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27 Apr, 2009 09:01

Identity crisis in Greek village in Albania

As Albania is set to apply for EU membership, one Albanian mayor says his village should obtain special status as a Greek minority - and has been sentenced to six months in prison for further actions.

It may be in Albania, it may look like Albania, but this village has something of an identity crisis. The mayor in question, Vasil Bollano, was pushing for it to go Greek!

The village of Himara in Southern Albania was thrown into the spotlight two years ago, when the mayor ordered the removal of all non-Greek road signs. He said they should be in Greek and Albanian, not just in Albanian. The mayor himself has Greek origins, but like many others here, his family has lived in this area for generations.

The removal of the signs caused chaos, because they were along a section of Albania’s coast that is popular with tourists.

And soon afterwards, the mayor went one step further, and threatened secession from Albania.

The RT team tried to talk to him, but his offices were closed, and when they finally tracked him down, he refused to talk.

Most people in this small sleepy village don’t feel either Greek or Albanian.

Albanian vendor Lenin, unlike his namesake who has always been in the headlines, just sells them. He was born in a nearby Albanian village, and can trace back his roots in the area for generations.

“Greeks and Albanians are brothers. We go to each other’s houses, share our food, like one family. We have no problems here,” he says.

Like Lenin, Alket Neraxi, a Greek hotel owner, also says his ancestors were among the first in town.

“My great-great grandmother spoke only Greek, my surname doesn’t exist in Albania. So, I think I’m from the Greek island of Corfu, but I don’t have any connection to Greece today,” said Neraxi.

But that is not what the mayor believed. He said enough Greeks live in the area for it to be given special status as a Greek minority – so much so, that's he threatened Albania's desire to be accepted by the West.

“He sent a letter to the Greek parliament calling on it not to ratify the accession of Albania into NATO. This is against our constitution, and carries a penalty of up to five years,” said Genci Terpo, an Albanian lawyer.

Prosecutors have filed charges against Bollano for abuse of power, and his sentencing came as no surprise to anyone.

Despite his threats, he is not being taken seriously on either side of the border. Local journalist Besar Likmeta says Tirana purposefully treated him with kid gloves.

“Probably their thinking was that he’s just making a fuss, and the story’s going to go away. And also, they are treading very carefully with their bigger neighbour to the south, Greece,” explains Besar Likmeta, editor at the Balkan Insight edition.

In April, Albania filed for EU membership, and will want to keep Athens happy.

But the mayor of Himara, it seems, was determined to exploit that situation to his own Greek advantage.