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Underground Gjirokastra tunnel becomes tourist attraction

Underground Gjirokastra tunnel becomes tourist attraction

TIRANA, Aug. 20 – An underground tunnel built by the former politically imprisoned in Gjirokastra, has become a tourist attraction in Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The visitors come mainly from former communist countries and are amazed at the

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Worried about security in stadiums, FSHF to issue personalized tickets

Worried about security in stadiums, FSHF to issue personalized tickets

TIRANA, Aug. 20 – The official governing body of Albanian football, the FSHF, has announced that it would take new security measures to avoid incidents during matches of the national team, starting with the return qualifying match between Albania and

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Czech volunteers revitalize isolated northern Albanian mountain village

Czech volunteers revitalize isolated northern Albanian mountain village

TIRANA, Aug. 11 – A group of Czech volunteers fond of exploring northern Albania have teamed up to establish the Albanian Challenge not for profit association aimed at revitalizing the isolated Curraj i Eperm village in the northeastern region of

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Skenderbeu to face Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb in Champions League play-off

Skenderbeu to face Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb in Champions League play-off

TIRANA, Aug. 13 – Albania’s Skenderbeu will face Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb in its historic Champions League play-off as the first Albanian team to have made it to this stage of Europe’s most prestigious football competition for clubs. The two sides

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Albania climbs to historic 22nd in August FIFA rankings

Albania climbs to historic 22nd in August FIFA rankings

TIRANA, Aug. 6 – For the very first time Albania’s national football team has made it to the world’s top 30 following a surprise positive performance in its Euro 2016 qualifiers. Albania climbed 14 places to a historic high of

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New mayor promises to clean up littered capital

New mayor promises to clean up littered capital

TIRANA, Aug. 6 – Tirana’s new mayor, Erion Veliaj, is a man with a mission: To make Tirana the cleanest capital in the Balkans. He has started his new job with the promise to clean up the city’s public areas,

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Skenderbeu becomes first Albanian club to reach Champions League play-off

Skenderbeu becomes first Albanian club to reach Champions League play-off

TIRANA, Aug. 6 – Skenderbeu has become 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. The Albanian five-time consecutive champions won 2-0 in the

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Q&A: Work on reforms, don’t dwell on EU ‘enlargement fatigue,’ Norwegian ambassador says

Q&A: Work on reforms, don’t dwell on EU ‘enlargement fatigue,’ Norwegian ambassador says

The region’s European perspective is clear, and rule of law, an inclusive justice reform and regional cooperation are key areas for further progress, says Ambassador Jan Braathu, Norway’s top diplomat for Albania and Kosovo. He spoke to Tirana Times about

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German dream sours for thousands of Albanian would-be migrants

German dream sours for thousands of Albanian would-be migrants

In the hopes of stemming the tide of asylum seekers from Albania, Germany wants to designate the small Balkan republic as a ‘safe country,’ which makes it possible for German authorities to quickly deport thousands of people deemed to be

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Veliaj sworn in as Tirana mayor

TIRANA, June 30 – Erion Veliaj has been sworn in as Tirana’s new mayor, taking office after the new municipal council was formed Thursday. “The real challenge for us is to plan for the Tirana of the next 10 or

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Aug. 20 - An underground tunnel built by the former politically imprisoned in Gjirokastra, has become a tourist attraction in Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The visitors come mainly from former communist countries and are amazed at the underground passages that would serve as a shelter for the Albanian communist elite in case of a possible Western attack which also urged the Albanian late dictator Enver Hoxha to order the construction of some 500,000 bunkers nationwide.

Temperatures inside the tunnel are at 18 degrees and lighting is modest making only part of the tunnel accessible to tourists, reports VoA in the local Albanian service.

Skerdi Thomai, a tourist official at the municipality of Gjirokastra, describes the tunnel as a shelter which was built between the 1960 and 1970s in 15 years to protect the local political elite from a possible nuclear assault.

The 800-metre long tunnel linked the two most important headquarters of the local communist leaders, the Party's Committee and the Executive Committee.

The tunnel has about 100 rooms, including offices for the party officials and even the notorious prosecutors of that time.

Representing a history of repression and intrigue for many Gjirokastra residents, the tunnels had been looted and left to decay since the end of communism in Albania. But, to one local NGO, the Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization (GCDO), the tunnels provide an opportunity to educate Albanians and tourists about the unpopular history of communism in the country between 1946 and 1991.

Inscribed on UNESCO as a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period, Gjirokastra, situated in the Drinos river valley in southern Albania, features a series of outstanding two-story houses which were developed in the 17th century. The town also retains a bazaar, an 18th-century mosque and two churches of the same period. The 13th-century citadel provides the focal point of the town with its typical tower houses.
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                    [post_content] => elbasanarenaTIRANA, Aug. 20 – The official governing body of Albanian football, the FSHF, has announced that it would take new security measures to avoid incidents during matches of the national team, starting with the return qualifying match between Albania and Portugal on Sept. 4.

The measures come ahead of what is expected to be a heated return game between Albania and Serbia in October. The game between the two countries last year  had to be abandoned due to violence in a Belgrade stadium.

As part of a package of measures designed to improve safety and security at the country’s football stadiums, FSHF said that starting with the Albania vs. Portugal Euro 2016 qualification match, each ticket bought will need to be assigned to an eligible ID before the ticket purchase can be completed.

All ticket holders will have to present an identification document, either a biometric passport or official ID card before being allowed into the stadium, the football officials said.

Rigorous safety checks will be carried at the entrance of every stadium and any person who fails to show an ID will be denied entry, they added.

 
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                    [post_content] => czech uraTIRANA, Aug. 11 - A group of Czech volunteers fond of exploring northern Albania have teamed up to establish the Albanian Challenge not for profit association aimed at revitalizing the isolated Curraj i Eperm village in the northeastern region of Tropoja.

“We are young people, mostly students, who want to spend their spare time actively and try to achieve something rarely attempted before. We are neither a company, nor a humanitarian organization. To give our activities legal form we established the Association for the advancement of Curraj i Eperm valley. We don't limit ourselves to people from the Czech Republic, we expect international participation on our projects,” they say.

In a video posted on their Albanian Challenge website, the Czech volunteers who are working to raise funds on building infrastructure in the depopulated Curraj i Eperm, describe the village as “separated from the world by a 40 km dam, by an impassible river gorge and by a 1600m-high mountain range.”

“It takes two days to get there but there is not a more beautiful place in Europe for adventurers and romantics,” says the Czech volunteers whose most immediate project is building a bridge destroyed by floods.

“This place has its wild beauty and its inner peace as well. Life is very difficult here for the local people, they leave to cities and the village decays. If the basic infrastructure will not be renewed, everyone will leave. We are prepared to stop this process by implementing our projects,” they say.

Building a tourist infrastructure in a valley amidst 2000-meter high mountain ranges and marking 130 kilometers of tourist trails in the mountains of North Albania –are only two of many particular plans within a project created by a group of young Czech volunteers, who are willing to lead their efforts towards opening up a forgotten part of the Albanian Alps as well as to save the declining, today almost uninhabited, village of Curraj i Epërm.

A group of students from Brno, Czech Republic went for an expedition into the North-Albanian mountains for the first time in July 2014. Their journey led them through the almost abandoned village of Curraj i Epërm, which has remained for many years merely, cut off from the outside world. Their contact with the village and surrounding area led to a fascination. Therefore, they decided to make the area more accessible to larger numbers of tourists and prevent the village’s decline. The base of volunteers and adventurers engaged in this project started to grow rapidly afterwards, with currently more than 100 people, working their best for the ambitious Albanian Challenge project.

The plans to help the village and its surroundings include marking the tourist trails (virtually non-existent until now) in a very demanding mountainous terrain, the creation of a tourist base,  the rehabilitation of the local church in Curraj i Epërm,  or enabling visitors and inhabitants alike to cross the village’s river without having to set foot in the water. The tourist trails marked in the surroundings of the village will create the most sophisticated network in all of Albania. Last but not least, it is also important to mention a unique network of caves and several kilometers long cave system in the area, that hasn’t been completely explored yet, and may very well serve as a major attraction of the zone, they say.

The volunteers are spending more than three weeks’ time in Albania this month. Their aim is to make the village of Curraj i Epërm a place worth returning to, not only for themselves, but also for other adventurous tourists from all over the world, saying that “it is immensely surprising, that a location of such natural and cultural beauty is still virtually unknown.”

Curraj i Eperm

Curraj Eperm is a village in the mountains of Northern Albania that suffers from massive depopulation because of the loss of hydroelectric power station and bridge. The village is very remote because of difficult mountainous terrain and the Komani Lake and people are leaving it. “We want to stop and reverse this process with the Albanian Challenge project. The best argument in our favor is that in the neighbouring valleys are located villages Theth and Valbona, which were in very similar situation a few years ago, but became sought-after destinations for tourists and local inhabitants gained a reason to stay.”

The number of inhabitants of Curraj Eperm has been declining so rapidly in the past few years that the village is on the brink of disappearing. The last few inhabitants have not been able to repair the basic infrastructure of the village. But without the basic infrastructure (dry-foot access, electricity) and the possibility to earn some money, even the last inhabitants will shortly leave.

“Most of the inhabitants already know about our plans and the reactions that we received were very positive and they are excited. The mayor of Curraj Eperm is very thrilled that we are helping his village and the Czech embassy in Tirana also expressed its support for Albanian Challenge,” representatives of the Association say.

Asked about the risk of the destination losing its charm because of mass tourism, volunteers say

“we're not afraid that tourists would come in mass numbers. The basic filter is that who wants to get to Curraj Eperm must travel about 40 km by ferry and then hike for about a day through demanding mountain terrain not accessible by any vehicle. We presume that tourists in small numbers who will use services provided by locals (accommodation, food) can help the village survive.”

Support the project on albanianchallenge.cz
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                    [post_content] => skendTIRANA, Aug. 13 - Albania's Skenderbeu will face Croatia's Dinamo Zagreb in its historic Champions League play-off as the first Albanian team to have made it to this stage of Europe's most prestigious football competition for clubs.

The two sides are meeting for the first time in European competition and it is also Skenderbeu's first encounter with Croatia's most successful club.

"Skënderbeu are through to their first play-off and are sure to make Albanian history, since they will become the first Albanian club to appear in a major UEFA club competition group stage regardless of the outcome against Dinamo," wrote UEFA, Europe's football governing body, on its website.

Skenderbeu, who have been unbeaten in seven European home games, will host Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday evening, August 19, at the Elbasan Arena stadium in the first leg of the Champions League play-offs.

The five-time Albanian consecutive champions lost the Albanian Supercup against Laçi on penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw on Wednesday night but Albanian coach Mirel Josa is optimistic of a historic qualification for the southeastern Albanian club of Korça.

“I was in general satisfied with the team. We made some changes and this not because we underestimated Laçi but because we were thinking of Dinamo Zagreb all the time. I had no strategy in misleading Dinamo with the performance because they have also seen us in previous matches," Josa told reporters.

Skenderbeu was lucky again to be drawn against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League play-offs as the Croatian champions are facing a tough start in their championship and the club's reputation has been marred by arrest of its two bosses on suspicion of tax evasion and bribery.

Both clubs feature Albanian and Croatian players.

Skënderbeu's Croatian defender Marko Radas came through the Dinamo academy yet never made a professional appearance for the club.

Several other Skënderbeu players have Croatian league experience including Sabien Lilaj, Arbër Abilaliaj and Bulgarian forward Ventsislav Hristov.

Midfielder Lilaj played alongside Dinamo's Domagoj Antolić and Josip Pivarić at Lokomotiva.

Dinamo boast Albanian talent in the form of 18-year-old midfielder Endri Çekiçi, an Albanian Under-21 international. His father, Ylli Çekiçi, is a former Skënderbeu player.

Albanian-Macedonian Dinamo midfielder Arijan Ademi was born in Croatia and plays international football for Macedonia.

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.

The club has already made history in European football as they have already automatically qualified for the less prestigious Europa League group stage even if they fail to qualify in the Champions League play-offs.

Much of the club’s European success is also dedicated to striker Hamdi Salihi who has joined the club only recently but proved decisive in the club’s success with his goals. The striker who has played in Austria, U.S., China and Israel is now the competition’s top scorer on five.

Skenderbeu’s European dream has also been lucky as it previously beat Northern Ireland’s Crusaders, a semi-professional club and was drawn against Moldova’s Milsami in the third round.
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                    [post_content] => albanieTIRANA, Aug. 6 - For the very first time Albania's national football team has made it to the world's top 30 following a surprise positive performance in its Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Albania climbed 14 places to a historic high of 22nd in the August FIFA Men's ranking after Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport gave Albania a 3-0 victory in last October’s abandoned match away to Serbia in a final decision ending a legal battle which reversed a previous ruling by Europe’s football governing body.

The FIFA monthly ranking includes 208 football associations from all over the world.

With one game in hand, Albania now see themselves rank third in Group I of France 2016 Euro qualifiers with 10 points, level on points with Denmark which holds an advantage only thanks to a goal away to Albania in last October’s 1-1 qualifier.

"Albania continues its climb in the FIFA ranking, improving from 36th to 22nd in August and leaving behind countries like France, Denmark and Ghana," wrote Italian coach Gianni De Biasi, who has been leading Albania since late 2011.

Albania was sandwiched between Ivory Coast and France in the August ranking leaving behind even the U.S., Russia, Sweden and neighbors Greece and Serbia.

With four games to go before the qualifiers close, Albania sees itself in a comfortable position which has also worried favorite rivals Portugal and Denmark in the Euro qualifiers group stage.

As never before, Albania has almost mathematically secured a spot in the play-offs in case of finishing third in group but also stands good chances to secure a place in the top two which means direct qualification as it currently stands two points behind group leaders Portugal with one game less.

Albania’s next qualifier will be away to Denmark on September 4 before hosting Portugal three days later.

Meanwhile, Albania will face a tough race in the 2018 Russia World Cup qualifiers after being drawn against four-time World Cup winners Italy and 2010 winners Spain in Group G.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_123023" align="alignright" width="300"]In a meeting with hundreds of employees of several companies the municipal government hires to clean up various parts of the capital region and to collect trash, Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said the evaluation of how they were doing their job would be left to the residents themselves. (Photo: MoT)  In a meeting with hundreds of employees of several companies the municipal government hires to clean up various parts of the capital region and to collect trash, Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said the evaluation of how they were doing their job would be left to the residents themselves. (Photo: MoT)[/caption]

TIRANA, Aug. 6 – Tirana's new mayor, Erion Veliaj, is a man with a mission: To make Tirana the cleanest capital in the Balkans.

He has started his new job with the promise to clean up the city's public areas, which are often full of litter and otherwise unclean.

In a meeting with hundreds of employees of several companies the municipal government hires to clean up various parts of the capital region and to collect trash, he said the evaluation of how they were doing their job would be left to the residents themselves.

Veliaj gave the companies until the end of year to show they can do better in cleaning the city and the surrounding areas, implying he would cancel the contracts with nonperforming companies.

- Major clean-up next month -

The municipality also said would start a major clean up operation of Tirana on Sept. 4, asking for support of the armed forces in certain areas, as the central government has done to clean up some major highways.

“In early September, I invite all citizens to join the operation on cleaning up the city of Tirana. This action will be supported by the Municipal Police and the Local Urban Construction Inspectorate and all other structures of the municipality so that the work of cleaning operators can become easier,” Mayor Veliaj said.

The mayor has placed into office 24 new administrators for municipal units and has asked them to draw up reports on the state of all sidewalks, streets and other public spaces that fall under their jurisdictions.

Veliaj also told the administrators to analyze every service their municipal units provide to residents, so they can better address problems citizens of Tirana encounter.

“Assess how we are providing services,” Veliaj said. “If the public service office is in the fourth floor, move it to the first, because someone with a disability cannot get up the stairs to the fourth floor.”

- War on vandalism -

Mayor Veliaj also said he would end vandalism on public property, vowing to press charges on anyone who damages monuments.

He made the comments in front of a monument in downtown Tirana that commemorates 100 years of independence, which Albania marked in 2012. The monument had been repeatedly vandalized, its bronze plating stolen in places and people would often take advantage of its room-like shape to urinate on it out of immediate public view.

Any such acts would be prosecuted as a crime in the future, Veliaj said, and the municipality would press criminal charges.

“If these people cannot live like civilized people in this city of ours, then they will have to pay the price,” Veliaj said.

The municipal government is now repairing the monument and other monuments around the city, which Veliaj said would be ready for commemorations at the end of November, when Albania celebrates its national day.

“We have to get rid of the practice of leaving things for the last minute,” Veliaj said.

The Democratic Party, through the former deputy mayor of Tirana, Enno Bozdo, said it was not the municipality's legal responsibility to take care of the monuments, but rather of the Ministry of Culture. He added Veliaj was performing a political show to hide the failures of the central government.

 
                    [post_title] => New mayor promises to clean up littered capital
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                    [post_date] => 2015-08-06 10:16:26
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                    [post_content] => skend 2TIRANA, Aug. 6 - Skenderbeu has become 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.

The Albanian five-time consecutive champions won 2-0 in the home match on Wednesday night with two goals by Salihi and Progni in each half, making history in European football as they have already automatically qualified for the less prestigious Europa League group stage even if they fail to qualify in the Champions League play-offs. Milsami, who also suffered a 2-0 defeat in the first-leg match, played in ten men from the 14th minute after having a player sent off.

“Skënderbeu are the first Albanian team to get to the play-offs and will make their nation's debut in the group stage of either this competition or the UEFA Europa League,” wrote Europe’s football governing body on its website.

Skenderbeu striker Hamdi Salihi who has joined the club only recently but proved decisive in the club's success with his goals described the qualification as a golden moment for Albanian football.  The striker who has played in Austria, U.S., China and Israel is now the competition's top scorer on five.

"We are very happy. The team showed maturity up to this stage and we are still with our feet on the ground. Albanian football is having a great moment and this should make us all happy," said Salihi, who is willing to continue his European dream with the southeastern Albanian club.

Skenderbeu's European dream has also been lucky as it previously beat Northern Ireland’s Crusaders, a semi-professional club and was drawn against Moldova's Milsami in the third round.

The play-off draw will be held on Friday August 7 with a tough tie expected for Skenderbeu.

Meanwhile, UEFA's disciplinary committee has awarded Poland's Legia Warsaw a 3-0 victory with Kukes and fined the Albanian team Euro 70,000 after the Europa League qualifier in Albania was abandoned following crowd trouble and the injury of a Legia player who was hit with an object.

On the club front, Skënderbeu, five-in-a-row Albanian Super League winners between 2011 and 2015, became the first Albanian club to reach the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round in 2013/14 and that same summer, together with FK Kukësi, were the first Albanian team to contest the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
                    [post_title] => Skenderbeu becomes first Albanian club to reach Champions League play-off
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_122966" align="alignright" width="300"]Ambassador Jan Braathu is based in Prishtina, from where he also covers Albania. (Photo: Embassy of Norway)  Ambassador Jan Braathu is based in Prishtina, from where he also covers Albania. (Photo: Embassy of Norway)[/caption]

The region’s European perspective is clear, and rule of law, an inclusive justice reform and regional cooperation are key areas for further progress, says Ambassador Jan Braathu, Norway’s top diplomat for Albania and Kosovo. He spoke to Tirana Times about EU integration, judicial reform, investments and security cooperation, among several topics discussed in an exclusive interview.

- Norway is not an EU member, but works with the EU in many programs. Your country has also assisted in the Western Balkans for years in terms of reconciliation and development. How do you see Albania's and the region's European perspective?

You are right: Norway is not a member of the EU. However, we are an integrated part of the Single European Market through the European Economic Area Agreement (EEA) and we are part of the Schengen cooperation. There is broad support both in the Norwegian people and in the Storting for Norway's continued cooperation through the EEA Agreement, the Schengen agreement and other agreements with the European Union. We cooperate with the EU and its member states because we share a common set of values and because we all - as European states - need to find joint solutions to shared challenges. Norway is fully committed to European cooperation, at all levels. Cooperating with the EU ensures economic growth and secure jobs in Norway. EU member states are important partners for Norway, not only in economy, but in security, education, culture and many other areas.

Together with allies, Norway has contributed to stability and economic development of the Western Balkans since the 1990's. We firmly believe that the Thessaloniki Declaration from June 2003 remains valid, namely that "The EU reiterates its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union." Successive Norwegian Governments have supported that objective. We do so because we believe that Europe's security and prosperity is indivisible. We believe that no European country can be secure if there is insecurity somewhere else in Europe. We also believe that prosperity in Europe is best served by raising the standard of living throughout Europe. Perhaps this is a "Scandinavian" perspective, we believe in equitable distribution of economic benefit, not only nationally, but throughout our continent, Europe, and beyond. As the European Council concluded on 20 June 2003, "(The Council) reiterated its determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, which will become an integral part of the EU, once they meet the established criteria." Please note the last part of the sentence: "..once they meet established criteria." Norway supports Albania's EU-membership aspiration, and we align ourselves with policies and measures adopted by our fellow-Europeans in the EU. The European Commission's annual progress reports give indications of the tasks that are required for moving the accession agenda forward. As EU Commissioner Hahn pointed out recently (Wirtscaftsblatt, 22.07) progress is being made, but the road is long. Hahn also underlined the importance of judicial reform, not only in Albania, but in the region.

On that score we do see a positive approach in Albania, with the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Reform and the Government's strong commitment to the justice reform process. I have noted that Prime Minister Rama has underscored the importance of Justice Reform for Albania and for the EU accession process. Let me add that the participation of the opposition in this process is of utmost importance. Judicial reform is a national interest and all parliamentary parties should take responsibility for its successful completion through constructive engagement.

The countries of the Western Balkans are European countries and they do have a perspective for membership in the EU. As Mr Hahn pointed out, it is a long road. The accession process requires strong national commitment. All factors must be agreed and aligned in order to move ahead as quickly as possible. I am aware that many in Albania and in the region feel that the process is taking too long, that it is too slow. I can understand the feeling of frustration. The EU today is a vast structure of consensual cooperation, encompassing 28 member states. It is a cooperation based on shared values and shared standards. It is a political project, but also a practical project. Therein lies a certain tension, between the political and the practical. What may be politically desirable can sometimes be difficult to achieve in practical terms. As the years have progressed, the body of "Acquis Communautaire" has expanded to over 108.000 documents. Adoption and implementation of the Acquis are the basis of the accession negotiations. The candidate countries are required to adapt their administrative and institutional infrastructures and to bring their national legislation in line with Community legislation in the areas of the different chapters. This is a daunting task, not the least the actual implementation of the Acquis. Justice reform and rule of law constitute key chapters (23 & 24) of the 35 chapters of Aquis.

From a more political perspective, we see that the Berlin process, or the Western Balkans 6 process, has opened new avenues for concrete cooperation, both within the region and between the region and the EU. This process again demonstrates that the EU and its member states remain committed to the region and to the region's European perspective. Norway supports this perspective, both politically and through various support activities.

Speaking as a Norwegian, from a non-EU member country, I can say that there is no alternative to European cooperation. EU standards are the "benchmark" standards for all European countries, whether they are EU members or not.

- For some, EU now appears to be a club Europe's wealthiest choose not to join, others are contemplating leaving altogether, while the poorest parts of Europe, including Albania, have a fervent desire to join. Should Albanians still hope for a better European future now that appetite for enlargement is clearly not what it once was?

Well, most European countries are in fact members of the EU. Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein are not EU members and are cooperating within the framework of EFTA. Of these countries, Switzerland is not a party to the EEA Agreement. Yes, the EFTA countries are well to do, but they are all highly dependent upon the EU and EU member states. Norway's prosperity is unthinkable without a prosperous European economic space. The EU is Norway's most important trading partner, while Norway is the EU's fifth largest trading partner (after USA, China, Russia, Switzerland). More than 80% of Norway's exports are to EU member states, and almost 70% of all Norwegian imports are from EU countries.

There is much talk about "enlargement fatigue". I would not dwell too much on this. The fact remains that the EU has an enlargement strategy for the region and for Albania. The Enlargement Strategy document from October 2014 is worth reading. Candidate status was given in June 2014. The Stabilization and Association Agreement was initialled with Kosovo in July 2014 and we hope that it will be signed soon. Of the countries in the region, Albania and Kosovo, together with Montenegro and Serbia are making headway. Rule of Law and Public Administration reform, together with inclusive regional cooperation, are key sectors for further progress. The Commission admits that the accession process is "rigorous", but based on established criteria and the principle of own merits. I think we should take the stated objective of enlargement for Western Balkan countries at face value, and then work as hard as possible to fulfil the accession criteria. There has been progress to date, and there will be further progress in the future as well.

- Norway is part of the Schengen Area and among the wealthiest countries where Albanians can travel without visas. There has been a rise in asylum claims from Albanians in wealthy northwestern European countries in recent months, largely due to bad economic conditions at home. Is Norway seeing a rise in asylum claims from Albanians? If so, what are you doing to deal with the situation?

Yes, this is hugely problematic. The dramatic increase in asylum applications from European countries, not to mention countries that are candidates for EU membership is worrying. The statistics are quite stark: There has been a large number of asylum seekers from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro during the last year. While asylum statistics for Kosovars are declining, the figures for Albanians in increasing, especially to Germany. This is difficult to explain to ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs in Schengen countries. Norway does not define Albania or Kosovo as "asylum-producing" countries. We do not consider asylum applications from these countries as well-founded and we apply a "fast-track" procedure that entails that almost all such applicants are returned after 48 hours. This procedure is known to many, with the result that we do not have too many asylum applications from Albania or Kosovo. In the six months from January 2015 to end June 2015, Norway had 188 asylum applications from Albanians and 146 asylum applications from Kosovars. Almost all of these can be expected to be rejected. It does seem strange that we receive asylum applications from a country that is on the verge of accession negotiations for membership in the EU.

- There are some large Norwegian investments in Albania, primary in the energy sector. How are economic relations between the two countries and what is the perspective for further Norwegian investments?

Yes, Norway has a profile of an "Energy nation". The Devoll Hydropower project is until now the single largest investment project in Albania. Work is ongoing and the first production will begin in the second half of 2016. The project consists of two hydropower plants, Banja and Moglicë, with an installed capacity of 256 MW. When in full production, the two hydropower plants will produce 729 GWh annually, increasing the Albanian electricity production by almost 17 per cent. The investment decision for a possible third plant will be considered when the first two plants have been completed in 2018.

Successful completion and operation of the Devoll projects will hopefully encourage other Norwegian investors to look for opportunities in Albania.

- A recent Reuters article noted that Statoil, which is majority owned by the Norwegian Government, might be selling its 20 percent stake in TAP. The company hasn't confirmed this yet. Do you have any comment on the matter?

Statoil is a Norwegian international petroleum and energy company operating in more than 30 countries. The Norwegian State owns 67% of Statoil's shares and the company is listed on the New York and Oslo stock exchanges. The company operates fully on commercial basis. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has not been informed by Statoil regarding its plans regarding its 20% share in TAP.

- Norway and Albania are both NATO members. With growing challenges on the continent's outskirts, has there been any increased cooperation in terms of defense?

Yes, we are NATO allies. Our cooperation with the Alliance is on-going and good. Norway has cooperation with the Albanian Ministry of defense, currently in a project involving mapping of coastal waters, the Norwegian-Albanian Hydrographic project. The project will contribute to competence and capacity building for the Albanian Hydrographic Service (AHS) and the Military Geographical Institute (MGI). Both institutes are led by the Ministry of Defense. In 2012, we completed a project on sea-rescue and pollution control in cooperation with the Norwegian Coastguard. A regional sea exercise, "Adriatic 12" was conducted successfully in September 2012 with Norwegian and regional participation. The main objectives of the exercise were to promote regional cooperation and enhance existing national and regional emergency preparedness and response systems at sea.

- There is increasing anecdotal evidence that more Norwegians and other northern Europeans are traveling to Albania's beaches and mountains each year as tourists. Has there been any growing interest in travel to Albania that you are aware of?

Indeed there has. This year, for the first time, there are charter tours for tourists from Norway to Saranda. There have been many articles in Norwegian media about tourism in Albania and we expect the statistics for this summer to show record numbers of visitors from Norway.

- On the other side of the equation, are the fjords as magnificent as they look on television?

For sure! However, the weather can be variable and the fjords always look their best in good weather! Albania has the advantage of having magnificent nature, combined with a more enjoyable climate than farther to the north in Norway. I expect that more Norwegians will discover Albania as a holiday destination in the years to come.

 
                    [post_title] => Q&A: Work on reforms, don’t dwell on EU ‘enlargement fatigue,’ Norwegian ambassador says
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                    [post_content] => In the hopes of stemming the tide of asylum seekers from Albania, Germany wants to designate the small Balkan republic as a 'safe country,' which makes it possible for German authorities to quickly deport thousands of people deemed to be economic migrants

[caption id="attachment_122962" align="alignright" width="300"]Official numbers show more than 70,000 Albanians left the country for over six months in the past year. (Photo: Archives)  Official numbers show more than 70,000 Albanians left the country for over six months in the past year. (Photo: Archives)[/caption]

TIRANA, July 29 – Kosta, an 18-year-old with sun-bleached blond hair and tanned skin, sits in a minivan on his way back to his hometown of Korça as he tells his story.

He finished high school earlier this summer, borrowed €1,000 from his parents and promptly traveled to Germany with friends, seeking a better life the only way available to him – by making an unfounded asylum claim.

“Everybody will be forced to come back,” Kosta says, a few days after being deported back to Albania. “Unless they have schooling or trade skills, getting a job over there seemed impossible.”

Kosta, who refused to give his real name to a reporter, is one of about 22,000 Albanians who have tried to migrate to Germany since the beginning of the year.

Their goal is to find a better life, not safety, German officials say, thus they don't qualify for asylum, something designated for those escaping persecution in their home countries.

In the hope to stem a tide of asylum seekers from Albania, Germany wants to designate the small Balkan republic as a “safe country,” a designation that would make it possible for German authorities to quickly deport thousands of Albanians who have sought asylum in the northern European country, but who Berlin has deemed to be economic migrants.

Charter planes will start to fly hundreds of failed asylum seekers back to Albania by the end of the week, officials told the local media.

German Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann said this week Albanians should stop looking for asylum in Germany as their hopes of obtaining it are zero.

Albanians have increasingly flocked to Germany and other northern European countries, bringing worries among Albanian officials that the trend will endanger the visa-free regime Albania enjoys with most of Europe since 2010.

Hoffman said migration from the Western Balkan countries is becoming a concern for Berlin, as the numbers have grown.

“During the first six months of this year, 65,000 people have gone to Germany from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. About 22,000 are from Albania alone. Only in June, 6,000 people from Albania asked for asylum,” Hoffmann said.

He added Germany would speed up the procedures of repatriation within four weeks.

“All these citizens will be repatriated, and they have no chances to stay,” the ambassador said.

Last week, a charter brought home 40 Albanians from Spain, Germany and France. This week, another group of 70 people were deported from Germany.

All these Albanian citizens will be banned from traveling to the Schengen area for the next five years, officials said.

For Kosta, the failed young asylum seeker, the travel ban seems to be of little deterrence.

“I heard France was granting a lot of the asylum claims. Maybe I ought to give it another shot there. God knows what's next,” he says, touching the cross on his neck nervously.

But he has little regret for his failed attempt.

“At least I got to see some of the world,” the teenager says.

Official numbers show more than 70,000 Albanians left the country for over six months in the past year, continuing a massive migration trend that has left the country's resident population dwindling to record lows.




                    [post_title] => German dream sours for thousands of Albanian would-be migrants
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, June 30 – Erion Veliaj has been sworn in as Tirana's new mayor, taking office after the new municipal council was formed Thursday.

“The real challenge for us is to plan for the Tirana of the next 10 or 20 years,” Mayor Veliaj said at the ceremony.

He said he would start work on an emergency list of the city’s needs, which include missing manhole covers and ruined sidewalks and roads.

The Socialist mayor will have four deputies, with three coming from smaller allied parties, officials said.

His swearing in ceremony was marred by a walkout of opposition councilors who protested the presence of a cabinet minister in the hall, saying it was a breach of local autonomy. The ruling majority has 45 councilors, while the opposition has 19.

Veliaj was elected Tirana’s new mayor by a comfortable margin in the June 21 elections.

Veliaj’s victory in Tirana, where nearly one in three Albanians live, was the crown jewel for the Socialist Party-led coalition of Prime Minister Edi Rama, which also won 45 out of 61 municipalities across the country.

Veliaj is a 35-year-old former civil society activist and the previous welfare affairs minister.

Many observers view him as Rama's heir apparent at the helm of the Socialist Party.

 
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Aug. 20 - An underground tunnel built by the former politically imprisoned in Gjirokastra, has become a tourist attraction in Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The visitors come mainly from former communist countries and are amazed at the underground passages that would serve as a shelter for the Albanian communist elite in case of a possible Western attack which also urged the Albanian late dictator Enver Hoxha to order the construction of some 500,000 bunkers nationwide.

Temperatures inside the tunnel are at 18 degrees and lighting is modest making only part of the tunnel accessible to tourists, reports VoA in the local Albanian service.

Skerdi Thomai, a tourist official at the municipality of Gjirokastra, describes the tunnel as a shelter which was built between the 1960 and 1970s in 15 years to protect the local political elite from a possible nuclear assault.

The 800-metre long tunnel linked the two most important headquarters of the local communist leaders, the Party's Committee and the Executive Committee.

The tunnel has about 100 rooms, including offices for the party officials and even the notorious prosecutors of that time.

Representing a history of repression and intrigue for many Gjirokastra residents, the tunnels had been looted and left to decay since the end of communism in Albania. But, to one local NGO, the Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization (GCDO), the tunnels provide an opportunity to educate Albanians and tourists about the unpopular history of communism in the country between 1946 and 1991.

Inscribed on UNESCO as a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period, Gjirokastra, situated in the Drinos river valley in southern Albania, features a series of outstanding two-story houses which were developed in the 17th century. The town also retains a bazaar, an 18th-century mosque and two churches of the same period. The 13th-century citadel provides the focal point of the town with its typical tower houses.
            [post_title] => Underground Gjirokastra tunnel becomes tourist attraction
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