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Former Albania prime minister challenges incumbent football president’s 16-year reign

Former Albania prime minister challenges incumbent football president’s 16-year reign

TIRANA, Jan. 12 – Former Socialist Party Prime Minister Bashkim Fino has unveiled his much-rumored and expected candidacy to take over as the new head of Albania’s football association, challenging incumbent president Armand Duka who is seeking a fifth consecutive

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Kukes hire experienced Austrian coach to defend Albanian Superliga title

Kukes hire experienced Austrian coach to defend Albanian Superliga title

TIRANA, Jan. 10 – Albania’s defending champions Kukes have hired an experienced Austrian coach following their poor start this season as they trail leaders Skenderbeu by 12 points. Peter Pacult, a former striker who has trained teams in Austria and

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2017 Sport in review

2017 Sport in review

 March  Izmir Smajlaj claims first ever European indoor gold medal  Izmir Smajlaj was crowned European long jump champion at the Belgrade Indoor Championships as he jumped 8.08 metres to break his own national record, beating Swedish favourite Michel Torneus. The

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Meeting the sky in Korça

Meeting the sky in Korça

By Sidonja Manushi “Kiss your phone, radio and 3G signal goodbye once we’re up there,” Juli Bejko, sociology professor and part-time professional paraglider, said at the beginning of the trip, still in messily urban Tirana. His tone held a bit

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President Meta unhappy with Albania’s UN vote on Jerusalem, says he wasn’t consulted

President Meta unhappy with Albania’s UN vote on Jerusalem, says he wasn’t consulted

TIRANA, Dec. 22 – A day after Albania joined 128 other UN member states in approving a resolution rejecting U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,  a spokesperson for Albania’s President Ilir Meta said the President, who was not informed of

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AIIS report lists threats to rule of law in the region and ways to aid its establishment

AIIS report lists threats to rule of law in the region and ways to aid its establishment

TIRANA, Dec. 20 – A report published this week on the rule of law in the Western Balkans concluded that the establishment of rule of law in the region remains an increasingly difficult process. The report explored some of the

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Environmental protesters seek protection for Valbona National Park

Environmental protesters seek protection for Valbona National Park

TIRANA, Dec. 21 – Several protests took place in Tirana this week calling for the protection of the Valbona National Park. Citizens and activists protested against building hydropower plants on the Valbona River. Protests took place in front of the

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Wizz Air to launch direct Tirana-London low cost flights

Wizz Air to launch direct Tirana-London low cost flights

TIRANA, Dec. 21 – Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air has announced the launch of direct Tirana-London flights starting spring 2018, the Tirana International Airport says. The new route will link Tirana to London three times a week from May 2018

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Albania’s most successful club on track to make Superliga comeback

Albania’s most successful club on track to make Superliga comeback

TIRANA, Dec. 19 – Albania’s historically most successful club seem on track to make a Superliga comeback next year following an embarrassing first-ever relegation in their almost century-long history in the top flight of the Albanian Superliga. Having played their

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Act sooner rather than later on electronic voting, int’l reps say

Act sooner rather than later on electronic voting, int’l reps say

TIRANA, Dec. 13 – U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu, said this week political actors should act quickly if they intend to apply electronic components in the next elections. In the context of election technology, Lu also called for actors to comply

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135334" align="alignright" width="300"]Ruling Socialist Party MP and former Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino Ruling Socialist Party MP and former Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino[/caption]

TIRANA, Jan. 12 – Former Socialist Party Prime Minister Bashkim Fino has unveiled his much-rumored and expected candidacy to take over as the new head of Albania’s football association, challenging incumbent president Armand Duka who is seeking a fifth consecutive four-year term in next February’s elections.

Speaking in an interview with Albania’s public broadcaster, RTSH, on Thursday night, the experienced left-wing politician said he accepted the challenge in a bid to change Albanian football and its image.

Fino says the first thing he wants to change is the football image and will fight for fair play and bring back fans to stadiums.

"I think it is time to make a change in Albanian football and give it a new image," Fino has said, admitting that beating Duka will be tough due to the short time at his disposal and his long tenure at the helm of Albanian football.

The 55-year-old Socialist Party lawmaker served as the mayor of Gjirokastra in the early 1990s soon after the collapse of the country's communist regime and a short-term consensual Prime Minister of the country during the 1997 turmoil triggered by the collapse of some pyramid investment schemes. He is known for his passion for football and is often seen on stadiums attending matches.

Asked if his candidacy could lead to political interference, Fino said there is no barrier preventing him from the legal point of view and that he is not going to give up his MP mandate ahead of the race.

"I am an experienced politician. I have graduated in finance. I was a mayor, a prime minister. I am an MP and a member of the legal affairs committee. From the legal point of view, nothing prevents me from running. The Albanian Football Association is a non-profit NGO and there is no barrier. Politically speaking, I am nobody. I am somebody who wants to serve football. If I am voted on February, I will only dedicate myself to football," Fino said.

The politician also says he will propose limiting the football association president's terms of office to two from a current unlimited number.

Duka's challenger says he will initiate legal action against eight regional associations with a right to vote in next February’s elections but not registered with the country's courts yet.

In the February 7 elections, the president will be elected by 66-member General Assembly composed of presidents of elite and lower division clubs as well as 12 sports associations, of which eight regional ones. A second round with a simple majority is held in case any of the candidates fails to get the initial qualified majority 2/3 of the votes, some 44 votes.

 

Duka’s fifth consecutive bid

[caption id="attachment_135335" align="alignright" width="300"]Incumbent head of Albania's football association, Armand Duka Incumbent head of Albania's football association, Armand Duka[/caption]

Incumbent president Armand Duka has said he decided to run for another mandate despite question marks over his long tenure and another person with new energy being given the opportunity to take over.

"It's not that I haven't thought about that but considering that there are no other alternatives that would take football forward, and considering that the relationship I have shaped with the community to develop this organization is positive and the experience we have had together can help Albanian football, that was what led me to make this positive decision,” Duka has said.

Speaking about Fino's candidacy, Duka said the he would like to see his opponent stripped of his party functions as an organizing secretary.

"I would like to see that as an initiative of Bashkim Fino and his friends supporting him and not as an initiative of the Socialist Party organizing secretary," he says.

"The rising popularity of football among children, youngsters, women, the results of the national side with the major target of qualifying for the Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup, the clubs' international achievements, the football policies and the guaranteed future give me confidence that we will decide for a better Albanian football," Duka said after announcing his candidacy.

The 55-year incumbent president has been in office as the president of Albania’s most popular sport since 2002 and managed to get easily re-elected for three other consecutive terms although having no prior sports background.

Duka is a successful Albanian businessman in several sectors including egg production, retail trade and until late 2017 in the sole-Albanian-owned mobile telephony that ceased its operations after it was acquired by the two largest operators. He has a 50-50 partnership with his brother, politician Agron Duka, a former MP and agriculture minister.

In his bio published on the Football Association’s portal, Duka says he has achieved his target of taking Albania to a first-ever major competition such as Euro 2016 and managed to build two stadiums meeting international standards in the cities of Elbasan and Shkodra while the National Arena stadium, a public private partnership project of the Albanian government, is already under construction.

The race is expected to be tough and decided by a small margin, which is also hinted by Fino’s reluctance to give up his MP mandate ahead of the race.

The challenge also risks getting politicized, something which could trigger penalties by European football governing body, UEFA, considering the political profile of Duka's rival and possible government influence on local government-run clubs.

Albanian international and club football has progressed in the past few years as the national side made a first ever appearance at a major competition and Skenderbeu made it twice to the UEFA Europa League group stage although it was banned for one year from international football on match fixing allegations in the 2016-2017 season and had its 2016 Superliga title lifted.

After its debut Euro 2016, Albania failed to make it to the Russia 2018 World Cup finishing third in tough qualifying group stage with Spain and Italy.

New coach Christian Panucci, the successor of Gianni De Biasi, has been set a Euro 2020 qualification target following his good start with the national side since taking over in mid-2017.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135290" align="alignright" width="300"]pacult Austrian coach Peter Pacult. Photo: FK Kukes[/caption]

TIRANA, Jan. 10 - Albania's defending champions Kukes have hired an experienced Austrian coach following their poor start this season as they trail leaders Skenderbeu by 12 points.

Peter Pacult, a former striker who has trained teams in Austria and Germany, Slovenia and Croatia top leagues joined the Albanian debut champions in the first days of January after the north-east Albania club sacked Serbian coach Mladen Milinković following two humiliating losses.

The 58-year-old former Rapid Wien and Leipzig coach has been training the team in Turkey where he surprised two Turkish top league teams, Kayserispor and Bursaspor, with 2-1 victories in preparatory friendlies ahead of the Superliga resumption on January 20 following the winter break.

"My target is to make Kukes play good football and achieve the expected results at the end of the season. We have another 20 golden games and the important thing is to achieve success with the help of the sporting director and the team. I like offensive football and will fight to apply it" Pacult told a press conference last week in Tirana.

Kukes have collected only 25 points in their first 16 games of this season, ranking fourth and trailing leaders Skenderbeu by 12 points.

The defending champions have made two reinforcement so far in the January transfer window, hiring Kosovo playmaker Donjet Shkodra from Skenderbeu and Georgian midfielder Irakli Dzaria from the Georgian championship.

The north-eastern based club with not much history in the top flight of Albanian football made history last year as they claimed their first-ever Superliga title in a season which saw the relegation of Tirana, the 24-times record Superliga champions.

Kukes also put an end to the six-year domination of Skenderbeu, the only Albanian club to have made it to the UEFA Europa League group stage, with two appearances in the 2015 and 2017 seasons.
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                    [post_content] =>  March

 Izmir Smajlaj claims first ever European indoor gold medal

 Izmir Smajlaj was crowned European long jump champion at the Belgrade Indoor Championships as he jumped 8.08 metres to break his own national record, beating Swedish favourite Michel Torneus.

The gold medal, the first ever for Albania at a European indoor event, came soon after the 23-year-old champion claimed gold for Albania at the Balkan Indoor, a test event for Belgrade’s European Indoor Championships.

Speaking to reporters after the victory, Smajlaj said the gold medal was a dream come true for him.

 

May 

Minnows Kukes claim first Superliga title

Having played in the top flight of Albanian football for only the past five years, north-east Albania-based Kukes made history in the Albanian Superliga as they beat rivals Skenderbeu amid controversy to claim their first championship in their penultimate game.

With Skenderbeu in 9-men for about 30 minutes, it wasCroatian striker Pero Pejic again who sealed the result with an injury time goal to give Kukes a four-point lead over second-placed Partizani and Skenderbeu and make history for Kukes, with not much history in Albanian football, but having finished second three times in their past five years of playing in the Superliga.

The victory also put an end to Skenderbeu’s domination of Albania football after the south-east Albania-based club won the Albanian Superliga for six consecutive years.

 

Tirana relegated after a century in top flight

 Albania’s historically most successful club, FK Tirana, was relegated after almost a century in the top flight of Albania’s national football, irritating dozens of thousands of fans and club legends over the poor management of the 24-times record holder champions.

The relegation came after Tirana failed to win its do-or-die fixture against Vllaznia after the White & Blues were held to goalless draw in the closing Superliga tie, plunging Tirana to the First Division.  Both teams, two of the eldest and best in Albanian football history, faced the relegation threat in case of losing, but could have also secured their stay in the top flight with a draw had Laçi not beaten unmotivated Teuta in the closing Superliga week.

Tirana’s relegation comes following a series of losses in the championship’s second stage and amid financial problems with the world’s football governing body, FIFA, banning the Albanian club from the winter transfer window in punishment for debts to players. The country’s most successful club also lacked the support of its “Tirona Fanatics,” the club’s strongest supporters, who have been boycotting the club’s matches since last March in protest for the club’s poor performance and a decision by the club’s owners to allow arch rivals Partizani play their home matches at Tirana’s stadium.

 

June 

De Biasi unexpectedly resigns as Albania coach

Gianni De Biasi officially resigned as Albania coach in an unexpected decision after he earlier announced he would be leaving Albania by October 2017 at the end of the World Cup qualification campaign when his contract expires.

The decision comes at a time when Albania made a turning point with a 3-0 away victory with Israel after a shameful five-game losing streak the national side had not experienced in more than a decade.

"I have long thought and meditated and would like to inform you that as of today I will no longer be the coach of our national side. I will stop here because I want the team's best and its growth. I think I have fulfilled my duty which allowed me get from these guys those qualities that in the recent past enabled us to live the European Dream," De Biasi said with tears in his eyes, reading a farewell letter.

The former Torino and Udinese boss who also obtained Albanian citizenship in 2015, managed to take Albania to a first-ever major competition such as Euro 2016.

 

First Albanian woman climbs Everest

Uta Ibrahimi has become the first Albanian woman to climb Everest, the world’s highest peak of 8,848 meters and every climber’s lifetime dream.

The 33-year Kosovo climber reached the Everest summit on May 22, when she unfolded a scarf with the Kosovo and Albanian flags.

The 33-year-old Kosovo climber described climbing Everest as her best life experience.

"I am so happy to bring Albanian and Kosovo flag on top of the world as the first Albanian woman. Thanks for your support and love that made this expedition much easier and enjoyable... and my hero-climbing partner Tendi Sherpa Utalaya," wrote Ibrahimi, a climber based in Prishtina, the Kosovo capital city, where she runs an outdoor adventure travel agency.

The Kosovo-Albanian climber undertook the challenge after having earlier climbed the 4,880m Mount Blanc and reached the 5,925m Ramdug Peak in the Himalayas.

She was picked by the Tirana-based Dajti Alpine-Tourist Association as the first Albanian woman to undertake this tough challenge due to having the required physical and psychological condition.

 

July 

Euro 2020 qualification target set for new Albania coach

 Italian Christian Panucci has been officially introduced as the new Albania coach, replacing Gianni De Biasi in a tough bid to make another surprise Euro qualification as hopes for a World Cup qualification are almost over.

The former 44-year-old former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Roma defender said he wanted to follow in De Biasi’s footsteps.

“The goal is to make it to the Euro 2020, it’s the sole big target we have. This is what we have to do, I am convinced we have the right team to make it,” said Panucci.

The 44-year old has little experience as a manager, but his young age and modest financial criteria seem to have led to a deal. Panucci’s managerial experience started in 2012 when he served as assistant to Fabio Capello, one of the greatest Italian coaches, when he was leading the Russian national side. Panucci also managed Serie B sides Livorno, Ternana in the past couple of years.

“It was quite easy for me as being Albania’s coach is really prestigious and an important opportunity,” said Panucci.

The Italian, who has signed a 48-month contract will reportedly earn about €20,000 a month, half of what De Biasi was paid in the past couple of years.

 

October

Albania conclude World Cup qualifying campaign

Albania concluded their World Cup qualifying campaign with a narrow 1-0 loss against four-time world champions Italy, finishing third in a tough group stage dominated by Spain who automatically qualified for Russia 2018.

The national side produced a good performance and were almost equal to the Italians who later lost their play-off against Sweden failing to qualify for the World Cup tournament for the first time in six decades.

Held under tight security measures over fears of possible terrorist incidents, the match at Shkodra’s “Loro Borici” stadium, Italy’s first in Albania, was decided by a second half winner by Inter midfielder Antonio Candreva.

Albania collected 13 points in 10 matches in the World Cup qualifying campaign and much of the success for finishing third is dedicated to Gianni De Biasi, Christian Pannuci’s predecessor who led Albania to first-ever appearance to a major competition such as Euro 2016.

 

November

Ten-man Albania surprise Turkey with away victory

Albania beat Turkey 3-2 in a surprise away victory as the Red & Blacks played in 10 men for most of the time after playmaker Ledian Memushaj was sent off with a second yellow card just before the first half.

A double by Legia Warsaw striker Armando Sadiku gave Albania a comfortable first half lead, but down to 10 men from the 41st minute Albania suffered in the second half and had to defend almost all the time to curb Turkey’s numerical superiority.

The friendly was a test for the national side as it prepares for the Euro 2020 qualifiers having failed to make it to the World Cup finishing third in a tough group stage that also featured former world champions Spain and Italy.

 

Home win against Dynamo Kiev not enough for Skenderbeu

Albania’s Skenderbeu bid adieu to their Europa League knockout stage qualification dream despite claiming a deserved home win against Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv, their first in the first five group stage games.

In a home encounter played behind closed doors following UEFA punishment over crowd trouble, Skenderbeu came from behind to beat the Group B leaders 3-2 and avenge their first leg defeat against Ukraine’s toughest side.

However, Skenderbeu’s victory was downgraded by Partizan’s Belgrade’s home victory against Swiss Young Boys as the Serbians managed to maintain their three-point lead over the Albanian club with one final game to go. The Serbian club have now mathematically secured their qualification to the next stage on a better head-to-head record having claimed a home victory against Skenderbeu and drawn in their first-leg encounter.

 

 
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By Sidonja Manushi

“Kiss your phone, radio and 3G signal goodbye once we’re up there,” Juli Bejko, sociology professor and part-time professional paraglider, said at the beginning of the trip, still in messily urban Tirana. His tone held a bit of a fair warning mixed with the satisfaction of someone speaking from experience.

The destination was the picturesque, mountain-hidden town of Dardha, in the Korca County. Positioned in the south-west of Albania, it takes minimally two hours and a half to drive there on a good day with minimal traffic. It took six hours and a half this frosty December Saturday, with Korca being a favorite destination for Albanian families during the winter holidays and the route going through some of the most Instagram-worthy winter landscapes of the country, making any nature lover step on the car breaks every other half hour.

Albania’s diversified natural beauty – from its turquoise sea-line to its deep mountains and ancient castles – comes to full force upon seeing unmoving, crystalized rivers giving way to small cafes in the edge of villages which in turn reveal the magnificent Ohrid Lake and, later, the Morava Mountain, host of the stone-tiled roofs of Dardha.

The first to go was the radio signal. In return, with the altitude rising, the signs of clean, sparkly, coated snow started to appear on the sides of the narrow car road, on the surface of leaves, and on the entirety of the evergreen conifer trees covering the mountainsides in the distance. Shortly after, the small lines on the top-left corner of the phone signaling it’s reachable disappeared one by one, as the road became a slithering path following the scarcely populated mountainous villages. By the time a wooden sign welcoming people to the touristic village of Dardha appeared, and another warning littering is strictly forbidden, Juli’s prediction had come alive – the middle of nowhere was positively signal less.

“It is a great place to emotionally prepare to paraglide, get in touch with nature and really experience the Albanian holiday spirit,” Juli said once the car was parked, and we were wandering around Dardha’s narrow, ascending and descending, stone-covered streets looking for our lair for the night in the midst of the town’s small, similarly old and traditional houses.

Wherever there was a view to behold, people were already there, taking pictures of it. The contrast between locals and visitors couldn’t be any more visible – with the temperatures showing minus, visitors, ourselves included, were walking dressed in layers, red-nosed and obviously perplexed to be witnessing so much snow, probably the rarest winter sight in Tirana and other central Albanian cities. The locals, on the other hand, could be spotted in porches and front yards, feeding chickens or doing end-of-the-year chores, sometimes amusedly staring at us, with nothing but light jackets on.

“You are young girls,” an old, wrinkled but overly energetic woman joked while we passed her house. “Don’t shake from cold, let your blood flow.”

And then she continued making filo pastry in front of her house’s ornamented wooden door, in the most traditionally Albanian scene possible.

“They don’t get enough tourists to be annoyed by them,” Juli explained as we got closer to our house and saw the owners subletting it waiting on the steps, waving with hospitality. “Dardha is this crowded only during December, with the winter holidays and the ski resorts opening up. It is forgotten during the rest of the year, and the locals are left with one another again.”

Indeed, the owners – and the first locals to really have a chance to talk to – seemed genuinely glad to be meeting us, the woman hugging us despite the lack of previous familiarity and the man replacing traditional greetings with exclamations of “don’t hesitate to call us for whatever you may need, we are right next door!”

Another trade-off for letting go of all the shortcuts that make life easier in the city, such as the internet and phone signal, besides the mountainous views and oxygen-filled air, I soon realized, was the celebrated Albanian hospitality, magnified in these small, time-forgotten villages where the chaos of every-day life has yet to settle in.

The woman,Rovena, showed us the way inside excitedly, asking if the trip to Dardha was tiring and whether all four of us girls were planning to paraglide in Korca tomorrow. Once we all crossed the front door, however, she paused and let us take in the house, surely aware of the impression it would cause from all the previous guests they had hosted.

The beautiful and uniform façade Dardha’s little houses create on the outside left little doubt their interior was just as impressive, and yet imagination can only do them little, if any, justice.

The house we would spend Saturday night in, waiting for the air currents to make the extreme sport of paragliding possible the next day, seemed as if taken out of a fairytale. The walls were stony, and the stones looked as if they were slowly placed one by one on top of each other many years ago, and remained in place by sheer force of magic. The house had a hall that led to two spacious rooms, each with an old, black stove in the middle – the ones now only found in old Albanian houses; the ones that need real wood to make fire and attract people around them on cold winter nights to tell tales and roast chestnuts, drink wine and safely look at the cold snow falling outside.

Where normal houses have nightstands, this one had hang stands – natural pieces of wood hanging from the walls in thick chains, with melting candles sitting on hand-knit traditional Albanian clothes called centro, transmitting a feeling of medieval beauty and mysticism. Most importantly, where normal houses have balconies facing other houses, this one had a balcony for each room, and each balcony had a breathtaking view of the mountains from all sides, unending, snow-covered and with a myriad of stars playing as the sparkling lights of the most stylishly decorated Christmas tree.

“I know it’s difficult to believe but yes, all houses do look like that here,” Juli, now having officially turned into this trip’s tour guide, said looking at our awe-stricken faces.

Rovena nodded behind him. After letting us walk from one room to the other astonished for a few more minutes, obviously satisfied with our positive impressions, she started giving us tips for survival: where to find woods for the stove, how to put them inside, how to handle the sink so the water doesn’t freeze during the night, where to shop and what to see…after an unanimous request, she also agreed to make us dinner: Korca’s traditional lakror, made of special pastry that melts into your mouth like homemade traditional dishes only can.

By the time she left to make dinner, the Christmas tree was lit, the wood inside the stoves was happily crackling and none of us could even remember why we needed phones and internet in the first place. It was real novelty, to have your lungs expand with fresh air every time the balcony door opened and to step out and feel the dry cold give you goosebumps that could so easily be rid of once you rushed back next to the stove that, along with the heat, released the joyous smell of burning wood.

A bit later, while waiting for dinner time in a tavern just as traditional and warm as the house we’d just left, Juli introduced us to the basics of paragliding over a glass of grape rakia.

“For starters, no drinking is allowed 24 hours prior to flying,” he said, but immediately smiled seeing our panicked faces at the mention of the word ‘flying’. “Since you need it to loosen up a bit, I will allow it in this case, but only if you promise to get a full 12 hours sleep tonight.”

Talking to beginners, he had to explain a lot of things, from what got him to paragliding in the first place, to how long it took him to learn, to the popularity this sport has gained lately in Albania among tourists to what was expected of us, planning to fly over Korca the next morning.

“I dreamt about flying since I was a little kid,” he told us, and the fire behind his back and burning rakia in our throats made him look like the most appealing tale-teller in the world. “And when a rational person gets caught up in a fiery passion, he will go to great lengths to make his dream true.”

He told us how, in order to get a bank loan, he had to give up another thing he loved – smoking cigarettes. Flying stood higher in his hierarchy of needs than smoking ever did. The bank loan did not go towards flying lessons, or hiring an instructor, but only to buy a flying set on e-bay. After that, Juli taught himself how to fly, every day, for three months in a row.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he admitted. “Normally, I should have crashed into tiny little pieces on the first day, come back in a coffin on the second, get utterly lost on the third. But this is the psychological-spiritual experience that is more important than the technical method of learning.”

“Since then,” he said, “it has been nine years, 1300 solo and double flights, endless pleasures and adventures and the constant feeling of going to sleep and waking up in complete peace with the universe.”

Despite the inward panic, understandable fear of the unknown and doubt whether repeatedly telling Juli I was ready to paraglide was the right thing to do, hearing him talk about his passion, which he has been professionally practicing with Fly Club Albania since 2008, gave everyone present a rush of happiness and confidence, as well as the ability to see beyond fear and straight to the vitality experiences like paragliding offer.

Then, he told us we didn’t even have to jump from the mountain slope – an element particularly terrifying for two of us girls scared of heights – and we breathed with ease again. Paragliding, with its light, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft that has no rigid primary structure, only takes running down a mountain slope for a few meters and the right wind direction to get you flying, while the pilot, who sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, simply needs to direct you and make sure you don’t chicken out in the last minute.

“Well that’s easy then,” Lorena, who was to fly second the following day, said with ease. “I can run better than I can jump.”

“You say that now. But a lot of people get weak knees on the last moment, especially women. They see the view, the extreme height and the thin piece of fabric that will keep them on the air and loose it,” Juli warned.

But his speech had set the wheels of excitement going, and that was obvious in everyone’s faces. The anticipation followed us that night, making the lakror and home-made wine tastier, the roasted chestnuts sweeter, and the conversations livelier. It was the atmosphere, the feeling of having stepped in a parallel universe of enjoying the simplest pleasures in life…but it was also the knowledge of a great experience pending, one countless tourists now pay to experience in Albania every year.

Anticipation was still with us the next day, from the forty-minute car ride to Korca all the way to the time it took us to climb to the top of the Morava mountain-peak from which we would run off into the air.

There was an orthodox church on top of the mountain, and with fear slowly raising its ugly head again now that the moment of action was so close, I thought its location was ironic, as if paragliders had chosen to fly close to the church so that people could say their last prayers. The amateur Bulgarian paragliders already there, however, did not seem to share my insight. They simply run the moment they were ready, looking nowhere but ahead, no traces of fear coming from their postures, down the mountain slope and then afloat, like gigantic birds. Seeing them go one after the other gave me courage, while Juli strapped my sit around my body and placed the helmet on top of my head.

“No going back now buddy,” he said and hit my helmet playfully, as if to give me courage. Seeing the returning fear however, he got into a mode of admirable professionalism.

“Hey, you just need to run. I don’t want you worrying about anything else. We will have enough time once we’re in the air to think about the rest, but for now I only want you to run; don’t stop, don’t jump, run. We have only one chance with the air current, so let’s make it count.”

He did not talk anymore while waiting for exactly the right time to begin from fear of creating confusion in my head. I did not talk either, from fear. With the words run, run, run, flashing in front of my eyes like neon signs, the ten minutes we had to wait seemed like ten seconds and, before realization kicked in, Juli was shouting “run!” in my ears with the excitement of a little kid on a roller coaster. The rest was history.

It would take repeating the experience of paragliding several more times, in different locations and seasons, to fully describe its grandiosity. It is a highly individual feeling, one each person should experience at least once to understand. Time ceases to exist once you’re flying, just like the petty feelings of worry, stress, anxiety, or joy, excitement, curiosity. What remains is content and the deep-seeded desire to see and experience all life has to offer.

And it seems Albania has to offer a lot. On the way back, we reluctantly regained our contact with the outside word, while our minds and hearts were still dwelling in Dardha, the cleansing snow and tasty food, the welcoming people and warm, beautiful rooms and the magical landscapes available both from the ground and, especially, up in the air…and,in the meanwhile, I thanked Juli, time and time again, for deciding to bravely go after his passion and enable me and thousands of others to experience one of the highlights of existence.
                    [post_title] => Meeting the sky in Korça
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-22 13:20:56
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-22 12:20:56
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 22 – A day after Albania joined 128 other UN member states in approving a resolution rejecting U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,  a spokesperson for Albania’s President Ilir Meta said the President, who was not informed of the government’s position beforehand, evaluated it as unnecessary and not reflecting a national stance.

Meta’s spokesperson said this decision is not crucial just for Albania’s foreign policy, but the entire Albanian nation. For this reason, he said voting against the U.S. should have been a reflection of a nation-wide consensus.

“The President stresses that we shouldn’t forget that the U.S. remains the most important strategic alley and partner, so this kind of positions and decisions should be well-coordinated,” the spokesperson said.

The declaration concluded the Albanian nation should be grateful of all the historic U.S. decisions related to the vital existence of the nation and the Euro-Atlantic futures of Albania and Kosovo.

On the other hand, in an official statement distributed to the media, the Albanian Foreign Ministry said it had kept same position as EU countries.

“Our vote today at the UN General Assembly reflects our unchanged position on this issue. Albania has maintained international consensus on Jerusalem based on a number of UN documents, including a number of Security Council resolutions, and it is united with the common position of the overwhelming majority of EU member states, consistent with its alignment with the European Union,” the statement said.
                    [post_title] => President Meta unhappy with Albania's UN vote on Jerusalem, says he wasn't consulted
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-22 10:33:51
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-22 09:33:51
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 20 – A report published this week on the rule of law in the Western Balkans concluded that the establishment of rule of law in the region remains an increasingly difficult process. The report explored some of the ways the governments, civil society and the media can act and use other successful state models to facilitate necessary changes.

According to the experts, corruption, bribery and organized crime are major threats against democracy and economic and social prosperity. The region’s post-conflict environment worsens the situation, as it gives way to weak governance, disruptive influence by Russia and other actors and stalled Euro-Atlantic integration.

In light of this, the report followed, “Western Balkan countries should start with fundamental steps and learn from EU’s previous enlargement processes.” Another step is making the best out of international assisting bodies in respective countries, such as OSCE in Albania.

“Its core activity is strengthening the country’s administration and the legislative and judicial reform. This includes monitoring, which leads to reform changes and further implementation in the courts,” the report said concerning OSCE, but referring to other organs as well.

On the other hand, the EU itself should regain trust and credibility in the eyes of the Western Balkans, as “its efficiency in monitoring states’ progress and ability to implement accession conditions have been undermined, as alternative ways of governing do emerge.”

In turn, the report, compiled by the Albanian Institute of International Studies (AIIS) in cooperation with PfP Consortium Study Group, the Austrian National Defense Academy and the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies, mentioned some of the best practices of national state efforts to strengthen rule of law.

Different states have been given different priorities according to their situation. In Albania, the justice reform was mentioned as one of the main conditions.

“For promoting the justice reform, Albania has accepted donations by international experts and brand consultation, due to its difficulty in drafting the law. Concerning the justice reform, a vetting of all existing structures and legislations is the country’s key to move forward,” it was said.

Zagreb, it was mentioned, has managed to strengthen the rule of law through the State Prosecutor’s Office for the Suppression of Organized Crime and Corruption (USKOK). USKOK’s employees go through regular security checks, while “its executive powers go so far as to punish corruption with jail time and loss of money.”

Another example was Macedonia’s special prosecutor office, which was established to investigate alleged illegal wiretapping, election fraud and abuse of public office from the people who are in power.

“Although this method needs to be more transparent and has to extend its network before being called successful, it must be considered that it has given rise to debates in Macedonia and its public support in polls reaches 60%,” the report followed.

Another key component mentioned by experts was the countries’ civil society. Not to be overlooked is the need of a system “of civic education focusing on enhancing civic responsibility and engagement” for the creation of societies respectful of human rights and the rule of law.

The report said: “for this reasons, civil society organizations (CSO-s) in the Western Balkan countries should act to lower prejudices, protect human rights, monitor anti-corruption policies and raise awareness in order to finance their programs.”

A good practice offered in the report was Montenegro’s Democracy School, of the Centre for Civic Education, and the Leadership School, of the Civil Alliance. Belgrade’s example, on the other hand, shows that SCOs can help EU accession and the implementation of states’ action plans, through “trial monitoring and facilitating public discussion.”

The lack of support and attention towards independent media was also brought to attention in the report. Bosnia and Herzegovina was mentioned as an example of the downfalls that lacking media financing can bring, such as the rise of Russian influence in the country and decrease of investigative journalism.

“Investment in independent media supports the establishment of a kind of watchdog of crime and corruption, which calls on the misuse of public posts and halts pro-Russian controlled media that bring instability into the region,” it was written.

Among the recommendations addressing the international community, especially the EU and NATO, were the acknowledgment of external actors’ influence in the region (Turkey, Russia) in civil society and media working against democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, it was recommended that the EU should urge all states to create Action Plans to open accession negotiations, as well as strategically plan the use of funds to assist the media and civil society, which are underfunded.

In this vein, the report noted that “The EU should uphold the same standards for its member states and publicly denounce negative developments in the context of democratic standards for the member states that result as non-inspiring cases.”

In an economic context, the report underlined, “Investors need a well-functioning, independent and effective juridical system which guarantees rapid and impartial conflict-solving in courts.”

For this reason, countries should adopt the best regional practices that have been proved efficient and draw lessons from the negative experiences of other countries.

Lastly, the report recommended that CSOs should be more active and concerned with providing civic education in order to contribute to the rule of law. Moreover, media outlets should be careful not to promote or use hate speech, especially during political campaigns.

More specifically, the report said: “Donors should promote and financially support independent media and particularly reports which focus on investigative journalism.”

The report comes at a time when the reforms in many EU aspirant countries, and particularly Albania, are being put to the test by political developments and citizens are mainly untrusting of the functionality of the rule of law in everyday situations.

Albania lost 19 places in the 2016 Rule of Law Index to rank 72nd out of 113 countries worldwide on deteriorating perception on corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, and justice enforcement.
                    [post_title] => AIIS report lists threats to rule of law in the region and ways to aid its establishment  
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-22 10:22:43
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_128481" align="alignright" width="300"]Valbona River Valbona River[/caption]

TIRANA, Dec. 21 - Several protests took place in Tirana this week calling for the protection of the Valbona National Park. Citizens and activists protested against building hydropower plants on the Valbona River.

Protests took place in front of the parliament and other relevant institutions that issued the construction permits that can harm the national park.

Several dozen environmental activists first protested last Sunday in front of the capital’s monument of independence and in front of the monument of the national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skëndërbeu.

The protest aimed to protect Valbona’s natural habitat in the face of the government allowing the building hydropower plants that protesters say will destroy the area’s natural beauty. 

Another protest took place Thursday in front of the government and parliament headquarters. Organizers said they don’t want to be involved in politics and blamed the entire political class for decisions leading to its destruction. 

Valbona’s Friends Group organized the rallies after a court issued a ruling allowing companies to continue construction. 

The protesters stressed that all construction work, tunnels, roads and concrete are being built in a national park protected by the law, thus permits given constitute flagrant violations of some construction and environmental laws. 

Representatives of construction firms protected their investments in the administrative court, saying they hold every necessary permit and official decision that opens the way for these constructions. Their documentation has a long, ten-year history, containing decisions and decrees from a number of governments and ministries, agencies and directories. 

Nonetheless, citizens insist that construction in the natural park is destroying the habitat natural values and potential for tourism. 

Speakers at Thursday's rally, which had about 100 people, said they want the general prosecutor to investigate the companies’ documentation as they say it contains falsified documents and signatures from people who are deceased. 

Various international experts agree with the activists’ concerns. Such a view has been expressed in numerous cases, among which a paper written by the World Wildlife Fund on March of 2017. In the paper, it is expressed that hydropower development in Valbona is an egregious and ill-thought-out case of unsustainable development in Albania. 

“Independent international experts conclude that all parts of the Environmental Impact Assessment Reports (EIA Reports) provide very poor information with major gaps or weaknesses which would prevent the proper decision making process proceeding and require major work to complete,” the paper says.  

Work at the hydropower plants’ construction sites has increased lately and citizens testify to a number of explosives’ detonations in order to create tunnels where the river will flow. Digging in the rocky structures has interfered with the national park’s tranquility and traditional beauty. 

 
                    [post_title] => Environmental protesters seek protection for Valbona National Park
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-21 17:45:49
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-21 16:45:49
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 21 - Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air has announced the launch of direct Tirana-London flights starting spring 2018, the Tirana International Airport says.

The new route will link Tirana to London three times a week from May 2018 being the sole low cost direct connection between the two cities and comes as part of Wizz Air’s expansion of its Central and Eastern Europe destinations from its Luton base.

The announcement of the new route also comes at a time when visits by British citizens to Albania, a majority of whom with ethnic Albanian roots, have seen a double-digit hike.

Data published by the country’s state statistical institute, INSTAT, shows some 121,000 British citizens visited Albania in the first eleven months of this year, a 26 percent hike compared to the same period last year. The number of Albanians citizens visiting the UK is considerably lower as Albanian citizens need visas to visit Britain.

Currently, British Airways is the sole carrier currently offering direct Tirana-London flights.

The launch of London flights by Wizz Air comes after the Hungarian carrier launched last April its low-fare service reconnecting Tirana to Budapest after a five-year break following Malev’s 2012 bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, Dutch low-cost carrier Transavia, a subsidiary of Air France-KLM, also launched direct flights linking for the first time Amsterdam to Tirana three times a week as part of its SEE expansion.

Some 17 airlines connect Tirana to European destinations, mostly Italy where most passengers fly considering an estimated community of some 500,000 Albanian migrants in the neighbouring country across the Adriatic.

The Tirana International Airport, which in October 2016 was taken over by a Chinese consortium, handled about 2.2 million passengers in 2016, being the country’s main hub.

The Albanian government says it is receiving assistance by Turkish Airlines, one of the world’s leading airlines, to set up its own national flag carrier that would considerably improve service and reduce ticket prices, currently among the region’s highest.
                    [post_title] => Wizz Air to launch direct Tirana-London low cost flights
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-19 16:52:52
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-19 15:52:52
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 19 - Albania's historically most successful club seem on track to make a Superliga comeback next year following an embarrassing first-ever relegation in their almost century-long history in the top flight of the Albanian Superliga.

Having played their first eleven games in the First Division, Tirana top Group B with 28 points, with a seven-point lead over second placed Bylis who have a game in hand, and are also making a good performance in the Albanian Cup having made it to the quarter final.

The Albanian Cup reigning champions recently avenged Superliga team Vllaznia for their relegation decider in last season’s final Superliga fixture to win 2-1 on aggregate and progress to the Cup’s quarter final to face Superliga reigning champions Kukes.

However, the road to promotion is still a long way and Tirana will have to play seven other games to complete the first two stages of its Group B where Bylis are the toughest team, already having surprised the Blue-Whites with a 1-0 away victory in early November.

As the first two stages of its Group B matches complete in late February 2018, Tirana will have to play another play-off stage that sees the top five clubs in both First Division groups contest each other for two promotion places in the Albanian Superliga.

Coach Ze Maria, a former Brazilian international who spent most of his career as a right back with Italian clubs until the mid-2000s, has been in charge since last June facing the tough task of making it to the Albanian Superliga and bringing back irritated fans to the stadium.

"When I first came the situation was a bit problematic as there were players who wanted to leave and others joining. We hope to be back in the Superliga next year. It will not be easy and we are working on this," Ze Maria has said.

"I have tried to explain to the players that wearing the Tirana shirt and regaining the fans' trust is not easy," says the Brazilian, who previously trained teams in Italy and Kenya before joining Tirana.

Tirana have claimed the Albanian Superliga a record 24 times and won the Albania Cup 16 times, but have been poorly performing in the past seven years which have been dominated by Skenderbeu, a club which is making history in Albanian football, having made two Europa League group stage appearances in the past three years.

Financial problems and a boycott by its "Tirana Fanatics" marred Tirana's performance in the previous season following a good start.

The club's majority 66 percent stake is owned by Refik Halili, a traditional sponsor of Tirana and the remaining minority stake by the Municipality of Tirana.
                    [post_title] => Albania’s most successful club on track to make Superliga comeback
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-15 09:48:09
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 13 – U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu, said this week political actors should act quickly if they intend to apply electronic components in the next elections. 

In the context of election technology, Lu also called for actors to comply with the recommendations given by OSBE-ODIHR, in order to avoid the issues that arose during the last elections.

Lu made the comments at a conference organized by the OSCE Presence, the Council of Europe and the Swedish Embassy to address new voting  technologies, best practices, as well as challenges.

Technology in elections is important, but there are problems, even in the United States, Lu said. He suggested Albania should comply with all OSBE/ODIHR recommendations before focusing solely on election technology.

In saying this, Lu mainly addressed the reform commission members primarily, but also politicians in general.

“If Albanians decide to follow a pilot project for 2019, they should identify finances and mechanisms. If you wait until next summer, it will turn out to be a failure,” he added, referring to pilot project of 2013, which ended up failing because of technical issues.

E-voting has been a point of debate since the last elections, with the Democratic Party still mainly pushing for its implementation, reasoning that e-voting would help eradicate issues such as the buying and selling of votes and general mistrust towards the election process.

The OSCE Head of Mission in Albania, Ambassador Bernd Borchardt, said there were many other issues regarding electoral reform beyond electronic voting, adding voting technology alone cannot build confidence in the electoral system.

“The last report on the June elections emphasized the need for robust action to address vote buying and abuse of state resources, including through prosecutions. New voting technologies can bring here only limited help. We welcome that the prosecution has opened cases on abuse of state resources and we call on the prosecution to follow as well the known cases on vote buying,” Borchard said. 

He added: “Some OSCE Participating states are using new technologies, while others have stopped using them and have returned to paper-based electoral methods. The German Constitutional Court even forbade them as intransparent. Thus we need a very thorough discussion about the pros and cons of new voting technologies.”
                    [post_title] => Act sooner rather than later on electronic voting, int’l reps say
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135334" align="alignright" width="300"]Ruling Socialist Party MP and former Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino Ruling Socialist Party MP and former Prime Minister, Bashkim Fino[/caption]

TIRANA, Jan. 12 – Former Socialist Party Prime Minister Bashkim Fino has unveiled his much-rumored and expected candidacy to take over as the new head of Albania’s football association, challenging incumbent president Armand Duka who is seeking a fifth consecutive four-year term in next February’s elections.

Speaking in an interview with Albania’s public broadcaster, RTSH, on Thursday night, the experienced left-wing politician said he accepted the challenge in a bid to change Albanian football and its image.

Fino says the first thing he wants to change is the football image and will fight for fair play and bring back fans to stadiums.

"I think it is time to make a change in Albanian football and give it a new image," Fino has said, admitting that beating Duka will be tough due to the short time at his disposal and his long tenure at the helm of Albanian football.

The 55-year-old Socialist Party lawmaker served as the mayor of Gjirokastra in the early 1990s soon after the collapse of the country's communist regime and a short-term consensual Prime Minister of the country during the 1997 turmoil triggered by the collapse of some pyramid investment schemes. He is known for his passion for football and is often seen on stadiums attending matches.

Asked if his candidacy could lead to political interference, Fino said there is no barrier preventing him from the legal point of view and that he is not going to give up his MP mandate ahead of the race.

"I am an experienced politician. I have graduated in finance. I was a mayor, a prime minister. I am an MP and a member of the legal affairs committee. From the legal point of view, nothing prevents me from running. The Albanian Football Association is a non-profit NGO and there is no barrier. Politically speaking, I am nobody. I am somebody who wants to serve football. If I am voted on February, I will only dedicate myself to football," Fino said.

The politician also says he will propose limiting the football association president's terms of office to two from a current unlimited number.

Duka's challenger says he will initiate legal action against eight regional associations with a right to vote in next February’s elections but not registered with the country's courts yet.

In the February 7 elections, the president will be elected by 66-member General Assembly composed of presidents of elite and lower division clubs as well as 12 sports associations, of which eight regional ones. A second round with a simple majority is held in case any of the candidates fails to get the initial qualified majority 2/3 of the votes, some 44 votes.

 

Duka’s fifth consecutive bid

[caption id="attachment_135335" align="alignright" width="300"]Incumbent head of Albania's football association, Armand Duka Incumbent head of Albania's football association, Armand Duka[/caption]

Incumbent president Armand Duka has said he decided to run for another mandate despite question marks over his long tenure and another person with new energy being given the opportunity to take over.

"It's not that I haven't thought about that but considering that there are no other alternatives that would take football forward, and considering that the relationship I have shaped with the community to develop this organization is positive and the experience we have had together can help Albanian football, that was what led me to make this positive decision,” Duka has said.

Speaking about Fino's candidacy, Duka said the he would like to see his opponent stripped of his party functions as an organizing secretary.

"I would like to see that as an initiative of Bashkim Fino and his friends supporting him and not as an initiative of the Socialist Party organizing secretary," he says.

"The rising popularity of football among children, youngsters, women, the results of the national side with the major target of qualifying for the Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup, the clubs' international achievements, the football policies and the guaranteed future give me confidence that we will decide for a better Albanian football," Duka said after announcing his candidacy.

The 55-year incumbent president has been in office as the president of Albania’s most popular sport since 2002 and managed to get easily re-elected for three other consecutive terms although having no prior sports background.

Duka is a successful Albanian businessman in several sectors including egg production, retail trade and until late 2017 in the sole-Albanian-owned mobile telephony that ceased its operations after it was acquired by the two largest operators. He has a 50-50 partnership with his brother, politician Agron Duka, a former MP and agriculture minister.

In his bio published on the Football Association’s portal, Duka says he has achieved his target of taking Albania to a first-ever major competition such as Euro 2016 and managed to build two stadiums meeting international standards in the cities of Elbasan and Shkodra while the National Arena stadium, a public private partnership project of the Albanian government, is already under construction.

The race is expected to be tough and decided by a small margin, which is also hinted by Fino’s reluctance to give up his MP mandate ahead of the race.

The challenge also risks getting politicized, something which could trigger penalties by European football governing body, UEFA, considering the political profile of Duka's rival and possible government influence on local government-run clubs.

Albanian international and club football has progressed in the past few years as the national side made a first ever appearance at a major competition and Skenderbeu made it twice to the UEFA Europa League group stage although it was banned for one year from international football on match fixing allegations in the 2016-2017 season and had its 2016 Superliga title lifted.

After its debut Euro 2016, Albania failed to make it to the Russia 2018 World Cup finishing third in tough qualifying group stage with Spain and Italy.

New coach Christian Panucci, the successor of Gianni De Biasi, has been set a Euro 2020 qualification target following his good start with the national side since taking over in mid-2017.
            [post_title] => Former Albania prime minister challenges incumbent football president’s 16-year reign
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