Finland’s Peter Stenlund urges Albania to continue societal reforms

Finland’s Peter Stenlund urges Albania to continue societal reforms

By Rudina Hoxha  “Finnish-Albanian relations are excellent with ample room for further development. Hopefully we can bring more concrete content into to these good relations in the years to come.” That’s what the Secretary of State of the Finnish Ministry

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Editorial: Albania must end practice of ‘checklist laws’

Editorial: Albania must end practice of ‘checklist laws’

It is widely believed Albania has very good laws on the books as part of the country’s efforts to bring its legislation closer to that of the European Union as well as its efforts to meet its other international obligations.

Read Full Article
De-euroization’s contribution to the national economy and Albanians’ welfare

De-euroization’s contribution to the national economy and Albanians’ welfare

By Elvin Meka* De-dollarization and de-euroization has been a much used term in the academic realm for a long time, as well as a much targeted and sought-after practice to be applied in the developing world in different periods and

Read Full Article
Editorial: A new strategy that sounds a lot like the old strategy

Editorial: A new strategy that sounds a lot like the old strategy

In the Netflix dark comedy film, “The War Machine,” when a U.S. general (Brad Pitt) explains to the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley) how he was going to win the war, in military jargon and enthusiasm, saying: “This is my new

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The numbers’ game with Italian residents in Albania

The numbers’ game with Italian residents in Albania

By Nicola Pedrazzi* It’s 19,000. It’s either in articles or TV programs or just statuses on social media. When it comes to Italian immigrants in Albania, this is the figure we are now used to seeing. But where did this

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Editorial: Transparency is vital to any Albania-Greece deal

Editorial: Transparency is vital to any Albania-Greece deal

Recent talks between the foreign ministers of Albania and Greece — to seek solutions for a series of pending issues between the two countries — have attracted a lot of attention among the public at large in Albania this week.

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Autocracy Still Stalks Albania’s Corridors of Power

Autocracy Still Stalks Albania’s Corridors of Power

Words by Rudina Hajdari Exactly as modern historians will one day acknowledge this moment as pivotal in the post-Communist history of Albania—our parliamentarians must acknowledge the increasing discontent on the streets of Tirana. The general elections of June 2017 in

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Tirana’s passion crimes, or its ego crimes in disguise

Tirana’s passion crimes, or its ego crimes in disguise

  By Sidonja Manushi As Albanian tradition goes, when a couple gives birth to a baby boy, the father tips the nurse to express his happiness for the birth of a male heritant. When the couple gives birth to a

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Editorial: The emptying of Albania

Editorial: The emptying of Albania

Data published this week reveals that the depopulation of Albania due to migration continues at a disturbing rate, with between 200,000 to 250,000 people leaving the country in 2017 alone. That’s equal to the entire city of Durres, the country’s

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2018 to bring no important changes to households’ welfare, quality of economic growth

2018 to bring no important changes to households’ welfare, quality of economic growth

By Selami Xhepa* I think the 2018 economic developments will be within the targets set in the macroeconomic program; with an economic growth which I believe will be at about 4 percent and with stable macroeconomic indicators. There is no

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                    [post_content] => By Rudina Hoxha

 “Finnish-Albanian relations are excellent with ample room for further development. Hopefully we can bring more concrete content into to these good relations in the years to come.”

That’s what the Secretary of State of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peter Stenlund  states  in an exclusive interview with Tirana Times ahead of his official visit to Tirana.

Finland, which had the presidential elections at the end of January 2018, agrees that diplomats on both sides are working hard to facilitate the exploration of opportunities and open doors for Finnish and Albanian companies in view of more mutual business. “We know that Albania could offer diverse opportunities for Finnish companies in the field of tourism, energy and agriculture, to name a few. The Nordic Association for Trade and Business Development recently opened in Tirana is an important platform for us in this regard,” Stenlund said. In this regard, he hopes his visit can contribute to increasing interaction between the two countries.

 

What do you think about the results of the 2018 presidential elections in Finland? 

The elections at the end of January 2018 saw the incumbent President Sauli Niinistö winning a second term in office, running this time as an independent candidate without a party affiliation. The results indicated that global issues and security questions are currently on the minds of the Finns.  A core duty of the President is to lead Finland’s foreign policy in co-operation with the Government. The result of the elections indicated a wish for continuity as many Finns indeed are satisfied with the  way President Niinistö has maintained a dialogue with the other western leaders, and with the East.

In his inaugural speech to the Parliament, the President offered a platform and facilitation for an inter-party dialogue on the most debated societal issues at the moment, which was very much appreciated by the consensus-oriented nation.

How do you see the international relations of Helsinki mostly from the European perspective?

Europe – both our fellow EU Member States as well as non-EU Member States – remains a very important partner for Finland in our international relations. Finland has continuously been one of the strong advocates of an active EU foreign and security as well as security and defence policy. We think that it is important for the EU to be a strong actor globally. United we stand stronger. Furthermore, Europe at large continues to be a significant trading partner for us.

 

The appointment of the new Ambassador of Finland in Athens and Albania, Mr. Juha Pyykko has given an impetus to the bilateral relations between Finland and Albania.  From your perspective, how are these relations going? What can the Balkan region benefit more from the Finnish diplomacy?

Finnish-Albanian relations are excellent with ample room for further development. Hopefully we can bring more concrete content into to these good relations in the years to come.

Both being small nations has laid the foundation for our friendly bilateral relations – the existence of an Association of Friends of Finland in Albania and the Friends of Albania in Finland prove the point!

The Finnish Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, has been the best known face for Finnish diplomacy in Albania thanks to his work in Kosovo. Today, besides supporting Albania’s cause on its path towards the EU, the Finnish diplomacy can benefit Albania in numerous ways.

For instance, business and trade between Finland and Albania is not exactly blooming yet but diplomats on both sides are working hard to facilitate the exploration of opportunities and open doors for Finnish and Albanian companies in view of more mutual business. We know that Albania could offer diverse opportunities for Finnish companies in the field of tourism, energy and agriculture, to name a few. The Nordic Association for Trade and Business Development recently opened in Tirana is an important platform for us in this regard.

A fruitful area of collaboration between our countries has been the capacity building that Finnish experts have provided to Albanian authorities in the form of concrete projects and knowledge transfer, relating, for instance, to the Albanian justice sector reform. We are happy to make our know-how available also in the future, for example in anti-corruption measures, good governance, statistics and education (we top quite many international rankings in these themes!). When it comes to the education system, it would be useful to look into the potential of organising more student and research exchanges between Finland and Albania.

Celebration of the centenary of the independence of the Republic of Finland last year was an important milestone, and I am happy to note that our Ambassador to Albania, Mr. Juha Pyykkö, celebrated this in Tirana, as well, on 12 December 2017 with President Meta in attendance. I hope that with this increased visibility of Finland in Albania and through my visit we can facilitate increasing interaction between our two countries.

 

Finland has expressed its readiness to support Albania’s integration to EU. In what way, is this country showing it? 

We are proponents of Albania’s EU integration and believe that the place for all Western Balkan countries is within our European family. We show our support both through political and more practical means. The core purpose of this very visit to Tirana, for instance, is to discuss Albania’s EU integration and to encourage Albania to continue its good work with societal reforms. We are also here to identify where and how we could best assist Albania in its European aspirations.

On a more practical level, the Finnish authorities have –as a preparation for Albania’s European integration–  helped their Albanian counterparts in renewing the state institutions and provided training for the public administration on spot.

 

What can you highlight as three aspects that made the Finns feel so proud of Finland 100?

Our past 100 years highlight the importance of inclusive democratic system, functional political leadership and ability to implement policies based upon principles of consensus. We are very proud of these aspects. Finland’s national success did not emerge overnight from a single political or economic idea, but from a continuum of political decisions made over many decades.

What is important to understand is that our path to present has not been painless: we were the last country in Western Europe to suffer peacetime famine in 1866-1868, went through atrocious civil war in 1918 and suffered heavily during the Second World War. The hardships have taught us to seek for answers: there is always a better way of doing things.

For instance the experience of famine led to reforms in agriculture and infrastructure and the civil war forced us to address the socio-economic and political causes behind the conflict. Advocacy of free universal education, gender equality and equal opportunities despite socio-economic background is in the core of our national values. As a result we have managed to make the best out of our small population of 5.5 million inhabitants.

The change from a poor agrarian country into a one of the most stable, innovative, least corrupt and best-governed countries in the world would not been possible without the values of cooperation, solidarity and mutual respect.
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                    [post_content] => It is widely believed Albania has very good laws on the books as part of the country's efforts to bring its legislation closer to that of the European Union as well as its efforts to meet its other international obligations.

Yet, somehow good laws don't necessarily mean good implementation and the country continues to perform poorly on most political and democracy indexes.

Laws and regulations aiming to bring more women into the public life of the country are not an exception to this problem.

Applying extremely progressive laws that are not present even in some of the most advanced countries in the world, Albania has decided to pass quota rules to force parties to create a more balanced parliament, where a certain percentage of candidates in elections must be allocated to women.

Parties are fined if they don't follow the rule and women candidates are given a certain number of priorities to give them a leg up in parliament.

Whether these laws are fair or not, is a matter of discussion, but they have been approved and they are in the books. Yet, they are regularly made a mockery of, with the latest example being this week.

Two women Democratic Party candidates in Berat have rejected their legal right to take an MP seat vacated by a resignation as part of wider trend on both sides of the political spectrum through which women candidates are fielded to meet quotas and then sidelined so men can take the seats if they become eligible.

The two women this week, fielded at the bottom of the list with no hope of ever winning a seat in a Socialist-dominated region, gave up their rights to the empty seat so one of Albania's wealthiest men, Astrit Veliaj, could get get back to parliament after failing to win his seat directly as the second-seated Democratic Party MP candidate.

The two women, despite statements to the contrary by all those involved, were likely forced to withdraw.

Their rejection letters are reported to be identical, not only submitted on the same date, but also using the same verbal expressions and even having similar mistakes. Publicly one said she had a sick child to take care of, the other first said she wanted to be an MP, but then abruptly changed her mind, giving no explanation.

Berat’s case draws strong parallels with a 2014 even worse situation in Lezha, when two Socialist Party female members withdrew so Arben Ndoka, a man with alleged criminal ties, could become MP in the district, saying it was their personal decision, one claiming to be deathly ill.

The situation became so bad in Lezha, due to a series of resignations and sackings – mostly related to criminal convictions and alleged ties, the Socialist Party ran out of people in their list to fill the seats being vacated.

The Democratic Party says one cannot draw parallels between the two cases, however, it is clear the opposition is not holding itself to the same standards it demands from the government.

The new MP, Veliaj, does not have a scary past like some of his Lezha colleagues from the other side of the political spectrum, but he is clearly being given preferential treatment by his party.

Veliaj is the owner of Albanian University and a large educational network starting from elementary schools and extending to universities. He no doubt financed much of the campaign in Berat, so the party probably feels obligated to give him the seat, even though he failed to win in a direct election.

While gender balance in politics is a laudable goal, there is no point in having progressive laws when political parties and other actors make a mockery of these laws and the reasons they exist. Either implement them correctly or get rid of the laws. It is clear that in Albania powerful men rule, while women have to make up embarrassing excuses as to why they are not taking MP seats that legally belong to them.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Albania must end practice of 'checklist laws'
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                    [post_content] => By Elvin Meka*

De-dollarization and de-euroization has been a much used term in the academic realm for a long time, as well as a much targeted and sought-after practice to be applied in the developing world in different periods and realities. Practical results unveil both success and failure because the measures and action undertaken have been different in different countries and even different within the same country (the case of Peru).

Albania has been one of the countries where dollarization/euroization has moved in the fast lane since the change in the political and economic system in 1991. This process was especially triggered by macroeconomic instability and high inflation rate during the first transition years and during the 1997-1998 turmoil. These events engraved on Albanians’ memory the landmark status of the American dollar and later that of the euro as preserving the value for their savings and investments. Then, that status received a blow after the outbreak of the global financial and economic crisis in 2008-2009 and from that time to present day, the role of those currencies became more relative. Albanians and our national economy paid somehow dearly for the currency exchange risk and that was reflected on the rapid growth in non-performing loans as lek quickly depreciated during the whole of 2009. However, the euro and to a lower degree even the U.S. dollar still remain strong within the Albanian financial system and the economy as a considerable amount of savings, loans, investments and big purchases (real estate, cars, holidays etc.) are still carried not carried out in lek and that does not favor the economy and the financial industry. And, it is now time we think of and work on their further de-euroization.

But why is de-euroization needed at a time when we are targeting and trying to join the European Union and at a time when Albania will later join the Eurozone? There is more than one answer, but the first one is: Heaven can wait – Albania will have to wait a little (in fact for many years) until it joins the Eurozone, because usually this integration is not based on desire and aspirations, but a crucial restructuring of the economy as a structure, model, competitiveness and functionality. The second answer is that we have to work hard on a well-functioning economy where monetary and fiscal policies are efficiently applied as well as on the Albanians’ well-being, offering them better protection from currency exchange risks and a more qualitative and deeper financial intermediation.

Of course, de-euroization is not and will not be an easy undertaking; on the other hand it is a very complex challenge. To date, we have managed to ensure and maintain a stable macro-economic environment and low inflation rate thanks to the established and efficient Bank of Albania policies. In the meanwhile, there is still a lot to do in converting the fiscal deficit to surplus and the development and deepening of the national capital market (securities). This challenge will unavoidably require strong commitment and cooperation among the government, the Bank of Albania and the Financial Supervisory Authority (which have now signed a trilateral memorandum of cooperation), in order to apply much-needed structural and institutional reforms that will shape another key element for a successful de-euroization: the sustainable and high economic growth!

(Elvin Meka is a banking expert and editor-in-chief of the ‘Bankieri’ magazine published in Albanian) 
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                    [post_content] => In the Netflix dark comedy film, “The War Machine,” when a U.S. general (Brad Pitt) explains to the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley) how he was going to win the war, in military jargon and enthusiasm, saying: “This is my new strategy,” the president smiles and says: “It sounds a lot like the old strategy.” The general was replaced a few months later and the war goes on to this day.

The epic scene perfectly captures what a lot of people who intimately follow the never-ending saga of EU membership for Western Balkan states feel following the release with a lot of fanfare of a new strategy for the enlargement of the EU in the Western Balkans. It reads like it could have been written 15 years ago after the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, when the Western Balkan states were first promised membership in the European Union.

Its vague and bureaucratic language doesn't do justice to actual promises for financial and technical support for the region.

There was some news, of course, an actual date to shoot for, seven years from now, for Montenegro and Serbia -- the only two countries which have already opened membership negotiations. For Albania, there was none, just more wording of “visible progress” and “negotiations.”

This happened as EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, noted that Albania's foreign policy was fully aligned with the EU, something for which she thanked Tirana. At the same time, Serbia, known for its Russia-friendly stances, gets awarded with an earlier date for membership. It turns out, flattery can only get you so far.

Let's not only look outward though. Aligning foreign policies with the EU is not enough. Blaming solely the EU for Albania's stalled bid is not fair. Albania is a mess, and thing don't appear to get any better soon.

The country is simply not wealthy and not organized enough to meet the standards of EU states like Germany and the Netherlands. It might not be for another 100 years before it reaches those standards. We also have to get past the fact that Bulgaria and Romania got a free ride. The EU has nothing to lose with Albania being perpetually out of the union.

And so there needs to be a national dialogue about expectations and what Albanians can do to make things better – other than emigrating.

We are starting from a tough spot.

Albania's government fails to meet basic services in education and healthcare for its citizens when compared to EU members, so one cannot expect for it to meet democratic or justice standards.

Many Albanians feel that the country's government is heading more into the likes of its counterparts in Russia and China rather those of EU states.

If the Albanian ruling party, for example, can win elections despite major charges of ties with organized crime and drug cultivation, then we have moved into another realm altogether, and we need to talk about whether Albania's values are compatible with the ones of the EU.

The generation that was 40 when communism fell might never see Albania as an EU member in their lifetime, but now it appears their children (the half that have not emigrated) might not either. It's a bitter pill to take in a country where more than 87 percent support EU membership, but one that must be swallowed.

So the question is what next? There is no clear alternative to the EU, and the illusion that things can only get better has now been shuttered.

Under the current new-old strategy, the quest goes on – indefinitely.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: A new strategy that sounds a lot like the old strategy
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                    [post_content] => By Nicola Pedrazzi* 

It’s 19,000. It’s either in articles or TV programs or just statuses on social media. When it comes to Italian immigrants in Albania, this is the figure we are now used to seeing.

But where did this number come out of. And above all, has anybody ever verified it? The magical confession of “flows changing sides” has been in fashion for a long time now on Italian media, but the first article that dared to provide the phenomenon’s figures dates back to October 2014; it was published online (and went viral) by Corriere Della Sera. The source that the author took care of putting in inverted commas is Albanian. It was Erion Veliaj, the then minister for social welfare and current Tirana mayor.

The following is the paragraph featured.

“There are 19,000 Italians living and working in our country,” estimates Erion Veliaj, the Albanian minister for Social Welfare and Youth of the Socialist Party-led government of Edi Rama. Removing diplomats and students registered in the catholic university of Our Lady of Good Counsel, take the number of those who have a job contract to 15,000 to 16,000.”

As the Corriere Della Sera article mentions, the same as happens in Italy with all non-EU citizens, even foreigners who want to stay longer than three consecutive months in Albania, are obliged to apply for residence permits: for work, study or family reunion reasons. In other words, except for diplomats, an Italian who regularly works or studies in Albania has the obligation of appearing to the police commissariat and prove that they fulfil the criteria envisaged by law. Italian pensioners who dream of a cheap third age (and tax free) across the Adriatic know something, but their project often runs counter to the Albanian government, the same to other countries around the world, where pension-income is not a sufficient criterion to make them eligible to the residence in their territory.

 

Official data by the Albanian interior ministry

Based on Albanian legislation, if it is true that 19,000 Italians “live and work in Albania, then all 19,000 Italians citizens must have applied and obtained residence permits by Albanian authorities. And this is the flaw, because according to the latest report published by the Interior Ministry and the Social Welfare Ministry (the latter run by Veliaj when the 19,000 figure went viral), there were 8,692 foreigners with residence permits, of whom only 1,694 Italians. According to the same report, there were 12,519 foreigners in Albania on January 1, 2017, accounting for 0.4 percent of the population. Among them, there were 1,854 Italians, fewer than a tenth of the figure taken into account by Italian media.

In a nutshell, “the exodus of 19,000 Italians” described by Corriere della Sera in 2014, cannot be achieved even by adding to the Italians the number of foreigners of other nationalities resident in Albania in 2017. There were 3,954 Turks, 719 Kosovars, 331 Chinese, 184 Syrians…

In conclusion and in order to avoid misunderstandings: It is possible and imaginable that the number of Italian citizens resident in Albania is bigger than the residence permits issued by the police commissariats. For different reasons, there are people who for example, commute between the two countries or people who never applied for a residence permit. And if everything has to be told, there are also “repatriated Albanians” living in Albania who now hold Italian citizenship.  

If we also want to count them, let’s do it! The problem is that whatever criteria is chosen to excessively round up the figures, the famous 19,000 figure remains incompatible and far away from official data.

 

Fake news for a good intention?

If we don’t want to believe that the Albanian Ministry of Interior publishes fake data and if we don’t want to believe that more than 17,000 Italians illegally live in Albania with no residence permits, there is only one conclusion that remains. In 2014, Erion Veliaj provided exaggerated data, which important Italians newspapers took for granted without never checking them. Why?

Veliaj’s reasons are understandable; in May 2014 when he first provided the figure to ANSA news agency, he was in Rome to meet his counterpart Poletti. The Albanian minister’s goal was opening negotiations on a bilateral agreement on pensions, a ‘historical’ problem in Italian-Albanian relations, because if an Albanian citizen leaves Italy before meeting the minimum retirement criteria, they lose all the social security contributions they have paid in Italy (there is no deal yet between the two governments). Considering the high level of Albanian immigration to Italy, it was in the interest of minister Veliaj to inflate the figures of Italians in Albania and lay the foundations for negotiations: if you recognize the Albanians’ social security contributions in Italy, we will recognize the contributions Italians have paid in Albania.  Even if the ‘white lie’ arises in this context, its life-expectancy is attributed to a deeper reason that involves the idea of a new Albania, envied and desired by those who for decades have linked its name to speedboats and their drivers. It is a propaganda stream in line with the Rama governments: a strategy that targets recovering the country’s international image and is addressed to foreign entrepreneurs and Albanians in the Diaspora, who thanks to this policy finally enjoy a positive stereotype and one day, maybe they could pay off, by voting abroad as the Socialist majority claims.

 

Albanians and the migrants’ vote

 Out of the country’s 2.9 million residents (adults and minors), some 3.5 million Albanians are eligible to vote in the voter lists.  Considering the big size of the Albanian Diaspora and that only 1.5 million people voted last year, it is more than evident that recognizing the vote of Albanians who live abroad is not a technical but a political issue. When it becomes a reality, and above all, if the Italian model (that recognizes a limited number of MPs for residents outside Italy) is not chosen, the consent of half a million of Albanian residents in Italy would gain a significant weight in the political race on home soil.

That is why Albanian politicians care for the image they show in front of the world and that’s why the attention that the Italian media shows to Albanian politicians is not politically harmless (we should consider the fact that Italian is a popular language in Albania).

The most difficult part to understand is the reasons behind the Italian naivety. Excluding a news portal that also publishes in Italian, but is registered in Tirana, no voice from this side of the Adriatic has criticized the figures issued by Albanian politics, even though the data by AIRE (The Register of Italians Resident Abroad) were very clear as confessed by the Italian ambassador to Tirana, Alberto Cutillo who said that there were 1,385 Italians as of January 1, 2017. Not wanting to elaborate on the deterioration of Italian politics and journalism, a bigger problem compared to a single episode, the unimaginable ease to which Italy believed the figures with no verification, is in the concrete case supported on two typical flaws in Italian-Albanian relations. Firstly, carefree lack of interest by the Italian side toward “real Albania” (a country which we have often dealt with, but relying on ourselves and our emotions, without asking ourselves to understand it, either in the Fascist era, under communism or now under democracy).  Meanwhile, the second flaw is related to the symbolic and unforgettable value that the “Albania of Immigrants) holds in the collective Italian imagination. That is why, in order to show our crisis (and not the Albanian progress) we have pleasantly returned to the joke that “We are the Albanians now.” That is a parallel that does not respect history that comes to mind and that a clever Albanian politician, seemingly an expert of his neighbors’ mentality, pleasantly suggested, convinced that we would buy that.

 

A rhetorical friendship

 Let’s be clear: Italian immigration in Albania remains a novelty on record. It is true that our entrepreneurs visit the country often, it is true that planes to Tirana fly every day from the main Italian airports, it is true that every year, dozens (or hundreds? Anybody knows the real figures?) of students who fail the entry exam to the faculty of medicine in Italian universities, get enrolled with Our Lady of Good Counsel; it is true that Italian tourism is at an exponential growth; it is true that after the earthquake, a restaurant owner from L’Aquila was reborn in Tirana; in a few words it is true that the today’s Adriatic is a porous border, especially if we bring to mind the eras of the Iron Curtain and Enver Hoxha’s regime. Everything is true, and whoever wants to asses this novelty, is welcome: everything is ‘positive’! And yet, no official data allows us to admit that 19,000 Italians permanently “live and work” in Albania. Continuing to repeat this is offensive to our profession, while politically it does not improve relations between the two countries, it does not help in Albania’s recognition in Italy, it does not overcome stereotypes, it does not honor Albanians and neither helps them feel better after decades of difficulties – to whom it may concern, the Albanian problems and immigration is not over, and a look to the figures of asylum seekers around Europe can prove that.

It is desperate to admit it, but this rhetorical Italian-Albanian friendship, void and fake like the figures we confess it with, is worth it only to provide some media oxygen to the government officials beyond the Adriatic: politicians in difficulty despite the beautiful image they sell to Albanians who don’t live in Albania, ‘friendly’ politicians who in this decisive stage of the European path would be in huge need of a serious partner across the Adriatic, but to whom Italy is recently reserving only selfies with fake enthusiasm. One doubts this is happening because we don’t have what else to offer.

 *The author is a historian, journalist and expert of Italian-Albanian relations

 The article originally appeared in Italian on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso; Translated by Tirana Times from Albanian)       
                    [post_title] => The numbers’ game with Italian residents in Albania 
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                    [post_date] => 2018-02-02 11:01:01
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                    [post_content] => Recent talks between the foreign ministers of Albania and Greece -- to seek solutions for a series of pending issues between the two countries -- have attracted a lot of attention among the public at large in Albania this week. 

On the Albanian side, there are several pressing issues to be solved -- from the anachronistic Greek law that states the country is still at war with Albania since WWII to the property and travel rights of Cham Albanian citizens. 

Issues like these have been dragged forward for way too long, hampering relations and the national interest of Albania. And thus they need solutions. Discussions are good, and it is logical that difficult discussions are needed solutions. 

However, chief among concerns for the Albanian public at large is the issue of the maritime border between the two countries. Many Albanians fear that Albania will have to give away too much under Greek pressure to reach an agreement. It was the same fear that led to protests and ultimately the cancellation of a deal in 2009, which was made null and void by Albania’s Constitutional Court. 

What worries Albanians most at this early stage in the talks for a second deal is that there has been little information coming out of the closed-door meetings. And what little information came out, came out from the Greek foreign minister, who told Greek media Greece would be getting a good deal, getting 12 miles of sea from its shores, which unclear as it is, could mean Albania has given away too much from its claim based on international law.

The point is we don’t quite know what the details are, thus is difficult to judge. But opposition and civil society representatives have expressed concern about lack of transparency in the talks. On the other hand the government has said it is acting in the best interest of Albanians and for critics to wait for a final agreement to be made public.

Which is why it is more important than ever that transparency be brought to the table with full public access and discussion on the agreement to avoid protests and another battle in the Constitutional Court, deferring an agreement that ultimately can help both Albania and Greece. 

It is also important that discussion in Albania involve everyone, including the political opposition, as this is a matter of national interest.

The Albanian public is very sensitive to any government trying to “sell the sea” as critics put it, so it needs to be informed fully and offered arguments at what the government is deciding and why.

The Albanian government has already made several concessions in recent months. It has agreed to pay for and take of monumental graves for remains of Greek soldiers who died on Albanian soil during the Italian-Greek war. President Ilir Meta also granted Greek-born Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos Albanian citizenship at the end of 2017 — a decision that was enthusiastically welcomed in Athens. It is time for Athens to show some good faith in the discussions, including on a fair solution to the maritime border. 

Ultimately, Albania and Greece need positive relations. Albania needs Greece’s help with its EU bid and the two countries are bound by geography and people. Based on 2011 census data, there were 480,851 Albanian migrants living in neighboring Greece. The actual number is probably much higher, and, on top to being a key trading partner, Greece is also a main source of remittances. There are also thousands of Albanian speakers of Greek nationality, the Arvanites, and a Greek minority in southern Albania, particularly in a couple of municipalities where Greek is the official language alongside Albanian. 

To honor these ties, the two countries need to come up with a transparent win-win maritime border deal based on international law and that can be acceptable by both sides. It’s not just about politics. Economically speaking, both countries need a clear cut border in order to use the sea resources in the disputed area, including any undersea oil reserves.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Transparency is vital to any Albania-Greece deal
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                    [post_date] => 2018-02-02 10:23:56
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                    [post_content] => Words by Rudina Hajdari

Exactly as modern historians will one day acknowledge this moment as pivotal in the post-Communist history of Albania—our parliamentarians must acknowledge the increasing discontent on the streets of Tirana. The general elections of June 2017 in Albania failed the democratic test through a study that showed that 20% of people that voted admitted that their vote was manipulated.

Albania’s Socialist Party has crafted a dazzling image abroad since 2013. International readers envisage a young and vital government—backed by a young population—whose path to EU membership is characterized by unity and compromise.

In reality no polling metric proves the young to be overwhelming enamored by Rama. On the contrary, 1/3 of the young population want to leave Albania and as a result youth migration has been increasing because of lack opportunities and jobs at home. Discontent with high corruption, increasing poverty and government links to organized crime has led thousands to demonstrate outside of the Prime Minister’s office on January 27th where thousands of young people flooded the streets of Tirana.  The opposition is actively denouncing the alarming domestic situation both in the streets and in the parliamentary sessions.

Few would dispute that Prime Minister Edi Rama has acted to improve Albania’s international image—but, the protest, led by the opposition party leader Luzlim Basha, paints the real disappointment at home for the ruling government which has been implicated in the biggest trafficking scandal and has effected Albania’s economy and foreign direct investment.

The street movement led by opposition leader Luzlim Basha of the country’s Democratic Party has grown in support, stature and size since last year. Rama’s failure to account for his former Minister Tahiri who has been vastly accused for his direct involvement in the drug-trafficking, has only bolstered support for the Democratic Party—who realize that European principles can only flourish when former authoritarians linked to criminals are flushed from the corridors of power.

Characteristically indefatigable, PM Rama has even went so far as to praise Tahiri’s reform of the police force—despite Tahiri being the subject of overwhelming domestic and international criticism for allowing cannabis cultivation to flourish in Albania.

A young population, disenchanted by erratic decision-making and ailing transparency in many democratic institutions, believes that reform of a judiciary which has consistently failed its citizens’ democratic rights must depend upon the passage of free and fair elections. Judicial reform is the final pre-requisite necessity for the country of Albania to begin accession talks with the European Union—but this pivotal chapter in my country’s history has still not seen any concrete results.

Many people believe that we cannot entrust this process to a government which is linked to drug-trafficking scandals. A leader who does not proffer any explanation for all ministerial and police dismissals is the wrong leader to enact reforms which will change his citizens’ lives, and this process needs to start with clear heads and clean hands.

As a country which sincerely aspires to join the European Union, we must accept how Tirana’s recent protest does not trust that a government centered around corruption, the illicit drug situation in Albania, and alleged manipulation of voting process in the last general election will score any results in this key year to bring Albania closer to the European Union.

 
                    [post_title] => Autocracy Still Stalks Albania’s Corridors of Power  
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                    [post_date] => 2018-01-26 11:07:33
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                    [post_content] =>  

By Sidonja Manushi 

As Albanian tradition goes, when a couple gives birth to a baby boy, the father tips the nurse to express his happiness for the birth of a male heritant.

When the couple gives birth to a baby girl, however, the nurse usually says: “I hope next time it’s a boy.”

And so it goes. Albanian boys are rarely denied any whims, systematically justified for doing poorly in school because “boys will be boys after all”, told to protect their sisters against dishonor at any risk and generally applauded for assessing their dominance, be it in a verbal, physical or even abusive way. 

If a boy brings home a girl at an early age, he’s worth of his father’s pat on the shoulder. If a girl brings home a boy, even at an adult age, she’s required to get her father’s approval. 

If a boy decides to stay home with his parents as an adult, he is excused and taken care of. If it happens that a girl stays with her parents after her mid-twenties, she is a spinster and everyone gets worried.

Many will oppose the above statements, saying this is just a tribal society that no longer describes Albania as a whole, but only villages deep in the mountains. 

However, for as long as cases similar to Ariela Murati’s, who was shot dead on Sunday after rejecting the advances of a former classmate, continue to shake us, there really can’t be another description of our society. 

The details of the homicide, which happened this weekend in the centre of Tirana, are redundant after being covered by a number of media outlets for days in a row -- they’re even unnecessary, and, in most cases, insensitive to the pain of Murati’s family and the overall tragedy of the situation. 

The phenomenon this homicide points at, however, is of uttermost importance for the well-being and further development of Albanian society. 

Whenever a gender-based crime happens in the country - and, unfortunately, the occasion is frequent - several things happen simultaneously. 

First, experts, politicians, and other prominent figures appear on TV shows and talk of a need for substantial change in threat reporting and victim protection methods. 

Second, civil society representatives protest, address letters to the government and the parliament and ask for a more serious understanding and application of human rights. 

Third, a mostly silent, but very relevant, part of society yet continues to justify the actions of boys and men, either by saying they “must” be mentally unstable, or by believing they must have had some underlying reasons for threatening, violating, or, as in Murati’s case, killing someone, thus engaging in victim-blaming.

Meanwhile, gender-based violence continues to wreck lives. 

Albania indeed has a long way to escape its tribal, masculine mentality which, contrary to what most people believe, is rooted as close as Tirana’s outskirts and, even more dangerously, inside the heads of the youth that gets raised with a fossilized mentality transmitted generation after generation. 

And it is to be expected that were tribalism and masculine traditionalism prevails, laws and human rights cannot.  

Threat reporting will not be taken seriously until girls and women are taken seriously, until the word “no” becomes a right. 

Similarly, victim protection cannot be credible in a society whose mentality fosters treating threats against girls or women in a hidden, silent manner because victims merely have hidden, silent roles in it. 

Human rights cannot be taught overnight, but they should be entrenched in the country’s educational programs since early childhood, while it should be made sure at least this information reaches the ears of children in the furthest village of the deepest mountain. 

Last but not least, love does not justify crime. What’s more important, love does not lead to crime. Obsessiveness, a hurt ego, inability to take ‘no’ for an answer, lack of fear from consequences, and all above-mentioned societal features are the things that lead to gender-based crime in Albania.

And only when we take measures against the underlying causes that are hampering an entire society, when we start teaching our children violence is never the answer to anything, but only a tribal reaction to uncertainty and confusion, and when we view the birth of children - no-matter their gender - as equally wonderful, we can say we’ve started taking steps towards emancipation. 

 
                    [post_title] => Tirana’s passion crimes, or its ego crimes in disguise 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135534" align="alignright" width="300"]train The demolished train station, Tirana, Albania (Photo: Nikos Economopoulos, 1991)[/caption]

Data published this week reveals that the depopulation of Albania due to migration continues at a disturbing rate, with between 200,000 to 250,000 people leaving the country in 2017 alone. 

That’s equal to the entire city of Durres, the country’s second largest, packing their bags and leaving the country in one year. It is also about 10 percent of the country’s population. For scale, if Albania were the United States it would be like more than 30 million people -- all of Texas -- leaving the country in one year. In Germany, it would be about 8 million departing -- all of Lower Saxony. 

There is no war or disaster in Albania -- and no other major event or crisis that could explain these numbers year after year with peaks in 2015 and 2017.

Albanians point at bad governance, a major part of the problem, and the only part Albanians can directly fix. The Socialist government’s policies are resulting in no increase in investment and no increase in jobs. Double standards that punish small and medium enterprises while rewarding the wealthiest and largest companies with ties to the government are draining the lifeblood out of the Albanian economy either through creating more unemployment or through scaring away any non-oligarchic investment, be it domestic or international. 

Real wages haven’t increased in a decade, while many people who were self-employed have had to shut their small businesses. According to government data, 13,000 businesses shut down in 2017 alone. Government policies are also constantly increasing the cost of living, hitting the poorest Albanians hardest. 

With no jobs, no opportunities and wealthier EU member states being within reach, Albanians are saying enough and leaving. But it takes a lot to uproot someone, and economic distress is only part of the equation. There is also the trust and hope issue, which is more subjective and harder to measure. Political scandals and allegations of criminal ties to politics are eroding trust in the country in general. The continued impunity of corruption and bad governance is another driver of the feeling of powerlessness among Albanians.

The problem is that even though most Albanians don’t approve of the government, most don’t like the opposition that much either, if polls are to be believed. 

With lack of political alternatives, people don’t trust the current political class to make things better in their lifetimes and don’t feel they are powerful enough to do anything but leave, which ultimately only empowers the political class while weakening the country. 

The writing is on the wall -- the life of those left behind will get harder and harder, with taxes higher and higher and a country drained of its youth and vital human resources with little economic activity to speak of. 

It is not a pretty picture, and it is not Albania’s alone. The entire region is going through it, with places like Bulgaria, already an EU member, seeing even more dire numbers. With economy recovering abroad but not at home, many more Albanians could still leave. The illegal migration and asylum seeking numbers will decline in favor of legal migration as soon as it becomes possible. An entire generation of Albanian health professionals are taking intensive German language classes, for example. 

The government can’t fix that fact that Albania is poor country with a bad past, but it can make things better rather than worse. An empty country might seem easier to pillage, but ultimately a government that rules over a lifeless place will be judged by history for what it is -- a slayer of opportunities.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: The emptying of Albania
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132839" align="alignright" width="300"]Selami Xhepa, the head of the Pashko European Institute Selami Xhepa, the head of the Pashko European Institute[/caption]

By Selami Xhepa*

I think the 2018 economic developments will be within the targets set in the macroeconomic program; with an economic growth which I believe will be at about 4 percent and with stable macroeconomic indicators. There is no particular imminent threat to developments with the budget deficit, inflation and the currency exchange rate.

However, beyond this picture of macroeconomic normality, a series of other indicators characterizing the economy are still unstable and I believe they will remain such even in 2018. Maybe some of them could even deteriorate, such as the public debt which due to a series of concession projects scheduled to be carried out by public authorities will lead to the public debt risk increasing in the future and perhaps the investors’ perceptions could also turn negative.

Secondly, the financing of economic growth could also continue to be problematic. The banking system is facing challenges of a critical portfolio accumulated during the years of an economic boom and limited to a small number of big companies. That will continue to curb lending to the economy and the expansion of new investment.

I think that the banking system desperately needs a new business model which diversifies into new companies and not only into big firms that have a high probability of turning into ‘zombies,’ devouring credit and putting the economy at risk as a whole.

Thirdly: Financing through foreign direct investment should be more active and based on projects. Personally, I don’t see any factor that could have a tangible impact on this. In addition, the improvements in the country’s business climate are not clear and investors’ problems with bureaucracy, corruption and lack of rule of law as a whole, remain an important priority.

Fourthly: The unemployment issue or to put it better the creation of new jobs at satisfactory salaries will be a challenge on which there is no special treatment by public authorities. For this reason, social issues will continue to remain serious.

Taking that into account, I believe the normality of the 2018 economic developments will not make any important difference into the households’ welfare or the quality of economic growth in the country.

*Selami Xhepa is a former politician and economist who heads the "Pashko" European Institute, a Tirana-based think tank named after Gramoz Pashko, a late Albanian economist and politician who led the country’s shock therapy in the early 1990s when the communist regime and its planned economy collapsed.
                    [post_title] => 2018 to bring no important changes to households’ welfare, quality of economic growth
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            [post_date] => 2018-02-16 09:47:41
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            [post_content] => By Rudina Hoxha

 “Finnish-Albanian relations are excellent with ample room for further development. Hopefully we can bring more concrete content into to these good relations in the years to come.”

That’s what the Secretary of State of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peter Stenlund  states  in an exclusive interview with Tirana Times ahead of his official visit to Tirana.

Finland, which had the presidential elections at the end of January 2018, agrees that diplomats on both sides are working hard to facilitate the exploration of opportunities and open doors for Finnish and Albanian companies in view of more mutual business. “We know that Albania could offer diverse opportunities for Finnish companies in the field of tourism, energy and agriculture, to name a few. The Nordic Association for Trade and Business Development recently opened in Tirana is an important platform for us in this regard,” Stenlund said. In this regard, he hopes his visit can contribute to increasing interaction between the two countries.

 

What do you think about the results of the 2018 presidential elections in Finland? 

The elections at the end of January 2018 saw the incumbent President Sauli Niinistö winning a second term in office, running this time as an independent candidate without a party affiliation. The results indicated that global issues and security questions are currently on the minds of the Finns.  A core duty of the President is to lead Finland’s foreign policy in co-operation with the Government. The result of the elections indicated a wish for continuity as many Finns indeed are satisfied with the  way President Niinistö has maintained a dialogue with the other western leaders, and with the East.

In his inaugural speech to the Parliament, the President offered a platform and facilitation for an inter-party dialogue on the most debated societal issues at the moment, which was very much appreciated by the consensus-oriented nation.

How do you see the international relations of Helsinki mostly from the European perspective?

Europe – both our fellow EU Member States as well as non-EU Member States – remains a very important partner for Finland in our international relations. Finland has continuously been one of the strong advocates of an active EU foreign and security as well as security and defence policy. We think that it is important for the EU to be a strong actor globally. United we stand stronger. Furthermore, Europe at large continues to be a significant trading partner for us.

 

The appointment of the new Ambassador of Finland in Athens and Albania, Mr. Juha Pyykko has given an impetus to the bilateral relations between Finland and Albania.  From your perspective, how are these relations going? What can the Balkan region benefit more from the Finnish diplomacy?

Finnish-Albanian relations are excellent with ample room for further development. Hopefully we can bring more concrete content into to these good relations in the years to come.

Both being small nations has laid the foundation for our friendly bilateral relations – the existence of an Association of Friends of Finland in Albania and the Friends of Albania in Finland prove the point!

The Finnish Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, has been the best known face for Finnish diplomacy in Albania thanks to his work in Kosovo. Today, besides supporting Albania’s cause on its path towards the EU, the Finnish diplomacy can benefit Albania in numerous ways.

For instance, business and trade between Finland and Albania is not exactly blooming yet but diplomats on both sides are working hard to facilitate the exploration of opportunities and open doors for Finnish and Albanian companies in view of more mutual business. We know that Albania could offer diverse opportunities for Finnish companies in the field of tourism, energy and agriculture, to name a few. The Nordic Association for Trade and Business Development recently opened in Tirana is an important platform for us in this regard.

A fruitful area of collaboration between our countries has been the capacity building that Finnish experts have provided to Albanian authorities in the form of concrete projects and knowledge transfer, relating, for instance, to the Albanian justice sector reform. We are happy to make our know-how available also in the future, for example in anti-corruption measures, good governance, statistics and education (we top quite many international rankings in these themes!). When it comes to the education system, it would be useful to look into the potential of organising more student and research exchanges between Finland and Albania.

Celebration of the centenary of the independence of the Republic of Finland last year was an important milestone, and I am happy to note that our Ambassador to Albania, Mr. Juha Pyykkö, celebrated this in Tirana, as well, on 12 December 2017 with President Meta in attendance. I hope that with this increased visibility of Finland in Albania and through my visit we can facilitate increasing interaction between our two countries.

 

Finland has expressed its readiness to support Albania’s integration to EU. In what way, is this country showing it? 

We are proponents of Albania’s EU integration and believe that the place for all Western Balkan countries is within our European family. We show our support both through political and more practical means. The core purpose of this very visit to Tirana, for instance, is to discuss Albania’s EU integration and to encourage Albania to continue its good work with societal reforms. We are also here to identify where and how we could best assist Albania in its European aspirations.

On a more practical level, the Finnish authorities have –as a preparation for Albania’s European integration–  helped their Albanian counterparts in renewing the state institutions and provided training for the public administration on spot.

 

What can you highlight as three aspects that made the Finns feel so proud of Finland 100?

Our past 100 years highlight the importance of inclusive democratic system, functional political leadership and ability to implement policies based upon principles of consensus. We are very proud of these aspects. Finland’s national success did not emerge overnight from a single political or economic idea, but from a continuum of political decisions made over many decades.

What is important to understand is that our path to present has not been painless: we were the last country in Western Europe to suffer peacetime famine in 1866-1868, went through atrocious civil war in 1918 and suffered heavily during the Second World War. The hardships have taught us to seek for answers: there is always a better way of doing things.

For instance the experience of famine led to reforms in agriculture and infrastructure and the civil war forced us to address the socio-economic and political causes behind the conflict. Advocacy of free universal education, gender equality and equal opportunities despite socio-economic background is in the core of our national values. As a result we have managed to make the best out of our small population of 5.5 million inhabitants.

The change from a poor agrarian country into a one of the most stable, innovative, least corrupt and best-governed countries in the world would not been possible without the values of cooperation, solidarity and mutual respect.
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