Italy –Albania, 30 years of friendship

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s remarks at Puglia Regional Council at ceremony marking 30th anniversary of Albanian immigration to Puglia:

 

Thank you! I don’t know whether I really deserve all this. I’m really surprised, it’s probably not the right word, but I am lost for words at these moments. It is a surprising welcome, and the lack of the tie is evidence to it, because I couldn’t even wear it as soon as I got off the plane. Everything seemed like a beautiful movie, so wholeheartedly thank you for all of this!

Since the tradition has it that one should deliver a speech when an award is conferred upon him, I would try to do so by primarily expressing gratitude to all presidents and chairs attending this ceremony, greeting also the friends and I see they are all here in this hall, albeit with their face masks on. While watching the images shown a bit earlier, I was thinking it is always increasingly unbelievable that those people were us, not us Albanians, but us living nowadays. This is because it sounds like a story happening thousands of years ago, but many things have changed over these 30 years. Many things have definitely changed, as we have gone through a way too much and the changes in Albania have been remarkably incredible and this is not usual, but what makes all these years incredible is the change experienced by the Albanians who arrived here by those ships and the fact that they are integral part of this society today. There are around half a million Albanians and more than 15.000 of them now run small and medium size enterprises and they are no longer seen as suspected people for years now.

I recall that Italy was a dream for us. I had a Catholic grandma, who taught me this language and used to say: “Albanian is the language of your ancestors, while Italian is the language of our Azures.” My grandma was emotionally attached to Italy and of course, for us Italy was the black and white screen of  RAI. I don’t know whether you can imagine it, but we couldn’t receive RAI TV signal in Tirana back then, since trackers were installed to block RAI’s signal and we were very happy whenever we used to visit and spend holidays at our grandma’s home, not only because of the sea, but also because we could watch RAI TV there. Around midday, we left from the beach and went straight home to watch the TV news. I don’t really know what we were watching or what we understood, but we were kids and the maximum was Carusselo (Carousel) TV show and few other names. If it were not for this situation, so the confrontation with Italy’s reality, we wouldn’t figure out it was not what we had seen on RAI TV, let alone the Mediaset channels, because it was a network consisting of many things.

I recall that back then we were at pains due to the idea that we were viewed as suspicious. I will never forget a TV news story with a journalist with a camera in front of him reporting from a spot, where a murder had been committed and he said that no traces of the killer had been found, yet it was very likely that the perpetrator was an Albanian. It was something causing a bitter taste and we suffered a lot. This is a thing of the past of course, while, on the other hand, all this incredible story of hospitality and integration in this country has happened. For the first time we were a destination for others and not a starting point to somewhere else. It was probably the first exercise towards the solidarity with the refugees on the part of Italy located on the other side of the coast, where hundreds and thousands of desperate people, completely unlike to what people were used to see. They looked like aliens.

The great history of Albania-Italy ties ensued, a history characterized by incredible solidarity on the part of Italy. Italy was Albania’s staunch supporters at dark times. I remember the horrible events in 1997, when everything blew up and the country headed to the edge of abyss with many dead and injured, with the state having collapsed and the law and order being inexistent. The country was ruled by individuals, who founded their own gangs. Italy was the first to arrive by embarking on a major military and direct humanitarian aid operation. This was a crucial moment for Albania’s future. The support continued with the reconstruction period. Since then, Italians have been definitely Albania’s guardian angels, either when Albania was the focus of talks mainly in the Brussels, as well as in other European institutions, when it comes to assisting Albania. Of course, the devastating earthquake that hit us 15 months ago represents another event when Italy came to our defence and, thanks to Luigi first and foremost, who was personally involved in a really surprising way beyond all what is called solidarity, solidarity of another, of a neighbour, a foreigner, he was involved as if Naples was being burned down and not another country on the other side of the sea. Everyone else then followed the lead. It was incredible! This is not rhetoric and it is not about just saying some things we would prefer to listen, but this is the truth. It was really incredible be there and see young boys and girls, firefighters who had arrived in droves right at the moment when there were still lives under the rubble waiting to be saved. There were a number of dangerous situations, yet they didn’t hesitate to pull people from the rubble and save lives. And it was not about saving the lives of the Italian people, but the lives of people of another country they were probably finding themselves for the very first time. It was then the solidarity regarding the level of cooperation, the assistance and help, the know-how transfer in building the state institutions, building the capacities, the assistance in the area of justice, the fight against crime and corruption, but a lot has also been done in the area of the economic cooperation between the two countries. I believe that if we were to suppose for a moment that Italy was not there and if we were to scrap everything Italy has done for Albania over the past 30 years and consider only what the rest of the world has done, Albania wouldn’t be what it is today and instead it would have been in a very delicate and breakable position than the today’s position, which of course is still far from being the position it should actually be in terms of economy, justice, education, health and everything else. However, Albania is very different from what it used to be before and much more powerful. So if we remove Italy, imagine removing Italy and Italy’s contribution we certainly would not be in this position today and I think that is just the truth, it is nothing but the truth. To conclude, Michelle talked about security escorts. Yes, it is true. Whenever he visited Albania, and not only he but many other officials, including magistrates, prosecutors, judges escorted by policemen, and Guardia di Finanza agents, who worked either at cooperation level in certain specific cases concerning justice, or at cooperation level to assist us, it was a situation that you can really imagine the why behind the existence of that security escort. While he was talking about these, I would tell something similar to show what we have to cope with and what we still have to do in order for us to avoid the suspicions that the killer in the news stories is most likely an Albanian and make this a thing of the past. Albanians and Albania still remain suspects in certain parts of Europe, a reality in the perception of the people who make decisions and provide opinions.

It was not long ago when I received a text message from the person in charge of the VIP area in Tirana airport. It was an urgent message and I thought it was about a bomb or probably fire had broken out at the airport, because I had never communicated with this individual previously. I picked the phone and I was told that it was about an extraordinary situation the airport’s security officials had never encountered before. It was a VIP who didn’t want to enter Tirana. I asked: “Doesn’t he want to depart from Tirana or he doesn’t want to enter Tirana?” No, it is a VIP, who is being escorted by police officers, journalists and is refusing to leave the airport’s VIP area and travel to Tirana, because he wants armoured vehicles and armed people to escort him. I am not going to reveal his name, but I can tell he is an important politician of an important country, a Muslim and a left-wing politician. Normally, he shouldn’t be someone with so incredible prejudices. I asked the person in charge of the VIP area whether this official was escorted by his security guards. He confirmed that a team of armed security members were escorting him, but the latter thought the guns were not powerful enough weapons to defend and ensure his safety while entering Tirana. I told the airport official to tell the visiting foreign official that we don’t offer security service as if being in Kandahar, so that he can fly back to his country, as Tirana is not the Gaza Strip. He eventually decided to enter Tirana following a 45-minute debate. A day later, I don’t know whether he was aware that I had been informed over this situation, but he told me: “Mr. Prime Minister, I would like to profoundly apologize.” Why? – I asked him. Because I have travelled a lot – he went on saying- I have visited many countries and I considered myself someone who couldn’t fall into a precipice, as it actually happened, because Albania has nothing to do with my perception over the country. Don’t worry – I told him. This happens to everyone, especially to those coming from that cold part of Europe, because perception is completely different from the reality. And he answered: Mr. Prime Minister, imagine that I walked around Tirana and the city’s centre, where the nightlife took place and I saw not a single woman wearing head, body or face covering. Yes, I know  -I answered. I know there could be Muslim girls and women wearing a head covering in Albania, but there are no women to wear body or face covering. He then went on saying he was surprised to see people at the Ministry of Interior who spoke English. Can you imagine it, Mr. Prime Minister? There were people at the Ministry of Interior who spoke English. I told him that he had been surprised to that point, what about finding a two-meter tall Prime Minister. I asked him to forget about it and tell all these things to the public in his country, because it is the public that should listen all these from him and not from me. I will – he said. Of course I will do this and since I wasn’t really sure he would do so, I asked Albania’s Ambassador to that country to take notes of statements by this guy when back to his country. And he actually didn’t make heinous comments like the ones he used to issue before visiting Albania, because he had come to fight evil in his own country, but he didn’t say anything about this. And I sent him a message via the Ambassador, telling him the Premier is really surprised, even more surprised than when he visited Albania, since he hadn’t made any comment about his visit. And he answered  – his reply is really important when it comes to this issue – he said: “Extend my greetings to the tall Prime Minister.  I am pretty sure that being a smart guy, he will certainly understand why I haven’t made any comment.” Yes, this is politics!

Of course, this isn’t the politics and this is definitely not the reason for which I and the majority  – probably not everyone – almost everyone of you are involved in politics, but thinking that this is the politics and enjoying the institutional capabilities to deal with politics at such high level, it can hurt people, and it can hurt entire communities and whole countries. This is the wall we want to tear down in Europe and this was is another reason for Albanians to be eternally grateful to Italy, those who have governed and have headed the Italian administrations, no matter of their political colours or the internal political retaliations in Italy, because it has been always them the ones who have clearly and openly stated what we would have stated if we were to be instead of them. Italy is our advocate in every hall where Albania stands accused and this says it all and we are really grateful. I heartedly thank you all for this non-Italian patience – which is not quintessential Italian – you listened to my speech. I always follow your parliament’s proceedings and I have got the impression that silence when someone has taken the floor is not the virtue in that hall, but this is yet another honour for me.

Thank you everyone. Many thanks especially to Luigi and Michelle  – I said it earlier and I reiterate – they are the closest Albanians among the Italians in this such a difficult period we all are going through and I hope I fully deserve all this, though I am not pretty sure about that, but anyhow I will never forget  throughout my whole life this moment at this land, where everything was completely different 30 years ago and whose who have witnessed what happened 30 years ago should feel lucky enough and hopefully will live 30 more years to see how things have changed in a way that would have been just unimaginable 30 years ago.