ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s foreign minister cancelled a trip to Albania on Wednesday after the neighboring country’s prime minister suggested a northwestern Greek town was “Albanian land”.
Nationalists in Greece and Albania had long made claims on their respective lands. But relations between the Balkan neighbors have significantly improved since they signed a friendship treaty in 1996.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s remarks were in a text he sent to a museum to mark the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence from Ottoman rule and honor the founder of modern Albania, Ismail Qemali.
In the statement, he referred to “the Albania of all the Albanian lands from Preveza to Presevo, Skopje to Podgorica.”
Preveza is part of the northern Greek province of Epirus, where some ethnic Albanians lived before World War Two, and Berisha’s remark drew the ire of Athens.
“Such comments do not help in fostering a climate of friendship, trust and good-neighborly relations between the two countries,” the foreign ministry said, adding Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos had scrapped his trip over the matter.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia and Podgorica the capital of Montenegro, both bordering Albania. Presevo is in southern Serbia close to the border with ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo.
Berisha’s office sought to play down the spat, saying he was referring to the “historical context of a 100 years ago” and that did not “express any territorial claim to our neighbors in the South, North or East.”
Both countries are now NATO members and Greece is Albania’s second trading partner and its biggest foreign investor.
Last month, however, Greece had to apologies to Albania for placing its red flag depicting a black, double-headed eagle, upside down during a visit by its foreign minister to Athens.
Albanians are by far the largest group of foreign workers in Greece - estimated at up to 800,000 in a country of 11 million people - and have been among the first to feel the hit from the deep Greek economic crisis.
Reporting by Karolina Tagaris in Athens and Benet Koleka in Tirana; Editing by Mark Heinrich