News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania’s opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of

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Fleckenstein calls on DP to end parliamentary boycott

Fleckenstein calls on DP to end parliamentary boycott

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – In a visit to Tirana, Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, urged opposition lawmakers to return to parliament, which, he said, is the only proper revenue to address any grievances and to contribute

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Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

TIRANA, Feb. 21 – Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region’s lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing

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Opposition set for parliamentary boycott, indefinite protest

Opposition set for parliamentary boycott, indefinite protest

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – Albania’s opposition will boycott parliament and hold an indefinite protest until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and fair elections, opposition leaders said Monday. The announcement followed the largest anti-government rally in years and

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Court orders suspension of works at controversial ‘Veliera’ Durres project

Court orders suspension of works at controversial ‘Veliera’ Durres project

TIRANA, Feb. 17 – A court has ordered the suspension of construction works at a controversial project to build a luxury veil-like square in front of the country’s biggest port of Durres that risks burying ancient ruins in concrete next

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Opposition parties prepare for massive weekend protest rally

Opposition parties prepare for massive weekend protest rally

TIRANA, Feb. 16 –  Albania’s opposition is planning to hold a major “show of force” anti-government rally Saturday, calling for an end to “government arrogance,” a guarantee of free and fair elections as well as “economic reforms that benefit all

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Albanian expats to be able to vote ‘sooner rather than later’

Albanian expats to be able to vote ‘sooner rather than later’

TIRANA, Feb.16 – Albanian citizens living abroad will be able to vote in the elections by using the newly established Online Consulate Service. Prime Minister Edi Rama said Wednesday that “migrants can cast their vote without having to come to

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SMI ministers unhappy with IMO managing board role, communications

SMI ministers unhappy with IMO managing board role, communications

TIRANA, Feb. 16 – There seems to be no clarity in sight on the new bodies established by Albania’s justice reform process as two ministers have expressed concern over the makeup and role of the managing board of the International

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Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records

Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – The General Prosecutor’s Office is seeking further information on nine elected representatives — members of parliament and mayors — it suspects of hiding brushes with the law in their decriminalization declarations. If the prosecutors’ suspicions are

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News analysis: Already in campaign mode, political leaders pin hopes on promises of public spending, tax cuts

News analysis: Already in campaign mode, political leaders pin hopes on promises of public spending, tax cuts

By Urita Dokle TIRANA, Feb. 16 – The electoral campaign period officially starts one month ahead of the June 18 parliamentary elections, but most political leaders are already on the campaign trail with a steady flow of promises, mostly having

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131280" align="alignright" width="300"]rovla2 Based in Tirana, Ambassador Romana Vlahutin heads the EU Delegation to Albania. (Photo: pdp)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania's opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of EU's delegation to Albania.

Basha had asked that Ambassador Vlahutin be left out of the meeting, a departure from protocol for meetings of this type. The leader of Albania's opposition had wanted to make a public show of the fact that the EU ambassador no longer enjoys the trust of the opposition, a source familiar with the situation said.


The opposition's stance comes at a critical moment for Albania's democracy, as the opposition has started to hold an indefinite protest in front of the prime minister's office, seeking Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a caretaker government to oversee the upcoming June general elections. 


In addition, Sali Berisha, the country's former prime minister and a dominant figure in the main opposition Democratic Party said in a television interview this week that not only does the opposition no longer trusts Vlahutin to be impartial, but she is now seen as an active government supporter.


It is the first time an Albanian opposition representative says the Tirana-based EU ambassador is not trusted, and it is clear that as far the Democratic Party is concerned, Vlahutin has crossed a red line.


In recent news, Albania's chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, said in television interviews that the EU ambassador had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to arrest of senior politicians, and one diplomatic source tells Tirana Times, that Berisha himself was at the top of the list. 


Llalla informed President Bujar Nishani, his direct superior on the Council of Justice, of the request. Nishani, a former high official in the Democratic Party, then appears to have called in Vlahutin to explain her request and its basis.


A senior official in the Democratic Party said Vlahutin has undermined the credibility of the European Union in Albania by “being an emotional supporter of the government and the prime minister,” adding this opinion is shared by the wider public, not just the opposition. 


Berisha has also made public that known Socialist activists and supporters of the prime minister have been employed in Vlahutin's staff in Tirana. 


Vlahutin's background is unusual for an EU ambassador. A Croatian national, she had previously worked for her country's president before being sent to Albania as an EU representative following Croatia's 2013 accession to the European Union. 


She first raised eyebrows in Albania when she said that the justice reform could be approved without the opposition participation if needed, when both international and domestic leaders saw that consensus was the only way forward. 


Vlahutin also stayed silent when the prime minister said that when it came to the justice reform, the opposition stood against the European Union, the United States and the ruling Socialist-led majority.


This week's public gesture by the opposition to show its distrust of the head of the EU delegation to Tirana also comes at a time when Albania's progress toward EU integration seems to be a standstill.


Independent observers have concluded that the EU delegation to Albania, which Ambassador Vlahutin leads, as well as Prime Minister Rama had created great public expectations for opening of the official membership negotiations between Albania and the European Union. 


The question of opening negotiations was reduced the approval of the justice reform in parliament, which happened with a unanimous vote, even-though both Vlahutin and Rama said that the opposition was the main obstacle.

However, that approach was wrong. The opening of the membership negotiations has now been pushed beyond any realistic prediction.

The Tirana-based EU representatives neglected a key factor of importance in the country's progress: free and fair elections and preparations for a such a process.

Another key issue that has caused great damage of trust has been the issue of marijuana cultivation, now spread across the country at an industrial scale, a fact which the opposition says has the tacit support of the government. 


Prime Minister Rama has had a curious answer to such accusations: Go ask the internationals. 


The EU representatives in Tirana have been curiously silent on the matter, even-though the problem is self evident through the tens of tons of marijuana seized by international and domestic authorities on a regular basis. 


Albanians have had a great trust in the European Union. Support for EU integration remains at near-unanimous levels, research by the Albanian Institute for International Studies shows. 


However, as the country seems to head into another political crisis, the lack of trust the opposition has in EU's delegation to Tirana could undermine EU's credibility and power of influence to resolve future crisis.
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU's credibility among Albanians, opposition warns
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 22 – In a visit to Tirana, Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, urged opposition lawmakers to return to parliament, which, he said, is the only proper revenue to address any grievances and to contribute to the country's EU integration processes.

Albania's main opposition Democratic Party has said it will boycott parliament and hold indefinite protests until Prime Minister Edi Rama resigns and a caretaker government guarantees free and fair elections.

Fleckenstein said he would not be part of any negotiations to end the political stalemate.

“The place of every political party is in parliament. All of their work and negotiations must be done in parliament,” Fleckenstein said.

On Tuesday, MEP Fleckenstein met with Prime Minister Edi Rama and Parliament Speaker Ilir Meta. He also met with the chairman of Democratic Party Lulzim Basha.

Fleckenstein also held a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu and EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin. The three foreign representatives talked about the judiciary reform, decriminalization and elections.

“Mr. Basha must allow his MPs to go back to parliament and do their job,” Fleckenstein said in a televised interview before the meeting with Basha.

The opposition leader has repeatedly called for the establishment of a caretaker government that would guarantee free and fair elections and underlined that the opposition would not accept any offer regarding partial solution.

“We will not back down. We are determined to go through toward our goal of having free and fair elections, ousting the prime minister and establishing a caretaker government,” Basha said. “When every institution in the country has gone down, it is time for the government to fall.”

He added the “opposition would return to parliament when a government will be able to guarantee free elections.”

The Socialist ruling majority believes that the opposition’s anti government protest is in fact “an alibi to justify the next electoral loss” and “an attempt to inhibit the justice reform vetting process,” according to Prime Minister Rama.

The prime minister said Tuesday, “Let them continue with their protest and boycott, but they should sent the three nominations to the commissions that will save our judiciary from those killers dressed in black.”
                    [post_title] => Fleckenstein calls on DP to end parliamentary boycott
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 21 - Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region's lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing the country's competitiveness in some key sectors, such as the garment and footwear industry, the country's top exporter relying on low labour costs.

Trade union representatives have demanded a 4,000 lek (€29) to 26,000 lek (€190) increase in the minimum wage after repeated demands for a hike were not taken into account in the past three years. Meanwhile, business representatives seem willing for a 2,000 lek (€15) hike to 24,000 lek (€176) and a lower 1,000 lek (€7.3) wage increase for some 100,000 garment and footwear workers, most of whom are paid at minimum wages.

The debate comes ahead of the upcoming June general elections at a time when the Socialist Party-led government has announced a 7 to 36 percent hike for some 164,000 public sector employees, accounting for 18 percent of total employees, following a three-year freeze.

The minimum wage for some 6,900 public sector workers is set to increase by 36 percent to 30,000 lek (€220) starting next March, ahead of the June 18 elections. The hike is part of the government’s plans to spend about $100 million on wage and pension increases in 2017, when police forces will benefit a 17 percent hike and the public administration is expected to get a 10 percent increase in monthly wages.

"Taking into account the past four years, the increase that business representatives are proposing is lower than adjusting it to inflation rate and economic growth. That is why we oppose it. Our initial demand was for a 30 percent hike, while the final compromise is at 26,000 lek (€190)," said Kol Nikolla, the head of Albania's Confederate of Trade Unions, at a meeting last weekend with the National Labour Council, a consultative body with government, employer and employee representatives.

Luan Bregasi, the head of the Business Albania association, said the 24,000 lek (€176) minimum wage is accepted by all industries, except for the garment and footwear industry.

"All industries accept a 2,000 lek (€15) increase in the minimum wage. Our proposal for garment and footwear producers is a 1,000 lek (€7.3) increase for this year and adjusting the hike to inflation rate in the coming years," said Bregasi.

Other business representatives say the hike could have negative impacts on exporting businesses relying on low labour costs.

"It is likely that the products' cost will artificially increase and the effects low profit businesses will suffer will be either cutting exports or cutting staff," says Alban Zusi, the head of Albanian Exports' Center.

Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj said next March's government decision on the minimum wage would be a traditional increase that will not damage the country's competitiveness, hinting a 5 percent increase to 23,000 lek (€168).

Social Welfare Minister Blendi Klosi said the "increase will be made by taking into account interests of both employees and employers without damaging the labour market compared to the regional one."

Albania's current minimum wage of €157 is lower compared to all regional EU aspirant countries, including Kosovo which applies a €130 minimum wage for people aged up to 35 and €170 for elder employees.

Minimum wages in the other Western Balkans EU aspirants range from €206 in Bosnia and Herzegovina to €213 in Macedonia, €235 in Serbia and €288 in Montenegro.

While Albania offers the cheapest labour skills in the region, the tax burden is one of Western Balkan’s highest, being a barrier to attract foreign direct investment in sectors other than oil and mining despite the country’s favourable geographic position and Mediterranean climate.

Employment in Albania's private sector is led by self-employment in the agriculture sector, which provides about half of the country's jobs, but only 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling the poor efficiency of the sector which suffers underfinancing and poor investment and technology.

Employment in the private non-agricultural sector, led by the garment and footwear industry with some 100,000 workers, accounts for 37 percent of the total 972,000 employees in the country where the official unemployment rate is at 15.2 percent and youth unemployment at 30 percent. The real jobless figure is estimated to be far higher as jobless people in rural areas are almost all counted as self-employed in the agriculture sector due to possessing farmland.
                    [post_title] =>  Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131254" align="alignright" width="300"]Opposition leader Lulzim Basha at a protest rally. (Photo: DP handout) Opposition leader Lulzim Basha surrounded by supporters at a Tirana protest rally. (Photo: DP handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – Albania’s opposition will boycott parliament and hold an indefinite protest until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and fair elections, opposition leaders said Monday.

The announcement followed the largest anti-government rally in years and the setting up of a large tent in front of the prime minister’s office, where hundreds of people have stood since the anti-government rally on Saturday.

The Democratic Party has dubbed the protest venue, a major intersection in Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard as “Freedom Square.”

“Until they agree with our demands, our parliamentary activity will move right here, on Freedom Square, venue of direct democracy,” said Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha.

Caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections

Basha and other opposition leaders at the protest said the current Socialist-led government cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections because it has a record of using “criminals and drug money” in previous elections.

There is little trust in the government’s will to hold free and fair elections, not only among the opposition but also large parts of the population that might not be supporting the Democratic Party directly, analysts say, pointing to the case of the local elections in Dibra showed how a central government can win an election through a mixture of vote-buying and voter intimidation through criminal elements.

Opposition and other anti-government activists also point out that avoiding the influence of money from crime and drugs in the electoral process stands at the foundation of stability and security in the country.

Albania has recently seen a massive growth in marijuana plantations, which the opposition says have the tacit support of government officials. In addition, several elected representatives – both members of parliament and mayors – have had to give up office or are under investigation as part of a decriminalization process that started after the Socialist-led government chose people with criminal pasts to run for office.

Channeling growing popular discontent

Protesters weathered rain and colder than usual weather to hold uninterrupted overnight protests, where leaders of the Democratic Party and smaller allies held speeches.

Protesters speaking at the rally said they had come because they feel neglected by “an arrogant government” that is not performing well enough, causing a difficult economic situation, increased unemployment as well as an increase in crime. Protesters also say corruption is widespread at every level of administration.

At Saturday’s rally, Democratic Party leaders spoke only after people who had suffered directly under government oppression expressed their experiences, with which thousands of Albanians can identify.

One woman said she had been quickly fired from a public sector job because of being a Democratic Party member. Another woman, holding a baby, said she had been forced to shut down her small tailor shop due to repression from tax authorities and higher electricity bills.

The Democratic Party is trying to channel growing public discontent against the government’s reforms, which increasingly are facing a perception of being tough on the weakest members of the society while helping powerful economic interests become even stronger.

But ultimately the opposition believes that it can only win polls on a level playing field and that only a caretaker government can guarantee free and fair elections.

“There is no going back from the way we have chosen without winning on the promised demand: There will be free elections only with a government that doesn’t have Edi Rama as a prime minister,” Basha said.

Protesters remember dictator’s monument toppling

Opposition leaders have been showing the protest nonstop live on Facebook, and have accused mainstream media of not giving it enough attention due the fact that the media outlets “have been bought by the government.”

Monday, the third day of the indefinite protest, was also the anniversary of another popular rally that led to the toppling of the statue of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist-era dictator, and signifies to this day the fall of communism in Albania.

The Democrats see Rama’s government has a direct descendant of the country’s communist rulers, not only because Hoxha’s Labor Party became the Socialist Party in 1991, but also because it is using the same methods of intimidation to hamper free and fair elections, said Arben Imami, a long-time opposition leader.

Many opposition supporter who come from families that were politically persecuted under Hoxha’s regime also point out that many high government officials have direct family ties to the former communist ruling class.

Reacting to the protest on Facebook, Prime Minister Rama said the opposition was protesting to protect itself from the justice reform.

“Citizens have as part of their rights to protest against the government and to call of its resignation, but if this tent birthed by the protest was set up to protect those who have hijacked the justice system then the protesters themselves will be betrayed by the protest leaders,” Rama said.

The Democratic Party voted in favor of the justice reform, but has expressed concerns over the constitutionality of some of its elements.

The protest has been largely peaceful, and police said they would not interfere with the siting as long as there are no acts of vandalism, although the rally permit expired on Saturday.
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                    [post_content] => velieraTIRANA, Feb. 17 - A court has ordered the suspension of construction works at a controversial project to build a luxury veil-like square in front of the country's biggest port of Durres that risks burying ancient ruins in concrete next to the landmark Durres castle and Venetian tower. The decision by the Durres Administrative Court came following protests by civil society activists and a lawsuit against Durres Mayor Vangjush Dako over the continuation of works after an Ottoman era building, a cannon and some catapult stones were discovered during digging works.

The court decision halts construction works on the much rumored "Veliera" project in the area where the finds have been discovered until a final say by the National Archaeology Council which is already conducting site research.

The Forum for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, an organization bringing together public figures, described the court decision as only half-victory, warning that protests will not stop.

Mirela Jorgo, a lawyer who represented civil society activists at the Durres Court, says the Durres municipality led by mayor Vangjush Dako “has committed a criminal offence by building concrete structures in ancient ruins and falsified a 2011 map by narrowing the "Zone A" area where every kind of construction work is banned.”

Ruling Socialist Party Durres Mayor Vangjush Dako has insisted digging works have only been made in the allowed Zone B and that the project will serve Durres and further promote tourism in the country's second largest city only 30 km from Tirana.

[caption id="attachment_131065" align="alignright" width="300"]The Veliera design project The Veliera design project[/caption]

A BIRN news agency report earlier unveiled the municipality of Durres signed a contract with the Archaeology Institute and the Archaeological Rescue Agency only two months after digging works kicked off at a time when the majority of underground works had already been completed.

The 6-million euro government-funded “Veliera” project will be a 12,000 m2 square with a giant 2,000 m2 veil on it.

The project which is being implemented ahead of next June’s general elections has been criticized for its high cost at a time when Durres suffers prolonged tap water cuts, lacks a waste treatment plant and faces frequent flash flooding due to lack of proper sewer systems, hampering its key tourism industry.

Socialist Party Mayor Vangjush Dako, now in his third consecutive term as Durres Mayor, has often been publicly accused of increasing concrete areas in Durres due to alleged interests in a concrete company where he was a shareholder before taking office as Durres Mayor in 2007.

The project comes after Durres reconstructed its central square and archaeology museum in the past few years, making it more attractive to tourists.

Founded in the 7th century BC under the name Epidamnos, Durres has been continuously inhabited for 27 centuries and is one of the oldest cities in Albania. The city boasts a Roman amphitheater of the 2nd century A.D, one of the largest in the Balkan.
                    [post_title] => Court orders suspension of works at controversial ‘Veliera’ Durres project
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-17 11:52:40
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-17 10:52:40
                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_126223" align="alignright" width="300"]Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 16 -  Albania's opposition is planning to hold a major “show of force” anti-government rally Saturday, calling for an end to “government arrogance,” a guarantee of free and fair elections as well as “economic reforms that benefit all Albanians,” says Lulzim Basha, the opposition leader.

The opposition Democratic Party, which lost power in the 2013 elections, said hopes to bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

Democratic Party accuses the left-wing government of destroying the country's economy, health and education and deepening the poverty, transforming Albania in a drug haven and using its proceeds to allegedly rig the elections.

In a meeting with party supporters in Shkodra, Basha said that the Democratic Party is calling “for free and fair elections which cannot be guaranteed without the implementation of biometrical identification of votes, and electronic voting and counting with an integrated system all over the country.”

Basha said that the anti-government rally will be peaceful, and he guaranteed that the protest will reflect the increasing discontent of citizens against the government’s unfulfilled promises, corruption and its alleged ties to drug trafficking. 

“They have made a deal with criminals to prohibit the fundamental right of democracy: free and fair elections,” Basha said. 

A Democratic Party spokesperson said protesters will gather at Mother Teresa Square and also in front of the prime minister’s office. 

A stage is expected to be erected in front of the Council of Ministers building, where ordinary people like farmers and owners will be called to speak about their problems and troubles during the last four years under Rama’s administration.  

In his speech, the Democratic Party chairman is expected to reveal some of the party’s program for the employment of the young people, improve health care and tax system providing relief for most of the country’s poorest. 

The protest is perceived as a test of public support for the opposition parties at a time when public trust in the government has hit a record low. 

Five months to the parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Rama on the other hand has expressed his conviction of earning a second mandate, which according to him will be used to boost Albania’s economy and overall reforms. 

The parliamentary elections of June 2013, deemed as free and fair by the OSCE ODIHR, awarded Rama’s Socialist Party-led coalition, then in opposition, victory over the Democrat-led alliance, by 83 seats to 57.
                    [post_title] => Opposition parties prepare for massive weekend protest rally
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_128053" align="alignright" width="300"]PM Edi Rama PM Edi Rama[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb.16 – Albanian citizens living abroad will be able to vote in the elections by using the newly established Online Consulate Service.

Prime Minister Edi Rama said Wednesday that “migrants can cast their vote without having to come to Albania.” However, for being able to vote, citizens who live abroad must first register, and the registration process has been extended all over the Albanian embassies and consulates in the world.

“Albania is challenged to guarantee the participation of citizens living abroad in elections,” Rama said adding that the country is the only one in Europe which has not registered its citizens who live elsewhere in the world.

“We don't know where they are, what they need, and without this registration, it will be impossible to include them in the voting process,” he added.

The registration process of migrants living abroad has already begun, and their inclusion in the voting system will follow.

“The general registration will enable us to include Albanians in the voting process as early as possible. But this will require time,” Rama said.

The Online Consulate Service offers 36 services to citizens. Procedures are simple and unified into a single platform, officials say.

Albania has already started work to unify consulate services with Kosovo and is eying the possibility of establishing joint embassies with Kosovo.

The prospect of the online consulate service first came to life in the first Diaspora Summit held in Tirana last November.

In 2016, the government said that budget costs for the vote of migrants inside embassies and consulates would amount to nearly 10 million Euros.

 
                    [post_title] => Albanian expats to be able to vote ‘sooner rather than later’
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-17 10:30:00
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131216" align="alignright" width="300"]Justice Minister Petrit Vasili (Photo: Archives)  Justice Minister Petrit Vasili (Photo: Archives)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 16 - There seems to be no clarity in sight on the new bodies established by Albania's justice reform process as two ministers have expressed concern over the makeup and role of the managing board of the International Monitoring Operation.

Justice Minister Petrit Vasili, a representative of the Socialist Movement for Integration, has sent a letter in which he opposes the role of the board as unconstitutional. The letter was sent to the President, the Parliament Speaker, the Prime Minister, and to U.S. and EU Ambassadors, and in it Vasili says that the managing board's functions are not based on the justice reform law and constitutional amendments.

The minister says the board does not guarantee the credibility of the vetting process. The managing board of International Monitoring Operation (IMO) is composed of representatives of the European Commission and the U.S. government, which is set to monitor and advice on the process of vetting the background of Albanian judges and prosecutors.

Minister of Justice Petrit Vasili raised this issue in a letter sent to the highest authorities of the state. Vasili referred to a letter of the board chairwoman, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, who is also the highest EU official for the region, sent the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, in which she announces the launch of the observation mission.

Minister Vasili explains that he was not aware of this communication by which "arise significant concerns regarding official communications held, and the legality of the process of construction of that part of IMO," adding that "in all legal or constitutional provisions, there is no definition for the establishment of IMO's management board.”

While specifying that the constitution stipulates arrival and the role of experts, "in terms of the IMO managing board, composition, its role is unclear in this process, its membership with the participation of permanent and temporary, and including within it representatives of the respective embassies, do not find support neither in the Constitution nor the law."

Vasili proposed in his letter a "return to the path of constitutionality and the law on this issue in order to discuss the problems born with the creation of this board.”

Minister of Integration Klajda Gjosha, also an SMI representative, addressed the issue in another letter to Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn. Underscoring the concerns raised by Vasili and his proposal to discuss the resolution of this problem, Minister Gjosha also asked the Commissioner Hahn to "launch official communications with representation of all stakeholders regarding the reform in justice to make sure the process moves forward correctly.”

In response, President Bujar Nishani sent a letter seeking "unequivocal implementation of the constitution and the law on the implementation of the judicial reform.” He added, “No institution or facility outside of this legal framework will not be able to take the attributes of a well-defined structure in the constitution."

Representatives of the main ruling Socialist Party have remained silent on the matter, leading analysts to believe there is a SMI-SP rift on the matter. 
                    [post_title] => SMI ministers unhappy with IMO managing board role, communications
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130019" align="alignright" width="300"]Albania's parliament (Photo: PoA Handout) Albania's parliament (Photo: PoA Handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – The General Prosecutor’s Office is seeking further information on nine elected representatives -- members of parliament and mayors -- it suspects of hiding brushes with the law in their decriminalization declarations.

If the prosecutors' suspicions are proven true, the representatives would be sacked and replaced.

The list published by several media outlets includes the name of six members of parliament -- Artan Gaci, Armando Prenga, Gledion Rehovica, Aqif Rakipi, Omer Mamo and Mhill Fufi -- as well as the mayors of Polican, Tepelena and Pogradec. 

Five MPs represent the ruling majority whereas Fufi has been expelled from the Democratic Party after he broke with party orders over votes in parliament. Among the mayors, two are from the leftist coalition and one from the center-right one.

Prosecutors have called for the assistance of the Central Election Commission to provide more information on the self-declaration forms of these officials done as required by the country's decriminalization law, which aims to get people with criminal convictions out of elected office.

In December 2016, the Decriminalization Unit at the General Prosecutor’s Office called for the suspension of two parliamentarians and a city mayor over non-disclosure of information in the framework of the decriminalization process. 

The unit is chaired by Prosecutor Rovena Gashi, who recently made headlines after her name was mentioned among many other judges and prosecutors whose visas were revoked by the U.S. Embassy. 

The most affected political party by the prosecution’s fight against officials with criminal records is the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity.  

MP Dashamir Tahiri was in the first representative of this party to have his mandate suspended after he was accused of having criminal records.  

MP Artan Gaci responded to accusations saying that if “prosecutors would have any evidence on his alleged wrongdoing, they would have made it public already.”

The CEC has been collecting forms from all MPs and mayors, however, the chief prosecutor’s office is the only body that can investigate and do background checks on the past of these officials to find any criminal record registered in the country or abroad. 

After the files are delivered to the CEC, the electoral watchdog will rule on the suspension of their mandates. 

The verification process done by the prosecutors is carried in the framework of the decriminalization bill that entered into force in 2015. 

The law forced 1,836 politicians and 5,000 senior officials in Albania to declare their criminal past and obliged authorities to check their statements. 

According to provisions, anyone with convictions requiring jail terms of up to two years will be banned for 10 years, but a government official found guilty of corruption would be banned from public office for 20 years.

At least 30 MPs have resigned or been replaced in the last two years, with several being accused of being involved in criminal activities. 

 

 
                    [post_title] => Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-15 23:25:52
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131193" align="alignright" width="300"]Prime Minister Edi Rama and Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj walk in a construction area. (Photo: GoA/Facebook) Prime Minister Edi Rama and Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj walk in a construction area. (Photo: GoA/Facebook)[/caption]

By Urita Dokle

TIRANA, Feb. 16 - The electoral campaign period officially starts one month ahead of the June 18 parliamentary elections, but most political leaders are already on the campaign trail with a steady flow of promises, mostly having to do with public spending or tax cuts.

Central and local government officials are attending many openings and inauguration of projects, while promising many more to come. This week, there was a presentation of the plan for the construction of 17 new schools in Tirana, part of the government’s ambitious 1 billion dollars plan, which aims to revive the country’s infrastructure, education and health sector if the ruling coalition gets a second mandate. 

Mayor Erion Veliaj was accompanied by Prime Minister Edi Rama who described Tirana’s municipality as “the swallow that foretells the arrival of a new season of transformations in infrastructure and economy.” 

According to Prime Minister Rama, the 1 billion dollars plan to be implemented through public private partnerships has already begun with the construction of 17 new schools in Tirana, which will be available for use starting next year. 

Rama said that there are about 53 new schools that will be constructed, and 97 other schools that will be reconstructed all over Albania as a result of the government’s plan.

Rama made another electoral promise and said that in the next two to three years, Albania’s economic growth rate would increase to 6 percent. 

“Today’s economic growth is significant, considering where we started. However, this growth is not visible in the homes of our citizens. We will go towards a growth that is higher than 6 percent,” Rama said. 

The meeting held at Fan Noli School in Tirana was also used to call on citizens to vote for the ruling coalition in the upcoming elections of June 18. 

“If we want to continue working with this pace, as we are doing something new every day, the answer is simple: On 18th of June, Prime Minister Rama should continue to be the country’s prime minister,” Major Veliaj said. 

[caption id="attachment_131194" align="alignright" width="300"]The chairman of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, promised businesses that they will get lower taxes and fiscal ease if they choose to support the DP program. (Photo: DP/Facebook)  The chairman of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, promised businesses that they will get lower taxes and fiscal ease if they choose to support the DP program. (Photo: DP/Facebook)[/caption]

Meanwhile, the opposition parties have launched several meetings with supporters and business representatives, issuing its first electoral promises. 

The chairman of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, promised businesses that they will get lower taxes and fiscal ease if they choose to support the DP program. 

“Taxes have increased by 1.5 billion dollars in the last four years. Every Albanian citizen has paid an additional 500 dollars in taxes. We will reinstate a flat tax of 9 percent, and businesses will pay a fixed tax of 1.5 percent of their turnover,” Basha said in a meeting earlier last week.

He added, “If the Democrats come to power, we will end the monopolies of public private partnerships.”

Albanian politicians have made a habit of fighting their official and unofficial campaigns on infrastructure, education, health and economy, but history has shown that the incumbents have the upper hand on electioneering with public funds.

Last year, the government proudly unveiled a generous pre-election financial amnesty that delighted hundreds of businesses but did little good to the economy, some economy experts say. 

The fiscal amnesty for all unpaid liabilities since 2008 to 2011 aimed to provide a fiscal relief worth 400 million dollars. 

Over 50 percent of these debts belong to a small group of businesses such as Bankers Petroleum, ARMO and Belle Air that together hold 200 million dollars in unpaid taxes. 

While these big companies got their taxes pardoned, hundreds of citizens among the poorest in the country were imprisoned in the past two years over electricity theft for hooking up to the net illegally to avoid electricity bills. 

Companies such as ARMO, Bankers Petroleum or the bankrupt Belle Air have been under fire for misusing the country’s assets and tax legislation.

Experts on the other hand believe that the government’s 1 billion dollars project and last year’s decision to wipe off bills is being done based on electoral purposes.  

The road to elections will be a long one -- 122 days, to be exact. On the way, long before the race even begins officially, as Albania’s electoral history reveals, there will be countless inaugurations and appearances by the government leaders, a wave of online and TV shows  from the parties and interest groups, and unprecedented promises of economic recovery. 

The use of state events and resources of campaign purposes by the country’s largest governing parties was highly criticized by OSCE-ODIHR, the main international elections standards monitoring body. 

In its latest report on Albania’s local elections held in 2015, OSCE-ODIHR expressed concern over the “blurred separation between state and party.” 

“Senior figures from the Socialist Party and Socialist Movement for Integration handed out property legalization certificates at campaign events and a number of [Socialist coalition] candidates used state events and resources for campaign purposes,” the report stated. “These events blurred the separation between state and party and breached paragraph 5.4 of the c1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, which provides for ‘a clear separation between State and political parties.'” 

Five months to the parliamentary elections, the level of trust in the Albanian government has plummeted. The latest survey showed that trust in the Albanian government fell to 35 points by the start of 2017, a record low. 

During the unofficial and official campaign for the parliamentary elections each of the political parties will claim to be the best option to improve Albania’s economy. But it remains to be seen if the country’s struggling economy will be powerful in determining the results of the country’s elections.

 

 

 
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Already in campaign mode, political leaders pin hopes on promises of public spending, tax cuts
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131280" align="alignright" width="300"]rovla2 Based in Tirana, Ambassador Romana Vlahutin heads the EU Delegation to Albania. (Photo: pdp)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania's opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of EU's delegation to Albania.

Basha had asked that Ambassador Vlahutin be left out of the meeting, a departure from protocol for meetings of this type. The leader of Albania's opposition had wanted to make a public show of the fact that the EU ambassador no longer enjoys the trust of the opposition, a source familiar with the situation said.


The opposition's stance comes at a critical moment for Albania's democracy, as the opposition has started to hold an indefinite protest in front of the prime minister's office, seeking Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a caretaker government to oversee the upcoming June general elections. 


In addition, Sali Berisha, the country's former prime minister and a dominant figure in the main opposition Democratic Party said in a television interview this week that not only does the opposition no longer trusts Vlahutin to be impartial, but she is now seen as an active government supporter.


It is the first time an Albanian opposition representative says the Tirana-based EU ambassador is not trusted, and it is clear that as far the Democratic Party is concerned, Vlahutin has crossed a red line.


In recent news, Albania's chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, said in television interviews that the EU ambassador had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to arrest of senior politicians, and one diplomatic source tells Tirana Times, that Berisha himself was at the top of the list. 


Llalla informed President Bujar Nishani, his direct superior on the Council of Justice, of the request. Nishani, a former high official in the Democratic Party, then appears to have called in Vlahutin to explain her request and its basis.


A senior official in the Democratic Party said Vlahutin has undermined the credibility of the European Union in Albania by “being an emotional supporter of the government and the prime minister,” adding this opinion is shared by the wider public, not just the opposition. 


Berisha has also made public that known Socialist activists and supporters of the prime minister have been employed in Vlahutin's staff in Tirana. 


Vlahutin's background is unusual for an EU ambassador. A Croatian national, she had previously worked for her country's president before being sent to Albania as an EU representative following Croatia's 2013 accession to the European Union. 


She first raised eyebrows in Albania when she said that the justice reform could be approved without the opposition participation if needed, when both international and domestic leaders saw that consensus was the only way forward. 


Vlahutin also stayed silent when the prime minister said that when it came to the justice reform, the opposition stood against the European Union, the United States and the ruling Socialist-led majority.


This week's public gesture by the opposition to show its distrust of the head of the EU delegation to Tirana also comes at a time when Albania's progress toward EU integration seems to be a standstill.


Independent observers have concluded that the EU delegation to Albania, which Ambassador Vlahutin leads, as well as Prime Minister Rama had created great public expectations for opening of the official membership negotiations between Albania and the European Union. 


The question of opening negotiations was reduced the approval of the justice reform in parliament, which happened with a unanimous vote, even-though both Vlahutin and Rama said that the opposition was the main obstacle.

However, that approach was wrong. The opening of the membership negotiations has now been pushed beyond any realistic prediction.

The Tirana-based EU representatives neglected a key factor of importance in the country's progress: free and fair elections and preparations for a such a process.

Another key issue that has caused great damage of trust has been the issue of marijuana cultivation, now spread across the country at an industrial scale, a fact which the opposition says has the tacit support of the government. 


Prime Minister Rama has had a curious answer to such accusations: Go ask the internationals. 


The EU representatives in Tirana have been curiously silent on the matter, even-though the problem is self evident through the tens of tons of marijuana seized by international and domestic authorities on a regular basis. 


Albanians have had a great trust in the European Union. Support for EU integration remains at near-unanimous levels, research by the Albanian Institute for International Studies shows. 


However, as the country seems to head into another political crisis, the lack of trust the opposition has in EU's delegation to Tirana could undermine EU's credibility and power of influence to resolve future crisis.
            [post_title] => News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU's credibility among Albanians, opposition warns
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