Rama confesses everything he knows about the Beleri case and shows the ‘fate’ he will have, in the exclusive for Kathimerini

Mr. Prime Minister, you seem to many like a literary hero coming out from a novel of Milan Kundera. A bold artist, rebelling against communism, then living in Paris, returning back and becoming the most successful politician of your generation – the only one that has been elected three times PM. Albania GDP per person has increased 50% since 2013 that you became PM. A few years ago you had said in an interview for the Guardian newspaper that your aim is to place your country “at a safe zone from the curse of history”. Have you succeeded? On September 15 will mark 10 years since you became a PM and I would like to tell us something you are proud of and something that you might regret.

Thank you for this charming introduction but I would say first of all that I don’t feel a hero, this is what I sincerely think. I am gonna tell you something. Beards were banned in communist Albania. So, In the airport there was a barber shop and every tourist that had a beard or had a long hair, they were said to go to the barber shop to take off the beard – Karl Marx couldn’t enter Marxist Albania without shaving well and cutting his hairs and this is not a joke. Yes, I am proud of many things we have succeeded to do but we’re keep going, I am not happy, I am not satisfied. I am very self-critical person, although it doesn’t look like, but believe me I am. My harshest judge outside my house is myself and in my house, the harshest is my wife – so I am kind of safe from believing I am hero.

– Did you feel personally offended that PM Mitsotakis did not invite you in Athens in last Monday’s informal dinner with the leaders of the Western Balkans?

First of all I’ve learned during all this past in life that feeling personally offended is not a good thing to live with. I never take it personally. I would simply not do [the same] and more than that I think the purpose of the meeting and the initiative Kyriakos took is something really big. So connecting this very important initiative to send a message to me, to Albania, for this issue, whatever importance puts Greece to it, this is not the right way I guess. I think that especially when things that are unpleasant happen between friends, friends have to talk more to each other, to try understand, to honor friendship by being very-very open. So for me Kyriakos was a friend, and he‘s still a friend I like and respect.

– In December 22, 2022 you welcomed PM Mitsotakis at Dervitsani village, a few hourse after Mitsotakis had campaigned with Beleris in Himara. Have you ever talked to Mitsotakis about your reservations against Beleris?

No, and I don’t think he campaigned really with Beleris. We were in Dervitsani, yes, I was happy to be with him and I promissed to put a sculpture at the reconstructed plazza there to honor his late father, PM Konstantinos Mitsotakis who was the first – and the last until Kyriakos came – Prime Minister to come in Albania and meet the Greek nationals in that area. Kyriakos father visit was a very important moment in the history of this community. I didn’t order though to stop the sculpture, we want it to be there before the 28th of October, that is an important date for Greece. So, whoever may come from Greece on this day will find Konstantinos Mitsotakis bust in the square. This is how I think we honor the bond between Albanians and Greeks.

– Let’s get to the thorny issue. My first question is why did you choose to attack personally a mayoral candidate? During the election campaign you called Beleris “illiterate”, “a scum”, “an ugly face that would scare”. You are the PM and taking into consideration your institutional role and position wasn’t your intervention tantamount to a call to the institutions of the police and the judiciary to single out, to target this candidate?  

Thank you for the question, first of all sometimes, in politics you may say things you are not proud of and in this campaign, yes, I may have said some things that I don’t really feel well. The reason why I was harsh on him was because he made some very unacceptable statements – like he would bring forward the process of hellenisation of Himara. You know, this is not something you say in Europe. [He said] that he was there to liberate Himara, I don’t know from whom. But I should ask a rhetorical question, if I was aware that there was an investigation started from a someone’s report tk

to the prosecutor would I expose myself in this frank language? If I knew that he would be arrested would I be exposed in that frank language? I don’t think so. I learned about his arrest when the police was in action. I called the police chief and asked “what is this?”. He said “we have an arrest warrant from the prosecutor and it is based on hard evidence of vote buying”. I said: “Listen, you’d better be sure of what you are doing. Because this can be very nasty and this has to be based on hard evidence”. It was not something I was involved in.

– There is a possibility that both countries [got] lost in translation regarding the “helenisation” [word]. Friends of Beleris insist that he never talked about helenisation he talked about, in Greek, «ελληνισμός» (ellinismos) [which] is “the Hellenes”, the Greeks. He just told to the people in Himara that his victory would be good for “ellinismos” for the people living in Himara.

Listen, at the end it’s not just this word, and overall it’s not whatever the guy represents which is a totally different view of the world [compared] with [mine). This has nothing to do with what happened. What happened next was not politics, it was a matter of the rule of law.

– According to my sources in Athens, the handling of the Beleris affair threaten Albania reputation in the EU – for three reasons: First, we know that Beleris was not arrested at the scene of the alleged crime. Second, he is denied a special leave to take the oath of office. And third he is still detained although he cannot commit the same alleged crime again – there are no elections to be influenced, witness examination has been completed, so he cannot interfere with it and he is an elected mayor – why escape abroad? Therefore, Athens says that we have a wrong arrest, a wrong detention and a wrong denial of someone’s rights. That’s why Athens has taken this position against the issue.

I understand that but I don’t agree with any of it and first of all I don’t agree that a foreign country, a foreign government can make comments about the justice system actions of another country – even if they’ve been very friendly countries. This is not European, in my view. And then, we don’t know everything about the issue. We will know everything when the special prosecutor will present the full evidence in front of a courtroom. But based on what we know, first he was caught in action of vote buying. Second, nowhere exists in any Albanian jurisdiction the power of the government or of the prime minister to issue a permission for a pre-trialed detainee to leave jail. And finally, he is detained because in the three levels of the judiciary of Albania he could not get released. So, my question is very simple: Where am I and where is the government of Albania in all this? The Special Prosecution Office against Organized Crime and the Special Courts against corruption have been created as the implementation of a justice reform. From A to Z it was conceived, it was written, it was approved and it was started to be implemented under the strict monitoring of the EU and under the full support of the US and the EU, Greece included. And these bodies have also jailed in pre-trial four or five mayors from the Socialist Party of Albania if I have not lost the count.

– These were incumbent mayors. They got arrested for crimes they did during their tenure

Yes, but I am saying all these because I wanted to say that these structures are completely independent from every influence and any possible interference.

– The Greek government points out that Beleris is the only one that is held for this specific crime in Albania. The punishment is disproportionate – for just almost 300 euros. There were 31 incidents of bribing in the same election day in May but everybody is free. 31 incidents, and 30 of them are free and only one candidate who is accused of an alleged crime, Beleris, is in prison.

My answer is very simple: Firstly, of all the arrest and the imprisonment of the one and the letting go of the others has nothing to do with the government or me. Secondly, the imprisonment of the one is due to the fact that he was arrested on the spot. The other cases are based on [accusations] by others and investigations are ongoing. So the comparison does not really stand.

– According to a video that was posted on Facebook ,Beleris, when he was arrested, he was in a different restaurant from the one where the alleged crime was committed by somebody who worked for him. He was in a different restaurant talking with his cousin and a lawyer. Beleris was not on the scene of the alleged crime.

Nobody knows except of the prosecutors the full evidence. This is not being public. The full evidence is still under the seal of investigation until the moment they sit in the court of law and they put it in front of the judge. So, when this happens then it will be public knowledge and everyone then can judge. I don’t comment because I never comment about what these institutions do and you can’t find a single case to prouve the contrary, although I might not have the same idea with the prosecutors in every of the cases.The only government interference since the justice reform has taken its course is the interference from the Greek government. From the Albanian government there’s no and will be no interference.

– Are you prepared to support politically the option of Beleris taking the oath of office inside the prison in the presence of a notary?

Can you find the slightest window in our law permitting the taking the oath of office in prison with the presence of a notary? There’s no such a thing.

– Legal experts in Athens know that there’s a precedent in Tirana when on November 14th, 2019, Arta Vorpsi, the Constitutional Court Judge, overcame Ilir Meta’s resistance to accept her by taking the oath of office in the presence of a notary.

Listen, first of all she was a free person, that had this idea to do this and by the way it did not work for her. Secondly, we are now talking about someone who is jailed. When it comes to the oath of office the law is specific. The oath is taken in front of the city council and nowhere else.

– The head of the prison is not a member of the court of law. He’s a member of the Ministry of Interior and he could have given permission to Beleris to appear in the city council. But he didn’t.  

The head of the prison has not such a right to give a permission because the head of prison cannot give permission to pre-trial detainees. Only the court can and the court refused to do so.

– So, Prime Minister, are you going to call for new elections for Himara?

Here’ you may get a scoop.

– I am happy to get a scoop, certainly.

Well … I am not sure you should get it because.. First of all in Albania it’s not the government that calls for new elections, it’s the President. But here’s how the process goes: If someone that is elected does not show up for the oath for 90 days then it’s up to the government to take care by discharging this person, by putting a caretaker until new elections happen after the President has declared them. I asked my lawyers to prepare an argument and I don’t know what the argument will be –but I think that this case is particular – there’s no precedent for it. So, my instinct or my natural reaction is that we maybe have to wait for the trial. So we may not proceed until he is proven guilty or not guilty. But this is not a legal opinion, this is just what I think we should do based on the fact that we don’t have a precedent. But yes, we may go either way based on the argumentations of our legal office. I think that there’s a possibility that we don’t act until the court decides. In this case we give to everyone the chance to look into it until the end. If legally is not possible, then we have to discharge him.

– I read in your biography some details and you told me just before that your mother is from Vouno, Himara. Do you feel a native of Himara a bit?

Listen, I don’t know if you have in Greece the same, to say that a man is always coming from the village of his wife…

– Yes, it is said in Greece, too.

My wife is from Tirana, I live in Tirana and I feel native of Tirana but, yes, I have a very strong bond with Himara, with Vouno, very strong bond, my mother was a very typical Vouniotissa, for Vouno they say that the normal fever is 38, so I like it.

– You said “Vouniotissa”, so you know Greek…

“I don’t know Greek, my brother knows more, he learned some while he was in Corfu. And I really regret that I am not able to speak this language because to me it sounds like a beautiful language and then it is the language of great people.”

– And as you feel strongly about Himara, do you have any message to people of Greek minority living in Himara?

I think that whoever in Himara or in all Greek minority wherever living, they know very well that they live in this country totally equally with Albanians. With the problems and the good things. I don’t know yet a single problem that you can find for the Greeks and it is just for the Greeks, if you know one, tell me.

– I heard that there is still a problem regarding the property rights of the citizens of Himara. And it is said in Athens that property titles are given to citizens of Himara only if they have already agreed to sell them to big strategic investors. In the 10 years you govern Albania and three years after the Parliament approved the new law on properties do you know perhaps how many ownership titles have been given to Himara residents without these residents having sold immediately their properties to strategic investors?  

First of all this is a total spin. Because the property titles story in Albania is something very painful. We had to go through the hell of full nationalization and then we had to go through the purgatory of transition – where the property titles were the first big victim. There’s was a big mess in every kilometer square of the country. We have still big issues in the North where there are huge properties not yet registered. Second, to say their properties get recognized only after they make deals with whomever, it is not logic. Because there’s no deal that you can make and development permissions you can get if you don’t have the titles. So, you need to have the titles. This is crazy. Do you know how much the land is sold near Himara sea shore? We have today in Himara situations that properties are sold much higher than a lot of parts of Corfu. The titles of properties given to the Greek minority during my tenure are countless. Compare them with what happened before: Zero, zero! Not one, zero. The Greek minority today go to churches that have titles of property. The churches did not have titles of property since communists ripped them off from their titles. And my government gave them the titles.

– So there’s no specific problem with titles in Himara…

All problems with property rights in Albania from North to South are the same. The trouble is that some people that seem to be more intelligent than others know how to use the Greek flag as a credit card. Know to use the Greek flag as a way to fuel poison and to support their very petty interests, by using the Greek flag. It is something some people do – Albanians do it by using the Socialist Party flag or the Democratic Party flag or other parties flags – because you know, they can’t claim they are a minority here being devastated, or a member of a minority being ripped off. When it comes to some people in the Greek minority they are very good in manipulating Athens and Athens is not good in understanding that the best chance they have for improving the relations and improving the life of the Greek minority is not a Greek, it’s just me, not because I am working for Greeks, but because I am working for everyone, and I think that the Greeks in Albania are a treasure and we have to treasure their presence, that’s it .But as there are some Albanians that I am not happy to share with them the same blood, also there are some Greeks you should not feel very proud to share the same blood.

– There are stories of members of the government supporting special interests in Himara. One of them is the story of Artan Gaci, the husband of the Foreign Secretary Olta Xhacka, who is the owner of AGTCC Hotel Management and this company has been designated as strategic investor in Himara. There was a big talk in the Parliament and in the Supreme Court. What’s your comment on that?

Listen, if talks in Parliament were proofs then you should not talk to me, you should inform the police where I am. Every hotel in Albania that is in front of the beach, everywhere, has the permission to use the beach. So, the permission that was given [to this group] was among thousands and thousands of permissions from North the Adriatic to the south. The question was not raised by owners that were ripped off. Because the owners there made a deal as everywhere and when owners are unhappy they don’t make the deal or they speak out in case they’re wronged. My question is simple: What do the people who react want? Do they want the people that are living in Himara to develop their land or to stay there like Robinson Crousoé? People develop their land, based on plans of course, they get money, they get a lot of money. We want to develop Himara, we want to develop every part of the country, based on contracts, and you cant find me a case.. that in an area, we took land, we allowed strategic investments by undermining the owners rights.

– Recently in your CHATHAM HOUSE appearance in London you said: “I fight for a country open and free”. Well, it would be quite a bold gesture towards the Greeks of Himara if you agreed that the teachings of the last two years in the private High School in Himara would be in Greek as well as the previous years. Would you be willing to consider such a gesture?

I am not familiar with this issue, frankly I am not, it is the first time I hear about that, I will check it. I think learning Greek is beautiful, learning every language is beautiful and learning the language of a neighbor is fantastic. I believe it. I am too old now to learn Greek, but I would love it. Perhaps I can join in a course in Himara.

– It is well documented that you have a political collaboration with Tony Blair. Would you accept Tony Blair to act as an intermediary between you and Mitsotakis to resolve the Beleris issue?

What Tony Blair would do? At the end he could get lost between a Greek and an Albanian. It’s better to talk about this issue together, me and Kyriakos. Kyriakos to me is a modern leader and what is happening now is not modern, it is antique.

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