The media and columnists widely follow every official trip abroad by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When it comes to him visiting one of the Balkan countries, the visit becomes the main topic in the whole region for weeks as well. This has been the case with the Turkish president's recent visit to Albania on Jan. 17. President Erdogan was welcomed at the "Mother Teresa" airport in the capital Tirana with the highest honors by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Albania a natural, important ally in the region
For decision-makers in Ankara as well as the wider society, the Balkans is perceived as a transnational extension of what people in Turkiye call "vatan," a notion filled with emotional memories. There are cultural similarities and many organic connections. It is estimated that more Albanians and Bosnians live in Turkiye than in Albania and Bosnia. Most emigrated to Turkiye after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and during Yugoslavian rule in the 50s and 80s to escape systematic repression. They are organized in various Balkan and Rumelian associations and actively try to influence Turkiye's policies towards the Balkans. Therefore, whatever happens in the Balkans has a direct impact on Turkiye as well. After the end of the Cold War, Turkiye has pursued a multidimensional foreign policy towards the Balkans. Turkiye itself is an inseparable part of the Balkans and its view of the region is shaped by common history and culture. Especially during the last two decades, Turkiye has done its best to promote closer and friendlier relations with all Balkan countries, wherein Albania sits at the center of this perspective.
Albania is the most stable country in the volatile region; it is the only country that has no disputes with its neighbors, it is internally homogeneous, a full member of NATO since 2013, and the most serious candidate for joining the EU. It also has a prestigious seat at the UNSC as a non-permanent member this year for the first time. It has the potential to directly influence the events in Kosovo, as the second independent Albanian country; in North Macedonia, where Albanians consist 1/3rd of the country; and Montenegro -where the government directly depends on the Albanian minority. The country strongly supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and opposes the nationalistic claims of Serbia to create Greater Serbia at the expense of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Therefore, it is already demonstrated that increasing prosperity and stability in Albania is serving peace and stability throughout the region.
The agreements signed during the visit of Prime Minister Edi Rama in Turkiye on Jan. 6, 2021, were a new and historical starting point. As a result of that visit, the Joint Political Declaration on the establishment of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council was signed between Turkiye and Albania, which has been on the agenda for years, and relations between the two countries were raised to the level of Strategic Partnership. Turkiye has invested over 3.5 billion dollars in Albania since the installment of democracy. There are over 600 registered Turkish companies operating in Albania and these companies not only contribute to production but also provide employment for about 15 thousand people.
With these figures, Turkiye is one of the largest foreign investors in Albania. When Albania was hit by the earthquake of Nov. 26, 2019, Turkiye was among the first countries to send emergency aid and ambulance workers. It was Turkiye that built 522 houses in Lac for the people who lost their homes in the earthquake, and it was Turkiye that not only sent medical aid during the pandemic but also built a hospital in Fier. The "Turkiye-Albania Friendship Hospital," which was built in Albania for 40 million euros, with 150 beds, six operating rooms, and six polyclinics, was completed in 68 days and opened in April 2021. Cooperation between Albania and Turkiye is built by NATO as a stabilizing factor in the Balkan region. Turkiye has continuously provided military education to Albanian military personnel in various areas related to security, including logistics, modernization of the armed forces, and infrastructure of the Albanian army. Albania has signed a contract for the purchase of surveillance drones as well. Albania and Turkiye also held many joint military exercises.
FETO as a key issue
The Turkish president's recent visit proved that the FETO is still an important issue between Ankara and Tirana. President Erdogan devoted an important part of his speech to this topic in the Albanian parliament, warning that this issue would be decisive in the relations between the two countries. After the events of the failed attempted coup in July 2016 in Turkiye, all high Turkish authorities who have visited Tirana have repeatedly insisted on hitting the structures of FETO in Albania. However, so far, this request of the Turkish side has not been met by the Albanian authorities.
EU-Turkiye as complementary actors in the region
Turkish policymakers have always stated that Ankara supports the membership of the Western Balkan countries in transatlantic institutions. Many studies have shown that Turkiye and the EU are not competitors in the Balkans but complementary actors. There is a wide field of cooperation between Ankara and Brussels regarding their policy in the Balkans. For Albanian PM Edi Rama, Turkiye's role in our region is irreplaceable, inalienable, and indisputably constructive in the service of peace.
Last but not least, whenever new steps are taken on the Albanian-Turkish side, certain groups show up considering this strategic partnership very skeptically. However, it is already evident that all this comes from the neighbors, especially from the Greeks, who politically and economically want a weak Albania without strategic and balancing alliances.