Trebisht in northeastern Albania looks like a ghost village, emptied of its residents by a rush to get Bulgarian passports that open the door to the European Union.
Arman Kadriu has an Albanian name, but the 12-year-old boy says he considers himself Bulgarian.
“I don’t want to stay here taking care of cows. I want to be a football player,” he said, covered in sweat, as he juggled a ball with his feet on a dusty road in the village in the Golo Brdo region.
“In England, with a Bulgarian passport, it’s possible,” he said, switching languages to say “Dovizhdane!” — goodbye in Bulgarian.
Bulgaria and Albania do not share a border.
And non-EU member Albania, where a law on minorities is under consideration, does not count Bulgarians among its recognised ethnic communities, unlike the Greeks, Macedonians or Serb-Montenegrins.
The ethnicity of historically Slavic-speaking communities in parts of Albania’s east has long been fluid and disputed — neighbouring Macedonia claims they are ethnic Macedonians.
But according to the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, which helps in obtaining a passport, Bulgarian families have been settled in Albania since the 5th century and their descendants are part of its diaspora.
No statistics are available, but Bulgarian organisations in Albania estimate that there are around 100,000 of these descendants.
The European Parliament seems to agree: in February, it requested of Tirana “that the rights of people with Bulgarian ethnicity in the Prespa, Golo Brdo and Gora regions be enshrined in law and ensured in practice”.
The recommendation “has given renewed hope. Every day at least seven or eight people come to ask about obtaining Bulgarian citizenship,” said Haxhi Pirushi.
He heads the Prosperity Goloborda association, which provides certificates of Bulgarian origin to Albanians and is recognised by the government in Sofia.
Perched on a hill, Trebisht is a sleepy place.
A few men spend their day on the terrace of the “Democracy” bar and others work the land, while young people travel three kilometres (two miles) to cross the Macedonian border for temporary work.
Once the village counted “around 6,000 inhabitants, but more than 2,500 left four or five years ago when they had the opportunity to benefit from a Bulgarian passport,” explained resident Tahir Mucina.
In the neighbouring village of Vernice “there is hardly anyone left”, said the 31-year-old.
Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, its citizens have been able to work and reside wherever they want within the bloc, with all the restrictions lifted in 2014.
Mucina said he was also “on the lookout” for passports for himself, his wife and their three children.
Albania, as a whole, is a nation of mass emigration, spurred by an average wage of 340 euros ($388) and an unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people.
So it does not matter that Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. Seen from Trebisht, it is the gateway to Germany, England or some other promised land.
And it suits Bulgaria to claim these people as their own.
“It has to do with (Bulgaria’s) policy on Macedonia/Macedonians who also have access to Bulgarian citizenship because they are seen as ethnic Bulgarians,” said Southeast Europe expert Dimitar Bechev at the University of North Carolina.
“Communities who live on the other side of the border… qualify as well.”
He said Bulgarian MEPs have successfully lobbied the European Parliament to take a stand on the issue. “If Macedonia were an EU member, things would have worked another way, of course,” Bechev told AFP.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Bulgarians from 19 localities in Albania asked Sofia to defend their rights in what was then an Italian protectorate, according to the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad.
“The toponymy (study of place names), the preservation of an archaic Bulgarian language and the local dialect and traditions are evidence of the Bulgarian character” in the regions concerned, Sofia says.
Trebisht residents who said they consider themselves Bulgarian spoke to AFP in Albanian, but said they spoke Bulgarian at home with their families.
“I live in Albania,” said the 60-year-old Gani Shahini, “but my origins are Bulgarian”.
Between 2001 and 2016, a total of 4,470 Albanian nationals applied for a Bulgarian passport and 2,608 of them were successful, according to Sofia.
But these figures do not reflect the full extent of the phenomenon. Some choose to take an illegal path, providing a market for forged passports.
Three people were arrested in December 2015 and later found guilty of making Bulgarian passports on demand for between 4,000 and 10,000 euros.
Since May 1, Sofia has requested documents proving the Bulgarian origin of a parent or grandparent after Bulgarian prosecutors found abuse of the system.
“The only interest of these people is to obtain a passport allowing them to move freely in the European area,” said Albanian historian Pellumb Xhufi. — AFP