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Mid-level official gets nine years in prison over cash for jobs scheme

Mid-level official gets nine years in prison over cash for jobs scheme

TIRANA, June 3 – An Albanian court has sentenced a former mid-level education system official to nine years in prison over a scheme that saw her take thousands of euros from teachers looking to get or keep a job. It

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Extreme heat to grip Albania this summer, meteorologists predict

Extreme heat to grip Albania this summer, meteorologists predict

TIRANA, June 3 – Albania’s residents might have enjoyed a cool late spring, but sustained heatwaves with no rain in sight are ahead, according to meteorologists. Following a very wet winter and spring, change is on the way for the

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Op-Ed: The importance of women in politics

Op-Ed: The importance of women in politics

By Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd The Netherlands Embassy in Albania in cooperation with the Albanian Institute for International Studies hosted a lecture at the European Information Center in Shkodra on women in politics. Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd stressed

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Tourist season ready to kick into gear

Tourist season ready to kick into gear

TIRANA, May 25 – Albanian tourist operators are getting ready for the start of the busy season, as worries mount that a combination of bad weather and local elections will hurt profit margins. Scorching temperatures are expected this summer following

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Passenger rail service gets closer to city center, but problems remain

Passenger rail service gets closer to city center, but problems remain

TIRANA, May 28 – Almost two years after the closure of the communist-era downtown train station to pave the way to the construction of a new boulevard, authorities have set up a new new temporary station to serve the capital. The

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Actress Eliza Dushku launches ‘Dear Albania’ documentary

Actress Eliza Dushku launches ‘Dear Albania’ documentary

TIRANA, May 28 – Hollywood actress of Albanian origin Eliza Dushku travelled to Albania this week to promote her completed “Dear Albania” documentary featuring her journey in 15 Albanian towns, including Kosovo’s capital Prishtina and Macedonia’s Tetovo as promotional guide

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Special report: Religious radicalism and extremism as a security threat

Special report: Religious radicalism and extremism as a security threat

This conference report has been prepared by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a Tirana Times partner organization. On May 27, the Albanian Institute for International Studies held its annual security conference, focusing on the new and concerning reality of

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Dutch-Albanian joint venture starts raspberry farm

Dutch-Albanian joint venture starts raspberry farm

TIRANA, May 20 – A Dutch and Albanian joint venture has introduced modern berry cultivation techniques in Albania such as the cold treatment of plants to postpone harvesting. Under a Dutch government funded project, Superberry Albania is already cultivating raspberry,

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PM hints at NATO veto for Skopje

PM hints at NATO veto for Skopje

TIRANA, May 21 – Prime Minister Edi Rama said at a security conference on Thursday that if Macedonia wants to join NATO in the future, it should fully protect the rights of its ethnic Albanian population. “Macedonia cannot be part of NATO,

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LGBT activists seek more rights at annual bicycle rally

LGBT activists seek more rights at annual bicycle rally

TIRANA, May 17 – Activists from Albania’s gay and lesbian community rode through Tirana’s main boulevard in bicycles on Sunday, carrying the community’s rainbow flag and other symbols, seeking greater acceptance by the society at large and better measures by

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121708" align="alignright" width="300"]Lushnja Courthouse (Photo: Tirana Times/Handout) Lushnja Courthouse (Photo: Tirana Times/Handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, June 3 – An Albanian court has sentenced a former mid-level education system official to nine years in prison over a scheme that saw her take thousands of euros from teachers looking to get or keep a job.

It is the first conviction of its kind in recent years, after teachers and other state employees had complained for years political operatives acting as state officials demanded cash and other favors for jobs.

The court in the western city of Lushnja sentenced Lisa Tabaku on June 3, after she pleaded guilty. Tabaku served as the head of the Lushnja Regional Education Department.

The court also gave her son three years and another former official one year for their involvement in the scheme.

Tabaku was charged with corruption as a person exercising a public functions and received a harsher punishment because of aggravating circumstances of repeated offenses, the court said.

The former Education Director was arrested in November last year.

Prosecutors said Tabaku would demand 3,000 to 5,000 euros for each teacher's position.

There had been reports this type of scheme had been operating around the country for years. Tabaku had been placed in the position by Albania's ruling Socialist-led coalition.

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121698" align="alignright" width="300"]Heatwaves will hit the entire region in July and August. (Graphic: AccuWeather Global Weather Center) Heatwaves will hit the entire region in July and August. (Graphic: AccuWeather Global Weather Center)[/caption]

TIRANA, June 3 – Albania's residents might have enjoyed a cool late spring, but sustained heatwaves with no rain in sight are ahead, according to meteorologists.

Following a very wet winter and spring, change is on the way for the Balkans during the summer months. While frequent storm systems brought rainfall through the month of May, a building ridge of high pressure will develop from late June through August, according to AccuWeather Global Weather Center meteorologists.

This area of high pressure will allow heat to build from the Balkans through the Black Sea region. Along with the heat, storm systems will be blocked from the region, resulting in long stretches of dry weather.

"This summer will be a stark contrast to last year when cool, wet weather prevailed," Meteorologist Tyler Roys said.

Heat waves will be common from mid-July through August with numerous days of temperatures surpassing 32 C. During the hottest stretches of summer, several days of temperatures over 38C will be possible in major cities.

Wet weather over the past year across much of the Balkans will prevent any widespread drought issues. However, short-term drought will have an impact on agriculture and will lead to lower-than-normal yields, according the AccuWeather report.

While the core of the summer heat will be felt across southeastern Europe, more typical summer warmth will be felt across areas from eastern Spain through southern France and Italy.

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121662" align="alignright" width="234"]Dutch Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd   Dutch Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd[/caption]

By Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd

The Netherlands Embassy in Albania in cooperation with the Albanian Institute for International Studies hosted a lecture at the European Information Center in Shkodra on women in politics. Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd stressed the need for positive policies to be implemented in the field of women's involvement in public life in Albania. Women in Albania have traditionally shown great potential to bring positive change. Women representation is not only about women, it is mostly about the society as such, its ability to fully provide for equal opportunities, respect differences and make use of its best resources. The full remarks of the ambassador are below.

I feel kind of particularly welcome in this city. Everyone is so bike friendly. I am Dutch so I therefore cannot resist this comment.

During my research on women in politics in Albania it impressed me that this city has almost a national record on leading women in politics. It is impressive to know how many women in the liberation movement were heroines, like Shejnaze Juka or Margarita Tutulani and Mysine Kokalari.

A picture of the first Albanian Parliament in 1921 shows no women in it. While in 2005 for the first time a woman (who again happens to be from Shkodra) chairs the Albanian Parliament. Today, for the first time in Albania, both candidates running for this municipality are women. And this is a good record I may say. In my country women could vote from 1919 onwards. Albanian women had the right to vote since 1920 and that is even before Sweden, France or Italy.

In 2013 the number of women in the Albanian parliament increased slightly to 17% and female representation in the current government is the best since the last 20 years, 6 ministers out of 19 in total. However, last time during elections political parties failed to respect the 30% gender quota requirement in their candidate lists. In those cases where the gender quota was respected women were listed in the end with no real chance to win. This is unfair.

One of the recommendations of the EU progress report in relation to women in politics was related to the need to strengthen gender provisions and to create a more enabling environment for women to advance in political and public positions. As a follow-up, a positive change took place early this year when the Electoral Code changed and a quota of 50% for the municipality council was approved. And we see there has been a positive effect on the candidates for mayors too, there are much more female candidates now.

Many argued that it was too early to introduce a similar quota also for the election of women as mayors. In my opinion it is never too early on this matter. The fact is that we have to step out of comfort zones.  It is certain that such changes make few people unhappy, and nevertheless are very necessary. Albanian women are well educated, outspoken and strong enough to draft and implement policies at the local and central level. So why not? If equal representation is possible in terms of potential, than it should be possible in terms of the law and equal opportunities. Let’s see and give them a fair chance. Women might be more able to talk to their opposite parties, more able to listen and who knows, women might be less corrupt.

But what is for sure is that more women in politics will set an example. An example for the overall emancipation that is needed in society. Women in power will be able to create an enabling environment for women and girls in many other policy areas and will contribute to an overall respect for human rights of all. Think of areas like education and health for instance.

We are talking about equal opportunities as a basic human right that should not be limited to gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever reasons. Worldwide there is not enough political particiation of women. So it is very important that Albania is making this move. You are really setting a progressive example here.

Political campaigning in Albania is expensive. And by the way, I think the money spent on hanging up all these flags would have been of more use for providing training to new candidates. I find it interesting that one of the candidates for mayor in Tirana has now disclosed his financial campaign support. I hope many other candidates will be so transparent. Political parties should pay attention to their female candidates and support them accordingly.

Economic empowerment of women is still a primary necessity. In daily rural life, Albanian women not only work alongside men on the farm, they also manage childcare and household chores. The time they spend at home doing unpaid and unregistered work limits their participation in society – in such a way cementing male dominance.

The two women running to become mayor of Shkodra are great examples of female entrepreneurs. However, we need specific policies that target rural areas. Shkodra is well known for its handicraft tradition. Filigree jewelry is characteristic for the city which also exports to western countries. Yet, keep in mind that employment conditions should consider womens rights and gender equality with a specific focus. We see women working longer hours and often for less money. The local government together with the central government should make sure abuse is avoided.

Since the elections are approaching fast I want to stress another issue: family voting. The 2013 ODIHR/OSCE report on the general elections stressed that family voting was highly present in several of the former communes that now belong to Shkodra municipality. We need to keep in mind that this phenomenon is a direct violation of women’s right to vote. More work should has to be done in these areas to raise awareness among women and men of the equality of the vote and of its independent character. I find this a tremendous violation. I would like to call on everyone here to inform themselves on the candidates. Google them, as my EU colleague suggested, find out which person really has the best ideas for your city in her or his programme. And vote out of your own belief. Because it is your personal right.

Let me now take a look at the European level and to the Netherlands particularly. The distribution of tasks within the family is still influenced by gender roles: men are likely to spend more hours in paid work, while women spend longer on unpaid domestic work.

Much of the increase in female employment in the Netherlands has been on a part-time basis: many women work part-time. This adds to their job satisfaction and frees up time for childcare. It’s maybe one of the reasons why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. But it can have some negative consequences on career progression and sometimes underutilizes women’s education and skills. Overall however, this possibility for Dutch women to combine work and private life through part time working has led to a large percentage of Dutch women working. And that is what counts.

Society as a whole benefits from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, have the opportunity to earn respect and advance based on their abilities. If you think this is all about women, I can firmly say no. We all know the phrase, it’s the economy stupid. And that’s exactly what it is about. The most progressed societies are the ones that made most efforts to enhance women’s role in politics and any other aspect of life. They are tapping into the economic and creative potential possessed by half of their population!

I think Albania is on its way to doing that. And I feel honoured to be here today with two excellent women candidates for mayor. I wish good luck to these ladies and to you voters, to make the right, informed choice.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, May 25 – Albanian tourist operators are getting ready for the start of the busy season, as worries mount that a combination of bad weather and local elections will hurt profit margins.

Scorching temperatures are expected this summer following an unusually cool spring, according to meteorologists.

In addition, the upcoming June 21 local elections are an obstacle because they have caused confusion among local authorities and have led to focus on short-term projects, experts said.

The central government has already said it will hire some 300 workers along the seaside to clean the area for the coming summer season.

But the local media continues to report on the presence of waste and other objects polluting the sea and the beaches.

A European Union monitoring barometer of the situation in the Albanian beaches said they met the basic cleanliness levels, although they were well below the conditions in neighboring EU members Greece and Croatia.

Authorities have been focusing this year to bring more foreign tourists from countries that are further away, as Albania relies almost totally on the ethnic brethren from Kosovo and Macedonia as well as Albanian migrants turning back home for vacation.

Authorities have also decided to scrap visas for a total of 13 countries worldwide, aiming to attract foreign tourists as the summer holidays season approaches.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, May 28 - Almost two years after the closure of the communist-era downtown train station to pave the way to the construction of a new boulevard, authorities have set up a new new temporary station to serve the capital.

The new station is located in the suburb of Kashar, however, 10 kilometers away from the city center, making it less appealing to downtown dwellers.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony this week, Transport Minister Edmond Haxhinasto said the closure of the train station in Tirana in late 2013 had reduced the number of passengers by 50 percent.

"Rebuilding the Tirana train station is a necessity because the capital's station must be as close to the city center as possible," said Haxhinasto.

The inauguration was part of a series of last-minute projects political leaders of all colors are trying to squeeze in ahead of the local administrative elections.

Several train carriages have been already upgraded with modest funds from the state-run railway directorate which depends on government support to handle its operations.

The old station was demolished in late 2013 to built a new boulevard, but its construction has been suspended.

Tirana Mayor Lulzim Basha, who is also Albania's opposition leader, said a political dispute between the municipality and the government was to blame for the suspension of work.

The situation has considerably increased travel costs for passengers to Tirana, especially students travelling every day from the port city of Durres to Tirana.

Albania would have already had a modern railway network in Tirana and Durres had it not unilaterally cancelled a contract with U.S giant General Electric back in 2005.

In March 2010, the Albanian government was fined USD 20 million over the unilateral annulment of a 2003 contract, worth Euro 74 million with General Electric. The project cancelled in 2005 was aimed at modernizing the Tirana-Durres railway segment, known also as the electric train, which would have been linked with Mother Theresa International Airport.

Albania's rail transport suffered another blow in 2013 when both handling of passengers and goods hit record lows, unveiling the critical situation of the railway sector which lacks adequate infrastructure.

Data published by the country's Institute of Transport show only around 329,000 people traveled by train during the whole of 2013, down from 448,000 in 2012.

The closure of the Tirana train station had made the Albanian capital one among very few counterparts few capitals without rail transport. It also influenced highway traffic as passengers have been forced to get off in Vora, a town 15 km outside Tirana, since September 2013.

Albania currently has an international railway connection with neighboring Montenegro, but there is no passenger traffic on it. Highway construction has also halted operations on the scenic Durres - Pogradec line.

Meanwhile, rail transport of goods slightly recovered to 150,469 tonnes in 2013, up from 142,354 tonnes in 2012, but was down from 317,000 in 2011 and around 402,000 tonnes in 2010.

International rail transport also dropped to 98,608 tonnes in 2013, down from 135,959 tonnes in 2012 and 228,809 in 2011.

A recent World Bank report has ranked the state-owned Albanian railways as the poorest in Southeast Europe as far as traffic density and productivity is concerned.

The low level of traffic reflects few passenger trains per day, with distances between stations of 17 km to 50 km. The underlying reasons for declining passenger numbers also include long-travel times, unreliability of services, and uncomfortable coaches.

London-based EBRD has been approached by the Albanian government to lead a technical cooperation project aimed at revitalizing Albanian railways, currently in a poor condition and used very little for passenger transport.

The EBRD will carry out a design of the key Durres-Tirana railway line, as the most efficient in passenger transport, and the financial/economic appraisal of the whole Albanian railway network.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29 print edition. 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121593" align="alignright" width="300"]Hollywood actress of Albanian origin Eliza Dushku travelled to Albania this week to promote her completed "Dear Albania" documentary.  Hollywood actress of Albanian origin Eliza Dushku travelled to Albania this week to promote her completed "Dear Albania" documentary.[/caption]

TIRANA, May 28 - Hollywood actress of Albanian origin Eliza Dushku travelled to Albania this week to promote her completed "Dear Albania" documentary featuring her journey in 15 Albanian towns, including Kosovo's capital Prishtina and Macedonia's Tetovo as promotional guide of tradition, beliefs and Albanian tourism.

“Dear Albania. I’ve been always curious about you and fascinated by your mysteries. I am an Albanian American from Boston. My grandparents migrated to America in the early 1920′s and they passed away before I was born. My father taught me to be proud of my Albanian blood. It’s time for me to find out why…”  That is how Hollywood actress, American-Albanian Eliza Dushku opens her documentary promoting Albania as a tourist destination following her trip to Albania in the summer of 2011.

Eliza Dushku visited her homeland to discover both the old and the new Albania. Alongside her brother Nate, Albanian-American photographer Fadil Berisha and some famous Albanians, she blazed a trail from the capital city Tirana to the sandy and rocky beaches of the Albanian Riviera and the rugged villages of the Albanian Alps. “I experienced many Albanian customs; eating, dancing, exploring, playing, shopping, sporting, etc.  I got to know the people, politics and economics of a young democracy in an ancient land, uncovering Albania as it lives today,” says Dushku.

“Witnessing the pride of the country and receiving the key to Korce - the city of my family's origin - and my Albanian citizenship, I was amazed to discover how Albania lives in me.”

The 35-year-old actress is most known for her role Faith in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and as Echo in "Dolhouse" series as well as the "Locked In" and "Torchwood: Web of Lies"

Dushku’s father is an Albanian-American and her mother is of Danish and English descent.
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                    [post_content] => This conference report has been prepared by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a Tirana Times partner organization.

On May 27, the Albanian Institute for International Studies held its annual security conference, focusing on the new and concerning reality of increasing religious radicalism in Albania and in the wider Western Balkans region. The conference was organized jointly with the U.S. Embassy in Tirana and supported by the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

This event gathered decision makers, experts, researchers, Muslim Community officials and theologists as well as a wide audience of civil society, diplomatic community members and national authorities.

Greeting the opening panel, Minister of Interior Affairs Saimir Tahiri highlighted that Albania just like any other country is not immune to the threat that religious radicalism and extremism manifested mainly through the issue of foreign fighters. Minister Tahiri mentioned the engagement of the executive with the assistance of the U.S. State Department to step up the efforts of combating the phenomena. Commenting on the latest Albanian citizen to be killed on the front, Tahiri said that he was among the fighters who had become disillusioned with the extremists and wanted to return home, but he was trapped in the conflict and punished. The minister invited civil society actors to contribute to the drafting of the new and comprehensive strategy that the Albanian government is going to compile for this specific issue.

U.S. Ambassador to Albania Donald Lu started his speech by congratulating the engagement of the Albanian government on this matter, which as he said can be taken as an example to other countries. Ambassador Lu also gave a brief but concerning panorama of various terrorist organizations’ crimes around the globe. In his remarks, Ambassador Lu noted that “I share Albania’s dream of a Europe whole, free and at peace. ISIS and other extremist groups threaten that dream. We must not delay in rising to meet this challenge. And we cannot leave this work to our children’s generation.”

The first panel of the conference gathered researchers and experts from the region and presented their assessment of what is going on in each specific country.

AIIS researcher Ebi Spahiu, recognizing the difficulty of drawing a profile for foreign fighters, gave some prominent features observed in the research such as the age of Albanians travelling to Syria which is higher than average, being mainly in the 30s. She emphasized the increasing presence of women and children that have also traveled to the region as part of “family jihad,” affecting the lives of children as young as two and as old as 15 years of age. Compared to several foreign fighters from western European countries that have joined extremist groups, such as ISIS, citizens from Albania have joined with their family members. In addition, she gave a brief mapping of the most affected areas where most foreign fighters have traveled from, which are mostly in central Albania, but other cities in northern and southern Albania have been affected as well. She also observed that a significant number of individuals have also been exposed to Western lifestyles. From secondary testimonies during field interviews, she found that a few of the recruits had been long-time immigrants in neighboring Italy, Greece and due to the EU economic crisis and increasing unemployment in these countries they had returned home to Albania to an environment that offers few opportunities and sense of belonging for them, leaving a vacuum for radical ideologies to take hold. She also explained the role of the Muslim Community of Albania in countering radical religious narratives, but also pointed out that a lot of the initiatives have not been enough because different religious waves have a stronger presence in mosques and social media propaganda tools that target Albanian-speaking audiences.

Serbian sociologist Srdjan Barisic made a very interesting presentation on the two kinds of radicalism in Serbia, first that of the extreme right wing groups displaying nationalist sentiments while being associated strongly with the Serbian Orthodox Church and adopting a lot of religious symbolism in their logos and slogans. Barisic also described the dual Muslim Community in Serbia with two centers, one in Belgrade and the other in Novi Pazar which also adds to the complexity of the issue. Serbia’s officials Barisic said make the situation worse by avoiding to visit the Muslim authorities and institutions in their visits to Sandjak, a predominantly Muslim populated area in southern Serbia. This behavior strengthens the extremist narrative. Barisic also described the interesting feature of Serbian right wing groups being linked to their Russian counterparts.

Shpend Kursani from the Kosovo Center for Security Studies brought some interesting insights from a recent study that his think tank has published recently. Kursani highlighted the fact that although radicalism is a threat we should not lose sight of other threats who are after all the causes that produce the phenomenon. Kursani shared the fact that almost 40 percent of Kosovo people who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS have had criminal pasts and convictions.

He focused on the importance of reintegration measures for returnees a topic which was also picked frequently from other speakers. According to Kursani the philosophy of ‘imprisonment for all’ is an obstacle to use the potential of these returnees who are often regretful and advise others against joining foreign fighters’ ranks.

Metodi Hadji-Janev from Macedonia highlighted the importance of distinguishing between general push forces that drive people to extremism and factors that are very specific to the historical and current context in their countries and communities. Metodi Hadji- Janev also mentioned the importance of Internet, illustrating it with a survey done with secondary school pupils in Macedonia who revealed that while they talk to their parents for few minutes they spend hours navigating online. He stressed that legal measures focused on punishment often backfire and are in any case difficult to implement, encouraging instead more energy to be spend in understanding the social drivers behind the occurrence.

One interesting element that the Macedonian scholar mentioned is the general confusion especially among youth who cannot differentiate between secular forces against the state in Syria and the religious extremist waging battle there.

Vlado Azinovic, a professor of University of Sarajevo gave a very interesting presentation illustrated with real life photographs from Bosnia. As Professor Azinovic explained the difficulties inherent in the complex system of authorities in Bosnia where there are several overlapping police forces make the phenomenon much more difficult to manage. Azinovic described two different groups of foreign fighters from Bosnia, the old fighters that participated in the Bosnian conflict in the 90’s mainly in the Mujahedeen Unit and the second group of late teens seeking adrenaline and self-validation.

Azinovic mentioned a few facts that illustrate the social media savviness of the extremist. ISI has around 25.000 Twitter accounts and with an average of 200.000 tweets per week they can flood the online world with their propaganda.

Azinovic concluded on a call to do more since until now as he said ‘we are failing the families, we are failing in the schools’. Even though de-radicalization is very difficult more can be done about prevention.

The next speakers was Jacob Zenn from the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C. currently engaged in Nigeria. Zenn stated that there are different groups in the world pledging their allegiance to ISIS. Further he explained that ISIS is using different propaganda tools such as YouTube, social media, etc. Propaganda is spread through the use of Arabic, Central Asian Languages and among others Albanian. According to Zenn, ISIS is more capable to appeal to the Youth and to spread globally than Al Qaeda, which is currently losing some of its influence. Furthermore, Zenn added that ISIS is fascinated by the prospect of attacking Rome and in this regard, the Balkans will play a crucial role. “ISIS is more successful at recruiting people from areas with sectarian conflicts, such as the Balkan countries. Counter de-radicalization is very hard to evaluate, but workshops and debates organized by CSOs and religious communities might help to establish critical thinking among the people, who are more exposed towards radicalization”, said Zenn.

The second panel of the conference brought together some of the people that are dealing with issues of extremism and countering it in their daily engagements.

Greeting the conference on behalf of NATO, Mikael Switkes made a comprehensive presentation of the international community’s efforts and resources to aid the fight against extremism and address the security issues that derive from it. Switkes focused mostly on the projects and programs put together by the United Nations, OSCE and NATO itself which vary from research to field engagement.

The head of the State Committee on Cults, Ilir Hoxholli, focused in his address on Islamophobia and the alienation of moderate Muslims from the rest of the society through prejudice and discrimination. Hoxholli speaking on a case of a girl refused education on grounds of being covered claimed that refusing the basic constitutional rights to Muslims reinforces the arguments of extremists and causes a lot of societal harm. Hoxholli praised the organizers for inviting members of the Muslim community and well versed theologians, whose engagement is absolutely decisive in the fight against extremism. The State Committee on Cults is currently undertaking a project that brings the Albanian Muslim Community and the local government institutions together in establishing a relationship of trust and collaboration in order to strengthen prevention mechanisms and approaches.

Isolating Muslims as a measure to secure their persistence of radicalization was a recurrent theme that all speakers agreed was one main issue to address in countering terrorism.

Former deputy head of the Albanian Muslim Community and a well-known theologian, Ermir Gjinishi, frequently speaks to the Albanian media on these matters. At the conference, he focused on the religious roots of the problem and highlighted the problems within the institution of the Albanian Muslim Community as the key to understanding and countering the radicalization and extremism in the country. Gjinishi said the Alanian Muslim Community has been very passive in confronting the phenomenon since the beginning and do not actively engage in explaining to believers that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not their fight.

Gjinishi contradicted the Interior Minister’s declaration that the flow of foreign fighters from Albania has stopped, saying that to the present day boys even from Tiran are traveling to join ISIS.

Gjinishi proposed a three pillar approach to countering the phenomena of extremisms starting with the theological treatment in order to make the tekfirism doctrine disappear. Other pillars include the strong cooperation between official Muslim Communities in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia as well as the engagement of media and civil society to raise awareness.

The head of the Muftiat Council of Elbasan and an active religious moderate figure, Arben Ramkaj, focused on the role of imams themselves in preventing and fighting radicalism. Ramkaj who lives and works in Elbasan, one of the largest Muslim communities in Albania, spoke of the efforts that are coordinated there for the reclaiming of the authority of the Albanian Muslim Community. Ramkaj focused on the importance of bringing together the old and new imams who have received different education, with the new imams often in need to adapt their religious understanding to the traditional Albanian practices. Ramkaj mentioned the low level of education of the imams in general. There are only 5 PhD Muslim scholars and very few scholars with MA in theology for a country with more than 1000 mosques - he said explaining that in rural and remote areas often imams have only elementary education. Ramkaj has led several initiatives such as the moderate newspaper ‘Mendimi’ (accessible online), together with his fellow community members he also organized a march on the occasion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre to counter the narrative of extremists using religion for such criminal acts.

AIIS Deputy Director Alba Cela concluding the event announced the plans of AIIS to build a regional coalition of expertise with the think tanks engaged in the issue in order to coordinate research and most importantly the policy recommendations that will help the state and society respond to the phenomenon.
                    [post_title] => Special report: Religious radicalism and extremism as a security threat
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                    [post_date] => 2015-05-22 09:03:00
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, May 20 - A Dutch and Albanian joint venture has introduced modern berry cultivation techniques in Albania such as the cold treatment of plants to postpone harvesting.

Under a Dutch government funded project, Superberry Albania is already cultivating raspberry, a rare fruit in Albania and has already had the first harvest, in the area of Divjake, southwestern Albania. The project targets contributing to poverty reduction through creation of economic activity, employment and improved income, says the Dutch embassy in Albania.

For Superberry Albania the coming weeks will be an exciting period on how the first harvesting will turn out.  A Dutch farming expert is advising them this first period.

“One of the challenges is to attract enough farmers to get trained and contracted, to get workers insured, the product certification, but also to farmers who will have to cooperate more with each other,” the embassy said.

Instead of going through the whole production chain themselves, this joint venture plans to introduce packaging and distribution for the whole group of farmers. “Working in cooperatives is needed in Albania to scale up production, but given their historic past, people are not really fond of it,” experts say.

Despite some important challenges, the advantage of harvesting twice a year, once outside the common season, access to fertile land and many farmers make it a promising picture for the project to succeed. Interestingly, the project intends to hire mainly women, because they are better pickers.

Lack of organization creates a vulnerable position for farmers in Albania in the value chain, making them an unattractive segment for most banks, a study financed by the Dutch embassy in Tirana has found out.

“Although climate and soils are excellent for farming, targeted agri policies, infrastructure in rural areas, a solid regulatory framework and effective monitoring quality and food safety standards by the government, transparent land ownership systems, access to good quality agri inputs and access to markets, enforceable securities for banks are partly absent or poorly developed in Albania,” the study found.
                    [post_title] => Dutch-Albanian joint venture starts raspberry farm
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121467" align="alignright" width="300"]Prime Minister Rama made the comments at a security conference in Tirana.  Prime Minister Rama made the comments at a security conference in Tirana.[/caption]

TIRANA, May 21 - Prime Minister Edi Rama said at a security conference on Thursday that if Macedonia wants to join NATO in the future, it should fully protect the rights of its ethnic Albanian population.

“Macedonia cannot be part of NATO, without following the letter and the spirit of the Ohrid Agreement,” Rama said, referring to the agreement that ended the ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001, enshrining equal rights for ethnic Albanians.

It is unacceptable for the Albanian government to see delays and "lack of transparency and justice” associated with the “damages suffered by innocent residents of Kumanovo," Rama said.

He added "everyone wants a stable and democratic Macedonia to be part of NATO, but it cannot be a part without guarantees of following the values and principles of the alliance."

Albania has been a NATO member since 2009. Skopje’s bid has been blocked by Athens over the name dispute. Athens does not want Macedonia to use the same name as one of its provinces, saying it implies territorial claims.

There has been increased focus on Macedonia following armed clashes two weeks ago in which eight police officers and 10 gunmen were killed.

Authorities said they had launched an operation on a house used by the gunmen to prevent an attack. Some among the group wore insignia of now-disbanded ethnic Albanian rebel groups that fought against Serb and Macedonian forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Many analysts have expressed concern that the Macedonian government used the clashes to distract the population from the ongoing political crisis in the country

This is a free-to-read web news update. Read more about this topic in our May 22 print edition and in the subscription section.
                    [post_title] => PM hints at NATO veto for Skopje
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121448" align="alignright" width="300"]The activists and supporters rode through Tirana's main boulevard (Photo: Xheni Karaj) The activists and supporters rode through Tirana's main boulevard (Photo: Xheni Karaj)[/caption]

TIRANA, May 17 – Activists from Albania’s gay and lesbian community rode through Tirana’s main boulevard in bicycles on Sunday, carrying the community’s rainbow flag and other symbols, seeking greater acceptance by the society at large and better measures by the government to protect their freedoms.

The rally, the fourth of its kind in Albania, marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which saw events in about 120 countries this year.

In what has turned into an annual event in Albania, the LGBT activists were joined by local and international officials, including the country’s ombudsman and foreign diplomats. However, no political leaders attended.

“We know we are thousands and we protest today also on behalf of those who cannot be here, but who is missing is our Prime Minister Edi Rama and the leader of the opposition Lulzim Basha who know very well to give promises but they always fail to keep them,” said Kristi Pinderi, one of the rally organizers.

Those attending the rally stopped in front of the government headquarters, demanding laws and additional measures to protect their freedoms and human rights.

LGBT organizations have asked the government to improve the Labor Code and other laws to protect them from discrimination and social exclusion.

Activists said young gay and lesbian Albanians face discrimination in schools, and they are often kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families.

In many cases, these young people fall prey to violence, abuse and were not given the opportunity to live freely and with dignity, activists said.

The protesters demanded government help in changing deep societal prejudice in Albanian society about homosexuality.

The rally was accompanied by a police presence, but there were no incidents recorded.

Unlike neighboring countries where such rallies have been attacked or canceled in the past, there have never been incidents in Tirana.
                    [post_title] => LGBT activists seek more rights at annual bicycle rally
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            [post_date] => 2015-06-03 13:35:29
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121708" align="alignright" width="300"]Lushnja Courthouse (Photo: Tirana Times/Handout) Lushnja Courthouse (Photo: Tirana Times/Handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, June 3 – An Albanian court has sentenced a former mid-level education system official to nine years in prison over a scheme that saw her take thousands of euros from teachers looking to get or keep a job.

It is the first conviction of its kind in recent years, after teachers and other state employees had complained for years political operatives acting as state officials demanded cash and other favors for jobs.

The court in the western city of Lushnja sentenced Lisa Tabaku on June 3, after she pleaded guilty. Tabaku served as the head of the Lushnja Regional Education Department.

The court also gave her son three years and another former official one year for their involvement in the scheme.

Tabaku was charged with corruption as a person exercising a public functions and received a harsher punishment because of aggravating circumstances of repeated offenses, the court said.

The former Education Director was arrested in November last year.

Prosecutors said Tabaku would demand 3,000 to 5,000 euros for each teacher's position.

There had been reports this type of scheme had been operating around the country for years. Tabaku had been placed in the position by Albania's ruling Socialist-led coalition.

 
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