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The Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus

February 25, 2023

In March 1913, during the First Balkan War, the Greek army achieved victory at Bizani and subsequently liberated Ioannina, before advancing further north. Cheimarra had already been brought under Greek control on November 5th, 1912, when Cheimarriot Spyros Spyromilios landed without significant resistance.

By the end of the Balkan Wars, the Greek armed forces had taken control of the region that later became known as Northern Epirus, stretching as far west as the line of the Pindus Mountains and as far east as Lake Prespa. On November 28th of the same year, in Avlona, the Albanians declared their independence, thereby creating the nation of Albania.

On February 13, 1914, the Panepirotic Assembly, consisting of representatives of the region, decided that if unification with Greece was not achieved, they would only accept local autonomy. To prevent the area from being occupied by Albanian irregular armed forces and to protect the region’s population, Georgios Christakis-Zografos, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece with origins from Kestorati Argyrokastro, proclaimed the “Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus” in Argyrokastro on February 28th.

The declaration of autonomy for the people of Northern Epirus revealed that the Great Powers had denied them not only autonomy within the Albanian state, but also guarantees for their basic human rights. The declaration was also signed by the metropolitans of Dryinoupolis, Korytsa, Vela, and Konitsa. Later, ministers were appointed responsible for each sector: Alexandros Karapanos for Foreign Affairs, Colonel Dimitrios Doulias for Military Affairs, Ioannis Parmenidis for the Economy, and Metropolitan Vasilios of Dryinoupolis for Education and Religion.

Georgios Christakis-Zografos, also known as Georgios Zografos, served as the President of the Provisional Government of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus and twice as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. He was able to gain internationally recognized autonomy for Northern Epirus through effective political maneuvering.

Zografos informed the International Control Commission of his appointment as the president of the provisional government of Autonomous Epirus and declared that the people of Northern Epirus would defend themselves with arms against any attempt by the Albanian gendarmerie to cross their borders. The autonomous state, in addition to Argyrokastro, included Himara, Delvino, Premeti, Agioi Saranta, and Ereska. However, the wider area of Koritsa, which was part of Northern Epirus geographically, was not initially included in the autonomous state.

The uprising in Northern Epirus did not originate from or receive support from the Greek government, which only sympathized with the Northern Epirotes on an emotional level. The position of the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was particularly difficult, as he had to abandon the Greek populations to the disposal of the Great Powers without securing any guarantees for their safety. On March 9th, the Greek fleet blockaded the port of Agioi Saranta, and in the following days, demonstrations in Athens supporting the Northern Epirus issue were prohibited. These actions aimed to persuade the Great Powers that Greece maintained a strict stance and did not participate in any way in the autonomist movement in Northern Epirus.

On March 1, 1914, Lieutenant Colonel Kontoulis, following orders, surrendered the cities of Korçë, Moscopole, and a few days later Leskovik to the newly formed Albanian gendarmerie. This was followed by serious unrest and armed conflicts between Albanian and Northern Epirote forces, which spread to many areas. The Northern Epirotes, who had organized local armed groups called the “Sacred Bands,” captured Erseka and advanced to Frashër and Korçë by May of the same year. Although there were clashes in the region of Korçë, and the city passed into the hands of the autonomists for a few days, after reinforcements from the Albanian side, the rebellion was suppressed. Many Korçë residents, including the local metropolitan bishop Germanos, were imprisoned and exiled.

On May 17, 1914, with the mediation of Albanians and Zografos, the Protocol of Corfu was signed. Northern Epirus officially gained autonomy, under the auspices of Prince William of Albania, who, however, had no substantial authority. The Albanian government had the right to appoint and dismiss governors and senior officials. Other terms of the agreement provided for the recruitment of locals into the gendarmerie and the prohibition of military units consisting of non-locals from staying in the region. The teaching of the Greek language in schools was also provided for, although in the first three grades Albanian would be taught in parallel with Greek. Religious instruction, however, would only be given in Greek. The Great Powers would guarantee the preservation and implementation of the above measures.

After the protocol was signed, armed conflicts were significantly reduced, but did not immediately cease. According to the protocol, the region of Korçë, which was then under the control of the Albanian gendarmerie, commanded by Dutch and Austrian officers, was to be assigned to the temporary government of Autonomous Epirus. Eventually, on July 8, Korçë came under the control of the Northern Epirote administration after an assault. In the same month, Tepelenë also came under the control of the temporary government. On May 17, 1914, a revolt incited by the Young Turks broke out in central Albania, which endangered the validity of the protocol. The activities of these rebels worried Eleftherios Venizelos, who feared widespread looting and massacres of civilians by their side.

On September 14th, the Northern Epirus forces temporarily occupied Berati, but without the approval of the Provisional Government. Eventually, in late October of the same year, and despite the outbreak of World War I, Greek troops re-entered the region with the consent of the Great Powers as a stabilizing factor and to protect the population. Thus, the provisional government officially ceased to exist and Northern Epirus was once again under the protection of the Greek state. Venizelos even stated in the Greek parliament that only colossal mistakes would deprive Greece of Northern Epirus. After Venizelos resigned, the subsequent pro-royalist governments took actions that distanced Greece from the Entente powers, particularly due to their stance insisting on neutrality and not joining the First World War on their side.

In early 1916, the region of Northern Epirus participated in parliamentary elections and elected 16 representatives to the parliament. In March, the region’s union, administratively consisting of the prefectures of Argyrokastro and Koritsa, was declared by royal decree. The political circumstances that followed, as well as the unfavorable situation that Greece found itself in the following years due to the National Schism, led to the division of the country into two separate states, Thessaloniki and Athens. Furthermore, the diplomatic maneuverings of the Great Powers resulted in the initial entry of Italian (in Argyrokastron) and French (in Koritsa) troops.

Following the end of the war, in 1921, the final jurisdiction of the region was decided in favor of Albania. However, the incorporation into Albania came with much more limited rights for the region’s population and without recognition of an autonomous state, in accordance with the terms of the Corfu Protocol and the guarantees given by Albania to the League of Nations.

Sources: Concise World Military, Naval, and Air Encyclopedia, Strategic Publications / History of the Greek Nation, Volume XIV, Publishers of Athens / Northern Epirus in the Decade 1912-1922, Foundation of the Hellenic World.

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