Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj commemorated the 5th anniversary of the Turkish coup attempt that left 251 people dead on July 15, 2016.
Veliaj and Turkish Ambassador Murat Ahmet Yoruk planted 251 trees in Tirana on Wednesday to commemorate each of the victims whose names were attached to each tree.
The embassy also held a ceremony on Thursday at the memorial park built by the municipality in the Grand Park of Tirana and inaugurated away from public attention in 2019. The park drew criticism from part of Albanian civil society, who claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was using the victims of the attempted coup to strengthen his grip on power. They argued that the brutal event had no relation to Albania and did not deserve to be commemorated with a park.
On Wednesday, Mayor Veliaj stressed the municipality’s investments in the area where 251 trees were planted, particularly his work in allegedly increasing green areas. He said this was done on “an important day for the Turkish freedom and democracy,” but failed to mention what happened on that day and why it was important for Turkey, Albania, or Tirana.
Standing beside Veliaj, the Turkish ambassador strongly condemned the “terrorist organization of Fethullah Gulen” for the attempted coup. He said Turkish and Albanian people filled the streets of Turkey 5 years ago, following Erdogan’s call, and gave their life to defend democracy and freedom.
Many Albanians settled in Turkey throughout the Ottoman rule in the region, and some of them still maintain close ties to their Albanian roots. A considerable number of Albanians have emigrated to Turkey in the last 30 years.
The ambassador said the trees and the park “will commemorate to eternity the joint fight for democracy that we have done with our Albanian brothers,” and called on the whole world to learn a lesson from this.
The attempted coup took place on July 15, 2016, with parts of the military trying to overthrow the democratically elected government of Turkey and President Erdogan.
Turkey accused the Hizmet movement for the coup, a Muslim religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen who has been living in self-exile in the US since 1999.
Hizmet and Erdogan collaborated closely for years. The movement opened hundreds of schools in more than half of the countries in the world with the support of the Turkish government.
However, the balance of power between them was shaken when alleged members of Hizmet in the justice system and police started to go after government corruption. Relations deteriorated with time, culminating with the attempted coup.
Gulen vehemently denies his movement was involved in the coup attempt but Erdogan has vowed to wipe out the organization.
Turkey declared the movement a terrorist organization, and in the aftermath of the coup, tens of thousand were imprisoned or fired, and hundreds of media outlets were shut down. International organizations and western democracies criticized Turkey for human rights violations in the process.
Turkey was also able to shut down Hizmet schools in several countries with weak democratic institutions. Its supporters were deported from these countries to Turkey in violation of human rights, many underwent torture and were imprisoned on charges of terrorism.
In 2018, the secret services of Turkey and Kosovo collaborated to kidnap and deport 6 teachers who worked in Hizmet schools without the government’s knowledge.
The Albanian government also deported a Turkish citizen in 2020, despite his request for asylum – a violation of the country’s human rights obligations.
In Albania, an Hizmet school was closed after it allegedly went bankrupt. Other schools and a university were bought by a company registered in The Netherlands, an apparent attempt to avoid possible pressure by the Albanian government.
Turkey exerts continuous pressure on the Albanian government to crack down on the movement in Albania. The two countries, as well as their leaders, have very good relations. Rama, however, is caught between Erdogan and the European countries who have refused to recognize the Hizmet movement as a terrorist organization and have criticized human rights violations in the aftermath of the coup.