HUFFINGTON POST

Greece's Debt Crisis Is Hurting Its Even Poorer Neighbors

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY BRISEIDA MEMA
Gezim Kodheli, 58, works in a garden, in the village of Suk, near the city of Fier on
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY BRISEIDA MEMA Gezim Kodheli, 58, works in a garden, in the village of Suk, near the city of Fier on June 29, 2015. More than 600,000 Albanians fleeing the poverty in their homeland have gone to seek their fortune in Greece, many of them illegally, according to official estimates. But since Greece's debt crisis deepened, about 180,000 Albanians have returned home, officials say. AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU (Photo credit should read GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images)

KAPSHTICA, Albania, July 8 (Reuters) - Sun-beaten and sullen, the four Albanian fruit-pickers returning home from a three-week stint working in Greece waved taxi drivers away at the border crossing because, they said, they could not afford the fare.

"This time we weren't paid," said one of the group, Mustafa Kullolli, 46, from the central Albanian town of Elbasan. "We were told we would get our 200 euros ($220) when the banks opened."

Greece's debt crisis is inflicting hardship on Greeks but the shockwave is fanning out too into its ex-Communist neighbors which are economically dependent on Greece and, because they are poorer, even less well equipped to deal with the consequences.

The potential impact on countries such as Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria is likely to be on the agenda of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - a central player in the Greek debt drama - when she visits the region starting on Wednesday.

With Greece losing its appeal as a source of earnings for Albanian migrant workers, more are heading to Germany instead. Some 16,000 Albanians have sought asylum in Germany from January to May, with 4,900 arrivals in May alone.

albania Krisanthi Papa, 72 works, steps out of her home in the village of Qesarat, near the city of Gjirokaster, Albania, on June 30, 2015. (GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images)

THE GREEKS HAVE NO MONEY

Kullolli and his three fellow cherry-pickers, who were crossing the border back into Albania on Tuesday morning, said to get back home they would try to find a free ride, or buy a bus ticket.

For the past three weeks, Kullolli and his group had been picking cherries and peaches in villages in the area of Edessa in northern Greece.

"The Greeks have no money, they are themselves in a crisis," he said. "They told us to come and work again in two weeks and get the money."

Among an estimated 600,000 Albanians who work temporarily in Greece, he and his friends had been making the trip for the past eight years. Things had been lean since the 2008 financial crisis but, he said, never so bad as now.

"They never kept money from us for agriculture jobs, but could do nothing about the banks this time," Kullolli said.

The economy in Albania, a country still struggling to shake off the legacy of its rule by Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, is heavily dependent on remittances sent back by people working in Greece. That cash fuels Albanian consumer spending, and funds the building of new homes.

At their peak before the financial crisis hit, remittances from Albanians abroad, mostly from Italy and Greece, amounted to 11.5 percent of gross domestic product.

As remittances shrank in the Greek slowdown in the past seven years, Albania's economy slowed too. Growth fell to 1.1 percent in 2013, its lowest in 16 years.

albania A woman knit in her garden, in the village of Suk, near the city of Fier, Albania, on June 29, 2015. (GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images)

TIED TO GREECE

At the border, some enterprising Albanians had found a silver lining in Greece's troubles.

Customs officials said they had seen people crossing into Albania with second-hand tractors, possibly bought from cash-starved Greek farmers at firesale prices.

For most Albanians though, the closure of Greek banks, now in its second week, and the prospect of Greece exiting the euro zone was making an already tough situation worse.

Another party of returning cherry pickers said they were luckier; they had been paid by the farmer that hired them. But they said they saw no future working in Greece. The country "had gone to zero," one of them said near the border.

Driving a car stuffed with goods, Fredi Hyska, 32, an Albanian painter and decorator living in Greece's port city of Thessaloniki, said he could barely earn 500 euros a month lately, down from the 1,500 or 2,000 euros he used to get for painting jobs.

"We have felt the crisis deep down in our bones over the past five years," he said.

Yet many of the Albanians returning home said they would keep going to Greece because, even if things were bad there, they were still better than at home.

In Albania, per capita gross domestic product last year was about $4,619.2, while in Greece, despite the turmoil there, it was four times as much at $21,682, according to the World Bank.

"We are tied to Greece now, our children go to school there," Hyska, the painter, told Reuters. "We shall try to resist." (Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff)

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BEFORE YOU GO

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    AFP/Getty Images/Sakis Mitrolidis
    Electoral workers prepare ballot boxes in a warehouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, on July 2, 2015, ahead of Sunday's economic referendum.
  • Municipal workers carry ballot boxes into a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming ref
    AFP/Getty Images/Angelos Tzortzinis
    Municipal workers carry ballot boxes into a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming referendum.
  • Ballot boxes for the upcoming referendum are stored in a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015.
    AFP/Getty Images/Angelos Tzortzinis
    Ballot boxes for the upcoming referendum are stored in a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015.
  • Municipal workers carry ballot boxes into a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming ref
    AFP/Getty Images/Angelos Tzortzinis
    Municipal workers carry ballot boxes into a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming referendum.
  • Electoral workers prepare ballot boxes in a warehouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, on July 2, 2015, ahead of the upcoming referen
    AFP/Getty Images/Sakis Mitrolidis
    Electoral workers prepare ballot boxes in a warehouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, on July 2, 2015, ahead of the upcoming referendum.
  • Municipal workers store booths in a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming referendum.
    AFP/Getty Images/Angelos Tzortzinis
    Municipal workers store booths in a warehouse in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015, in preparation for the upcoming referendum.
  • Youths chant slogans supporting the "no" vote for the upcoming referendum in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015.
    AFP/Getty Images/Louisa Gouliamaki
    Youths chant slogans supporting the "no" vote for the upcoming referendum in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015.
  • A man passes out a leaflet reading in Greek "Vote NO in the referendum, Down with the EU" in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015
    AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
    A man passes out a leaflet reading in Greek "Vote NO in the referendum, Down with the EU" in Athens, Greece, on July 2, 2015
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