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Ethnic Discord : Greek-Albanian Relations Sour Over Trial, Minority Treatment : Greeks angered by what they view as discriminatory religious and language trends from Tirana.


GJIROKASTRA, Albania — For most of the ethnic Greeks who make up nearly half of this southern city, it has taken generations to make their way from the desperately impoverished countryside to what passes for the Albanian good life. Gjirokastra is an urban wellspring of artists and writers.

But city living has not erased discrimination. For instance, under Albania's newly revised education laws, Greek-speaking children now have to be bused back to remote villages if they want to be taught in their native tongue.

The Greek minority here has also been angered by recent government attempts to require all religious leaders to be native-born Albanians--an explicit move to expel the Greek-born archbishop heading Albania's Orthodox Church. Relations between the Albanian leadership in Tirana and its Greek minority plunged to a new low in September when five Greek Albanians were sentenced to six to eight years in jail on dubious charges of espionage.

What some human rights observers call evidence of organized repression has poisoned relations with neighboring Greece and heightened fears of yet another destabilizing conflict on the Balkan peninsula.

Greece has accused the leadership of President Sali Berisha of prosecuting the five men, members of a minority-rights movement known as Omonia, in an effort to intimidate all Greek Albanians, which Athens numbers upwards of 250,000 but Tirana contends are fewer than 60,000. No reliable census figures are available, but Western embassies estimate the Greek population as somewhere in between. The ethnic Albanian population numbers about 3 million.

Opposition leaders in Tirana and much of the European diplomatic community agree the September trial had strong political overtones.

"This was not a trial of five members of the Omonia organization, but a political trial of all Greeks," said Arben Imami, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

When the trial began in mid-August, Greece expelled 70,000 of the estimated 300,000 Albanians who live and work illegally in the border area. Then, in protest of the sentences, Greece closed its northern border to Albanians and has used its European Union membership to block $35 million in aid for this country until the defendants are released.

But those actions by its larger neighbor have only spurred defiance in Tirana, where the leadership continues what observers describe as an increasing tendency toward harassment of the country's minority sectors. The controversial actions followed government complaints that Greece was supporting separatist activity in this southern region where ethnic Greeks constitute a majority in rural areas and a sizable minority in the cities.

Greece occupied southern Albania during World War II, and ultranationalists in Athens have at times openly coveted what they call "Northern Epirus." But the Greek government has said it lays no territorial claim to any part of Albania.

Tensions flared between Greece and Albania after the mysterious April killings of two Albanian recruits at a border camp, which Tirana blamed on Greek gangsters. But the Albanians have yet to produce evidence or suspects.

In apparent retaliation, however, the Albanian judiciary levied charges of spying for Athens against the five Greek Albanians, all from the southern region.

The trial coincided with the unveiling of a draft constitution that would have expelled Greek Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios Yanulatos and introduced restrictive policies on minority education.

Surprisingly, the constitution was defeated in a Nov. 6 referendum--largely because of Socialist opposition to the enhanced powers it would have bestowed on President Berisha. But the education code remains in force, and its restriction of Greek-language education to rural "minority zones" has outraged urban Greeks and worried human rights envoys from the International Helsinki Committee and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

Under the new guidelines, classes are no longer offered in Greek in ethnically mixed cities like Gjirokastra, Saranda, Delvina and Korca. Greek is offered as a foreign language, but as an alternative to English and only for those students who obtain government certification of their Greek ethnicity--a requirement that excludes students whose parents registered as Albanians to avoid problems during the former Communist regime.

CSCE High Commissioner Max van der Stoel, who is mediating minority disputes to avert further regional conflict, suggested earlier this month that the Albanian government consider restoring the educational practices it established two years ago as a means of easing the primary source of this latest outbreak of ethnic tension, a CSCE official disclosed.

Leko Bungo, information chief for the ruling Democratic Party, defended the government's minority-rights record as "in accordance with international standards."

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