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Contract negotiations to decide Arbri Road saga

Contract negotiations to decide Arbri Road saga

TIRANA, Nov. 9 – An Albanian company has been announced the winner of the long-awaited Arbri road linking Albania to Macedonia, paving the way for contract negotiations which if successful would conclude a decade-long project also serving the underdeveloped northern

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Albania activists petition Parliament demanding punishment for animal cruelty

Albania activists petition Parliament demanding punishment for animal cruelty

TIRANA, Nov. 7 – Animal rights activists have submitted more than 37,000 signatures in a petition addressed to MPs seeking to make animal cruelty punishable by fines and even imprisonment by amending the country’s Criminal Code. The initiative came following

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Albanian Bektashi leader handed ‘Global Peace Icon’ award

Albanian Bektashi leader handed ‘Global Peace Icon’ award

TIRANA, Nov. 6 – Father Edmond Brahimaj, the head of the Bektashi community in Albania and around the world, has been awarded the Global Peace Icon award by a U.S. based NGO for his “insight and unique ability to inundate

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Skenderbeu’s Europa League hopes suffer blow after Partizan Belgrade defeat

Skenderbeu’s Europa League hopes suffer blow after Partizan Belgrade defeat

TIRANA, Nov. 2 – Skenderbeu’s hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League received a major setback on Thursday night as Albania’s most successful club of the past decade were beaten 2-0 by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade

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Traffickers turn to pigeons to smuggle drugs into Albania prison cells

Traffickers turn to pigeons to smuggle drugs into Albania prison cells

TIRANA, Nov. 2 – Traffickers are training pigeons to smuggle drugs and even mobile phones into Albanian prisons as inspections over food and clothes deliveries by family members have tightened. A local TV has obtained pictures of carrier pigeons smuggling

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AIIS Forum: Albania, Serbia move closer to normalizing relations

AIIS Forum: Albania, Serbia move closer to normalizing relations

TIRANA, Nov. 2 – Three years after an ice-breaking visit Prime Minister Edi Rama paid to Belgrade, the first by an Albanian Prime Minister in 68 years, relations between Albania and Serbia have marked tangible progress with the civil society

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Albania rated on the 2018 to-do-list for adventure travelers

Albania rated on the 2018 to-do-list for adventure travelers

TIRANA, Nov. 1 – Taking an adventure trip to Albania has been rated as one of the top tours on travelers’ to-do-list for 2018. National Geographic France has rated Albania as the 11th most beautiful destination for adventure seekers along

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Tirana conducts tests to launch public transport electric buses

Tirana conducts tests to launch public transport electric buses

TIRANA, Oct. 31 – Tirana has successfully tested the first electric bus and is on track to become one of Europe’s first capital cities to launch electric buses in a bid to reduce pollution. A Solaris Urbino 12 electric, a

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AIIS forum: Albania, Serbia discuss new challenges ahead toward common EU future

AIIS forum: Albania, Serbia discuss new challenges ahead toward common EU future

TIRANA, Oct. 26 – Serbia civil society activists, experts and government representatives gathered in Tirana this week for a two-day forum to discuss Albania-Serbia relations towards a common future in the European Union. Held as part of the Center for

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AIIS: Focus on media in Albania-Serbia relations

AIIS: Focus on media in Albania-Serbia relations

TIRANA, Oct. 18 – During a conference on the role of the media in informing and shaping opinion concerning the Albania-Serbia relations, a lot was said about the influence the media has in popular perception, the distinction between qualitative and

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 9 – An Albanian company has been announced the winner of the long-awaited Arbri road linking Albania to Macedonia, paving the way for contract negotiations which if successful would conclude a decade-long project also serving the underdeveloped northern Albania Dibra region.

Gjoka Konstruksion, an Albanian-run company which earlier this year was awarded a 10 percent bonus for its unsolicited bid after the failure of the 2015 contract negotiations with a Chinese company, was the apparent winner of the late October 2017 tender, facing no rivalry from two other Albanian companies disqualified for not submitting financial bids, according to the Public Procurement Agency.

The Albanian-run company, which has been engaged in several major public works infrastructure projects in the past two decades, has bid to build the highway’s remaining 40 km segment for 33.6 billion lek (€250 million) in a public private partnership that is expected to receive government financial support for 13 years and allow the concessionaire to introduce a tolling system once the highway is completed.

The Arbri highway is one of the major projects on the government's Euro 1 billion PPP ambitious agenda on road, health and education investments for the next few years.

The 13-year concession contract is expected to cost Albanians a total of about 24 billion lek (€177 mln) until 2030 in payments either through installments covering the investment cost or guarantees on the concessionaire’s revenue, in this case traffic guarantees in case the concessionaire does not meet annual targets from the tolling system.

The Albanian company which has proposed a 69 km highway with a tunnel and a bypass is planning to fund part of the highway investment by introducing €4 tolls.

If materialized, the project will be vital for the underdeveloped northeastern region of Dibra, mainly relying on agriculture and mining.

Back in 2015, the Albanian government approved a special law offering China State Construction Engineering Corporation to complete the Arbri Road under a concession deal but contract negotiations failed.

The project is also expected to boost trade exchanges with landlocked neighbouring Macedonia and make access to Durres Port easier. In addition, the tourism sector is also expected to get boost as tourists from Macedonia, where more than a quarter of its 2 million population is ethnic Albanian, are the second top foreign visitors to Albania.

Bujar Karoshi, the publisher of the local “Rruga e Arbrit” monthly newspaper named after the Arbri Road and dedicated to developments in the Dibra region says it's high time the government signed the Arbri Road contract and stopped dragging it.

In an op-ed on the Albanian government's decision to hold its next Nov. 11 meeting in the town of Peshkopia, Dibra region, journalist Karoshi, a native of Dibra, says the local residents "have had enough with stories of procedures, deadlines, unexpected difficulties, lack of project or bad project and other non-sense arguments only to delay start of works."
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 7 - Animal rights activists have submitted more than 37,000 signatures in a petition addressed to MPs seeking to make animal cruelty punishable by fines and even imprisonment by amending the country's Criminal Code.

The initiative came following an early October 2017 shocking video that went viral showing an Albanian teenager axing to death his dog for apparent wrongdoing, triggering public outcry.

Deprived of keeping pets under communism, more and more Albanians have been keeping dogs, cats, birds and fish as pets in the past 25 years of the country’s transition. Several animal rights organizations also operate in the country, helping with abandoned animals and mediating adoptions.

An initiative of the Animal Rescue Albania watchdog, organizers managed to collect only in few weeks almost double the number of 20,000 signatures needed to submit petitions to Parliament on legal initiatives.

"Today we undertook an important step in our fight for animal welfare in Albania," the Animal Rescue Albania organization said in a statement.

Petitioners signed to make punishable animal killing, ill-treatment and physical and psychological abuse, animal abandonment as well as their use for experimental purposes. Signatories to the petition also demanded punishment for animal fighting, the use of pets' fur, skin and feathers, especially for animals in danger of extinction, often kept in captivity in Albania, as well trophy hunting.

"We think that the decency of treating animals represents the decency of treating humans. The way we treat animals today shows how we will treat humans tomorrow. If we treat animals badly today, tomorrow we will also treat humans badly and if we treat animals well today, we will also treat humans well," Jonel Kristo, an animal rights activist has said.

While the draft law that the petitioners are proposing has not been made public yet, activists say it envisages fines and up to two years of imprisonment for animal cruelty.

A similar initiative was submitted to Parliament last October by MP Saimir Tahiri, Albania’s former Socialist Interior Minister, who is recently being probed over alleged ties to a gang trafficking drugs to Italy.

In some legal changes to the country’s Criminal Code, Tahiri also proposed changes to the current unpunished animal abuse, in addition to some changes on the narcotics, road safety laws.

The former Interior Minister who was expelled from the Socialist Party following a late October prosecutors’ probe, proposed heavy fines of up to 1 million lek (€7,415) and imprisonment of up to three years for animal cruelty.

The proposed changes to the Criminal Code need a qualified majority of 84 votes, three-fifths of the current 140-seat Parliament in order to become effective.

In addition to almost everyday dog abuse, watchdogs say wild animal cruelty continues despite a hunting moratorium in place to protect Albania’s declining endangered fauna species.

Brown hares and bears being killed and advertised as trophies on social networks or endangered species such as the Balkan Lynx kept embalmed at restaurant bars in addition to caged bear cubs held in captivity are some of the cases the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) watchdog has identified on its dedicated portal serving as a hotline to report cases of abuse.

Last May, a three-month-old bear cub that had been trapped in mountain village outside Tirana was rescued from captivity after being illegally advertised for sale at a popular portal for €1,100.

Albania has banned hunting for the past couple of years and imposed a new five-year moratorium to put an end to uncontrolled and illegal hunting, which has decimated wildlife populations in the country over the last two and a half decades after the collapse of the communist regime in the early 1990s.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 6 - Father Edmond Brahimaj, the head of the Bektashi community in Albania and around the world, has been awarded the Global Peace Icon award by a U.S. based NGO for his "insight and unique ability to inundate the soul with immense love and humbleness."

The leader of the Tirana-based world headquarters of Bektashism, an ultra-liberal mystical Muslim sect with roots in Sufism and Shia Islam, was handed the Global Official of Dignity award by U.S. ‘We care for Humanity’ non-profit organization in late October at a ceremony held at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Speaking to VoA in the local Albanian service upon receiving the award, the 58-year-old father locally known as Baba (Father) Mondi said the “UN award is a great honor for him and the Albanian people.”

"Our mission is to serve the people and the award was given for three main reasons, first of all for blessing of children, secondly for assisting refugees and thirdly for helping in times of misfortune in three decades but especially from 2014 to 2016," said the Bektashi leader.

Speaking of Albania's special religious harmony, Father Brahimaj said the co-existence is excellent as also quoted by Pope Francis during his historic visit Albania visit in 2014 and the fact that inter-religious marriages are quite common in Albania.

"In fact Albania has small problems compared to other peoples, but this is not only a result of the religious community, but also government cooperation with the religious community to achieve this and show the people the right and true path and the way to goodness and peace," Father Brahimaj added.

Albania’s religious harmony is praised internationally as an example to be followed.

Back in January 2015, four Albanian religious leaders, representing all of the country’s traditional faiths, traveled to Paris to march in a solidarity rally paying tribute to the terrorist killings at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Their hand-to-hand march as evidence of the religious harmony in Albania was applauded by French citizens for several minutes.

The Bektashi leader says recent radicalism and extremism trends also observed in Albania are a result influences by some foreign associations operating in Albania and religious leaders attending non-mainstream schools abroad.

“The Bektashi World Center has taught the younger generation on its own with our beautiful and wonderful Albanian tradition and not taken them to other schools in Turkey, Iran or any other place," he added.

Father Brahimaj says although religion was brutally oppressed for about a quarter of a century under communism until the early 1990s, Albanians showed what they could do by welcoming hundreds of thousands of Kosovo-Albanians fleeing their country after being kicked out from the Serbian regime of the then-president Slobodan Milosevic.

One of the four mainstream religious communities in Albania, the Bektashis make up 2 to 3 percent of Albania’s population, mainly concentrated in southern Albania. Their Novruz holiday commemorating the Persian New Year and the birthday of Prophet Ali has been a public holiday in Albania since 1996. The holiday is celebrated with a traditional dessert called Ashure, also known as Noah’s Pudding, consisting of grains, dried fruit and nuts.

The world Bektashi headquarters have had their seat in Tirana since 1925 following a decision by the then-Turkish government to ban Bektashi tekkes.

The new Odeon of the Bektashi world headquarters in Tirana, inaugurated in September 2015, serves as a central place of worship, a multipurpose center, and the seat of the global Bektashi community.

Bektashi believers and pilgrims of all religions take to Mount Tomorr every August, commemorating Abbas ibn Ali, who died at the battle of Karbala in the 7th century, in a pilgrimage believed to bring healing and luck.

The Bektashi trace their entry into Albania to the famous 14th century legendary figure Sari Salltek associated with the town of Kruja, some 50 km off modern Tirana.

The Bektashi leaders were expelled from Turkey in the 1800s and early 1900s as heretics and found shelter in Albania as refugees because the country already had a strong Bektashi community and was tolerant on matters of religion. Some of Albania’s key figures from the national Renaissance era, like the Frasheri Brothers, were Bektashi.

Likewise the other religious communities in Albania, the Bektashi community was persecuted by the communist authorities until dissolving in 1967 when Albania banned religion, becoming the world’s first official atheist country.

During the religion ban under communism, the Albanian Bektashi tradition was kept alive by a tekke in Gjakova, Kosovo and another one Detroit, the U.S.

The Tirana tekke and its world headquarters reopened in January 1991 as the communist regime collapsed.

Surveys show residents of Albania to be among Europe’s least religious people in terms of practicing any of the country’s four faiths, but according to the latest 2011 census, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, Orthodox Christians nearly 7 percent, and the Bektashi, a form of Shia Sufism, 2 percent.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 2 - Skenderbeu's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League received a major setback on Thursday night as Albania's most successful club of the past decade were beaten 2-0 by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade in an away encounter held under tight security measures.

The loss in Belgrade leaves Skenderbeu bottom in Group B with 2 points, trailing third-placed Swiss Young Boys by 1 point and Partizan Belgrade by 3 points. Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv beat Young Boys 1-0 in an away victory that mathematically secured their knockout stage qualification with a five-point lead over now second-placed Partizan Belgrade.

With two other games to go, qualification hopes for Skenderbeu who face difficult encounters against the Ukrainians and the Swiss in their final group stage matches, are quite slim and only two victories could see the Albanian club progress to the next round as the second best Group B team.

Having held Partizan Belgrade to a goalless draw at home in the first leg tie, Skenderbeu paid dear for their defensive mistakes, especially in the second goal when two of its best player, captain and goalkeeper Orges Shehi and midfielder Sabien Lilaj provided an assist for the Partizani striker following a misunderstanding.

The same to the Albania encounter, away fans were banned to attend the game on security grounds in UEFA-proposed measured following a drone incident at the Belgrade stadium in late 2014 in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier, leading to the game’s suspension.

The match was played under tight security with heavy police presence cited as a concern with a psychological effect on Skenderbeu’s performance.

"There was no problem during the match, but when you see so much police presence, that is not the appropriate environment for a football match," said Skenderbeu’s coach Ilir Daja.

Local media reported there were also racist chants by Partizani supporters, which could trigger possible punishment by European football’s governing body, UEFA.

In last month’s first-leg encounter, Skenderbeu were fined €60,000 by UEFA over illicit chants, fireworks and racist behaviour and also ordered to play their next Europa League home game behind closed doors.

Skenderbeu will play at home against Dynamo Kyiv on Nov. 23 before concluding their group stage away to Switzerland's Young Boys on December 7.

Skenderbeu return to European competition after a one-year ban imposed by European football governing body, UEFA, on match-fixing allegations in the 2015-2016 Champions and Europa League campaigns, making history as the only Albanian club to have made it in the final stage of European competitions.
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                    [post_content] => canabTIRANA, Nov. 2 – Traffickers are training pigeons to smuggle drugs and even mobile phones into Albanian prisons as inspections over food and clothes deliveries by family members have tightened.

A local TV has obtained pictures of carrier pigeons smuggling cannabis and mobile phones in two Albanian prisons, alarming prison authorities who have been warned to prohibit ‘pigeon’ gifts or allow them fly near cell windows.

In one case, guards at the Lezha prison, northern Albania, ‘detained’ a carrier pigeon after an apparently heavy load of a smartphone making it impossible to fly, local Report TV says.

The carrier pigeons are trained after familiarizing in prison cells where they are taken as gifts to inmates. They are then taken back to buildings near the prison facilities where they left unfed, which forces them to search for food in their old ‘cell’ homes, often carrying illegal items such as cannabis, an abundant drug in Albania, which has been dubbed Europe’s marijuana capital by international media.

Known for their powerful “homing ability,” pigeons have been used to carry messages since Roman times and can return to their lofts from distances of hundreds of kilometers if trained.

Training pigeons to smuggle drugs has become a worldwide phenomenon in the past few years.

Albania has some 5,500 inmates with overcrowding being a key issue. Inmates also complain of alleged psychological and physical violence.

Smuggling cannabis and mobile phones has been a commonly reported issue, either through bribes to authorities or carefully masking them in food and clothes deliveries. Police have caught cannabis stuffed into peppers and smartphones into a big potato.

There have also been cases of cats and drones being used to smuggle drugs and mobile phones to prisons, authorities say.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134368" align="alignright" width="300"]aiis 2 An AIIS round table during the two-day October 26 to 27 Tirana Forum on 'Albania and Serbia towards a common future in the European Union.' Photos: AIIS[/caption]

TIRANA, Nov. 2 - Three years after an ice-breaking visit Prime Minister Edi Rama paid to Belgrade, the first by an Albanian Prime Minister in 68 years, relations between Albania and Serbia have marked tangible progress with the civil society playing a key role in promoting normalization between the two key EU aspirant Western Balkan countries.

“Things are moving, meeting groups of Albanians in Serbia and Serbians in Albania is becoming quite normal,”Jelena Minic, the head of the Belgrade-based European Movement in Serbia, EMinS, said a Tirana forum discussing new challenges ahead toward a common EU future for the two countries.

The comments came at a two-day forum organized last weekend by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, AIIS, one of the country’s top think tanks, as part of its Center for Albania-Serbia Relation, a joint AIIS-EMinS initiative now on its third year of operation helping to normalize relations between two regional key players which until late 2014 were in a rather Cold War era status quo.

In several forums in Tirana and Belgrade during the past three years, the two think tanks have engaged young researchers in exchanges and brought together experts from both countries to discuss challenges in EU integration, political, economic and cultural cooperation in a bid to break historical barriers and stereotypes holding back normalization of relations.

AIIS head Albert Rakipi says the joint Center for Albania-Serbia Relations is a strategic project for the normalization of relations between two key countries in the region which due to the historical context will take some time.

“It’s an investment for the stability of the region, building strategic relations and a common future. Of course that is not going to happen tomorrow,” said Rakipi.

Gordana Comic, Serbia's deputy Speaker of Parliament and a women rights promoter, said it is politicians that hold back cooperation between the two countries and that mainly happens on electoral grounds.

"Cooperation between the two countries currently works with only two networks, organized crime and women across the region. Politicians are afraid of losing votes to work for peace and cooperation because of perceptions," Comic said.

Albania and Serbia had a three-year honeymoon soon after World War II when the communists came to power in both countries but later parted ways on ideological grounds. Relations between the two countries in the past 25 years of transition have remained tense especially after the late 1990s Kosovo war leading to its independence from Serbia in 2008. Ties are now on track to improve as Serbia and the majority ethnic Albanian-inhabited Kosovo are also holding continuous EU-mediated talks to normalize their relations and Albania has offered an ‘agree to disagree’ approach on Kosovo.

Relations between the two countries temporarily entered a Cold War era status quo in October 2014 following a drone incident with Albanian nationalistic and patriotic symbols flying over the Partizan stadium in Belgrade in the midst of a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016.

Fears of crowd trouble in football matches still persist as fans were not allowed to support their teams in this month’s UEFA Europa League group stage ties between Albania’s Skenderbeu and Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade.

Mimi Kodheli, a former defense minister who currently chairs Albania’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said it’s the historical past that prevents relations between the two countries.

“Albanians and Serbs have written much history. We continue to see the future based on history. Politicians also predict the future based on history. Kosovo’s independence is something we cannot change. That should be a bridge, not a wall,” she said.

“We shouldn’t forget that we should resolve our problems on our own. Albania and Serbia are the core of the Western Balkans and if this relationship is fragile, all of us will suffer,” Kodheli added.

When it comes to EU integration, the picture currently remains mixed both for Albania which is hopeful of launching accession talks and Serbia which has been holding negotiations for the past three years as the block struggles with internal problems such as the Brexit, the migrant and financial crises as well as rising populism and most recently developments in Spain where Catalonia is seeking independence.

“It is obvious that there will be no change until Brexit talks but there could be a new window of opportunity by 2019,” said Dusko Lopandic, Serbia’s former ambassador to the EU.

Currently, only Serbia and Montenegro are in the negotiation stage with the European Commission among six Western Balkans countries, most of which have been striving for membership since more than a decade.

NATO member Albania, through Prime Minister Edi Rama has expressed repeated frustration that its application to join the European Union is being dragged in time on purpose as the bloc deals with its internal problems relating to Brexit and the economic crisis.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s has made it clear there will be no EU enlargement until 2019, but reiterated eventual membership is needed for the Western Balkans to prevent conflict in the region.

Albania’s former European Integration Minister Klajda Gjosha described negotiation talks Serbia and Montenegro are holding as a positive signal for the region despite the slow progress with the accession chapters.

“The EU integration process is vital to build institutions and consolidate them as well as strengthen rule of law no matter when Albania joins,” said Gjosha.

Discussing economy, MP and economy professor Fatbardha Kadiu said the low level of trade exchanges and FDI in both countries hints “Albania and Serbia live in a non-positive peace environment.”

Albania-Serbia trade exchanges are currently stuck at an annual modest level of about €170 million annually and dominated by what experts have previously called medieval era agricultural imports and exports.

Serbian foreign direct investment have in the past three years climbed to a modest stock of 20 million euros while Albanian investment in Serbia is almost non-existent.

In late 2016, a Tirana-based joint Albania-Serbia Chamber of Commerce was launched to give a boost to current sluggish trade exchanges and investment ties.

Prospects seem optimistic as the two leading EU aspirant Western Balkans countries have already improved access with the launch of the direct Belgrade-Tirana flights by Air Serbia carrier and are on track to be linked through a shorter distance through the extension of the Albania-Kosovo highway to Nis, south-eastern Serbia.

Sanja Nikolin, a private entrepreneur and women activist, said barriers of growth at home, with both Albanian and Serbian businesses being overwhelming SMEs, prevent cross-border cooperation.

"We have to remove barriers at home. When you are in a survival mode, with SMEs accounting for 99 percent of businesses and facing hostility, this prevents cooperation," she said.

The media picture in both countries is similar with government pressure, lack of professionalism and sporadic coverage mainly focused on politics but not human stories, journalists from both countries said.

When it comes to culture, cooperation has been constantly growing over the past few years, but lack of sufficient exchanges and funding remain a barrier.

Monika Maric, a Serbian, a Serbian fellow of the Centre for Albania-Serbia Relations at the AIIS, says cultural cooperation between Serbia and Albania have been constantly growing in the past decade but remains mostly sporadic and on individual initiative.

“Although political relations often cast a shadow on cultural cooperation, cultural exchanges between Serbia and Albania have been in constant growth. Cooperation is primarily based on individual initiatives, where networks of civil society represent the main communication channel,” says Maric, a fluent speaker of Albanian who graduated from the department of Albanology of the University of Belgrade.

Maric, who researched into Serbia-Albania cultural relations during her three-month AIIS fellowship, was the third Serbian fellow of the Centre for Albania-Serbia Relations at the Albanian Institute for International Studies in Tirana.

Minja Mardjonovic, a feminist activist who directed the newly released “Kismet” documentary showcasing the challenges facing young women both in Serbia and Albania says Albanians and Serbs are quite similar when it comes to stereotypes.

"Conservative and patriarchal structures of our societies make us so similar, too. So, from my point of view, the treatment of women is the best indicator of the level of social and political progress within one society. In that regard, we can really maintain how much Albanians and Serbs are so similar in their differences," she told Tirana Times in a recent interview.

An AIIS survey has found a plurality of residents of Albania believe relations between this country and Serbia are normal and likely to improve in the future and such improvements are in the best interest of both countries.
                    [post_title] => AIIS Forum: Albania, Serbia move closer to normalizing relations
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 1 - Taking an adventure trip to Albania has been rated as one of the top tours on travelers’ to-do-list for 2018.

National Geographic France has rated Albania as the 11th most beautiful destination for adventure seekers along with trips to exotic places such as Papua New Guinea's tribes, the Sudan temples, the Chinese Shangri-La and as well as Madrid street art, Macedonia's melting pot, a weekend in Hamburg and Californian vineyards.

Featuring a picture of the Apollonia archaeological park, the country’s second largest cultural heritage destination aspiring to gain UNESCO World Heritage inscription, the National Geographic's French publication recommends Albania for its ancient history, unexplored landscape, making it a perfect adventure travel destination.

"Under communist dictatorship for decades, Albania is slowly opening up. Discover its Ottoman cities of Berat and Gjirokastra, the Greco-Roman amphitheaters, the beaches and above all the country's unexplored landscapes such as alpine summits, green valleys, wetlands and rich fauna," writes the National Geographic.

Explaining the reasons why this trip should be taken now, the prestigious exploration and adventure magazine says Albania is a perfect adventure travel destination offering trekking, horseback riding, rafting and kayaking.

"Albania is recently playing its adventure card. The latest initiative was last May when a hiking trail was launched at the Nature Reserve of the Karaburun peninsula, an ancient military base accessible only on foot or by boat,” says the magazine, adding that crossing the peninsula with a small boat, a small bay perfect for scuba-diving comes across close to a 600 m2 cave.

Last May, as Albania geared up for the 2017 tourist season, authorities opened up the Sazan Island, a military base in southern Albania that was first used by the Italians until World War II before becoming the country’s most secretive base under communism when it was fortified with bunkers and tunnels designed to withstand a possible nuclear attack that the Albanian communist elite feared.

The tiny now uninhabited 5.7 km2 island and the Karaburun peninsula form the first and only national marine park of Albania, featuring ruins of sunken Greek, Roman and World War II ships, rich underwater fauna, steep cliffs and giant caves, ancient inscriptions of sailors on shore, secluded beaches, and breathtaking views of the coastline.

The National Geographic has also previously rated Albania as among the top ten places that deserve more travelers and recommended the Valbona Valley in northern Albania as one of the greatest outdoors globally.

Earlier this year, French public broadcaster France 2 dubbed Albania, an emerging European destination that is also attracting French tourists, as the “Pearl of the Balkans.”

What makes Albania a favourable destination for French tourists is also the direct flights to Paris and Brussels twice a week and the cheap prices and quality Albania offers.

Several outdoor tour operators in the country offer hiking, rafting, biking, horse riding and birds watching adventures in the country, while cross-border tourism is gaining an upper hand with the opening of some mountain hiking trails such as the ancient Via Egnatia linking Rome to Byzantium, the present-day Istanbul, crossing through Albania and Macedonia.

U.S.-based Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) placed Albania as one of the three destinations added to the top adventure travel destinations for 2017 along with Cuba and Portugal.

Closed to tourists for about five decades until the early 1990s, Albania offers a miscellaneous picture of coastal and mountain tourism and has been attracting more and more foreign tourists in the past decade being nicknamed as “A new Mediterranean love” and “Europe’s last secret.”

The tourism industry has been one of the country’s fastest growing in the past few years, attracting more than 4 million tourists and generating about €1.5 billion, about 14 percent of the country’s GDP, in 2016 alone.

The communist past is also what fascinates tourists about Albania, which was cut off from the rest of the world under a Stalinist dictatorship.
                    [post_title] => Albania rated on the 2018 to-do-list for adventure travelers
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134348" align="alignright" width="300"]bus 2 Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj and Polish Ambassador to Albania Karol Bachura during the test drive of the Solaris electric bus. Photo: Municipality of Tirana[/caption]

TIRANA, Oct. 31 – Tirana has successfully tested the first electric bus and is on track to become one of Europe’s first capital cities to launch electric buses in a bid to reduce pollution.

A Solaris Urbino 12 electric, a Polish production named ‘the bus of the year 2017,’ crossed the Kinostudio-Kombinat city line last week, becoming the first electric bus used in public transport in Tirana and the whole of Albania.

A month ago, the municipality of Tirana licensed the first electric taxi company in a bid to reduce pollution in the capital city, which due to its almost 1 million residents and more than a hundred thousand vehicles a day, make Tirana Albania’s most polluted city.

“What is happening in Tirana is what also happened in Paris where municipal authorities tested two buses on how they performed in Paris lines. Instead of filling Tirana with tram cables or technology belonging to the 1970s, we have now decided to develop and move to modern avant-garde technology,” said Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj.

“Tirana is avant-garde. I am happy we are at the forefront of cities heading toward this development,” added the mayor.

The country’s largest municipality says it will cooperate with the central government to provide incentives such as lower taxes and customs clearing as well as electricity refunds for use of electric vehicles. Several electric vehicles charging stations have already been made available in the capital city.

The Tirana Mayor warned public transport operators to gradually start introducing electric buses if they don't want the municipality to compete them with a state-run electric bus line, the same as it did with the establishment of a municipal-run cleaning company.

"We will establish a public-run company if private operators don't respond to this modernization rate. What we want is to gradually convert 10 to 20 percent of the bus fleet into electric ones," Veliaj said.

Electric buses currently cost twice the price of those that run on petrol but their operational cost is much lower, not to mention zero emissions making them environmentally friendly.

Exceptionally quiet, emission-free, distinguished by its modern design and guaranteeing low operation costs, thanks to its innovative technical solutions Polish-made Solaris electric buses, already in use across Poland, Germany and France, can operate for an unlimited time, up to 24 hours a day.

"We are at the initial stage and Tirana is joining the pilot cities introducing this technology. But as we have seen with other technology, from mobile phones to other equipment, the more they develop the lower the price becomes and I believe it will soon be more affordable for local stakeholders in our city to transform their fleets," said Veliaj.

Earlier this year, the Tirana Mayor was selected among the world's top 40 innovative leaders under the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Socialist Party Mayor Veliaj has been in office for about three years now, leading the transformation of Tirana through dozens of public works and improved services, including the rehabilitation of the landmark Skanderbeg central square. The 37-year-old former civil society activist and social welfare minister is seen by many observers as Prime Minister Edi Rama’s heir apparent at the helm of the Socialist Party.

The electric buses will also carry out performance tests in several other Tirana city lines to determine the kind of battery they need to use.

Several leading global economies have already announced plans to phase out sales of new fuel-powered cars in favour of cleaner vehicles in the next ten years.

Hailing the Tirana municipality initiative, Albania's Energy Minister Damian Gjiknuri says the Albanian government will also mull incentives to promote environmentally friendly vehicles.

"Even the Albanian government should think of how to incentivize more electric-powered cars as environmentally friendly vehicles which also address the pollution issue, but also meet targets we have set regarding electricity efficiency," said Gjiknuri.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Oct. 26 - Serbia civil society activists, experts and government representatives gathered in Tirana this week for a two-day forum to discuss Albania-Serbia relations towards a common future in the European Union.

Held as part of the Center for Albania-Serbia Relation, an initiative of the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS) and Belgrade-based European Movement in Serbia, the forum is another effort to normalize relations between the two EU aspirant Western Balkans countries which in the past couple of years have taken a U-turn following a rather Cold War era status quo just before late 2015 when the joint center was established.

Serbian and Albanian participants in the two-day October 26 to 27 forum that is being held in Tirana underlined the importance of cultural cooperation to overcome stereotypes and prejudice between the two countries.

Monika Maric, a Serbian, a Serbian fellow of the Centre for Albania-Serbia Relations at the AIIS, says cultural cooperation between Serbia and Albania have been constantly growing in the past decade but remain mostly sporadic and on individual initiative.

“Although political relations often cast a shadow on cultural cooperation, cultural exchanges between Serbia and Albania have been in constant growth. Cooperation is primarily based on individual initiatives, where networks of civil society represent the main communication channel,” says Maric, a fluent speaker of Albanian who graduated from the department of Albanology of the University of Belgrade and researched into Serbia-Albania cultural relations during her three-month AIIS fellowship.

Persida Asllani, the director of Albania’s National Library and a former visiting literature professor at the Albanology department in Belgrade said she would like to see more Albanian authors translated into Serbian as currently the number of Serbian authors translated into Albanian is far bigger.

“I really hope people like Monika can help contribute to cooperation between the two countries,” Asllani said about her former student in Belgrade.

Albanian writers Diana Çuli and Ylljet Aliçka also noted the importance of cultural exchanges to get to know each-other better and have more writers translated into the respective languages.

The two day forum will also discuss EU perspectives, economy, and media relations between the two countries.

Albania and Serbia had a three-year honeymoon soon after World War II when the communists came to power in both countries but later parted ways on ideological grounds. Relations between the two countries in the past 25 years of transition have remained tense especially after the late 1990s Kosovo war leading to its independence from Serbia in 2008, but are now on track to improve as Serbia and majority ethnic Albanian-inhabited Kosovo are also holding continuous EU-mediated talks to normalize their relations.

Relations between the two countries temporarily entered a Cold War era status quo in October 2014 following a drone incident with Albanian nationalistic and patriotic symbols flying over the Partizan stadium in Belgrade in the midst of a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016.

One month later, Prime Minister Edi Rama paid a historic visit to Serbia, the first by an Albanian Prime Minister in 68 years, in a tense climate following the drone incident, but paving the way to the normalization of relations between the two countries which are considered key players for the region’s security, economic development and the Western Balkan’s European integration.

The Rama-Vucic meetings are now a common thing as are forums and exchanges between Serbian and Albanian civil society organizations.

Through several forums discussing civil society, political, economic and cultural cooperation and challenges ahead, the AIIS and the European Movement Serbia have also contributed to mutual understanding and normalization of relations during the past three years.

An AIIS survey has found a plurality of residents of Albania believe relations between this country and Serbia are normal and likely to improve in the future and such improvements are in the best interest of both countries.

 
                    [post_title] => AIIS forum: Albania, Serbia discuss new challenges ahead toward common EU future
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134234" align="alignright" width="300"]Photo: AIIS Photo: AIIS[/caption]

TIRANA, Oct. 18 – During a conference on the role of the media in informing and shaping opinion concerning the Albania-Serbia relations, a lot was said about the influence the media has in popular perception, the distinction between qualitative and sensational journalism, and even possible cooperation techniques in the context of further regional development.

The agenda – “Serbia and the bilateral Albania-Serbia relations in the eyes of Albanian print media” – did not only focus on one side of the coin, as research was presented comparing the printed media in both Albania and Serbia. While most of the research showed that at least quality newspapers use neutral tones in describing relations, when the Kosovo issue is mentioned, things tend to lean on the negative side.

The conference was organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS), in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), as one of the many events of the institute in the context of foreign relations. Held in the Tirana Times Book House, the opening remarks were spoken by Chairman of AIIS, Dr. Albert Rakipi, and Director of the FES Office in Tirana, Prof. Dr. Wulf Lapins.

“We experience two realities. One is the normal reality of things that happen, of relations, cooperation, exchange of goods and services, of history; an everyday reality found in the volume of relations between two states, economies, cultures and societies. This first reality is not a virtual reality. Meanwhile, another reality exists created by the media and the bigger the distance between these two realities, the more the way society functions is affected. The perceptions created by the media sometimes are, as popular international relations theory goes, more important than the facts themselves,” Rakipi said, highlighting the tremendous effect what we read and hear has in our everyday realities.

Prof. Dr. Lapins, who only recently took over the Director post in Tirana, spoke in a broader global and European context, of the problems and shortcomings we are all facing and the importance of mature and democratic relations between the countries in the region for European integration.

“Compared to other regions in the world, Europe could be seen as an island of happiness,” Lapins addressed the participants. “For some time now, European politics are talking of the fact the world is falling apart. This is essentially due to the fact the principles of this new world order have not yet been redefined. Globalization covers all areas of life. What are the negative effects of this globalization? Globalization affects the cohesion of citizens, societies on which democratic discourse flourishes. But even Europe – this seeming island of the lucky ones – finds itself with many problems.”

This atmosphere of change and instability, Lapins explained, has also made the Western Balkans countries “which are sitting in Europe’s waiting room” impatient.

“The Berlin process is a kind of reassurance, in other words, to make the time in the waiting room more comfortable. In all probability, the Berlin Process will end in 2018. But what comes next? Regarding the behavior of Poland and Hungary, the EU is concerned that the new member states would use their veto rights politically, as well. It would be a great contribution to the coherence of the EU if the future member countries would renounce their future veto rights under international law and the readiness for good negotiation with the European Union. Second, the naming ‘Western Balkan countries’ has a negative connotation; therefore these countries should now call themselves the countries of the East Adriatic. Third, the countries of the East Adriatic should not wait for the EU, but rather they should be implementing reforms in their national legislations. The EU is primarily a peace project, a supporter of the ability to compromise. Compromise is an indicator of the maturity of a political culture and state wisdom. Albanian-Serbian relations should be a good example of state compromise in the face of other interests.”

The research presented by Dr. Ledion Krisafi focused on Albanian printed media over the course of the year’s first six months. The four printed media used for comparison purposes were three daily newspapers – Mapo, Panorama and Shqiptarja.com – and one weekly one – Tirana Times. The connotations selected to describe the articles were positive, neutral, negative and almost negative. Out of 131 articles analyzed in the study, it was noticed that relations were positively mentioned in regards to cultural and economic cooperation, while the issue of Serbia’s ex-province Kosovo, which is now an independent country, turns comments bitter and negative.

It was also said that Albania-Serbia relations articles don’t have a permanent subject, but are rather related to different current happenings and developments. In addition, Krisafi mentioned that Serbian media cover more of Albanian tourism during the summer, whereas this is not noticed in Albanian media.

For Serbia, the newspapers researched by former exchange fellow at AIIS, Aleksander Pavlovic, and presented by current fellow Monika Maric, were Danas, Blic, Politika and Informer. Regarding Serbian media outlets, the overall number of articles mentioning Albania during the six month timeframe was 855, of which 385 belonged to Politika alone.

Serbian researcher Aleksandar Pavlovic emphasized that while around 70 per cent of the articles had a neutral tone, 184 of them had a derogatory tone and in 152 of those cases, the articles focused on Kosovo.

In Serbia’s case too, articles were more event-oriented, rather than theme oriented, with focus on events such as Kosovo PM Ramush Haradinaj’s arrest in France, or former Albanian president Bujar Nishani’s visit in Kosovo. A distinction could be noticed between commercially oriented and quality content newspapers in Serbia in regards of the language they use in describing Albania-Serbia relations and supporting political and social stereotypes.

Upon the comments made in conclusion to the presentations were that Kosovo stands in the middle of Albanian and Serbian relations, that Albanian media does not report enough on the region, but rather considers as news only what comes from Washington or Berlin, and that more often than not, economy and trade surpass politics and that is where the key for development and integration lies. As Dr. Rakipi mentioned in his closing remarks, Kosovo’s tension with Serbia should not be unified with Albanian-Serbian relations, but rather take separate roads politically and in the way they are represented in the media.
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 9 – An Albanian company has been announced the winner of the long-awaited Arbri road linking Albania to Macedonia, paving the way for contract negotiations which if successful would conclude a decade-long project also serving the underdeveloped northern Albania Dibra region.

Gjoka Konstruksion, an Albanian-run company which earlier this year was awarded a 10 percent bonus for its unsolicited bid after the failure of the 2015 contract negotiations with a Chinese company, was the apparent winner of the late October 2017 tender, facing no rivalry from two other Albanian companies disqualified for not submitting financial bids, according to the Public Procurement Agency.

The Albanian-run company, which has been engaged in several major public works infrastructure projects in the past two decades, has bid to build the highway’s remaining 40 km segment for 33.6 billion lek (€250 million) in a public private partnership that is expected to receive government financial support for 13 years and allow the concessionaire to introduce a tolling system once the highway is completed.

The Arbri highway is one of the major projects on the government's Euro 1 billion PPP ambitious agenda on road, health and education investments for the next few years.

The 13-year concession contract is expected to cost Albanians a total of about 24 billion lek (€177 mln) until 2030 in payments either through installments covering the investment cost or guarantees on the concessionaire’s revenue, in this case traffic guarantees in case the concessionaire does not meet annual targets from the tolling system.

The Albanian company which has proposed a 69 km highway with a tunnel and a bypass is planning to fund part of the highway investment by introducing €4 tolls.

If materialized, the project will be vital for the underdeveloped northeastern region of Dibra, mainly relying on agriculture and mining.

Back in 2015, the Albanian government approved a special law offering China State Construction Engineering Corporation to complete the Arbri Road under a concession deal but contract negotiations failed.

The project is also expected to boost trade exchanges with landlocked neighbouring Macedonia and make access to Durres Port easier. In addition, the tourism sector is also expected to get boost as tourists from Macedonia, where more than a quarter of its 2 million population is ethnic Albanian, are the second top foreign visitors to Albania.

Bujar Karoshi, the publisher of the local “Rruga e Arbrit” monthly newspaper named after the Arbri Road and dedicated to developments in the Dibra region says it's high time the government signed the Arbri Road contract and stopped dragging it.

In an op-ed on the Albanian government's decision to hold its next Nov. 11 meeting in the town of Peshkopia, Dibra region, journalist Karoshi, a native of Dibra, says the local residents "have had enough with stories of procedures, deadlines, unexpected difficulties, lack of project or bad project and other non-sense arguments only to delay start of works."
            [post_title] => Contract negotiations to decide Arbri Road saga 
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