Albanian PM heads to Serbia in historic visit

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was due in Serbia Monday, the first such visit in 68 years, after violence at a football match delayed his landmark bid to ease tensions between the Balkans nations.

Rama’s visit, initially planned for October 22, was postponed after violence broke out at a football match between Serbia and Albania.

That flare-up turned into a political crisis between the two countries, which are both hoping to join the European Union.

The football-linked violence and political tensions highlighted the troubled relations between Belgrade and Tirana, and Rama’s historic visit aims at helping turn the page on the past.

The two countries’ recent disagreements have been linked to largely ethnic Albanian Kosovo, a former Serbian province, and the ethnic Albanian minority in southern Serbia who often demand more autonomy.

“We are seeing this as a new chapter to be opened in the relations between Serbia and Albania and towards cooperation with the joint goal to preserve stability in the Balkans,” a Serbian government official said.

Tirana hopes one of the results of Rama’s visit will be to put an end to the crisis that erupted after the football match, a qualifier for the 2016 European championships.

“The time has come to turn the page and not to fall in a trap of the politics that has held us hostage for a long time,” Rama said several days ahead of his visit, pointing out that both countries had Europe as “our joint destination.”

Albania was granted EU candidate status earlier this year, while Serbia in January launched accession talks with Brussels.

Some said the visit may have more to do with European aspirations than improving relations.


– ‘High time to reconcile’ – 

“The conflict between Albania and Serbia has always been hidden behind Kosovo. For the first time, the confrontation between Albania and Serbia is direct and it is obvious on the eve of this visit,” Mero Baze, editor in chef of online news portal Tema, wrote in an editorial.

“I do not believe that the visit reflects normalisation of the relations between the two countries. This is just a visit to please Europe.”

The football match in Belgrade on October 14 was halted after home fans invaded the pitch and attacked Albania players following an incident with a pro-Albanian flag carried over the stadium by a drone.

The match was goalless when it was abandoned as Albania players fled to the changing rooms and fans invaded the pitch.

The provocative flag included a map of ‘Greater Albania’ incorporating parts of Serbia.

Belgrade had initially accused Rama’s brother, who watched the match from the VIP section, of having operated the drone, but the authorities went silent shortly afterwards and said a probe was underway.

In Belgrade, some welcomed the visit as a step in the right direction.

“It is high time to reconcile with each other for a change,” 21-year-old student Nikola Kovacevic said.

On the first day of the visit, Rama is set to meet Vucic and other top Serbian officials. 

According to Tirana, the Albanian leader will on Tuesday visit Presevo Valley, the region in southern Serbia with a dominant, 60,000-strong ethnic Albanian community, burdened by poverty and high unemployment. 

In 2001, the region was the scene of violent clashes between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting to unite it with Kosovo. 

Tensions have remained high ever since as Belgrade often suspects the Albanian minority of seeking secession, while ethnic Albanians complain that there is no political will in Serbia to provide them with more rights and autonomy.



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