Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these

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Failing to understand Albanian reality

Failing to understand Albanian reality

By Vaske Papa Visiting Albania this week, Germany’s foreign minister said: “In my country, and in Europe, it is absurd to boycott parliament.” This is one of those statements that is so obvious, no one really needs to say it.

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Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings

Elections in Albania: Dealing with shortcomings

Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at the Princeton University came to Albania to look into the problems the electoral system faces ahead of Albania’s general elections. They interviewed

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Editorial: May we live in interesting times

Editorial: May we live in interesting times

There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And it sure is an interesting time in Albania. The political crisis is ongoing, with what appears to be no end in sight and increasingly the actors are

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Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

From kingmaker to peacemaker? By Albert Rakipi On the 22nd of July last year, at 00.35 in the morning, the 140 members of the parliament in Albania together with a large entourage of diplomats watching from the upper lodges, sleepy

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Two grinding battles and the citizen getting crushed in between

Two grinding battles and the citizen getting crushed in between

By Alba Çela For every political fight, gridlock or even full-fledged crisis in Albania there are two mirroring battles: one is conducted at the high level, in the capital, in front of many cameras, in the institutions lining the main

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Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider ‘Trump Boulevard’

Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider ‘Trump Boulevard’

By Bernd Fischer I was a bit amused and more than a little astonished to learn that a street in Kamza has been named after Donald Trump, the new American president.  While bestowing this honor Kamza Mayor Xhelal Mziu was

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Editorial: Albania’s little dangerous Potemkins

Editorial: Albania’s little dangerous Potemkins

Focusing on virtual realities hurts both the people and the government Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tavricheski was a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman and favorite of Catherine the Great. His rule is associated with the “Potemkin village“, a largely fictional method

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Fighting for a stronger Europe!

Fighting for a stronger Europe!

By Sigmar Gabriel It’s your birthday, Europe! Sixty years ago, on 25 March 1957, the founding members of the European Union signed the Treaties of Rome. This date is a major crossroads for the most successful project for freedom, peace and prosperity

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Editorial: Albanian political crisis: Going nowhere, doing nothing

Editorial: Albanian political crisis: Going nowhere, doing nothing

There is a well-known and popular expression in Albanian to express irony and frustration to futility and losing time. The saying goes: “Where were we? Nowhere. What did we do? Nothing.” The mantra seems to fit very well in the

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                    [post_content] => This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these four first months of 2017 that such a lobbying contract is made. Previously both the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Democratic Party had done similar contracts with US firms. The latter is reported to have as much as three different lobbying companies trying to service ties with the new US administration. The sums involved are considerable: the SP will pay 20.000 dollars per month, while the recent contract of the DP signed only one month ago with “Stonington Strategies,” is worth 25,000 dollars per month.  In the last year alone SMI spent around 300.000 dollars for lobbying services which got them, among other things, invitations to the latest presidential inauguration. 

It is now a consolidated reality that Albanian political parties are paying hefty sums to companies that have the potential to improve relations of political parties and especially their leaders, set up occasions for meetings that are then glorified back at home as well as perpetuate narratives that better serve one side. Prestigious lobbying tags of Washington D. C have become interestingly familiar names in small Albania and its citizens.

Albania is by no means the only small country that uses precious resources to buy political clout abroad. Many of the neighboring countries which share more or less the same problems, behave very similarly. Contracts such as these are common for authoritarian dynasties in the Middle East or former Soviet republics now run by eternal dictators.

On the other side even large and well established democracies are using think tanks as lobbying outlets to buy influence in the United States, according to a 2014 report of the New York Times. However with one key difference, these contracts have a much more beneficial set objective in that they try to service some well-defined national goals and not service one separate political side.   The British Authority of Tourism is well justified in lobbying for its national economic interest while Japan may have a record number of lobbies working to further economic and business interest of its countries’ companies in the United States.

None of these other examples make what is happening at home right. It is very difficult to shed light over both the means of financing and the real impact of the services bought. Regarding the latter it is clear that they serve no public interest such as political party leaders would like to boast under the pretenses that they are developing bilateral relations and improving Albania’s image abroad. Those services clearly serve short term political interest by blurring truths often in the process. No lobbying contract of a political party should cover the services and tasks that in fact belong to the government. Extending and consolidating bilateral relations is the duty of governments and state institutions not political entities. If the Albanian parties overtake foreign policy then they should go ahead and dismantle the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The main question is where the money comes from. There is very little transparency over political party finances in Albania so the source of these funds is shrouded in darkness. There are absolutely no guarantees that the money spent is legitimate and not taken out of public finances or murky donations.

These lucrative contracts against the backdrop of a small, poor and underdeveloped country generate a stark contracts as well as ensuing a feeling of outrage. Of course parties can claim that they are using their own party finances as they see fit. However that does not exclude the fact that these kind of expenditure seems criminal when one compared to the standing emergencies that the country has in providing basic infrastructure and basic public goods, including education and healthcare, to many rural and marginalized communities, to mention just the extreme cases.

Albania is amidst a harsh political crisis with parliamentary boycott, gridlock in implementation of key reforms and a very pessimistic perspective of further steps in its integration path. The electoral campaign has started despite the fact that the opposition insists on rejecting the process. In these desperate times, the absurdness of the lobbying contracts becomes even more palpable.

 
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                    [post_content] => By Vaske Papa

pepaVisiting Albania this week, Germany's foreign minister said: “In my country, and in Europe, it is absurd to boycott parliament." This is one of those statements that is so obvious, no one really needs to say it.

So, yes, it is is absurd to have a boycott of parliament in Germany or any well-established European Union country. It is equally absurd and inconceivable to have the German/EU opposition seeking the resignation of the prime minister just a couple of months ahead of scheduled elections. On the same vein, it is absurd for the opposition to seek a caretaker government to manage elections – or a government of trust as the Albanian speaker of parliament calls it.

But all of it – the opposition's parliamentary boycott and the demand for a caretaker government to prepare and organize elections – have happened in Albania, a country with a very heavy legacy of barbaric oppression of freedom and human rights, incomparable to any other country under communism. Although 25 years have passed since the fall of communism, in Albania the rule of law and constitution are applied at a very low level. And, to make things worst, the interests of the public are secondary to those of the oligarchs, politicians – and criminals.

So German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is also right when he says that: "What distinguishes Europe from [Albania] and elsewhere in the world is the rule of law and the Constitution. The rule of law must ensure and guarantee that at the end of the day, the spotlight will be of interest to citizens and not to different cliques."

But let's move beyond abstract terms when comparing Europe to Albania in rule of law and constitution. How are they different in practical terms? Let's create a scenario to better understand the difference.

Suppose for example that the German Bundestag or the parliaments of German states had members of parliament that were criminals – even murderers – elected on voting day. Imagine a scenario where it gets so bad that these German legislative bodies had to pass a decriminalization law.

Suppose that Germany or any other European country cultivates illegal narcotics at an industrial scale and then smuggles them for sale to neighboring countries by land, sea and air.

Suppose that every three days a police station has to disbanded due to its involvement in drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

Suppose that a German political party comes to power and quickly starts purges in the civil administration. Had Albania been as large as Germany, in three years, it would have had to pay 62 million euros to those who were illegally fired on political, clannish, tribal and corrupt grounds.

Suppose that in Germany, the top national television channels and the majority of the print and online press are controlled by the government – attacking the opposition day and night – as it happens in today's Albania. The four national television stations in Albania, where most Albanians get their news, are now all captured by the government. Suppose that was the case in Germany. Can you imagine a well-established European state were independent voices criticizing the government are few and far in between and drowned out by the mighty media outlets in the government's pockets. If you can't, you should know it is happening in Albania.

As such, some of the comments made by the German foreign minister this week are irrelevant because they apply to the reality of a normal European state – and Albania is not one of them.

Germany's foreign minister statements this week show more than the failure of the opposition or the success of the government to pitch their cases to the international community. It shows a clear lack of understanding of Albanian realities by key European leaders.

 
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                    [post_content] => Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at the Princeton University came to Albania to look into the problems the electoral system faces ahead of Albania’s general elections. They interviewed  members of electoral management bodies, political parties, government officials, journalists, civil society groups and international organizations. Below are some of their findings. This is only part of the report, for the full version and information on the authors, please view the complete report online at: https://goo.gl/VrG9Kn.

The shortcomings in the Albanian electoral and political processes are quite salient. According to some of the interlocutors the research team met with, the focus on judicial reforms pushed by the European Union (EU) resulted in electoral reforms taking a backseat. As a result, the vulnerabilities in the electoral process that affected Albanian elections in 2013 and 2015 can be expected to emerge again next year. These vulnerabilities can be broadly summarized into the following categories: electoral process vulnerabilities; political process vulnerabilities; issues related to women and youth participation; and civil society, media, and political culture issues. 

Electoral Process Vulnerabilities

Electoral malpractice: Interviews with a range of stakeholders in Albania indicated that there is a widespread perception of electoral malpractice. The alleged malpractice that was described included both vote buying and voter intimidation. In the case of the former, interlocutors described practices ranging from one-off exchanges of votes for money or food, to longer-term patronage relationships. In the case of the latter, they described practices such as forced confiscation of voter IDs in the days before an election, though the research team was unable to verify such reports. However, their prevalence indicates at the very least distrust in the integrity of the Albanian electoral process. Lack of options for absentee voting: Since the fall of the Communist regime, a large percentage of the Albanian population has migrated to other countries in search of economic opportunities. Under current regulations, those citizens are not allowed to vote if they are not physically present in the country on election day. This severely limits the inclusiveness of the electoral process, and while different actors have been outspoken about this issue, no comprehensive solution to the problem has been discussed in Parliament.

Electoral Code designed to advantage major political parties: The current Albanian electoral framework is built on a foundation of deep mistrust between the two most prominent parties, and as a result, it includes an intricate set of checks between these two parties. At the same time, these two parties have a “frenemy” relationship, by which they protect their mutual status as the two main players of the party system. This ambivalent dynamic makes it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for new political parties to build up significant power. The politicization of the electoral commissions, both at the national and regional levels, as well as of the process for the counting of the votes, are constructed in such a way as to protect the bipartisan character of the system, at the same time that both parties mistrust each other. For instance, officers at Commissions of Electoral Administration Zones (CEAZ) are appointed by the two main parties exclusively, but mistrust among them is so high that it is often the case that each party may change its own officers even one day before elections if they think they have been bribed by the other party. The exclusion of other parties in the CEAZ effectively stifles democratic development in the country, as new parties which might otherwise have the potential 5 to gather widespread support have trouble even gaining an initial foothold. Lack of institutional capacity: While efforts have been made to increase the technical capacity of the CEC, it is still under-resourced. On the other hand, at the local level, political parties often truncate any professionalization and training efforts in fear of co-optation of electoral officials by their opponents. The result of these two forces is elections run by loyal party supporters, and overseen by a CEC with limited capacity to implement the requirements to achieve free and fair elections conducted by international standards and norms.

Political Process Vulnerabilities

Lack of issue-driven political competition: Albania’s political system is markedly non ideological. There are no real issue-driven politics, and hence, the quality of the political debate is low, and according to some interlocutors, electoral competition has become a race to buy more votes and to increase long-term loyalties. The parties adapt to their role as government and opposition, changing their policy positions depending on the role they currently play. For example, one of the major parties might heavily promote certain legislation while in power, only to vehemently oppose nearly identical legislation once they are in the opposition. This is the case of the waste management legislation, which was proposed by the Democratic Party when it was in power before 2013, with the intention of allowing the importation of waste from other countries into Albania, and was vehemently opposed by the Socialist Party. Now, in 2016, the roles are reversed: nearly-identical legislation is opposed by the Democratic Party and supported by the Socialist coalition. In sum, the mechanics of the party system, while not tarnished by ethnic or religious conflicts, are those of a dysfunctional system, disconnected from its citizens. Weak internal party democracy emphasized by closed lists: As mentioned earlier, Albania’s closed-list electoral system concentrates most of the decision-making power in the party leadership, thereby promoting a highly sycophantic environment. While some parties have internal regulations to elect their candidates, the mechanisms through which the final lists are formed is not completely clear. Political party leadership knows to expect different levels of success in different electoral zones, based on the zone’s population (and therefore, number of allocated seats in parliament), as well as on its history of support for one party or another. Based on this information, parties form their lists strategically. The problem in this case is that party leaders have excessive discretionary power to use this strategic information to block or promote internal opponents or loyal party members. Hence, they can decide to position certain party candidates higher or lower on the list for each zone, effectively ensuring that they are either near-guaranteed seats, or token candidates only.

Issues Related to Women and Youth 

Women’s participation: Some individuals interviewed for the report indicated that particularly in rural areas of Albania, women tend to have less representation in Albanian politics. For example, a woman might be included on a party’s candidate list for a certain rural electoral zone, giving the impression of relative gender parity, and yet listed low enough on the list that it will be difficult-to-impossible for her to win a seat in Parliament. Family voting, by which all members of a family are induced to vote in certain way by the male head of the family, is also an issue in rural areas. According to recent studies undertaken by UN Women Albania, pressure by the head of the family is not exercised directly at the polling station. The practice occurs much more frequently at home, with lower-ranked family members (often women) ordered to vote in a certain way by their male head of household. 

Youth’s participation: The major political parties do have youth wings, some of which seem very enthusiastic. However, there is some concern that because these youth are being trained for politics within a corrupt system, the next crop of leaders may not be able to break free from the mold set by the current generation in power. In this regard, youth wings are seen more as an extension of the political operation of the party rather than a true source of new political leadership.

Civil Society, Media and Political Culture Issues 

Lack of an independent, strong civil society: While some independent organizations can be found, a large number of NGOs are allied with or controlled by the party in government through public funding allocations. These organizations may become unofficial mouthpieces of the party in power, instead of independent scrutinizers of their government programs. When NGOs are truly independent, they actively engage in electoral observation or efforts to promote party finance reform. However, their members can face the costs of not being loyal to a party, in terms of blocking of economic opportunities or denial of funding for their organizations. Due to general mistrust, such independent organizations may also be accused of allying themselves with political interests even when they are not—and their credibility may suffer as a result. This, combined with the lack of issue-driven politics, creates an environment in which it is hard to create mass mobilization in the name of the public good or to demand political change. 

Lack of independent media: While there are many media outlets in radio, TV, the Internet, and the printed press, many of them represent specific political and/or economic interests. Media is very often (though not always) either captured by political interests, or an instrument of economic interests to influence politicians. The lack of a strong independent media sector limits the potential to address the reform issues that the Albanian electoral system needs to be improved. Disenchantment with democracy/political culture: All of the previous issues have resulted in a serious lack of democratic political culture. People in Albania regard politics with cynicism and disenchantment. The politicization of economic opportunities, the polarized political climate, the electoral malpractice and the lack of responsiveness of public institutions have increased mistrust, cynicism and hopelessness about the political system and prospects for change. 

Role of the International Community

The international community has played a relevant role in Albanian politics since the postCommunist era. The role of the international community as donors, mediators and catalysts of public administration reform in Albanian politics has been key. As most institutions struggle to find consensus and often succumb to violations by powerful political parties, the international community has become the primary source of legitimacy in Albanian politics. Although the role of the international community seems to have declined comparatively since the last two elections, they continue to remain a major source of influence in the political arena, leading some critics to argue that there is a visible lack of ‘local ownership’ among Albanian political and civil society actors. The EU has been a major influence in Albania since 1991, after the collapse of the Communist regime. In this regard, the offer of EU membership extended to Albania and other Balkans countries in 2000 increased the role of the EU and opened up a range of new instruments to influence policy and politics in Albania. The EU partnerships adopted yearly since 2004 have set concrete priority targets that include administrative, judicial and economic reforms. Albania’s integration into the EU is contingent on the fulfillment of these targets. 

Albania gained the status of an official candidate to the EU in 2014. There is widespread support among political parties for EU accession. However, important reforms have been impeded and delayed due to polarization and disagreements between the two major parties. According to critics, in light of the stagnant reform process, pro-European Union statements by those in power are likely just lip service. The international community also supports Albania in electoral reforms, election implementation, training and capacity building of election officers and international stakeholder coordination. The role of international actors has now shifted from active election observation to supporting domestic observer groups, local NGOs and institutions. For example, currently the OSCE/ODIHR conducts a technical review of elections and organizes consultations among stakeholders of the voting process. The Council of Europe and OSCE together organize training sessions for members of the Central Election Commission on electoral administration. The international actors also provide support to raise voter awareness and organize voter education campaigns. For example, focus group discussions are organized by United Nations Development Programme for voter education, focusing on gender and elections, family voting, pressures for sanctions on fraud and other issues. 

Recommendations 

Support the CEC in creating a pool of well-trained election officers – International organizations should continue to assist the CEC in conducting training and capacity building sessions for election commissioners. Capacity building of law enforcement officers in areas like electoral dispute resolution and investigation techniques for financial irregularities and technical training of counting teams (CT) and voting center commissions (VCC) on software and hardware usage must be included. Additionally, election officers must be sensitized on gender dynamics, particularly issues faced by women during elections. A recurring challenge during elections is the frequent replacement of officers at VCCs and CTs due to requests by political parties on charges of bribery. This results in untrained officers being assigned election duties one day before the elections. Creating a pool of well-trained officers would ensure that last-minute transfers do not seriously affect implementation of elections.

Encourage coalitions of issue-driven parties and build their capacity – Both international and domestic actors must push for electoral and political reforms that allow new issue-driven political coalitions to form and establish themselves. Programs aiming at fostering younger parties and party leaders and building their political management skills must be promoted. It is crucial to empower newer issue-driven parties because political stagnation due to few alternatives is an impediment to democratic development in Albania.  

Improve transparency in internal party processes – The international community must assist political parties in the design and implementation of methods to promote inclusion of party members in decision making and deliberation within the party structure. Internal functioning of political parties including candidate selection rules, internal elections for leadership positions and women’s representation in the party leadership must be objective and transparent. Best practices from other countries should be shared to promote a democratic culture within political parties. 

Stricter enforcement of media standards by empowering media regulatory bodies – International observer groups must emphasize a fair and transparent election process of members of the AMA. Strict separation between editorial content and political advertising must be explicitly stated. Additionally, quality checks on the content of online media outlets must be ensured and a regulatory body monitoring online media standards must be instituted.  

Promote independent funding of CSOs, NGOs, media houses – International aid agencies must assist with fundraising strategies in Albania in order to encourage independently funded NGOs and media outlets. The government should be encouraged to offer tax rebates and other incentives to the private sector to encourage support for CSOs. A robust domestic private sector industry and a shift from excessive reliance on international organizations is important for the sustainable development of CSOs.

 
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                    [post_content] => There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And it sure is an interesting time in Albania. The political crisis is ongoing, with what appears to be no end in sight and increasingly the actors are becoming more deaf to each-others' requests.

The opposition parties, as promised, ignored a deadline to register with the Central Elections Commission for the general elections, as they say such elections should not take place until Prime Minister Edi Rama resigns – to allow a caretaker government to hold free and fair elections that fall outside the influence of “mafia and drug money.”

With massive and record amounts of marijuana seized in Albania and neighboring areas this week, that powerful criminal influence is nothing that can be swiped under the rug, despite the fact that the government and international community representatives appear to be unconcerned about it, with little or not public reaction to appease the opposition’s and ordinary Albanians' fears on this matter.

What makes the situation more interesting is that we are seeing an unprecedented clash between Albania's center-right opposition and the international community, fueled by what many Albanians believe is a strong pro-government and pro-Socialist bias of foreign diplomats, particularly those representing the European Union. A recent statement from the highest officials of the European Union appealed for the return to the parliament and the progress with the justice reform, leaving little doubt that the DP faces an uphill battle to achieve international backing for its request for free and fair elections through a caretaker government before having to vote for the vetting law -- the Socialists' preferred narrative of the crisis.

The junior coalition partner, which had tried to become a domestic mediator, did not walk out of the coalition arrangements this week, as it had threatened. The Socialist Movement for Integration of Ilir Meta seems to tread very carefully in their calculations and they have not managed to deliver a solution so far.

And things will get even more interesting ahead as the opposition is organizing a protest rally instead of participating in the upcoming mayoral by-elections in Kavaja. They have said the protest will be peaceful, but the fact that it takes place on election day leaves no doubt that it aims to at least delegitimize the voting process if not stop it altogether.

If this week couldn't get any more interesting, the next will be even more so as discussion for the next president start. The incumbent President Bujar Nishani has to leave his post by the end of July and therefore the Parliament has to replace him within the constitutional time limits. According to the juridical administration of the parliament the procedures for choosing a new president can start now. After a request to the Speaker of the Parliament to start with the procedure the first round of voting for the new Head of State is set on the evening of April 19.  In the meantime groups of MPs can launch their proposed candidates.

A few figures have expressed their intent or ambition to be considered. These include incumbent President Nishani as well as the current Minister of Defense, Mimi Kodheli. Neither can be considered a bipartisan figure that would be considered as beyond the sides, unless the majority tries to appease the opposition by leaving the incumbent in place, something that is unlikely to work since the opposition is set on the resignation of the Prime Minister itself.

The figure of the President has remained largely symbolic after the constitutional changes that reduced its election in the Parliament to a simple majority and after the approval of the justice reform that strips him of some powers related to the judicial sector. Therefore those who claim that the selection of the President can be an opportunity to reach common ground, negotiate and eventually go out of this paralyzed situation, walk on very thin argumentative ice.

Time is running out fast and the clouds keep only gathering. Unless all sides figure out a completely novel way to reach a compromise and diffuse tensions, the conditions are going to become worse and the polarization insurmountable. The power of the international community to serve as facilitator of dialogue, which has been an asset in the past, in this case has all but disappeared. Albania’s institutions are coming to the end of their time mandates including here the President, the justice system entities. Soon the real campaign will start with major rallies planned as early as this weekend.

Despite the fact that life has been going on mostly normally (with no major instability) since the start of the crisis there is not telling what will happen once the processes get rushed for time reasons. The perfect storm might be just at the doorstep.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: May we live in interesting times
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130553" align="alignright" width="225"]Albert Rakipi, PhD Albert Rakipi, PhD[/caption]

From kingmaker to peacemaker? 

By Albert Rakipi

On the 22nd of July last year, at 00.35 in the morning, the 140 members of the parliament in Albania together with a large entourage of diplomats watching from the upper lodges, sleepy eyed journalists and bodyguards and even a few waiters burst into a frenetic applause and loud acclamations. The reason: the justice reform had just been approved with 140 votes, unanimously. More than ever, in the 25-year-old history of democracy in Albania, the parliament resembled extremely much to the pseudo-parliament of the dictatorship time, where a single party used to gain 100 percent of the possible votes. However, exempting the caricature of the parliamentarism under dictatorship, the vote of the 22nd of July 2016, was perhaps the most consensual vote possible. However it was too much facade not to try to look beyond the grand consensus: almost too fake to believe. Only 48 hours earlier the parliamentary majority was ready to vote on the justice reform  unilaterally. Furthermore, they had declared the opposition not only an enemy of the reform but an outright enemy of the West, of the United States and of the European Union. The miracle of complete change, of course, couldn’t have happened within 48 hours.

For a consecutive period of 25 years since the fall of communism, Albanian politics has been dominated by a harsh political conflict, ever-growing enmity, the strong zero-sum game culture as well as total dependence from the international community. The reconciliation between political sides and the reaching of agreements has happened only after major crisis and only with the help of the intervention of the internationals. This heritage of conflict and disagreement that is keeping Albania’s political progress at bay made the consensus of the 22nd of July last year too good to be true. But it happened nevertheless: The justice reform was voted in the parliament by the government and the opposition together. Due to one single factor: the Meta factor and his public refusal for the politics of conflict, for the politics of division and the eternal political tensions. (One could see the motives of this public refusal of the conflict as a political instrument as a pragmatist positions that further only Meta’s personal political interest. But heroes do not exist anymore. The progression of interest is essential.)

Now Ilir Meta has surfaced again in a key moment which is critical for the future of democracy, pluralism and stability of this country. In the culmination of the political conflict between the government and the opposition, when the country is going almost in ‘a party mood’ toward a full-fledged political gridlock which would be just at its start if the elections happened without the opposition, Meta has reappeared. He seems to be engaged in preventing a dangerous showdown between one side, that of the Prime Minister and the Socialist Party and the other side of the Democratic Party and the other opposition ally parties. The latter seek the resignation of the Prime Minister as well as the establishment of a caretaker government in order to secure free and fair elections.

There is a theory in International Relations that refers to countries in a collision course, out of every kind of compromise. The theory can very well applied to internal political developments. It is “the game of chicken,” getting its name from two drivers going toward a head on collision and the first one to veer away is considered to be “the chicken” or the weak one. It is not the first time that Albania is engulfed in the political game of chicken. What differs is that in the previous editions of the chicken game, the international community has intervened to prevent the collision. Now that role seems to belong to an internal factor, the Speaker of the Parliament. Ilir Meta has taken an important step to take both sides out of the chicken game with his proposal to go towards elections with a “government of trust” whose mandate would include several elements. 

The mandate of the “government of trust,” according to Meta would include the harsh war without any compromises against narcotics in Albania. According to the ambassador of the OSCE, in Albania circulate 2 billion euro that come out of the drugs trade. What has happened that this country is being inundated with drugs? What has happened in this country, which despite not being at war like Syria, produces a number of asylums seekers abroad that is only second to Syria? In a country where more than 70 percent of citizens say that they would leave Albania if they had a chance, what hope remains?

The “government of trust” that Meta proposes should stop the criminal and illicit financing of elections. In the local elections of Dibra (November 2016) the majority candidate that won over the opposition reached a number of votes that was ten times more than 2015, when in that year the SP candidate running against three candidates of the DP reached only three hundred votes surplus. The Dibra elections were otherwise described by independent analysts as a pilot project to test vote buying with drug money.

How will this be changed? Are political parties ready to sever their links to criminal financing sources for elections? Ilir Meta includes in the mandate of “the government of trust” the full implementation of the decriminalization process (which stems from the decriminalization law -- approved largely thanks to the strong support of, and pressure from, the U.S. ambassador). Is it feasible? We have seen a number of high level elected officials involved in crimes despite giving up their elected or appointed posts have not left politics per se. On the contrary. Therefore will these elections be free from the influence of the strong men, the gangsters, the criminals, up to the very alleged murderers that we saw climb up to get seats in parliament, elected in regular manner in elections monitored and certified by OSCE-ODHIR and other monitoring units?

Last but not least, there would be a ban from engagement of the public administration in elections. This clearly means that the public administration is not neutral in political elections. In the last three years, this government has been forced to pay no less than 62 million euros for the civil servants that were laid off for political reasons. (How many schools and hospitals could have been built with 62 million Euros?)

Ilir Meta proposes compromise when consensus is not possible. In the last four years we have seen the systematic exclusion of the political adversary up the level of declaring it an enemy, the total refusal to acknowledge the achievements of the other political side. According to the extreme version of this narcissism, 2013 is year zero. Everything has started after it: the state, democracy, progress...

The essence of the game of chicken is that neither side wants to retreat because it would be seen as weak … like a chicken. Ilir Meta with his second initiative within one year has facilitated the path to retreat in order to avoid conflict and ultimately collision. But in the game of chicken time is limited. In the Albanian game of chicken time is even more limited. After that comes the collision.

 
                    [post_title] => Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken 
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Çela

For every political fight, gridlock or even full-fledged crisis in Albania there are two mirroring battles: one is conducted at the high level, in the capital, in front of many cameras, in the institutions lining the main boulevard (the boulevard of the Martyrs), is made up of declarations full of complex words and elongated phrases, equivocal concepts and grand scale conspiracy theories. It invades the stages of political talk shows, it becomes a sensation in the Internet.

Another battle, part and core of the same one is conducted away from the red pulsating camera lights, with a simple slang of the everyday laymen, in the cities and villages and little towns of the country. This is the battle for survival. It takes place in the grey corridors of public institutions, in the smoke filled cafes (usually full of men and boys), in the closed meetings of political parties’ local branches.

The first battle has some loopholes politicians that fall some place get second chances, some rise again, some get amnesty. Some get cleverer and make coalitions. Even politicians that depart from the system have enough financial cushions and influence around business, university posts and media access to lead generally comfortable lives. The first battle is, even though not always, forgiving. The second one is not.

The second battle concerns police officers, teachers, nurses, municipality employees, guards, cleaning ladies. It is a battle to retain their jobs, their main sources of income. For the slightly privileged ones, directors of some sort, supervisors, it is a battle to save those privileges, assets, opportunities for their children and extended families, the little tender on the side. However, once you lose on this local ‘game of thrones’ you are out for good. Only recently some talented players have discovered that they can shed their skin and join other parties to be reborn. Parties that run usually under labels such a kingmakers.

The political battle in Albania was enriched this week with the (finally) open conflict between coalition partners: SP and SMI. At the local level their sympathizers are one step ahead, already at each other’s throats, being asked by party regional coordinators to fight for each vote, each job place, each Facebook like and share.

As the current political crisis deteriorates in Albania let’s try to remember the second battle. For as much mesmerizing this tense, complex exchange of rhetoric and strategic political performance might be let’s try not to lose focus and just try to empathize with the people, the soldiers dragged to the game. Our fellow citizens that watch with a sweaty palms and shortened breath. They are asking themselves what they will do to save their jobs. What they will be asked, how much they will need to suffer, how much dignity they will let go. They have something real to lose. The others are maybe just enjoying the game.
                    [post_title] => Two grinding battles and the citizen getting crushed in between 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_126576" align="alignright" width="300"]Bernd-Fischer Bernd Fischer[/caption]

By Bernd Fischer

I was a bit amused and more than a little astonished to learn that a street in Kamza has been named after Donald Trump, the new American president.  While bestowing this honor Kamza Mayor Xhelal Mziu was quoted as saying that “Donald Trump is a revolutionary model of the new democratic order, an expert in the economy, a foreign negotiator, a communicator with a sharp mind and a leader for modern times.”

The leader of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha adding weight to the solemn occasion proclaimed that “By electing Mr. Trump, the U.S. gave the world another lesson in democracy” and that Trump’s victory was “an act of love of the champions of freedom.”

And with those two glowing endorsements Kamza joins the Russian town of Ryazan as only the second location on the planet to honor Mr. Trump. Let me me explain why I believe that this action was seriously misguided.

Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha have apparently been swept up by the endless propaganda disseminated principally by Fox News and the far more insidious Breitbart News. Mr. Basha was recently interviewed by Breitbart and declared his support for Mr. Trump. I wonder if he is aware that Breitbart sits on the extreme fringe of the far-right in the U.S. and is known for publishing falsehoods, conspiracy theories, as well as intentionally misleading stories. It defends white etho-nationalism and its slant tends to be misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. (Why an Albanian politician would identify himself with an anti-Muslim polemical publication is beyond me.) Since the election Breitbart has become the de-facto propaganda arm of Mr. Trump and would certainly agree with Mayor Mziu’s assessment of Mr. Trump and Mr. Basha assessment of the election.

Let us look first at the election itself, which Mr. Basha sees another lesson in democracy and an act of love. The 2016 election was likely the most endangered U.S. election in living memory, and aspects of it are still being reviewed by the FBI and Congress. One the biggest problems was Mr. Trump himself delegitimizing the process. At no time during the campaign did he actually agree to accept the outcome in the event of his defeat. This is really quite unprecedented - no presidential candidate in a U.S. elections has ever called into question the entire electoral process. Then, although winning the electoral college vote and thereby the election, when it became clear that Mr. Trump had lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, he invented the story that there were millions of illegal votes cast, again delegitimizing the electoral process. Mr. Trump presented no evidence to support this wild assertion - which, to be quite clear, was simply a lie - and investigators have yet to find 10 illegal votes, let alone millions.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the 2016 election is the Russian connection. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertions to the contrary, the U.S .intelligence community has determined beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Russians actively intervened in the elections, to the disadvantage of Hillary Clinton. What the FBI is investigating at this point is whether individuals from Trump’s campaign were directly and actively involved in Russian plans to undermine the election. This would be considered treason. It is clear that many in Trump’s campaign had contacts with Russian officials during the course of the campaign and two, the former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about it under oath while testifying to Congress. Mr. Flynn was forced to resign and Mr. Sessions recused himself from involvement in anything involved the ongoing investigation. As this issues speaks to the very nature of democracy in America, the FBI has made this criminal investigation a priority. Mr. Trump is doing everything he can to obstruct the investigation. In the final analysis, the 2016 election was far from the “lesson in democracy” which Mr. Basha suggests. In fact, if this is the type of democracy which Mr. Basha hopes to emulate in Albania, then I fear for Albania.

Mayor Mziu also suggested that Mr. Trump deserved the honor of having a street named after him in part because he is an economic expert. Let us examine this contention for a moment. It is clear that Mr. Trump is very wealthy - is it difficult to say how wealthy because, unlike every other major American presidential candidate in living memory, he has refused to release his tax returns. Mr. Trump maintains that he has a fortune of some 10 billion. Those who have looked into his finances suggest that it is closer to 4 billion. In any case, some economists have suggested that with the fortune he inherited from his father, had he retired in 1970 and put all of his money in any one of dozens of managed money-market funds, he would likely be worth more now than he actually is. And it is not clear how much he is actually involved in his business. His tax lawyer has made clear that it was always his wife who sought explanations for issues arising from his tax forms, Mr. Trump himself didn't understand any of it and wasn't interested. This perception is certainly borne out by some of his economic pronouncements during the campaign. As one point he told an interviewer that would be able to pay back the U.S. national debt in 8 years. The U.S. national debt stands at just over 19 trillion dollars and at the end of 8 years will likely be closer to 26 trillion. The average annual U.S. budget is currently about $1.3 trillion. It does not require an “economic expert” - indeed it probably requires no more than a 6 year old - to figure out that if the U..S government didn't spend one more dollar over the next 8 years, Mr. Trump would still be about 18 trillion dollars short.

Mr. Trump’s first budget is yet another example of both incompetence and cruelty. The budget itself, which has been described as a campaign slogan masquerading as a government document, does nothing to either reduce the deficit or pay down the national debt. It contains deep cuts in funding for medical research, education, general scientific research, public transportation, social programs which help the poor and elderly, the arts and the environment. It envisions significant tax reductions for the wealthy and for corporations, and well as an increase in defense spending. During the campaign Mr. Trump raged against the weakness of the American military which he described as “depleted” and a “disaster”, promising to make it “so powerful and so great that we will never have to use it.” He particularly signaled out the navy which he wants to expand from 272 ships to 350 ships, despite the fact that at its current level the U.S. navy is larger than the next largest 13 navies combined, and of those 11 are allies of the U.S. Mr. Trump’s budget foresees a 56 billion dollar increase in defense spending. Mr. Obama had projected a 40 billion dollar increase so Mr. Trump’s additional increase amounts to approximately 16 billion or about 2% of the average annual military budget of approximately 600 billion. It seems then that Mr. Trump believes that he can transform a “disaster” into something “great and powerful” by increasing the budget by 2%. Is this what Mayor Mziu sees as an example of economic expertise? Is this the type of budget Mr. Basha would support should be become prime minister? If so, I would encourage Albanians to vote for anyone other than Mr. Basha.

Mayor Mziu also describes Mr. Trump as a “foreign policy negotiator, a communicator with a sharp mind.” Let us look at recent examples of Mr. Trump’s negotiating skills. Within the last weeks his White House aides were forced to apologize to the British government after Mr. Trump, with no evidence, accused British intelligence of wire-tapping his campaign on behalf of Mr. Obama. During the visit of Chancellor Angela Merkel to Washington, Mr. Trump put on one of his most truculent and ignorant performances. A senior European diplomat briefed on the meeting said that Mr Trump’s preparedness was roughly that of a fourth grader. He knew nothing of the proposed European-American deal known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, little about Russian aggression in the Ukraine or the Minsk agreements, and was so scatterbrained that German officials concluded that the president’s daughter Ivanka, who had no formal reason for being there, was more prepared and helpful. Mr. Trump focused principally on his contention that Germany owed the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars for defending it through NATO, which is not, of course, how NATO works. But Mr. Trump didn't know that either.

On the domestic front Mr. Trump demonstrated his negotiating skills in last week’s ill-fated attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. During the 2016 campaign Mr. Trump labeled Obamacare a “disaster” and promised to repeal it and replace it with “something terrific” which would extend health insurance to everyone at lower costs. What he and the Republican leadership hurriedly produced was a package that would have, by 2024, removed healthcare from some 24 million people, roughly the number of people who received it under Obamacare. In addition, the bill would have at least tripled premiums for poor people over 60, while offering healthy tax reductions to the wealthy. The bill was so flawed that even moderate Republicans could not support it. Mr. Trump, without bothering with the details, announced that the health bill was “wonderful” and put the weight of his office behind it. The extent of his negotiation was to call some recalcitrant Republican Congressmen to the White House and threaten them, as he likely does with board members of his various companies. The Congressmen present were astonished at his lack of understanding of the bill as well as his lack of understanding of the legislative process. When the Congressmen, who declined to behave as Mr. Trump’s board members, refused to be intimidated, indicating that the bill would fail, Mr. Trump threw up his hands and began looking for people to blame. In this instance Mr. Trump’s incompetence was a welcome relief to the 10s of millions who would have lost their insurance or seen their insurance premiums skyrocket. All in all, a fine example of Mr. Trump’s celebrated skills as a communicator and negotiator. Do Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha hope to emulate these skills? One would hope for the sake of the people of Kamza and Albania in general, that this is not the case.

It would not be difficult to cite more examples of Mr. Trump’s limited skills as an economist, a negotiator and a communicator. But if he is none of these things then what is he? This is difficult to say because he changes his position on major issue so quickly and so often. It is clear he is no traditional conservative. In my opinion he is close to being a fascist. As a historian by profession, fascism is not a term I use lightly. I know what it means.  To be fair, in many ways Mr. Trump doesn't fit the mold.  He is not a corporatist or a populist, although he pretends to be one. It is clear from his first moves as president that he cares little for the well-being of those who elected him. Nevertheless, I am struck, and more than a little alarmed, by how many of fascism's major tenets Donald Trump seems to espouse.  There are numerous variations on the theme but most forms of fascism include some version of demagogic authoritarianism, extreme nationalism, militarism and a celebration of violence, racism, and anti-intellectualism.

Mr. Trump is at heart a bombastic authoritarian, whose commitment to participatory democracy is at least questionable. He seems to consider democracy a burden that must be circumvented or overcome.  With little in the way of a perceivable program, he wants us to just let him do it, assuring us that will be "great." His extreme nationalism and xenophobia are evident in his contention that the U.S. has been driven to the edge of the abyss by "the other" the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims - against whom Mr. Trump has now issued 2 travel bans which courts have declared to be unconstitutional. We are told that America can only be resurrected internationally through a righteous militaristic crusade based on the simple doctrine of "kicking ass and taking the oil," supplemented by the use of torture, including water-boarding and "much worse," while killing the families of terrorist suspects. The celebration or at least the acceptance of violence as a legitimate domestic political tool is evidenced through his wish to "punch people in the face" and his claim that it is acceptable for people to be "roughed up a bit."

Mr. Trump's racism is also demonstrated by his exaltation of racial purity, where we see him ridiculing the disabled and scoffing at women who don't achieve his definition of a “10.” He astonished even his supporters with his racist insistence that he cannot receive justice from a judge whose heritage is Mexican. He wears his anti-intellectualism and ignorance as if it were a badge of virtue.

I will not compare him to Hitler because I do not believe him to be genocidal.

But he bears at least some resemblance to minor fascists like Ante Pavelic, Father Tiso, or Juan Peron whose right-wing populism helped to drive their states to ruin. Mr. Trump has gained the support of Marine de la Pen, the American white supremacist David Duke and the Serbian war criminal Vojislav Sesilj;  he quotes Mussolini, and is admired by Vladimir Putin - a rogues gallery of racism and oppression and a group with whom I would think Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha would not wish to be associated.

I think we can all agree that racism, violence and bigotry are not "refreshing." They are not "telling it like it is" and they are certainly not compatible with western democracy. The western world, including Albania, spent a great deal of blood and treasure helping to defeat the scourge of fascism. I believe we owe it to those who sacrificed in this great cause to reject the fascism "lite" of Donald Trump. In consideration of the above I would encourage progressive Albanians to urge Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha to reconsider “Trump Boulevard.”

 

 
                    [post_title] => Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider 'Trump Boulevard'  
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                    [post_content] => Focusing on virtual realities hurts both the people and the government

Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tavricheski was a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman and favorite of Catherine the Great. His rule is associated with the "Potemkin village", a largely fictional method of ruse involving the construction of painted façades to mimic real villages, full of happy, well-fed people, for visiting officials to see.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is seen by many as a powerful and charismatic individual. And with great fame come a bunch of groupies. In many years he has attracted around him in various public service duties young people that try to imitate him. They imitate the way he talks, the way he moves his hands and they imitate his need to make things look good.

These little Potemkins, like moths around the lamp, revolve around the PM’s personal cult, his style, his content. The most obvious example and the one that was made fun of frequently was the young woman who had the position of Head of the Tax Directorate. However, what people forget is that there is a phenomenon behind the individual. A miniature army of devoted little Potemkins ardently trying to please.

After the previous head of the QSUT, the most important university hospital center in the country that faces the brunt of the patients traffic from all over Albania, became the healthcare minister, she was replaced by a new face – the former head of one of the key national TV-s, sacked after losing a court battle with the owner.

This particular TV channel under his direction has been for years deeply loyal to Rama personally when in opposition and now in power. A person with arguably sufficient managerial experience of a TV company but no connection whatsoever with the health sector is now managing the most important hospital center in the country. It is not a very different story from the previous minister of healthcare, himself a friend of the PM and a very tall kind of Potemkin.

The healthcare sector is one of the least performing ones in the country, with significant problems in medicine supply, corruption, access to services of marginalized people, etc. Without denying the good of some investments in the related infrastructure, the fervor of the administration to portray the changes in the whole sector as a success is ridiculous. And now one of the key people that has overseen the advertisement industry of one of the richest media channels in the country will be at the helm of a critical juncture of the sector. And there he can put his experience to good use. The digital Potemkin Village is our new healthcare virtual reality. Looks good. But it's fake. And yet, let’s remember that the real issue here is not the individual, but the phenomenon.

Potemkins of course are not limited to this administration. The previous prime minister with his unchecked aggressiveness also inspired his lot. Their specialty was of a less subtle, more violent nature. They were often dangerous, always fighting dissent. The ones now are perhaps less intense but equally hazardous.

On and on the Potemkins go about raising cardboard or virtual propaganda villages and trying to mask the reality just like their great predecessor, the Russian general did for Empress Catherine. Their passion and loyalty is unchecked. They will go to lengths that other don’t. They obscure reality in surprisingly efficient ways. In that they represent a hidden threat to this country, be it with or without the blessing of their leadership.

 
                    [post_title] =>  Editorial: Albania’s little dangerous Potemkins
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-24 10:43:58
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131755" align="alignright" width="300"]gabriel Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's Federal Foreign Minister[/caption]

By Sigmar Gabriel

It’s your birthday, Europe! Sixty years ago, on 25 March 1957, the founding members of the European Union signed the Treaties of Rome. This date is a major crossroads for the most successful project for freedom, peace and prosperity that the world has ever known.

This gives us cause for celebration.

After 60 years of Europe, we are standing at a crossroads once again, however. The financial crisis and our efforts to deal with the refugee movements have ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of the European integration project. The UK will provide notification of its desire to leave the European Union in a few days’ time. This is a wakeup call. We must reach an understanding on what Europe means to us, where we want to go with the Union and what we are prepared to do to achieve this.

This is the actual significance of this anniversary of the Treaties of Rome.

The European integration project is under greater attack today than at any time in the past, from within and from without, by populists who claim to have simple solutions and by autocrats who loathe our values. They are all out to dismantle or even destroy Europe.

For me, it is clear that the path of European integration is both the right and the only path to take. Let us not deceive ourselves. In this world stricken by crises in which so many certainties have fallen by the wayside, the countries of Europe can only successfully defend their interests and values when they speak with one voice. No European country, not even Germany, can do this on their own any more. Together, we are so much more and so much stronger than the sum of all of our individual nations. We must close ranks in order to do this.

This 60th anniversary must therefore stand as a beacon of hope and as a call to fight for Europe. We must not remain silent when voices clamour for an end to European integration.

Fighting for Europe means defending our common, i.e. our European, values. We want to make the EU, which has brought us decades of freedom and stability, fit for the future. The rule of law and democracy, solidarity with one another and diversity among our member states are the building blocks of the European project. We must stand up for this both on the international and domestic stage.

Fighting for Europe also means standing up for what we have accomplished. Dismantling our integration will not help us. We overcame the sovereign debt crisis together. We are working to ensure that everyone in the eurozone is able to look ahead with confidence, that there is a return to growth across the board and that new prospects are generated with more jobs. We will need to further deepen economic and monetary union to achieve this – not in order to set ourselves apart from the others, but because we are more closely linked than ever before thanks to our common currency.

Our work goes beyond this, however. The historic task that we now face is to create a better and stronger Europe. We must invest together in the European Union and make the most important project for peace and prosperity of our age fit for the future.

Firstly, in European foreign and security policy. It is time to do away with the perception that we are not responsible for our own security. It is true that Europe must finally come of age. Our partnership with the USA and NATO are the cornerstones of the transatlantic community. However, the European Union must be able to cope with crises and conflicts in its neighbourhood by itself. Initial steps have been taken and further measures must follow.

Secondly, we need protection of Europe’s external borders that is genuinely worthy of the name. Borders have lost much of their significance within Europe. That is an amazing achievement – but strong external borders are equally important. Amidst the crises in our neighbourhood and the refugee flows, we can see how important effective protection of our borders is. Anyone who holds Schengen dear must also value the protection of our external borders. While a number of measures have got off the ground, we must do more. This is a European task that applies to us all, and not to only those of us who are most affected.

Thirdly, Europe must raise its game with respect to domestic security. The fight against terrorism is a common effort. We must do better in this area, through improved cooperation and better communication. People in Europe should not have to live in fear – be it in Brussels, Paris, Berlin or elsewhere. Freedom and security are two sides of the same coin.

Fourthly, we must be far more mindful of the fact that part of the European project’s allure always was to do with the promise of prosperity. The single market brought prosperity to most of us, and over a long period of time. However, too many people in Europe feel that they no longer benefit from a common Europe, but have been left behind. We have to appreciate and take steps to counter this. For me, fighting for Europe therefore means strengthening the single market and taking the social dimension of the European project seriously. We need new conditions for growth and prosperity. This includes European investments in digital infrastructure, as well as in education and research. If we manage to deploy our resources better and, at the same time, if everyone is willing to tackle the necessary reforms to preserve their competitiveness, then we will not be net contributors and net recipients, but all net beneficiaries of Europe.

We want to stand together in order to send a message from Rome that we Europeans are getting our act together and standing up for Europe and that we want to do a better job! We will succeed if we do not allow ourselves to be guided by our fears and if we revitalise the European spirit with courage and self-confidence and if we take everyone on board and challenge certain national sensitivities.

Germany is prepared to do just that.
                    [post_title] => Fighting for a stronger Europe!
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-24 10:03:16
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                    [post_content] => There is a well-known and popular expression in Albanian to express irony and frustration to futility and losing time. The saying goes: “Where were we? Nowhere. What did we do? Nothing.”

The mantra seems to fit very well in the current context of the development of the Albanian political crisis with the opposition camped at a tent in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, the elections threatened to be boycotted and the ending mandate of the President of the Republic set to ignite another round of problematic political relations. 

The crisis extends also to the relations between the main and the junior partners in the governing coalition that are continuously throwing jabs at each other despite keeping a cool poker face in public. 

Despite expectations to the contrary the removal of four ministers, including the one in charge of interior affairs, from their public office did nothing to quench the thirst of the opposition and little to placate the aggression of the ruling coalition sides.

Meanwhile as a result of the parliamentary boycott, the judicial reform implementation is frozen in time, the chances for any positive developments in the European integration path of the country are vaporizing and a light-headed chaotic sentiment prevails. This is particularly true in the justice sector caught between the end of the official mandate of the incumbent institutions and people and the impossibility of going ahead with the new ones given the gridlock.

Other institutions seem not to be fully aware of the gravity of the situation. The Central Election Commission is trying to substitute the opposition commissioners with independent citizens through inviting them to apply. This is certainly a futile move as the opposition will never allow the elections to go on without its people in the voting and counting booths.

The international community is also stuck, frantically trying to facilitate any forms of dialogue and solution but achieving very little. It seems their capital is also running a bit low in the midst of the European crisis and the arrival of the new American administration. Its ranks are unified in seeking the progress of the implementation of the justice reform but that is not proving very efficient with convincing the opposition.

Civil society and media are hushed bystanders, powerless at best and bought-up at worst, in the face of these political zero-sum calculations and electoral games which mobilize large swaths of people and divide them into polarized camps, transmitting the negative division top down with speed and efficacy.  

Meanwhile once again, Albania even without ethnic issues, border and recognition problems and despite lots of international support is finding itself punished by the behavior of the domestic political elite. It is frozen just like the neighboring Macedonia where a harsher political situation with an ethnic underlying is raging for years or like Bosnia, rendered fragile and inefficient by many overlapping statehood issues.

For more than 25 years Albanian politicians have had a problem with dialogue. They consider every agreement and compromise a defeat and certainly do not suffer any pangs for blocking the country’s progress towards the EU.

Where were we? Nowhere.

What did we do? Nothing.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Albanian political crisis: Going nowhere, doing nothing
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            [post_author] => 29
            [post_date] => 2017-04-21 11:03:47
            [post_date_gmt] => 2017-04-21 09:03:47
            [post_content] => This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these four first months of 2017 that such a lobbying contract is made. Previously both the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Democratic Party had done similar contracts with US firms. The latter is reported to have as much as three different lobbying companies trying to service ties with the new US administration. The sums involved are considerable: the SP will pay 20.000 dollars per month, while the recent contract of the DP signed only one month ago with “Stonington Strategies,” is worth 25,000 dollars per month.  In the last year alone SMI spent around 300.000 dollars for lobbying services which got them, among other things, invitations to the latest presidential inauguration. 

It is now a consolidated reality that Albanian political parties are paying hefty sums to companies that have the potential to improve relations of political parties and especially their leaders, set up occasions for meetings that are then glorified back at home as well as perpetuate narratives that better serve one side. Prestigious lobbying tags of Washington D. C have become interestingly familiar names in small Albania and its citizens.

Albania is by no means the only small country that uses precious resources to buy political clout abroad. Many of the neighboring countries which share more or less the same problems, behave very similarly. Contracts such as these are common for authoritarian dynasties in the Middle East or former Soviet republics now run by eternal dictators.

On the other side even large and well established democracies are using think tanks as lobbying outlets to buy influence in the United States, according to a 2014 report of the New York Times. However with one key difference, these contracts have a much more beneficial set objective in that they try to service some well-defined national goals and not service one separate political side.   The British Authority of Tourism is well justified in lobbying for its national economic interest while Japan may have a record number of lobbies working to further economic and business interest of its countries’ companies in the United States.

None of these other examples make what is happening at home right. It is very difficult to shed light over both the means of financing and the real impact of the services bought. Regarding the latter it is clear that they serve no public interest such as political party leaders would like to boast under the pretenses that they are developing bilateral relations and improving Albania’s image abroad. Those services clearly serve short term political interest by blurring truths often in the process. No lobbying contract of a political party should cover the services and tasks that in fact belong to the government. Extending and consolidating bilateral relations is the duty of governments and state institutions not political entities. If the Albanian parties overtake foreign policy then they should go ahead and dismantle the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The main question is where the money comes from. There is very little transparency over political party finances in Albania so the source of these funds is shrouded in darkness. There are absolutely no guarantees that the money spent is legitimate and not taken out of public finances or murky donations.

These lucrative contracts against the backdrop of a small, poor and underdeveloped country generate a stark contracts as well as ensuing a feeling of outrage. Of course parties can claim that they are using their own party finances as they see fit. However that does not exclude the fact that these kind of expenditure seems criminal when one compared to the standing emergencies that the country has in providing basic infrastructure and basic public goods, including education and healthcare, to many rural and marginalized communities, to mention just the extreme cases.

Albania is amidst a harsh political crisis with parliamentary boycott, gridlock in implementation of key reforms and a very pessimistic perspective of further steps in its integration path. The electoral campaign has started despite the fact that the opposition insists on rejecting the process. In these desperate times, the absurdness of the lobbying contracts becomes even more palpable.

 
            [post_title] => Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies 
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