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Better instruments needed to fight religious extremism, AIIS study notes

Better instruments needed to fight religious extremism, AIIS study notes

TIRANA, Dec. 16 – Albania needs better instruments to fight the growth of religious extremism, including taking the proper institutional and social-economic measures to protect the most vulnerable communities in which such extremism can find fertile ground, according to a

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Rama apologizes for decorating communist regime’s ‘torturer’ prosecutor

TIRANA, Dec. 17 – In a rare public apology, Prime Minister Edi Rama has expressed regret for decorating an infamous political prosecutor of the communist regime who had violently interrogated two leading dissidents. “I feel obligated today ask for forgiveness

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Berat castle ancient wall collapses sparking protection concerns

Berat castle ancient wall collapses sparking protection concerns

TIRANA, Dec. 15 – The surrounding walls of a 4th century castle in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat, southwestern Albania, have collapsed, raising the alarm over the protection of cultural heritage in treasured destinations such as Berat. The

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Bankers Petroleum announces sharp cut in 2016 investments, production

Bankers Petroleum announces sharp cut in 2016 investments, production

TIRANA, Dec. 15 – The country’s largest foreign investor, Canada-based Bankers Petroleum, has announced a sharp cut in investments and oil production fueled by record low international oil prices and an ongoing tax dispute with the Albanian government which is

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Mandarin cultivation gives new identity to southern villages

Mandarin cultivation gives new identity to southern villages

TIRANA, Dec. 16 – In 2006 there were just around 100 hectares of citrus planted in the Konispol region, in southernmost Albania just off the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint. Today, there are more than 724 hectares, which account

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Op-Ed: Marking 60 years of UN membership, Albania is demonstrating leadership in key areas

Op-Ed: Marking 60 years of UN membership, Albania is demonstrating leadership in key areas

By BRIAN J. WILLIAMS* UN Resident Coordinator in Albania It is an honor to be here today to mark the 60th anniversary of Albania’s membership to the UN. I have just arrived in the country last week, and this is

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Trickle of refugees continues at southern border

Trickle of refugees continues at southern border

TIRANA, Dec. 16 – Police officials at Albania’s southern border with Greece say a trickle of refugees trying to transit to northern Europe from Greece through Albania has continued, but the feared large winter influx has not yet materialized. At

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Op-Ed: Honest judges and prosecutors must speak out in favor of the concept of judicial reform

Op-Ed: Honest judges and prosecutors must speak out in favor of the concept of judicial reform

By U.S. Ambassador DONALD LU* Fifteen years ago an American judge from California visited China.  During a lunch with judges, a young, Chinese judge asked her American counterpart, “What do you do when a politician tries to tell you how to

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Euro 2016 draw: Albania to play hosts France, derby against Switzerland

Euro 2016 draw: Albania to play hosts France, derby against Switzerland

TIRANA, Dec. 13 – Albania will face France, Switzerland and Romania in Group A of the Euro 2016 in a bid to make another surprise campaign after a historic qualification as an outsider. Albania will make its first-ever appearance in

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Skenderbeu end debut Europa League campaign

Skenderbeu end debut Europa League campaign

TIRANA, Dec. 11 – Albania’s Skenderbeu ended their Europa League campaign with a 3-0 home defeat against Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow, finishing bottom in Group H, but making history as the first Albanian club to have made to the group stage of

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 16 - Albania needs better instruments to fight the growth of religious extremism, including taking the proper institutional and social-economic measures to protect the most vulnerable communities in which such extremism can find fertile ground, according to a study published this week by the Albanian Institute for International Studies with the support of the Open Society Foundation.

The study, on the emergence of religious radicalism and extremism in Albania, was made public at the latest AIIS-organized forum to discuss an area of growing concern with experts, the media and the public.

Dr. Enri Hide presented the results of the study on radicalism and extremism in Albania, providing a thorough analysis of how this global phenomenon has manifested itself locally in Albania.

The study looked at how ideological, socio-economic and other factors contribute to radicalism through interviews and research work.

Assessing the risk of religious extremism on a national security level is particularly important and the state and society must be ready to deal with this issue in a proactive manner, the study’s authors suggest.

They add the purpose of the study is to generate recommendations for policy-makers and non-governmental actors.

The report analyses the problem on a global and regional context, by putting Albania on the map as one of the estimated 80 countries of origin for people who have traveled to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and other terrorist group.

Official reports by international intelligence agencies put the number of Albanian citizens who have joined the ISIS group and others in Syria at about 140-150, whereas the digits double when it comes to Kosovo citizens, according to the Ministry of Interior of Kosovo.

A geographical distribution is also made available through the study, where the most problematic areas in terms of fertile ground for recruitment were in Pogradec, Elbasan, where the departures have come from poor rural areas.

The study tries to answer why these people would leave behind Albania’s traditional religious harmony and general disinterest toward religion to join violent Jihadis.

The report notes factors include the socio-economic and educational gap between the communities of origin and most of the country as well as foreign influences starting in the 1990s. High unemployment rate and the overall distrust on the rule of law are also concerns.

A few of those interviewed even put the blame on the Muslim Community, the state-recognized Muslim organization, which they say has failed to keep under its systematic review all of the country’s mosques, thus being unable to control the attempts to establish extremist groups within its community.

After treating religious radicalism as an “import” for so long, Ermir Gjinishi, former vice-director of the Albanian Muslim Community, addressed the issue of the indigenous factor, given the fact that some Albanians have now established a different religious doctrine, discourse, radical views and it is from these groups that the radicals have recruited, he added.

Ilir Dizdari, the head of the official Committee on Religions, said at the forum that out of 727 mosques, there are currently 200 that don’t meet all of the AMC requirements, varying from not having the proper building ownership papers to operating as freelancers without ties to the AMC.

Two imams from these freelance mosques were arrested last year accused of recruiting Albanians to join the fight in Syria. They and other are currently undergoing trial.

Experts noted that unless better de-radicalizing instruments are put in place, extremism could further grow within vulnerable circles, mostly through social media and Internet.

Albania’s image is undoubtedly threatened by the security challenges radicalism is imposing and its negative effects will directly influence foreign investments in Albania, as well as tourism, according to the study.

Another concerning issue is the fact that organized crime entities can operate through radical entities, thus abusing and criminalizing religion.

As a conclusion, developing a thorough strategic plan would be the first step towards identifying and intervening against violent extremism, participation in combats and assuring rehabilitation upon return, according to those attending the forum.

This was the latest study in a series on the matter by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a leading think tank that has researched and rang alarm bells on this matter years earlier.

For context, radical Islam is largely an alien concept in Albania, one of the least religiously devout countries in the world, according to several polls. The country’s Muslim, Christian and nonreligious populations live in full harmony with each-other.

About 57 percent of Albanians declared themselves to be Suni Muslims in the 2011 census. However, less than 10 percent of the Muslim population went to a place of worship during the past year, according to poll numbers. That puts the practicing Muslim population at most at about 160,000 or about 6 percent of the country’s 2.8 million residents. Only a tiny fraction of that number of practicing Muslims holds radical views, according to experts.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 17 – In a rare public apology, Prime Minister Edi Rama has expressed regret for decorating an infamous political prosecutor of the communist regime who had violently interrogated two leading dissidents.

“I feel obligated today ask for forgiveness for the understandable shock about the medals given to the torturers,” Rama said during a visit this week in Shkodra, the northwestern Albanian city known for its anti-communist resistance.

There was fury in many circles in Albania when it became public that the prosecutor of the late Father Zef Pllumbi, a Catholic priest, and Professor Sami Repishti, a leading Albanian American anti-communist dissident, had been give the Medal of Gratitude by the Albanian Ministry of Defense.

Rama’s apology was not unconditional, however, as he tried to shift at least some of the blame on his political rivals.

The prime minister said the name of the prosecutor, Shyqyri Coku, had been in a default list of WWII veterans approved in the 1990s when the opposition Democrats were in power and the default decorations of the list had been an oversight not an intentional attempt to rehabilitate the man who received the medals.

As many political prosecutors under communism, Coku and others had been partisans during WWII and as such had received special financial treatment and default decorations even after the fall of communism, officials explained.

Rrepishti, who escaped from communist Albania in 1959 and led a group of Albanian anti-communist activists in the U.S., told an Albanian newspaper, Panorama, that Coku had been a major in the feared Sigurimi secret police until 1990 and had a history of violence as an interrogator.

“He [Coku] beat up any detainee he felt like it,” Repishti told the newspaper. “He had an evil nature.”

Albanian politicians see any public apology as a sign of weakness and rarely apologize even when faced with tremendous public pressure.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 15 - The surrounding walls of a 4th century castle in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat, southwestern Albania, have collapsed, raising the alarm over the protection of cultural heritage in treasured destinations such as Berat.

The warning is given by the Forum for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage in some pictures posted on social networks.

“A new collapse in the Berat castle on the side overlooking the inhabited areas. The pictures were taken by a group of Japanese tourists who looked at each other in surprise," wrote the forum, also criticizing culture officials of neglect to the country's unique heritage.

Local culture officials described the collapse as not severe and fuelled by last month's heavy rains.

Last January, an ancient surrounding wall at the Butrint archeological park, a UNESCO archaeological site in southern Albania, also collapsed, raising concern over the maintenance of the country’s most important archeological treasure.

Back in 2014, the infrastructure in the castle of UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat was rehabilitated under a €2 million fund by the European Union and the Albanian government, making it more attractive to tourists by restoring the underground infrastructure, characteristic cobbled streets, and the electrical system.

Since 2008, Berat has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list as a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period. Located in central Albania, Berat bears witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities down the centuries. It features a castle, locally known as the Kala, most of which was built in the 13th century, although its origins date back to the 4th century BC. The citadel area numbers many Byzantine churches, mainly from the 13th century, as well as several mosques built under the Ottoman era which began in 1417.

The castle of Berat rises on a rocky hill on the left bank of the Osum river and is accessible only from the south. It is the oldest and most representative monument of the city. After being burned down by the Romans in 200 BC, the walls were strengthened in the fifth century under the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, and were rebuilt during the 6th century under Emperor Justinian and again in the 13th century under the Despot of Epirus, Michael Angelus Comnenus. The churches inside the fortress were largely built from this time onwards and because of their characteristic architecture are preserved as cultural monuments.

The castle hill rises 187 m above the sea level with an area of 9.6 hectares. There are 24 towers of different forms and sizes along the impressive Hellenistic and medieval walls. The interior once contained 42 churches and chapels, though now there are only 8 intact shrines and the ruins of 2 mosques. The interior of the castle is still inhabited today.

Berat bears witness to a town which was fortified but open, and was over a long period inhabited by craftsmen and merchants. Its urban centre reflects a vernacular housing tradition of the Balkans, examples of which date mainly from the late 18th and the 19th centuries. This tradition has been adapted to suit the town’s life styles, with tiered houses on the slopes, which are predominantly horizontal in layout, and make abundant use of the entering daylight, says UNESCO.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 15 – The country’s largest foreign investor, Canada-based Bankers Petroleum, has announced a sharp cut in investments and oil production fueled by record low international oil prices and an ongoing tax dispute with the Albanian government which is expected to have negative effects in the 2016 government revenue.

In its 2016 budget, Bankers Petroleum says it plans to invest $56 million in its Albania operations in 2016, down from a revised $153 million in 2015 and a record high of $291 million in 2014, hitting a record low since 2009.

The company anticipates the 2016 average production levels to decline by about 15 percent compared to 2015 when average production for the first three quarters of 2015 dropped by 5 percent to 19,805 barrels of oil per day (bopd).

Average oil production reached a record high of 20,690 bopd in 2014 as average realized prices were at $77.26/barrel compared to $42.3/barrel in the first three quarters of this year.

“We have put together a strategic and fully funded capital program that leverages our operational flexibility while prioritizing the strength of the company’s balance sheet. This plan will maintain balanced spending throughout the year, utilizing available cash flow to position the company well at the end of 2016 and beyond,” said David French, the company’s president and CEO as quoted in a statement.

Bankers says its drilling activity will be conditional upon a moderate recovery in oil prices in the second half of 2016.

The company will also invest $3.5 million in its newly acquired oil block in Hungary to fund a 3D seismic shoot.

The company’s investment and production plans will also affect government revenue in the royalty tax it collects from oil sales. With international oil and base metal prices at a record low affecting the country’s exports, the Albanian government has been suffering a sharp cut in income from the mining royalty, the key tax Albania collects from oil and mining production in the country.

Data published by the customs administration shows the mining royalty which is levied at a rate of 4 to 10 percent, dropped by a sharp 46.5 percent to 2.6 billion lek (€18.3 mln) in the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period in 2014, being one of the key reasons for the underperforming government revenue during this year and registering the lowest level since 2011.

Few days ago, Canada-based Bankers Petroleum reached a deal with the Albanian government over a $57 million tax dispute that will allow the country’s largest investor to regain control of its Albanian bank accounts and operate under normal conditions by paying the disputed amount in instalments while expecting the results of a third-party audit and a possible solution by Paris-based ICC International Court of Arbitration.

Bankers, whose shares at the Toronto Stock Exchange after the escalation of the conflict with the Albanian authorities lost 65 percent during the past couple of months hitting a six-year low of C$0.93 on Dec. 14, has agreed to pay a 10 percent deposit of the original $57 million tax assessment and make monthly payments of $4.27 million during 2016.

Eleven years after launching its operations in the Patos-Marinze heavy oilfield under a 25-year concession deal with the Albanian government, Bankers Petroleum has not started paying profit tax yet, which under Albanian law, companies operating in the oil industry pay at a 50 percent rate only after meeting their investment costs.

Bankers Petroleum says it has invested $1.4 billion during its 11 years of operations in Albania, becoming the largest foreign investor and employing over 1,500 people.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 16 - In 2006 there were just around 100 hectares of citrus planted in the Konispol region, in southernmost Albania just off the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint. Today, there are more than 724 hectares, which account for 12,000 metric tons of mandarins. Since only 50 percent of trees are currently producing, production levels in the coming years could double, say USAID representatives who have been working with growers and the community since 2007  to revitalize citrus production after the collapse of the industry in the 1990s. Currently, USAID support is focused on improving yield, quality, and safety through training and assistance to growers, as well as improving market infrastructure and linkages.

The Mursi village of the Konispol municipality was the host of the Mandarin Festival for the fourth year in a row, in a celebration to promote Albanian citrus production, coinciding with the citrus harvest and the culmination of a year of effort by citrus growers in southern Albania. This region has significant citrus production which is mainly exported to Kosovo, but also Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Serbia.

Dhimo Kote, a former head of the Xarre commune and a citrus entrepreneur, says the cooperative citrus farms, initially notorious because of the legacy of the communist regime, have helped increase production and it is important for the cultivators to stay united as a strong community.

“It is time to rally together in order to better benefit from our own experiences and to speak with the same voice in order to grow our sales and keep investing in more orchards. For the moment let’s enjoy the fruit of our hard labor,” Kote says.

“We are the main supplier not only in the domestic market, but also to export. People are very interested because of providing a solution to market supply and employing themselves,” he adds.

The entrepreneur says the mandarin yield has been very good this year, but there are challenges with new trees to come in production and new spaces to cultivate.

Since the first commercial cooperative was established in 1995 in Xarra, the number of farmers who have joined forces to work together has increased from 7 to 350. The cooperative employs about 400 people, 250 of whom from outside the local area.

Shuaip Beqiri, the mayor of the new Konispol municipality, says that together with USAID they are working on new varieties so that they eliminate the one-month production boom.

The only commercial citrus production in Albania is mandarin production in Saranda district, in particular in the area around Xarre, Mursi, and Konispol at the Albanian-Greek border.

Citrus orchards grew strongly in communist post-war Albania (1944-1991), from a national total of less than 100,000 trees to more than 1 million by 1990.

The land reform law of 1991 initiated a privatization process that turned these large state and cooperative citrus farms, an estimated 3,000ha, into thousands of small plots that were part of multi-plot, privately-owned farms of on average 1.2 ha. Most of these farms became essentially unspecialized agricultural family units producing a wide range of crops for household consumption.

The citrus sub-sector reached a low point in terms of size and performance in 1998, right after the 1997 financial collapse of the country.

Between 1998 and 2008, driven by new plantings and improved practices, aggregated citrus output nearly quadrupled to around 8,400 metric tons, or 85 percent of the 1990 volume, according to government statistics.

Some of the new production has come from a new group of emerging farmers in the Saranda district who have taken on mandarin production on a commercial basis and already represent 20 percent of national citrus production, and nearly 100 percent of the commercial citrus production.

These emerging commercial farmers in Saranda District provide the seedling from which the revival of Albania’s citrus sub-sector can be grown. This growth would be fueled by good profit margins and vast market potential. A preliminary profitability analysis has indicated that at competitive farm-gate prices, gross margins of 40-60 percent can be achieved in mandarin production in Albania. Market growth opportunities exist in both the domestic and export market. With the right value chain strategies and commitment from all stakeholders in the sub-sector, this growth potential can be realized, says USAID in a study.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_125338" align="alignright" width="300"]Brian Williams, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Albania, speaks at an event to mark Albania’s 60 years of UN membership. (Photo: UNDP Albania) Brian Williams, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Albania, speaks at an event to mark Albania’s 60 years of UN membership. (Photo: UNDP Albania)[/caption]

By BRIAN J. WILLIAMS*
UN Resident Coordinator in Albania

It is an honor to be here today to mark the 60th anniversary of Albania’s membership to the UN. I have just arrived in the country last week, and this is my first public event. I cannot imagine a greater privilege than starting my function on the proverbial birthday of my organization in your country.

Thank you for this auspicious welcome! During these past six decades – indeed during the seven decades of the existence of the United Nations itself - the world has seen much progress and change. The cold war has ended. Many nations under colonial rule have become independent and sovereign. Great strides have been made in reducing poverty, not least through the Millennium Development Goals, which our Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has stated has “produced the most successful anti-poverty movement in history”. More than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. A greater proportion of our children – especially girls – attend school than ever before. Democracy has proliferated. A United Nations Human Rights Council has been established, and along with 2 it a Universal Periodic Review process, which examines the degree of protection of human rights on a nation-by-nation basis regularly and systematically.

And there have been many, many other success stories.

It is important to remind ourselves of these achievements, because we might be forgiven some days for being discouraged. Our world is so wealthy that there should be no one at all in extreme poverty, there should be no one who is hungry, and yet there are too many of both. Violent conflict is far too prevalent, not just in the headline-grabbing war in Syria but on all continents. Outbreaks of disease – such as the case of Ebola last year – are not stopped rapidly enough; globally we have much scientific brilliance, but it is not always focused on the problems that preoccupy the world’s peoples.

In this dynamic world, the United Nations – the very embodiment of the spirit of positive collective action - is eager to reform and evolve, drawing on global knowledge to better support nations as they build on successes and face new challenges.

Over the past two decades, Albania’s relations with the UN have evolved and deepened dramatically, developing cooperation and partnerships in a wide variety of areas, including in support of democratic governance and the rule of law, increased civic participation, closing of gender gaps, improved health and labor standards, increased public access to information, environmental protection and disaster preparedness, support for expanded education and the rights of children, and the promotion of human rights in general.

Albania has played a significant role in the promotion of international peace and security. The country has an unbroken record of service to blue-helmet peacekeeping after the democratic changes in 1990. Albania has joined UN initiatives that aim to fight terrorism and violent extremism, including the ratification of all twelve United Nations anti-terrorist conventions and protocols. Albania has also been at the forefront of regional security cooperation. Although small, the country represents a powerful voice for democracy, equality, peace and development.

This jubilee finds Albania as a first time member of the UN Human Rights Council. This is a well-deserved recognition of Albania’s commitment to advance human rights. And it is impressive the number of conventions in the area of human rights ratified by Albania: 278.

Albania has demonstrated leadership in promoting reform within the United Nations itself. Albania asked to pilot the Delivering as One UN initiative, back in 2007. In this way, Albania should be proud to say that it is helping to shape and guide United Nations Reform around the world.

At the end of September of this year, a major milestone was marked: The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This new Agenda features a universal, transformative and integrated set of goals and targets, called the Sustainable Development Goals. They seek to promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth, social protection and a healthy environment. Here again, Albania demonstrated leadership, both by volunteering to sound out the views of its citizens during the development of the goals – and thereby influencing the negotiation of the goals themselves – and by volunteering to pilot the implementation of Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

However, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it, what counts now is translating promises on paper into change on the ground. In support of the Government’s National Strategy for Development and Integration, the UN is committed – through the development of its new United Nations Development Assistance Framework for Albania 2017-2020 – to assisting all Albanians in the achievement of these new goals.

And just this weekend, yet another milestone was achieved: the agreement in Paris by all nations to address the threat of climate change in a fundamentally more aggressive manner. Even though Albania’s current greenhouse gas emissions are relatively low, the impact of climate change is evident. And here again, Albania is demonstrating its global good citizenship; from Paris the Government immediately issued a supportive statement, noting its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 11.5% by the year 2030.

There are several measures that the UN is working on, together with the Government of Albania, to address climate change mitigation and adaptation, and we look forward to assisting further the implementation of Albania’s national climate change plan, submitted in the run up to Paris.

Partnerships are the way of the future, and leadership makes the difference. I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute to our main partner- the Government of Albania for the leadership, vision and drive to action and for the trust they have extended to the United Nations in Albania.

Our partnership goes beyond our excellent working relations with the central and local government. We very much value the partnership with non-governmental organizations, scholars, private sectors and citizens.

This Jubilee finds Albania an EU candidate country - another step forward towards the achievement of the European aspirations of Albanians. The progress over the past years has been remarkable, with ambitious and comprehensive reforms. However, challenges remain and the ambitious plans – just like the Sustainable Development Goals themselves – require implementation to be meaningful. The United Nations Country team stands ready to assist Albania in its journey towards European Integration.

Today, when we celebrate 60 years of Albanian membership of the UN, we renew our commitment to what the United Nations stands for—a global partnership for freedom and development, equality and human rights, peace and security.

These were the remarks of Brian Williams, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Albania, at an event to mark Albania’s 60 years of UN membership on Dec. 14 at the Albanian  Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The headline has been chose by Tirana Times.

 
                    [post_title] => Op-Ed: Marking 60 years of UN membership, Albania is demonstrating leadership in key areas
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                    [post_date] => 2015-12-16 10:43:00
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_125335" align="alignright" width="300"]At the largest border crossing with Greece, Kakavija, police said they detained 23 foreign nationals who had illegally crossed into Albania in the past two weeks. (Photo: Archives) At the largest border crossing with Greece, Kakavija, police said they detained 23 foreign nationals who had illegally crossed into Albania in the past two weeks. (Photo: Archives)[/caption]

TIRANA, Dec. 16 – Police officials at Albania's southern border with Greece say a trickle of refugees trying to transit to northern Europe from Greece through Albania has continued, but the feared large winter influx has not yet materialized.

At the largest border crossing with Greece, Kakavija, police said they detained 23 foreign nationals who had illegally crossed the border into Albania in the past two weeks.

Police in the nearest city, Gjirokastra, said the detainees were Moroccan nationals trying to get to Montenegro on the way to Germany.

Three Iranian nationals were detained at at another crossing, Qafebota, south of Saranda, according to border officials.

Police said that those who say they are refugees and don't want to go back to Greece are sent to a detention center on the outskirts of Tirana for further checks.

Following a decision of the Serbian and Macedonian authorities to allow only refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to cross their borders unimpeded, the Albanian – Greek border is emerging as an option for other nationalities.

Albanian authorities have been on alert for several months for the possible arrival of large numbers of refugees escaping war in Syria and elsewhere.

Two military bases near Gjirokastra and Korca, the two largest Albanian cities near the Greek border, have been set as potential welcoming centers for the refugees, but Albanian officials say if the country is hit with the numbers Macedonia and Serbia have seen over the past few months, it will not be able to cope.

Refugees have so far largely avoided Albania because the mountainous terrain makes it difficult to find a direct route north over land.

However, Albanian and international officials are worried that could change as crossing elsewhere becomes difficult. The largest worry is that desperate refugees could try another dangerous sea crossing toward Italy from the Albanian coast.
                    [post_title] => Trickle of refugees continues at southern border
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_124753" align="alignright" width="300"]U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu speaks at an event in Tirana earlier this year. (Photo: U.S. Embassy/Facebook)  U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu speaks at an event in Tirana earlier this year. (Photo: U.S. Embassy/Facebook)[/caption]

By U.S. Ambassador DONALD LU*

Fifteen years ago an American judge from California visited China.  During a lunch with judges, a young, Chinese judge asked her American counterpart, “What do you do when a politician tries to tell you how to rule, or someone offers you a bribe?”  The American judge told her, “I don’t know.”  He went on to explain that in his two decades on the judicial bench, he had never been offered a bribe nor been told by a politician how to rule on a case.

Not because there aren’t some corrupt officials and judges in the United States, but because the risks of being exposed and the consequences of corruption are so high that few are willing to take that risk. When American judges are caught, they are put in jail for a very long time.

In terms of Albania, I am aware that I am not popular among some judges here.  That is understandable as I have said some brutally honest things about your profession.  So, today allow me to speak differently to two very different groups of judges – corrupt judges and honest judges.

First, to the corrupt judges:  I am guessing that most of you would not identify yourselves as corrupt judges.  Let me say this in Albanian to be clear.  My test for corruption is a simple one:  If you have ever taken money or favors in exchange for a court decision, you are a corrupt judge. Even if you have only done this once, you have broken the law and are not fit to serve as a judge.

One other simple criterion, if you look down now at your wrist and you have a watch that costs more than my car, you are probably a corrupt judge. I encourage you to leave this profession immediately.  You may also be put in jail soon.

Second, to the honest judges: Have faith, change is coming.

I believe that the majority of judges and prosecutors in this country are honest, hard-working professionals who want to be proud of their profession.

I know that it’s difficult to be an honest judge.  You don’t work for much money, and there are pressures from every direction to make important decisions for all the wrong reasons.

Honest judges, like you, deserve to work in a system that rewards integrity.  You deserve to be promoted based on merit and experience.  And you should become the new symbol of the system, in place of the image today of corrupt judges wearing Cartier watches.

Honest judges also know that changing the justice system will not be easy.  Major, thoughtful reforms are necessary to reduce corruption, make the system more independent and more accountable.

Now is the time for honest judges and prosecutors to speak out in favor of the concept of judicial reform and against the corrupt politicians and incompetent judges who stand in the way of change.

You may agree or disagree with the current judicial reform proposal.  That is normal in any democracy.  Please know that the United States and the European Union have been active drafters of every part of the reform and we endorse fully the current package of reforms.  We also know that after the 19 roundtables and the input this month from the Venice Commission, this reform proposal will be changed to ensure that it reflects the best ideas of society and international standards.

In closing, let me ask you a question: “What do you do when a politician tries to tell you how to decide, or when someone offers you a bribe?”  I look forward to the day in Albania when the answer could be “I don’t know.  It never happened to me.”

* These were the remarks of U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu at the National Judicial Conference in Tirana on Dec. 14, 2015. The headline has been selected by Tirana Times.

 

 
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                    [post_content] => albTIRANA, Dec. 13 - Albania will face France, Switzerland and Romania in Group A of the Euro 2016 in a bid to make another surprise campaign after a historic qualification as an outsider.

Albania will make its first-ever appearance in a major football competition on June 11, 2016 against Switzerland in what is considered a derby as the Albanian side features as many as seven Swiss-born players while five of the Swiss internationals have Albanian roots. The odd thing about this match is that two Albanian brothers will be playing for different sides in the derby in an encounter they had hoped to avoid.

Granit Xhaka, who plays as midfielder for German club Borussia Mönchengladbach will face his elder brother, Basel defender Taulant Xhaka, registering the first case two brothers play on opposite teams in a European cup. A similar case happened in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups when the Boateng brothers faced each other in the Germany-Ghana fixtures.

“Personally, I didn't want this draw. It is a special match above all for me as I am going to play against my brother," said Swiss international of Kosovo roots Granit Xhaka.

Albania's major opponents in Group A are favorites France whom the national side face for a second time after the "centralized friendlies' with no points in the Euro qualifiers. Albania got a goalless draw and won 1-0 at home surprising the Euro 2016 hosts in the two friendlies. Two Albanian players, captain Lorik Cana and midfielder Ermir Lenjanni play Nantes in French league 1.

[caption id="attachment_125321" align="alignright" width="300"]xhaka bros Granit Xhaka, who plays as midfielder for German club Borussia Mönchengladbach will face his elder brother, Basel defender Taulant Xhaka in the Albania-Switzerland fixture, registering the first case two brothers play on opposite teams in a European cup.[/caption]

The fixture against France will also be special for much-travelled captain Cana who spent most of his career in top French clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille in the 2000s and also played in England, Turkey and Italy before returning to what he calls his second homeland last summer to play Nantes.

“It is understandable that it is special for me to take part in an important competition which will be Albania's first, in my second homeland and in addition against France in Marseille, only 15 minutes from my home," said Cana.

Albania will play its third group match against Romania, one of the most frequent opponents which the national side are yet to beat.

Speaking after last weekend's draw, Albanian-Italian coach Gianni De Biasi said he was aware of the quality of the opponents and the tough fixtures, but assured his team will give the best.

"Our advantage is that there's no pressure on us, so everything we do will be an achievement. This is a very important experience for us, and we'll try to show that because the players are proud to be taking part in this edition of the European Championship," said De Biasi.

Last October, Albania beat Armenia 3-0 to claim direct qualification in the 2016 UEFA European Championship in a decisive last qualifier for the second place in Group I of the Euro qualifiers to avoid play-offs in case of a possible third place.

Group I also featured leaders Portugal, third-placed Denmark and Serbia and Armenia.
                    [post_title] => Euro 2016 draw: Albania to play hosts France, derby against Switzerland
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                    [post_date] => 2015-12-11 12:44:46
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                    [post_content] => skbTIRANA, Dec. 11 - Albania's Skenderbeu ended their Europa League campaign with a 3-0 home defeat against Russia's Lokomotiv Moscow, finishing bottom in Group H, but making history as the first Albanian club to have made to the group stage of a major European competition.

The five-time consecutive Albanian champions produced another lackluster performance to concede two late goals in their last group stage fixture to finish bottom with only three points from a historic victory against Portugal's Sporting CP. The Portuguese came from behind one goal to secure a qualifying victory against Turkey's Besiktas in their last match on Thursday.

Last November, Skenderbeu avenged their disastrous 5-1 first-leg defeat away to Sporting with a 3-0 home win, registering their first Europea League surprise victory.

Lokomotiv Moscow and Sporting made it to the Europa League last 32.

Skenderbeu's coach Mirel Josa said he was disappointed by the performance and worried over the departure of some of the team's stars.

Skenderbeu's Nigerian striker Peter Olayinka has reached a deal with top Belgium club Gent for a reported €1 million, setting a record transfer fee for an Albanian club. Gent claimed a historic qualification this week, becoming the first Belgian side to progress to the Champions League knockout stage.

Albanian international Hamdi Salihi is also rumored for a move in the January transfer window.

Skenderbeu became the first Albanian club to qualify for the Champions League play-offs after beating Moldova’s Milsami 4-0 on aggregate in the competition’s third qualifying round, automatically securing a place in the less prestigious Europa League group stage.

Skenderbeu entered the Europa League after failing to qualify in the more prestigious UEFA Champions League after losing to Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb in the play-off stage.

The Albanian reigning champions, named after national hero Skanderbeg, will now focus on the Albanian championship where they rank second, two points behind leaders Partizani.

 
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 16 - Albania needs better instruments to fight the growth of religious extremism, including taking the proper institutional and social-economic measures to protect the most vulnerable communities in which such extremism can find fertile ground, according to a study published this week by the Albanian Institute for International Studies with the support of the Open Society Foundation.

The study, on the emergence of religious radicalism and extremism in Albania, was made public at the latest AIIS-organized forum to discuss an area of growing concern with experts, the media and the public.

Dr. Enri Hide presented the results of the study on radicalism and extremism in Albania, providing a thorough analysis of how this global phenomenon has manifested itself locally in Albania.

The study looked at how ideological, socio-economic and other factors contribute to radicalism through interviews and research work.

Assessing the risk of religious extremism on a national security level is particularly important and the state and society must be ready to deal with this issue in a proactive manner, the study’s authors suggest.

They add the purpose of the study is to generate recommendations for policy-makers and non-governmental actors.

The report analyses the problem on a global and regional context, by putting Albania on the map as one of the estimated 80 countries of origin for people who have traveled to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and other terrorist group.

Official reports by international intelligence agencies put the number of Albanian citizens who have joined the ISIS group and others in Syria at about 140-150, whereas the digits double when it comes to Kosovo citizens, according to the Ministry of Interior of Kosovo.

A geographical distribution is also made available through the study, where the most problematic areas in terms of fertile ground for recruitment were in Pogradec, Elbasan, where the departures have come from poor rural areas.

The study tries to answer why these people would leave behind Albania’s traditional religious harmony and general disinterest toward religion to join violent Jihadis.

The report notes factors include the socio-economic and educational gap between the communities of origin and most of the country as well as foreign influences starting in the 1990s. High unemployment rate and the overall distrust on the rule of law are also concerns.

A few of those interviewed even put the blame on the Muslim Community, the state-recognized Muslim organization, which they say has failed to keep under its systematic review all of the country’s mosques, thus being unable to control the attempts to establish extremist groups within its community.

After treating religious radicalism as an “import” for so long, Ermir Gjinishi, former vice-director of the Albanian Muslim Community, addressed the issue of the indigenous factor, given the fact that some Albanians have now established a different religious doctrine, discourse, radical views and it is from these groups that the radicals have recruited, he added.

Ilir Dizdari, the head of the official Committee on Religions, said at the forum that out of 727 mosques, there are currently 200 that don’t meet all of the AMC requirements, varying from not having the proper building ownership papers to operating as freelancers without ties to the AMC.

Two imams from these freelance mosques were arrested last year accused of recruiting Albanians to join the fight in Syria. They and other are currently undergoing trial.

Experts noted that unless better de-radicalizing instruments are put in place, extremism could further grow within vulnerable circles, mostly through social media and Internet.

Albania’s image is undoubtedly threatened by the security challenges radicalism is imposing and its negative effects will directly influence foreign investments in Albania, as well as tourism, according to the study.

Another concerning issue is the fact that organized crime entities can operate through radical entities, thus abusing and criminalizing religion.

As a conclusion, developing a thorough strategic plan would be the first step towards identifying and intervening against violent extremism, participation in combats and assuring rehabilitation upon return, according to those attending the forum.

This was the latest study in a series on the matter by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a leading think tank that has researched and rang alarm bells on this matter years earlier.

For context, radical Islam is largely an alien concept in Albania, one of the least religiously devout countries in the world, according to several polls. The country’s Muslim, Christian and nonreligious populations live in full harmony with each-other.

About 57 percent of Albanians declared themselves to be Suni Muslims in the 2011 census. However, less than 10 percent of the Muslim population went to a place of worship during the past year, according to poll numbers. That puts the practicing Muslim population at most at about 160,000 or about 6 percent of the country’s 2.8 million residents. Only a tiny fraction of that number of practicing Muslims holds radical views, according to experts.
            [post_title] => Better instruments needed to fight religious extremism, AIIS study notes
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