Israel Finds Allies in the Balkans
Recently, Albania received good news that it will soon begin succession talks towards EU integration. Albania is a close friend of the U.S. and has always been a good friend to the Jewish People. It is now establishing friendship ties with Israel. A successful visit to the Jewish State this week by an Albanian delegation, including Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, helped in solidifying this new relationship.
Since the U.S. has started coordinating its foreign policy with the EU, it means that countries accepted for succession talks, which also happen to be friendly with Israel, could become future advocates. For example, eventual integration into the EU by Albania suggests that when Israel needs Albania in critical moments of diplomacy, especially within international forums… that’s what friends are for.
Bushati elaborated in an interview with this writer: “Nowadays, there is not a conflict looming on the horizon, and all Balkan countries are sitting at the same table…. So, if there is one spot in the world that someone can measure the success of US and EU policy, this would undoubtedly be the Balkans.”
Since the breakdown of the peace process, and the development of the Fatah-Hamas unity government, the Palestinians are racing towards greater international recognition for Palestinian statehood. At the same time, Israeli leaders are stepping up their approach, as a counteroffensive, extending a hand of friendship to any interested country -- large or small -- that wants to do business with the Jewish State. Israeli diplomats know this could be one more vote in favor of Israel within the EU or the UN, which is one less vote of hostility.
Since the Pope’s visit in May 2014, Israel has received a stream of high-level delegations on official visits from Holland, Slovakia, Italy, Romania, Montenegro, Albania, Moldova, and other nations.
With an eye towards developing friendlier ties, almost every visit includes concentrated efforts at “soft power” diplomacy: economic partnerships; new and ongoing business deals; discussions in the fields of agriculture, water, high-tech, biotech, tourism, textiles, science, and education – whatever is possible to create a logical fit of increased trade, while also maintaining political dialogue. In other words, Israel is open for business on all levels within current geopolitical realities.
Bushati admits that after the fall of the communist regime, in the past two decades there has been a series of changes in terms of statehood in the region. There’s been a lot of bloodshed and economic poverty. Now there are no wars, but there are still issues to be addressed and resolved concerning ethnic disputes; displaced persons; challenges regarding the protection of minorities and in relation to the respect of property and basic rights; and, the need to address native cultures and languages.
Despite good ties with Western nations, there is much yet to be done in the Balkans. “We still face several features related to the question of statehood, in terms of mutual recognition of countries. We still have some border disputes between countries that have recognized each other... If two decades ago, the narrative in the Balkans was peace and stability, now the narrative has shifted into social and economic development and connectivity.”
The Balkan region is still not connected to Europe in terms of main road corridors. Good highways are needed to help economic and stable development, and to assist direct contact between people, especially within the business community.
While Albania tries to come out of its past into a promising future, hoping for the coveted EU integration, Bushati believes that there are elements in the Balkans that are also common to the Middle East. “Both regions are quite hot regions, in terms of politics, divisions, antagonism; and, in this respect, I do believe we could draw lessons from each other’s experiences.”
Bushati points out that relations with Israel are unique because they began before the creation of the Jewish State. It is well-known that the Jewish Community found shelter in Albania during difficult times. Bushati says there were ten times more Jews in Albania after WWII. “We were sheltering Jewish people from neighboring countries where they were not feeling secure.”
Today, most of Albania’s Jews have emigrated; but historically, the country has shown great generosity towards the Jewish People. Bushati feels this could benefit European nations. “One of the assets of Albanian growth towards the EU is also improving the policies of the EU in combatting anti-Semitism feelings, policies, and rhetoric that are present nowadays in Europe. Albania brings such a rich experience during the wars. And that has been something like a treasure that has been cemented over decades.” Bushati thinks that Albania could help Europeans deal with the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Albania was one of the first countries that recognized the state of Israel in 1949, shortly after Israel’s declared independence. embassies are now open in Tel Aviv and Tirana, “which is a good sign of our political cooperation”, according to Bushati. There is also a shared interest in joint economic ventures between Israel and Albania. While Bushati sees value in Israel being a “knowledge based society”, which can help other countries in a sustainable way, he also talked about the remarkable transformation of Albania since the fall of the communist regime. “It gives the impression you are visiting a very different country.”
There’s now a culture of entrepreneurship that has influenced a lot of Albanians. Bushati hopes to display to Israel, the EU, and the global community that Albania has high potential. “We have to demonstrate our leadership, vision, and political courage and to think about the future of our generations.”
Energy is one of the pillars Bushati is excited about, as decisions are being made to build a pipeline through Italy, Greece, and Albania. Through this pipeline, the Caspian Sea would be connected to the Adriatic Sea. Albania could serve as an energy source for other Balkan countries. Throughout this corridor, Europe could secure energy.
Albania, meanwhile, needs help in water management. “We are aware of the modern way that Israel has succeeded and we would like to work with Israel.”
After meeting with Bushati, this writer had an opportunity to talk to Israel’s ambassador to Albania, David Cohen. He spoke of the development of economic cooperation between the two countries. It March 2013, the Israeli-Albanian Chamber of Commerce in Tirana developed a board of businessmen. They took a chartered flight to Israel with 130 people on board in October 2013, and they combined their business forum with a WATEC exhibition (water technology). They developed close ties in the field of agricultural development.
In November 2014, a mission is being planned for Israeli businessmen to come to Albania. Cohen says this is “in order to make follow-ups and new contacts and increase the economic ties between our two countries.” The purpose is to encourage Israeli businessmen. “They are directed to west Europe. They are directed to the U.S. We want them to work, also, in the Balkans and in this new country, Albania.”
Since Albania is now beginning succession talks, Cohen feels that Israeli companies will bring start-up high tech businesses to Albania. “We want to share with Albania our experience, our relative advantage in agriculture and ecology…. We have historic ties. Albania is also supporting Israel in the international organizations.”
Cohen pointed out that Albania did not vote for the unilateral declaration of the independent country of Palestine two years ago. Albania abstained, which was important to the Jewish State.
A country like Albania is an asset to Israel, because not only is it demonstrating political friendship and economic cooperation, it is a nation that lives in peaceful coexistence between Sunni Muslims, Christian Orthodox, and Catholics. And, as Cohen declares, “It is important to have an Israeli flag in this friendly country.”
As long as the U.S. continues to coordinate its foreign policy with the EU; and, as long as new countries like Albania want to integrate into the EU; new European friendships for Israel will flourish. Israel’s foreign policy seems to be working effectively, too, as nations continue to visit the Holy Land to establish political and economic ties in this new era of “soft power” diplomacy.