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Protests by students of the “Mehmet Akif” boarding school in Tirana – Youtube

A week after the start of classes, on September 22, the Albanian government suddenly closed the “Mehmet Akif” boarding school for Turkish women in Tirana. A radical decision with obscure reasons. The interference of the Turkish authorities is in the shadows

Under gray skies threatening imminent rain, a group of girls march in protest towards the seat of government in Tirana. Some have placed cups won in international competitions on the sidewalk, chanting in chorus: “Cancel the school closure!”. It is the students of the Turkish boarding high school “Mehmet Akif”, who for yet another day are protesting against the arbitrary decision of the government, taken on September 22, a week after the start of the 2022-23 school year.

In a broken voice, a student recounts her disappointment and the bursting of ambitions for a quality education which she believes could change her life. She comes from a remote region in northern Albania, where time has stood still and economic hardship takes precedence over women’s empowerment. Thanks to her scholarship, she could dream big.

The same thing happened a few days earlier at the “Zubeyde Hanim” kindergarten, attended by 255 children and owned by a company registered in the Netherlands by citizens of Turkish origin. It’s not the first time this has happened. In 2020, the government closed two madrasah and the Memorial International School in Tirana following a similar scenario.

The elite school

Founded in 1996 by the Gulistan Foundation, the ‘Mehmet Akif’ boarding school quickly became a benchmark in Albania for quality education in a foreign language (mainly English and Turkish). In a country torn apart by the 1997 conflict and the political instability that followed, the boarding school – characterized by rigor and discipline and enjoying an excellent public image – offered parents security and a passport to future of their daughters.

Over the years, up to 2,000 students from all over the country have taken the entrance test – mostly excellent students, scholarship holders. Over time, many graduates became part of the Albanian intellectual elite.

The pretext of the government

The fate of the 159 students currently enrolled in the college has changed with the government’s sudden decision, which also clarified the institution’s duties regarding the transfer of students to other schools and the reimbursement of fees. But the reason why the license is revoked or any violation of the current regulations is not indicated.

In a Facebook post, Education Minister Evis Kushi clarified that the dismissal took place because the college had committed “a series of violations of current legislation” because it held the classes in a place other than the authorized one. The minister dismissed speculation about the real causes of the decision, linked to the frequent pressure exerted by the Turkish authorities on the closure of all schools linked to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a former political ally of President Erdogan.

The school representatives claim to have officially communicated to the ministry in June the request to transfer the headquarters, by carrying out the necessary interventions to make the spaces comply with the law, and to have received no feedback on this subject. They reiterate that this decision “has nothing to do with education or the application of the laws of the country”. As stated in the press release of the Albanian section of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, the on-site visit by ministry representatives did not take place until September 14, two days after the start of the course, and recorded that the seat did not meet certain criteria, but did not set a deadline for fixing the problem.

Faced with the public backlash, Prime Minister Rama first reacted on Twitter, arguing that “students of the closed school must protest against the owners who sold the school building and moved the business elsewhere, without obtaining the necessary authorization”. The historic college building actually belongs to the Municipality of Tirana, which has granted its use to the Gulistan Foundation for 30 years.

Later, in a speech to the media, the Prime Minister returned to the issue, strongly denying that the decision was in any way related to the Turkish President’s demands to close Turkish schools.

Erdogan’s insistence

“We expect Albania to take action against FETO and not allow our relations to be damaged,” Erdogan said on January 17 before the Albanian parliament. He was on an official visit to Albania to inaugurate the 522 apartments built with Turkish funds in the city of Lac, for families who lost their homes in the 2019 earthquake. The previous year a hospital had been donated to the Proud, worth 40 million euros, inaugurated a few days before the April 2021 policies.

Building on his special friendship with Albania, Erdogan publicly reiterated in January that the Turkish people were “deeply hurt” by the Gulen movement continuing its work undisturbed, reiterating the need for Tirana to take all necessary measures to avoid the worst. Thus, friendship is more like a transaction and an exchange of political favors. At the same time, more than a warning, his statement was interpreted as a prerequisite for the development of future relations between the two countries.

Since the 2016 coup attempt, Turkish authorities have exerted continued pressure on Tirana, with an ambivalent government response. Faced with the challenges that have emerged from the earthquake and the pandemic, Tirana has however accepted various aid but not without cost: it has increased its dependence on Turkey. Moreover, the close personal relationship between Rama and Erdogan has raised perplexity in public opinion: their frequent meetings are accompanied by little transparency. The risk is that over time, the boundary between interstate and commercial relations between the two countries will blur further, leading to a personalization of power and interests.

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