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Athens Falls Out With Tirana Over Poll

Albania's ruling Socialists win local election run-offs, but relations with Greece are damaged
By Alban Mitrushi

A row has broken out between Athens and Tirana over allegations of electoral fraud in Greek populated areas of Southern Albania.

The dispute has taken some of the shine off the ruling Socialist's party,SP, victory in the October 15 municipal ballot.

Athens has complained of electoral irregularities in the Himare, south-west Albania, which has a sizeable Greek minority - claims corroborated by international election monitors.

Having failed to win enough votes in the first round of voting to bolster demands for an early national poll the main opposition Democratic Party, led by former president Sali Berisha, opted to boycott the run-offs.

As a result, the race in Himare was a straight head-to-head between the Socialist Party, SP, candidate and the ethnic Greek candidate from the Union for Human Rights Party, HRUP - which performed poorly in the first round, even in areas with a large ethnic Greek minority.

International election monitors described the elections overall as "an important improvement" on previous polls. But the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, said the run-offs had been "less transparent" than the first round.

"In Himare, the situation was marked by some serious irregularities ranging from the intimidation of (electoral) commission members to verified evidence of fraud in at least three voting centres," the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said in a statement.

But the ODIHR chief, Eugenio Polizzi, said the problems were not sufficient to affect the result of the ballot. The Socialist candidate won in Himare by 1,870 to 690.

The political temperature in the area was raised when the HRUP candidate announced that if victorious the Greek flag would fly over municipal buildings, Greek schools would be opened and a referendum on independence organised.

HRUP and Omonia, a coalition of minority political groups, ferried Albanians living in Greece back to Himare to vote for them. The Albanian press reported Sydney Olympic champion Pirro Dhima, originally from Himare but now a Greek citizen, had been involved in the operation.

During a soccer world cup qualifier between Albania and Greece in Tirana on October 11, Albanian fans brandished a huge banner reading "Pirro you're a traitor, we are Albanians".

In response to the bussing of voters, the Tirana authorities turned back 13 coach loads of Albanian immigrants living in Greece.

At the European Union summit in Biarritz, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, protested over Albanian actions. Athens government spokesman Dimitris Reppas said they would "carry repercussions."

The Albanian daily Koha Jone on October 20 pointed to the Greek authorities deportation of 30 illegal Albanian immigrants as the beginning of possible large scale expulsion, triggered by Athens' fury over the election irregularities.

The main problem facing Tirana now is not the opposition Democrats decision to boycott the newly elected authorities, but whether the row with Greece over the Himare poll will escalate.

Alban Mitrushi works for an international organisation in Tirana and is an IWPR associate.