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City Officials Deflect Questions About Turkish Memorial in Albania's Capital

A screenshot from the Tirana Times shows an image of the monument erected for the "15 July Democracy Martyrs," published Aug. 12, 2019.

This story originated in VOA's Albanian Service. This story was updated at 8:30 am on August 14.

Nearly a month after a memorial to victims of the failed military coup in Turkey appeared at the edge of a lake in a public park in the Albanian capital of Tirana, questions remain over who granted Turkish officials the right to put it there.

The engraved dark-granite monument, which lists the names of 251 people killed in Turkey on July 15, 2016 — mostly unarmed civilians who resisted the takeover — was unveiled last month by the Turkish Embassy in Tirana to mark the third anniversary of the event.

Tirana Deputy Mayor Arbjan Mazniku attended the ceremony that started with a march from downtown to the Grand Park of Tirana where the memorial was unveiled.

The ceremony also revealed that a small area within Grand Park where 251 trees were planted would be named "15th of July Democracy Park," and that a nearby street would be renamed "15th of July Street of Martyrs."

FILE - Policemen stand atop military armored vehicles after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016.
FILE - Policemen stand atop military armored vehicles after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016.

The city of Tirana's official website, however, made no mention of the event, nor were city hall officials able to provide any records of discussion or documentation about placing the monument on public property, let alone the renaming of public parks and streets.

Few answers

Asked about who granted permission to place the memorial, Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj appeared to dodge the question.

FILE - Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj
FILE - Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj

"There are over 50 locations in the territory where various events are remembered, and each one has an opportunity to be honored," he said.

He refused to answer when asked whether any of those other monuments commemorate deadly events on foreign soil, saying only that discussing the matter any further was disrespectful to the deceased.

"I would say leave the dead alone, and whoever wants to honor them with a candle, a flower or a prayer, leave them alone, as well," he said on Sunday. "Gracious Tirana has room for everyone. ... It does no harm to anyone."

Late last week, a Tirana city hall official said they had no information to share about the memorial, and instead directed VOA inquiries to Albania's Foreign Affairs Ministry, which also denied having had any foreknowledge of the monument.

Turkey-Albania Relations

"This whole incident over the memorial has raised a lot of questions about Albania and its relations to Turkey," said former U.S. diplomat David Philips, director of Columbia University's Peace-Building and Human Rights Program.

"There should be much more public disclosure and discussion about that relationship so that the Albanian nation can protect its sovereignty and not be manipulated by Turkey for public relations or propaganda purposes," he said, alluding to the opinion of some observers who call the attempted takeover in 2016 a controlled coup used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to justify a broad crackdown on civil society.

"The memorial in Albania is wrong," Philips added. "It doesn't acknowledge the real victims of Erdogan's tyranny, (and) there was no transparency to the process."

He also said it could compromise Tirana's longer term Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

"When Albania's (European Union membership) candidacy is reviewed in Brussels, you can bet that the European Commission will look at this memorial and wonder whether Albania really aspires to a European identity, or whether it prefers fealty to Turkey."

Fethullah Gulen

Fallout from the failed 2016 coup, which claimed nearly 300 lives before troops loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prevailed, has deepened political divisions within Turkey and continues to strain ties with Erdogan's Western allies over the severity and duration of the ensuing crackdown, in which an estimated 150,000 people have been purged from their jobs and some 70,000 others jailed.

FILE - U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.
FILE - U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.

Two-hundred media outlets have been closed, and dozens of reporters jailed.

Observers say Erdogan has been using commemorations of the attempted coup, which he blames on his political nemesis, exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, to consolidate his base amid growing voices of discontent and recent electoral setbacks.

The 77-year-old Gulen, a one-time ally of Erdogan, has lived in self-imposed exile in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, but Washington has resisted Erdogan's demand he be returned to his homeland to face charges that he directed the takeover attempt from across the Atlantic.

Albania, whose Prime Minister Edi Rama is close with Erdogan, also blames Gulen for the 2016 coup.

Just days after last month's ceremony to unveil the monument, the Turkish Embassy in Tirana posted a statement on its official Facebook page, saying, "With the participation of our Albanian brothers and sisters, we successfully and proudly inaugurated the "15th of July Street of Martyrs" and the "15th of July Democracy Park."