On November 29, Albania was the sole Muslim-majority country in the United Nations to be counted among the 41 abstainers from the proposal to admit Palestine as a non-member observer. Certain Islamists were displeased, to say the least. In particular, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the “fundamentalist-lite” Justice and Development Party or AKP, responded with one of the tantrums that has become a hallmark of his administration.
Erdogan declared that he had exerted pressure on an unnamed Muslim land to abandon its intention to vote “no,” encouraging it to support the Palestinians, and arguing that an abstention would be considered the same as a “no” by Turkey.
“I told them that this would damage bilateral relations we have. . . . It would upset us,” Erdogan complained. He went on to lament, “there are many cowards in the world.” The Istanbul daily Hurriyet soon revealed that the target of Erdogan’s fit of pique was Albania and its prime minister, Sali Berisha.
Outsiders may not grasp how offensive Erdogan’s snit was to Berisha and his people, especially as it came during Albania's celebration of the centennial of its independence from the Ottoman Empire. For a Turkish politician to call Albanians “cowards” is breathtakingly heedless and arrogant.
The leading Albanian-American journalist Ruben Avxhiu, editor of the New York-based semi-weekly Illyria, warned on December 7, in the daily Panorama published in Tirana, that the Albanian proclamation of freedom in 1912 “ended five centuries of Turkish occupation. Albanians . . . were determined not to let Turkey ever again make decisions on their behalf. This remains true today.”
Avxhiu observed, “Albania enjoys excellent relations with Israel . . . the intention of some of the actors [at the U.N.] is not peace for all the people of the region, but punishment and condemnation of Israel.” He wrote, “The Palestinian President, who a few days ago asked for the right of self-determination for his people at the UN, has denied it several times to Kosovo. In an official visit to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, he said that Kosovo’s independence was a breach of international law and advised Kosovars to go back to the negotiating table and decide their status in agreement with Serbia. This is interesting advice, considering that it is exactly the opposite of what he is doing at the UN by asking for status while bypassing talks with Israel. Furthermore, Kosovars could only wish that Serbia would publicly agree in principle to a two-state solution, the way Israel has done. . . . Abbas’s advice is highly hypocritical.”
Regarding Erdogan, Avxhiu remarked on “the lure of the popularity that he has won in the Arab Street because of his harsh criticism of Israel. He hates to be surpassed by anyone else in this context, and certainly not by Iran's Ahmedinejad. . . . There may be other explanations of his position on the Palestinian issue, but nothing seems to distinguish him as ‘brave,’ at least not to the point of having the right to call a ‘coward’ the leader of another country, who makes his decisions based on different geopolitical, electoral and cultural parameters and circumstances.” In an obvious reference to the Turkish leader, Avxhiu concluded, “the person who is harmed the most is almost always the one who cannot resist running his mouth.”
Albanian officials, including Prime Minister Berisha, who spoke on Albanian national television about the controversy with Erdogan, were restrained and dignified, but firm. Albania had chosen to follow the lead of the United States on the Israel-Palestine issue, which Berisha described as “the most complicated in the world.” Abstention represented a step back from a “no.” But the government in Tirana would support a peace process and a two-state solution, not a one-sided vote to satisfy the Arab and Islamic alliances.
Nevertheless, ameliorative gestures by the Arab powers were soon visible. Qatar, which operates a large academic and investment center in the middle of Tirana, hosted a lavish reception at the Hotel Sheraton Tirana to mark the Gulf emirate’s National Day, which falls on December 18. The Qatari event was held at the end of November, in advance of the official date, with Berisha and other Albanian politicians in attendance.
For its part, Turkey sought to heal the breach with a celebration, on December 3, of the 20th anniversary of Ankara’s diplomatic recognition of the post-Yugoslav states of Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia.