uses various media in the countries of the region – especially in Serbia, Montenegro and some Serbian media in Kosovo – to spread their propaganda, mainly with false and misinformation news. How is the situation in Albania in this regard? Are there such media?
Kulla: There is information and there is misinformation, as there is propaganda. This is normal. It is important to maintain professionalism, but this is not always possible. So it takes patience and calmness. We live in pluralism, not dictatorship.
The Geopost: In October of this year in Albania, four Russians lost their lives, while resting in a hotel in Qerret. Their deaths are still mysterious, while the media have recently reported that the competent authorities are continuing investigations. What can you tell us about this case?
Kulla: I can tell you that the Kavaja’s Qerret is a beautiful place on the coast, a village inhabited by Kosovo Albanians since 1930. As such there are vacationers every year for many months from all countries, including Russia . The case will be clarified, there is a formal investigation and the deceased will have their legal truth. We will leave the rest to the time. It is worth comforting their relatives and telling them that Albania is a country that welcomes all guests, despite the disaster in question.
The Geopost: It seems that this summer the requests for the purchase of properties by the Russians in Albania have increased. Why do you think this is happening?
Kulla: Let’s hope that there are real tourists and foreigners, including Russians and Serbs who want to buy apartments and real estate, because that develops the economy. But I have my doubts that it is happening, I believe, that we are facing a hyperbolization of the problem. Finally, we in Albania have major problems with overlapping properties and property titles. It will not be so easy to solve this even for foreigners. If they buy apartments or villas they stay in Albania, they are not transferred to Russia. I can tell you that Albania is the most impossible place for Russians to feel at home. We have no xenophobia, just incompatibility. The Russians are a great people and country, with a long history and a country of 2 continents, but far from our culture and traditions.
The Geopost: There are warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Russian-dominated regions would spark war in the Balkans as well. Drawing a parallel with Dodik’s warnings about the withdrawal of Republika Srpska from the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the one hand, and the rapid arming of Serbia, on the other, do you think such a scenario is possible?
Kulla: I think we should divide the Russian problem in Ukraine from the Balkan problem. Let me explain: in Ukraine about 30% of the population is Russian and they are neighboring countries. They had these problems with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and will have them for many, many years to come. They are complicated economic, political and energy problems. I think the parties should return to the Minsk agreement and stop Russia’s will to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, just as Ukraine should be content with a possible EU membership. NATO enlargement to Ukraine does not seem possible and realistic to me, at least since the Riga summit when the Baltic states joined. While in the Balkans the issue is different. We do not have Russian populations in the Balkans and those Slavic populations do not have any special love or interest to go towards Russia and Asia. They want to go to Europe. The point is that Europe has almost completely stopped enlargement in the Balkans and the Balkan countries have been left without perspective. There is a kind of desire of the West not to lose Serbia in the direction of Russia, but in the meantime it has taken hostage the European future of other countries. Examples are Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo with visas. Therefore, the blockade of the enlargement process in the Balkans endangers all other countries, which, in the conditions of the protracted economic crisis, will look elsewhere. We should not blame this in Moscow or Ankara, but in Brussels and Washington, where the desire not to lose Serbia has blinded decision-makers for the future of other people. If the EU had joined Bosnia and Herzegovina, we probably would not have a Dodik today who sees a different future, or in Montenegro we would have a different reality.
The Geopost: Russia has a small economic presence in the region compared to the EU. How do they manage to have such an impact? How do you explain this asymmetry?
Kulla: Russian economic influence is qualitative, not quantitative. They are the leading producers of cereals and energy. Consequently their impact is significant, but meanwhile investment from the EU and the West is non-existent. What are we gonna say to the builders in Albania, do not you sell the constructions to the Russians? Or tour operators, do not take tourists from the East and Russia, or from Serbia? It is illogical. The failure of the Berlin Process and the introduction of the “Open Balkan” dead end makes the Western Balkans hopeless and economic development is the key to this. Our governments can not stop the emigration of young people, corruption and bureaucracy in Brussels offers zero perspective. The situation is complex and let’s not forget the impact of religious belief, which is transnational.
The Geopost: In some countries of the region there are politicians and political forces that enjoy open support from Russia. Are there any in Albania?
Kulla: I will answer this question with a joke that has been circulating in Albania for years. At the time of the break with China, Enver Hoxha sent the leaders of the Labor Party to explain the basis for the reasons for the break with China. When the leader went to the base, the people greeted him with joy, saying: tell the party that we had a problem loving China, but not loving it is easy. This joke is valid for the answer to the question – are there pro-Russian politicians in Albania. No, because Russia has no influence on our culture and mentality at all. But, this should not affect the EU to become the tail of Serbia’s wish, which is not known whether it will go East or West.
The Geopost: How did you see the meeting of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the elections in Serbia?
Kulla: It is Vucic’s and Putin’s right to meet before and after the elections. The problem is that this double game of Serbia is holding hostage the European future of the region.
The Geopost: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Macedonian one Zoran Zaev were in Tirana for the next meeting within the regional initiative “Open Balkans”. What is your opinion about this initiative in general and about the meeting in Tirana in particular?
Kulla: The meeting in Tirana seemed like a nice Christmas party, especially with the fish in Elbasan. For others, “Open Balkan” is a futile and worthless project. In the absence of EU enlargement there is an attempt at the principle “something moves so that things do not remain in place”. In fact, they are going backwards, as is any project or desire of Serbia to create an economic zone that resembles Yugoslavia, as an extension or as an influence. However, let’s see if they will be able to apply any of the things they write. So far we have seen statements, lunches, dinners and a bit of tourism.