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German environmentalists slam Albania’s new airport project in protected area

German environmentalists slam Albania’s new airport project in protected area

TIRANA, Feb. 5 – Germany-based EuroNatur Foundation has slammed the Albanian government’s hurry in proceeding with an international airport project in a protected southern Albania area as incompatible with preserving the local ecosystem. The reaction came on February 2, the

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Europe’s former cannabis capital selected as one of Albania’s future agribusiness villages

Europe’s former cannabis capital selected as one of Albania’s future agribusiness villages

TIRANA, Jan. 23 – Europe’s once cannabis capital, the Lazarat village in southern Albania, has been selected by the government as one of the 100 villages that will have their infrastructure upgraded in a bid to make them agribusiness oriented

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Balkans’ Via Dinarica rated among hot new hiking and biking trails

Balkans’ Via Dinarica rated among hot new hiking and biking trails

TIRANA, Jan. 18 – The Via Dinarica Western Balkans regional hiking trail starting in northern Albania has been rated as one of the world’s top five hot new hiking and biking trails. The rating comes by National Geographic Traveller UK

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Albania gears up to open new military bases to tourists

Albania gears up to open new military bases to tourists

TIRANA, Jan. 15 – Albania is planning to open up more military units, some of which secretive military bases under communism, in a bid to attract more tourists and diversify the sites that can be visited in the country. The

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Albania rated among top 2018 under-the-radar destinations

Albania rated among top 2018 under-the-radar destinations

TIRANA, Jan. 11 – Still undiscovered and little known by most European tourists, Albania has been placed as a 2018 under-the-radar destination by prestigious travel media and tour operators. The National Geographic has rated Albania among the 2018 places one

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Meeting the sky in Korça

Meeting the sky in Korça

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

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

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

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

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Albania’s past, present and future in the eyes of Archbishop Charles Brown

Albania’s past, present and future in the eyes of Archbishop Charles Brown

A Tirana Times interview with the Apostolic Nuncio in Albania, the Vatican’s ambassador Your Excellency, welcome to Albania. Can you tell us about the priorities in this country? Thank you very much for the chance to speak with you and

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Asylum wave continues, although at a slower pace

Asylum wave continues, although at a slower pace

TIRANA, Dec. 20 – Albania’s asylum wave continues although at a slower pace following massive rejections of unfounded applications and deportations by EU member countries. Data published by Eurostat, the European Union statistical office, shows the number of first-time Albanian

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Rosa Montero on the art of writing, journalism and life

Rosa Montero on the art of writing, journalism and life

By Sidonja Manushi “Professionalization, prestige, the market, the publishing house, the critics…all these things could kill, metaphorically, a writer. You have to keep fighting that, and write!”  Rosa Montero, Spanish award-winning writer and journalist, said at the end of our

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135678" align="alignright" width="300"]Young Dalmatian Pelicans in the Narta-Lagoon © Taulant Bino Young Dalmatian Pelicans in the Narta-Lagoon
© Taulant Bino[/caption] TIRANA, Feb. 5 - Germany-based EuroNatur Foundation has slammed the Albanian government's hurry in proceeding with an international airport project in a protected southern Albania area as incompatible with preserving the local ecosystem. The reaction came on February 2, the World Wetlands Day, one day after the Socialist Party majority approved a bill in Parliament, paving the way for fast-track contract negotiations with a Turkish consortium to build a new international airport outside the southern Albanian coastal city of Vlora at a site which is part of a protected lagoon and ecosystem. The new airport, set to become the country’s second international airport, is projected to be built along the Narta Lagoon, where one of Europe's last wild rivers flows and the endangered Dalmatian pelican feeds, the German environmental foundation says. The projected airport lies within the Narta-Vjosa Protected Landscape, one of the largest near-natural wetland complexes along the Adriatic coast and is internationally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area, with a central role for bird migration along the Adriatic Flyway, German environmentalists say. "It goes without saying that the construction of an international airport in this sensitive location will pose irreversible damage to the ecosystem of Narta-Vjosa and even the whole Adriatic coast," EuroNatur director Gabriel Schwaderer writes in an open letter to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, calling for an environmental impact assessment that meets international standards before concluding project negotiations. “We are convinced that a serious assessment can only conclude that the planned airport is incompatible with preserving the Narta-Vjosa ecosystem,” the EuroNatur director says. "We believe that Albania as part of the most important multilateral environmental agreements (Ramsar, Bern Convention, Bonn Convention), cannot afford to lose one of its natural crown jewels along the Adriatic coast," concludes the letter to the Albanian prime minister. [caption id="attachment_135679" align="alignright" width="300"]flamingo The Narta Lagoon is also a valuable habitat for flamingos. © Ferdinand Bego[/caption] The Narta-Vjosa Protected Landscape, also a valuable habitat for flamingos, has also been officially nominated a candidate Emerlad site as an area of special conservation interest. EuroNatur and several other European environmental watchdogs have also condemned the Albanian government's approval without proper environmental assessment of hydropower plant concessions along the Vjosa and Valbona rivers, two of Europe's last remaining wild rivers. The Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, PPNEA, a local environmental NGO, had earlier warned the airport’s proposed location at Akerni village, some 20 km outside Vlora in an area where a small military air base used to operate, threatens the local ecosystem's integrity. The Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape is a 194 km2 area rich in wetlands and aquatic birds encompassing the Narta Lagoon along with the delta of the Vjosa River and its surrounding areas with freshwater wetlands, marshlands, reed beds, woodlands, islands and sandy beaches. “The construction of this kind of infrastructure threatens the ecologic integrity of this area because of the habitat alienation during the investment phase and disturbance during the operational phase. In addition, this construction violates the regulatory and legal norms on protected areas," PPNEA warned in late January as the government approved fast track negotiation procedures with a Turkish consortium. The Albanian government has not yet responded to environmental concerns, but stressed the importance that a second international airport would have on breaking the monopoly the Tirana International Airport has enjoyed so far, leading to lower ticket prices and giving a boost to the emerging tourism industry. Infrastructure Minister Damian Gjiknuri says the Turkish consortium has offered to invest €100 million for the new airport in Vlora in details that will be determined during a 90-day negotiation period with government representatives. The Turkish consortium that has offered to build the Vlora airport is composed of Cengis, Kalyon and Kolin Construction, three companies also involved in the construction of Istanbul’s third airport, a multi-billion dollar investment that is set to become the world’s largest. While the airport investment will be private, the Albanian government is expected to guarantee the concessionaire a minimum annual income in traffic guarantees in return for the investment and operation over a period of time that will be determined during the negotiations. Meanwhile, local residents see the construction of the new airport as a new opportunity that gives added value to their lands, where the salt business is one of the few employment opportunities in the local marshlands. The airport, whose construction is expected to begin this year, is located 133 km, a 2-hour drive from Tirana, making it competitive only in case it attracts low-cost carriers. Due to expensive prices and low number of low-cost carriers, more and more Albanian passengers have been travelling through neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia or Montenegro airports in the past few years. The Tirana International Airport, which until mid-2016 enjoyed exclusive rights on international flights says it supports "any initiative that aims to stimulate the economic development of the country, including the establishing of airports that enable a freer movement of Albanian citizens, as well as foreigners wishing to visit Albania." Last year, the Chinese-run consortium managing TIA, the country’s sole international airport, handled a record 2.6 million passengers, an 18 percent increase compared to 2016. [post_title] => German environmentalists slam Albania’s new airport project in protected area [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => german-environmentalists-slam-albanias-new-airport-project-in-protected-area [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-02-05 11:52:16 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-02-05 10:52:16 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135676 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135495 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2018-01-23 16:25:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-01-23 15:25:01 [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 23 - Europe's once cannabis capital, the Lazarat village in southern Albania, has been selected by the government as one of the 100 villages that will have their infrastructure upgraded in a bid to make them agribusiness oriented by promoting local agriculture products. Since a mid-2014 police crackdown, Lazarat, a village some 7 km off the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gjirokastra, has lost its shine and lavish lifestyle and much of its population of few thousands has left. Almost four years after the collapse of its internationally acclaimed pot industry, the village has lost most of its youngsters and luxury cars and agriculture and sheep farming is the only thing the elderly people remaining there can do to earn a living. Ironically enough, Albania’s most famous cannabis cultivation site was one of the few villages where pot was not grown in 2015 and 2016 when cannabis cultivation boomed almost nationwide, triggering international concern over Albania as Europe’s largest outdoor cannabis producer and trafficker. "Now the only thing that has remained of Lazarat is poverty that sits within the luxury villas, many of which built on illegal proceeds. The Lazarat young men who used to carry guns and drive luxury cars have now left their home village and moved abroad or to Tirana for a better life," local media wrote about Lazarat in the early days of 2018. Meanwhile, the elderly people who have remained there hardly manage to make ends meet and buy on credit from the local village store. Lazarat, 200 kilometers south of the capital, Tirana, was cracked down in mid-2014 in a police operation that destroyed 102 metric tons of marijuana and 530,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of some €6 billion, worth about half of the country’s annual gross domestic product. A veteran officer of the Albania’s elite commando army unit who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq with NATO troops was shot dead during the crackdown. With agriculture and its sheep farming as its strongest points, the once cannabis capital is trying to return to normality after more than a decade as an outlaw village. The Theth and Valbona mountain tourism villages in northern Albania, Shengjergj and Pellumbas on Mount Dajti outside Tirana, the Dhermi and Vuno coastal villages along the southern Albanian Riviera and Lin and Tushemisht across the Albanian part of Lake Ohrid, southeast of the country, are among the 100 villages selected as part of the integrated rural development project Albania intends to apply from 2018 to 2020. Albania's Agriculture Minister Niko Peleshi says the ‘100 villages’ project will upgrade the selected villages' infrastructure and public services and promote agritourism by offering incentives and grants to support local characteristic agriculture products. Italian actor Gabriel Garko will star in “Lazarat Burning” a Hollywood movie based on the real story of world famous notorious Albanian marijuana growing village of Lazarat. Residents of this village had earlier voiced concern the movie scheduled for release in 2018 will further worsen stereotypes about them and Albania as a cannabis producing country. [post_title] => Europe’s former cannabis capital selected as one of Albania’s future agribusiness villages [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => europes-former-cannabis-capital-selected-as-one-of-albanias-future-agribusiness-villages [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-23 16:25:01 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-23 15:25:01 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135495 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135422 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2018-01-18 17:09:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-01-18 16:09:01 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135423" align="alignright" width="300"]Road To Vermosh Photos: Elma Okić, Terra Dinarica  Road To Vermosh
Photos: Elma Okić, Terra Dinarica[/caption] TIRANA, Jan. 18 - The Via Dinarica Western Balkans regional hiking trail starting in northern Albania has been rated as one of the world's top five hot new hiking and biking trails. The rating comes by National Geographic Traveller UK only one year after the prestigious travel publication named the new Via Dinarica trail as one of the best 2017 trips. "A European odyssey, the Via Dinarica runs like a rocky backbone along the Western Balkans. It starts in the peaks of northern Albania, winding its way through five countries before ending in Slovenia. The challenging White Trail is already beckoning — at 782 miles, it takes in some of the highest summits, with a combined ascent of nearly 170,000ft. Take a tent, or check-in at highland huts and farm-stays," says UK's National Geographic about the Balkan Via Dinarica. In 2017, for the first time after years of expansion, the 1,200-mile Via Dinarica trail was completely mapped with stage information compiled from a growing community of hikers. Valbona and Theth are the main destinations on the Via Dinarica in Albania. "A wild, high, mountainous region inhabited by strong and fiercely independent people, the Malësi (Highlands) has for the history of Albania been the region which was never really conquered or subdued by the various waves of invaders during the last 2,000 years of Balkan history," the Via Dinarica says on its portal. “For anyone who’s ever dreamed of being a 19th century naturalist explorer the mountains of northern Albania is heaven. To date there is no field guide, and little formal research has been done.  What there is, is a uniquely pristine and complete ecosystem, accompanied by a rich fund of local lore and knowledge,” it adds. The trek—which stitches together ancient trading and military routes—traverses the Dinaric Alps, linking the peninsula from Postojna, Slovenia, south through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. The Vogue magazine has also earlier recommended Via Dinarica among the 9 destinations every adventurous women should visit. "Trekkers can experience the rich, cultural heritage of the region during homestays in local villages and mountaintop or seaside huts. The 128-mile route weaves through the unexplored region, where limestone peaks meet the Adriatic Sea and views of glacier-fed lakes prove frequent. If you prefer to cycle the Balkans, opt for a spot on The Odyssey with TDA Global Cycling, a seven-week tour from Athens to Amsterdam that stops in Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia," the Vogue says. [post_title] => Balkans' Via Dinarica rated among hot new hiking and biking trails [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => balkans-via-dinarica-rated-among-hot-new-hiking-and-biking-trails [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-18 17:09:01 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-18 16:09:01 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135422 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135365 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2018-01-15 15:54:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-01-15 14:54:01 [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 15 – Albania is planning to open up more military units, some of which secretive military bases under communism, in a bid to attract more tourists and diversify the sites that can be visited in the country. The announcement comes after the Sazan Island, a military base in southern Albania turned into a popular tourist attraction after first opening up in 2017 following decades of secrecy and mystery. Managed by the defense ministry, the Sazan Island was first used by the Italians until World War II before becoming the country’s most secretive base under communism when it was fortified with bunkers and tunnels designed to withstand a possible nuclear attack that the Albanian communist authorities feared. The tiny now uninhabited 5.7-km2 island and the Karaburun peninsula form the first and only national marine park of Albania. Defense Minister Olta Xhacka, says the ministry is also considering turning two other naval military bases, the Cape of Pal base in Durres and the Shengjin base in Lezha into tourist attractions. "The modernization of armed forces is one of the main priorities for the next four years. Bases such as Shengjin or the Cape of Pal as well as naval bases bear special importance and value in the history of armed forces but also for the development and tourist potential of their surrounding areas," minister Xhacka has said. "We will soon examine all opportunities on new investment, new projects on the revitalization of such bases. There is an emergency need to invest, but also great potential to get developed and be more attractive and have a positive impact on the economy,” says Xhacka, Albania’s second-ever female defense minster. The museum of Albania's armed forces is also on the ministry's agenda to become accessible to everybody. Located at the defense ministry’s Tirana headquarters, the museum displays some 3,600 items dating back to the 15th century era of Albania's national hero, Skanderbeg, and the century-old history of Albania’s modern armed forces established in 1912 when Albania declared its independence. "We will soon make accessible to everybody this museum which houses 105 years of Albanian military history, by turning it into an attraction and including it in the Tirana city guide," the minister says. Under the 45-year communist regime, Albania had a considerable air fleet of Soviet Union and Chinese MiG 15, 17, 19 and 21. A number of them are displayed in the country’s state museums, including the museum of armed forces in Tirana. The Albanian government was planning to sell its stock of Soviet-era MiG fighter aircraft inherited from the Cold War under communism in early 2016 but later cancelled the tender citing ‘public interest reasons.’ The last MiG fighter took off from the Kuçova military air base in November 2004 just before Albania declared their retirement and its shift to pure helicopter force. Albania declared that it had cleared all known mined areas and all known unexploded ordinance in by 2009 when it joined NATO. However, Albania continues to face a threat from abandoned explosive ordnance around former army ammunition storage sites from the notorious looting of army depots triggered by the collapse of some pyramid investment schemes. The ministry says the few remaining ammunition hotspots are on track to be cleared by the end of 2018. Closed to tourists for about five decades until the early 1990s, Albania offers a miscellaneous picture of coastal and mountain tourism and has been attracting more and more foreign tourists in the past decade, being nicknamed a “A new Mediterranean love” and “Europe’s last secret.” The communist past is what fascinates most tourists about Albania, which was cut off from the rest of the world under a Stalinist dictatorship for about five decades until the early 1990s. The House of Leaves museum of the notorious Sigurimi police surveillance in downtown Tirana, a Cold War bunker outside the capital city that the former communist regime had built underground decades ago to survive a possible nuclear attack and the Sazan Island military base south of the country all house the mystery and phobia of the country’s communist leaders for about five decades until the early 1990s. The tourism industry has been one of the country’s fastest growing in the past few years, attracting more than 4 million tourists and generating about €1.5 billion, about 14 percent of the country’s GDP, in 2016 alone. [post_title] => Albania gears up to open new military bases to tourists [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albania-gears-up-to-open-new-military-bases-to-tourists [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-15 15:54:01 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-15 14:54:01 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135365 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135308 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2018-01-11 17:20:17 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-01-11 16:20:17 [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 11 – Still undiscovered and little known by most European tourists, Albania has been placed as a 2018 under-the-radar destination by prestigious travel media and tour operators. The National Geographic has rated Albania among the 2018 places one needs to visit, especially for adventurer and divers. "Sunken aqueducts, shipwrecks, and rarely visited caves are a few of the relatively untouched treasures awaiting divers in Albania. Decades of isolation under communist leader Enver Hoxha limited development and inadvertently preserved underwater cultural heritage, particularly off the southern coast," says the National Geographic, pointing out the Fun Fact of late dictator Enver Hoxha famously banning scuba diving to prevent Albanias from escaping the hardline communist regime. Albania's ranking comes amid popular destinations such as Argentina, Australia, Mexico, Austria, Hawaii, Sweden and Ireland. In late 2017, the National Geographic France rated taking an adventure trip to Albania as one of the top tours on travelers’ to-do-list for 2018. National Geographic’s French publication recommends Albania for its ancient history, unexplored landscape, making it a perfect adventure travel destination. “Under communist dictatorship for decades, Albania is slowly opening up. Discover its Ottoman cities of Berat and Gjirokastra, the Greco-Roman amphitheaters, the beaches and above all the country’s unexplored landscapes such as alpine summits, green valleys, wetlands and rich fauna,” writes the National Geographic. Explaining the reasons why this trip should be taken now, the prestigious exploration and adventure magazine says Albania is a perfect adventure travel destination offering trekking, horseback riding, rafting and kayaking. “Albania is recently playing its adventure card. The latest initiative was last May when a hiking trail was launched at the Nature Reserve of the Karaburun peninsula, an ancient military base accessible only on foot or by boat,” says the magazine, adding that crossing the peninsula with a small boat, a small bay perfect for scuba-diving comes across close to a 600 m2 cave. UK-based Wild Frontiers tour operator has also named Albania among the world's top three adventure travel destinations for 2018 along with Pakistan and Jordan. Albania's rating is part of the Western Balkans tour which the tour operator says is attracting an increasing number of travelers seeking out new off-the-beaten path experiences in Europe. "Since the tragic war of the late 1990s, the Balkans has been quietly developing into an off-the-beaten track destination for those looking for hidden gems in Europe," the Adventure Travel News quotes the Wild Frontiers. The British tour operator suggests walking tours in southern Albania exploring the coast, archaeological sites and national parks as well as northern Albanian mountains, remote villages and forests. “Extending across vistas liberally scattered with deep river valleys, alpine lakes and national parks, the towering limestone gorges of the Accursed Mountains, or Albanian Alps, provide the perfect backdrop to one of Europe’s last great adventures," Wild Frontiers says about the northern Albania tour. "Albania is also blessed with some of the Adriatic’s wildest landscapes as well as possibly the continent’s least developed tourism infrastructure, not to mention some captivating history. If that thought fills you with excitement then join us for this wonderful adventure into the wilds of the mountainous hinterlands of the south through which Byron once walked," the tour operator says about southern Albania. The Irish Times has rated Albania as top two budget destination for 2018, sandwiched between the Spanish Costas and Turkey. “Not the first place a family might think of, nor the easiest to get to – you’d have to travel via Manchester – but it has novelty factor and is much cheaper than Italy or Croatia. The beaches are beautiful, the villages quaint – look towards the medieval town of Kruja, Apollonia’s ruins and Berat, the Unesco World Heritage site famous(ish) for Byzantine churches and Ottoman architecture. Car hire is less than €10 a day and restaurants and accommodation are as cheap. And the sun will shine,” says the Irish Times. Closed to tourists for about five decades until the early 1990s, Albania offers a miscellaneous picture of coastal and mountain tourism and has been attracting more and more foreign tourists in the past decade being nicknamed a “A new Mediterranean love” and “Europe’s last secret.” The communist past is also what fascinates tourists about Albania, which was cut off from the rest of the world under a Stalinist dictatorship for about five decades until the early 1990s. The House of Leaves museum of the notorious Sigurimi police surveillance in downtown Tirana, a Cold War bunker outside the capital city that the former communist regime had built underground decades ago to survive a possible nuclear attack and the Sazan Island military base south of the country all house the mystery and phobia of the country’s communist leaders for about five decades until the early 1990s. The tourism industry has been one of the country’s fastest growing in the past few years, attracting more than 4 million tourists and generating about €1.5 billion, about 14 percent of the country’s GDP, in 2016 alone.   [post_title] => Albania rated among top 2018 under-the-radar destinations [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albania-rated-among-top-2018-under-the-radar-destinations [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-11 17:20:17 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-11 16:20:17 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135308 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135167 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-29 08:01:00 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-29 07:01:00 [post_content] => sd2 By Sidonja Manushi “Kiss your phone, radio and 3G signal goodbye once we’re up there,” Juli Bejko, sociology professor and part-time professional paraglider, said at the beginning of the trip, still in messily urban Tirana. His tone held a bit of a fair warning mixed with the satisfaction of someone speaking from experience. The destination was the picturesque, mountain-hidden town of Dardha, in the Korca County. Positioned in the south-west of Albania, it takes minimally two hours and a half to drive there on a good day with minimal traffic. It took six hours and a half this frosty December Saturday, with Korca being a favorite destination for Albanian families during the winter holidays and the route going through some of the most Instagram-worthy winter landscapes of the country, making any nature lover step on the car breaks every other half hour. Albania’s diversified natural beauty – from its turquoise sea-line to its deep mountains and ancient castles – comes to full force upon seeing unmoving, crystalized rivers giving way to small cafes in the edge of villages which in turn reveal the magnificent Ohrid Lake and, later, the Morava Mountain, host of the stone-tiled roofs of Dardha. The first to go was the radio signal. In return, with the altitude rising, the signs of clean, sparkly, coated snow started to appear on the sides of the narrow car road, on the surface of leaves, and on the entirety of the evergreen conifer trees covering the mountainsides in the distance. Shortly after, the small lines on the top-left corner of the phone signaling it’s reachable disappeared one by one, as the road became a slithering path following the scarcely populated mountainous villages. By the time a wooden sign welcoming people to the touristic village of Dardha appeared, and another warning littering is strictly forbidden, Juli’s prediction had come alive – the middle of nowhere was positively signal less. “It is a great place to emotionally prepare to paraglide, get in touch with nature and really experience the Albanian holiday spirit,” Juli said once the car was parked, and we were wandering around Dardha’s narrow, ascending and descending, stone-covered streets looking for our lair for the night in the midst of the town’s small, similarly old and traditional houses. Wherever there was a view to behold, people were already there, taking pictures of it. The contrast between locals and visitors couldn’t be any more visible – with the temperatures showing minus, visitors, ourselves included, were walking dressed in layers, red-nosed and obviously perplexed to be witnessing so much snow, probably the rarest winter sight in Tirana and other central Albanian cities. The locals, on the other hand, could be spotted in porches and front yards, feeding chickens or doing end-of-the-year chores, sometimes amusedly staring at us, with nothing but light jackets on. “You are young girls,” an old, wrinkled but overly energetic woman joked while we passed her house. “Don’t shake from cold, let your blood flow.” And then she continued making filo pastry in front of her house’s ornamented wooden door, in the most traditionally Albanian scene possible. “They don’t get enough tourists to be annoyed by them,” Juli explained as we got closer to our house and saw the owners subletting it waiting on the steps, waving with hospitality. “Dardha is this crowded only during December, with the winter holidays and the ski resorts opening up. It is forgotten during the rest of the year, and the locals are left with one another again.” Indeed, the owners – and the first locals to really have a chance to talk to – seemed genuinely glad to be meeting us, the woman hugging us despite the lack of previous familiarity and the man replacing traditional greetings with exclamations of “don’t hesitate to call us for whatever you may need, we are right next door!” Another trade-off for letting go of all the shortcuts that make life easier in the city, such as the internet and phone signal, besides the mountainous views and oxygen-filled air, I soon realized, was the celebrated Albanian hospitality, magnified in these small, time-forgotten villages where the chaos of every-day life has yet to settle in. The woman,Rovena, showed us the way inside excitedly, asking if the trip to Dardha was tiring and whether all four of us girls were planning to paraglide in Korca tomorrow. Once we all crossed the front door, however, she paused and let us take in the house, surely aware of the impression it would cause from all the previous guests they had hosted. The beautiful and uniform façade Dardha’s little houses create on the outside left little doubt their interior was just as impressive, and yet imagination can only do them little, if any, justice. The house we would spend Saturday night in, waiting for the air currents to make the extreme sport of paragliding possible the next day, seemed as if taken out of a fairytale. The walls were stony, and the stones looked as if they were slowly placed one by one on top of each other many years ago, and remained in place by sheer force of magic. The house had a hall that led to two spacious rooms, each with an old, black stove in the middle – the ones now only found in old Albanian houses; the ones that need real wood to make fire and attract people around them on cold winter nights to tell tales and roast chestnuts, drink wine and safely look at the cold snow falling outside. Where normal houses have nightstands, this one had hang stands – natural pieces of wood hanging from the walls in thick chains, with melting candles sitting on hand-knit traditional Albanian clothes called centro, transmitting a feeling of medieval beauty and mysticism. Most importantly, where normal houses have balconies facing other houses, this one had a balcony for each room, and each balcony had a breathtaking view of the mountains from all sides, unending, snow-covered and with a myriad of stars playing as the sparkling lights of the most stylishly decorated Christmas tree. “I know it’s difficult to believe but yes, all houses do look like that here,” Juli, now having officially turned into this trip’s tour guide, said looking at our awe-stricken faces. Rovena nodded behind him. After letting us walk from one room to the other astonished for a few more minutes, obviously satisfied with our positive impressions, she started giving us tips for survival: where to find woods for the stove, how to put them inside, how to handle the sink so the water doesn’t freeze during the night, where to shop and what to see…after an unanimous request, she also agreed to make us dinner: Korca’s traditional lakror, made of special pastry that melts into your mouth like homemade traditional dishes only can. By the time she left to make dinner, the Christmas tree was lit, the wood inside the stoves was happily crackling and none of us could even remember why we needed phones and internet in the first place. It was real novelty, to have your lungs expand with fresh air every time the balcony door opened and to step out and feel the dry cold give you goosebumps that could so easily be rid of once you rushed back next to the stove that, along with the heat, released the joyous smell of burning wood. A bit later, while waiting for dinner time in a tavern just as traditional and warm as the house we’d just left, Juli introduced us to the basics of paragliding over a glass of grape rakia. “For starters, no drinking is allowed 24 hours prior to flying,” he said, but immediately smiled seeing our panicked faces at the mention of the word ‘flying’. “Since you need it to loosen up a bit, I will allow it in this case, but only if you promise to get a full 12 hours sleep tonight.” Talking to beginners, he had to explain a lot of things, from what got him to paragliding in the first place, to how long it took him to learn, to the popularity this sport has gained lately in Albania among tourists to what was expected of us, planning to fly over Korca the next morning. “I dreamt about flying since I was a little kid,” he told us, and the fire behind his back and burning rakia in our throats made him look like the most appealing tale-teller in the world. “And when a rational person gets caught up in a fiery passion, he will go to great lengths to make his dream true.” He told us how, in order to get a bank loan, he had to give up another thing he loved – smoking cigarettes. Flying stood higher in his hierarchy of needs than smoking ever did. The bank loan did not go towards flying lessons, or hiring an instructor, but only to buy a flying set on e-bay. After that, Juli taught himself how to fly, every day, for three months in a row. “I’ve been very lucky,” he admitted. “Normally, I should have crashed into tiny little pieces on the first day, come back in a coffin on the second, get utterly lost on the third. But this is the psychological-spiritual experience that is more important than the technical method of learning.” “Since then,” he said, “it has been nine years, 1300 solo and double flights, endless pleasures and adventures and the constant feeling of going to sleep and waking up in complete peace with the universe.” Despite the inward panic, understandable fear of the unknown and doubt whether repeatedly telling Juli I was ready to paraglide was the right thing to do, hearing him talk about his passion, which he has been professionally practicing with Fly Club Albania since 2008, gave everyone present a rush of happiness and confidence, as well as the ability to see beyond fear and straight to the vitality experiences like paragliding offer. Then, he told us we didn’t even have to jump from the mountain slope – an element particularly terrifying for two of us girls scared of heights – and we breathed with ease again. Paragliding, with its light, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft that has no rigid primary structure, only takes running down a mountain slope for a few meters and the right wind direction to get you flying, while the pilot, who sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, simply needs to direct you and make sure you don’t chicken out in the last minute. “Well that’s easy then,” Lorena, who was to fly second the following day, said with ease. “I can run better than I can jump.” “You say that now. But a lot of people get weak knees on the last moment, especially women. They see the view, the extreme height and the thin piece of fabric that will keep them on the air and loose it,” Juli warned. But his speech had set the wheels of excitement going, and that was obvious in everyone’s faces. The anticipation followed us that night, making the lakror and home-made wine tastier, the roasted chestnuts sweeter, and the conversations livelier. It was the atmosphere, the feeling of having stepped in a parallel universe of enjoying the simplest pleasures in life…but it was also the knowledge of a great experience pending, one countless tourists now pay to experience in Albania every year. Anticipation was still with us the next day, from the forty-minute car ride to Korca all the way to the time it took us to climb to the top of the Morava mountain-peak from which we would run off into the air. There was an orthodox church on top of the mountain, and with fear slowly raising its ugly head again now that the moment of action was so close, I thought its location was ironic, as if paragliders had chosen to fly close to the church so that people could say their last prayers. The amateur Bulgarian paragliders already there, however, did not seem to share my insight. They simply run the moment they were ready, looking nowhere but ahead, no traces of fear coming from their postures, down the mountain slope and then afloat, like gigantic birds. Seeing them go one after the other gave me courage, while Juli strapped my sit around my body and placed the helmet on top of my head. “No going back now buddy,” he said and hit my helmet playfully, as if to give me courage. Seeing the returning fear however, he got into a mode of admirable professionalism. “Hey, you just need to run. I don’t want you worrying about anything else. We will have enough time once we’re in the air to think about the rest, but for now I only want you to run; don’t stop, don’t jump, run. We have only one chance with the air current, so let’s make it count.” He did not talk anymore while waiting for exactly the right time to begin from fear of creating confusion in my head. I did not talk either, from fear. With the words run, run, run, flashing in front of my eyes like neon signs, the ten minutes we had to wait seemed like ten seconds and, before realization kicked in, Juli was shouting “run!” in my ears with the excitement of a little kid on a roller coaster. The rest was history. It would take repeating the experience of paragliding several more times, in different locations and seasons, to fully describe its grandiosity. It is a highly individual feeling, one each person should experience at least once to understand. Time ceases to exist once you’re flying, just like the petty feelings of worry, stress, anxiety, or joy, excitement, curiosity. What remains is content and the deep-seeded desire to see and experience all life has to offer. And it seems Albania has to offer a lot. On the way back, we reluctantly regained our contact with the outside word, while our minds and hearts were still dwelling in Dardha, the cleansing snow and tasty food, the welcoming people and warm, beautiful rooms and the magical landscapes available both from the ground and, especially, up in the air…and,in the meanwhile, I thanked Juli, time and time again, for deciding to bravely go after his passion and enable me and thousands of others to experience one of the highlights of existence. [post_title] => Meeting the sky in Korça [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => meeting-the-sky-in-korca [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-29 16:36:59 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-29 15:36:59 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135167 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135099 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-22 10:33:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-22 09:33:51 [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 20 – A report published this week on the rule of law in the Western Balkans concluded that the establishment of rule of law in the region remains an increasingly difficult process. The report explored some of the ways the governments, civil society and the media can act and use other successful state models to facilitate necessary changes. According to the experts, corruption, bribery and organized crime are major threats against democracy and economic and social prosperity. The region’s post-conflict environment worsens the situation, as it gives way to weak governance, disruptive influence by Russia and other actors and stalled Euro-Atlantic integration. In light of this, the report followed, “Western Balkan countries should start with fundamental steps and learn from EU’s previous enlargement processes.” Another step is making the best out of international assisting bodies in respective countries, such as OSCE in Albania. “Its core activity is strengthening the country’s administration and the legislative and judicial reform. This includes monitoring, which leads to reform changes and further implementation in the courts,” the report said concerning OSCE, but referring to other organs as well. On the other hand, the EU itself should regain trust and credibility in the eyes of the Western Balkans, as “its efficiency in monitoring states’ progress and ability to implement accession conditions have been undermined, as alternative ways of governing do emerge.” In turn, the report, compiled by the Albanian Institute of International Studies (AIIS) in cooperation with PfP Consortium Study Group, the Austrian National Defense Academy and the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies, mentioned some of the best practices of national state efforts to strengthen rule of law. Different states have been given different priorities according to their situation. In Albania, the justice reform was mentioned as one of the main conditions. “For promoting the justice reform, Albania has accepted donations by international experts and brand consultation, due to its difficulty in drafting the law. Concerning the justice reform, a vetting of all existing structures and legislations is the country’s key to move forward,” it was said. Zagreb, it was mentioned, has managed to strengthen the rule of law through the State Prosecutor’s Office for the Suppression of Organized Crime and Corruption (USKOK). USKOK’s employees go through regular security checks, while “its executive powers go so far as to punish corruption with jail time and loss of money.” Another example was Macedonia’s special prosecutor office, which was established to investigate alleged illegal wiretapping, election fraud and abuse of public office from the people who are in power. “Although this method needs to be more transparent and has to extend its network before being called successful, it must be considered that it has given rise to debates in Macedonia and its public support in polls reaches 60%,” the report followed. Another key component mentioned by experts was the countries’ civil society. Not to be overlooked is the need of a system “of civic education focusing on enhancing civic responsibility and engagement” for the creation of societies respectful of human rights and the rule of law. The report said: “for this reasons, civil society organizations (CSO-s) in the Western Balkan countries should act to lower prejudices, protect human rights, monitor anti-corruption policies and raise awareness in order to finance their programs.” A good practice offered in the report was Montenegro’s Democracy School, of the Centre for Civic Education, and the Leadership School, of the Civil Alliance. Belgrade’s example, on the other hand, shows that SCOs can help EU accession and the implementation of states’ action plans, through “trial monitoring and facilitating public discussion.” The lack of support and attention towards independent media was also brought to attention in the report. Bosnia and Herzegovina was mentioned as an example of the downfalls that lacking media financing can bring, such as the rise of Russian influence in the country and decrease of investigative journalism. “Investment in independent media supports the establishment of a kind of watchdog of crime and corruption, which calls on the misuse of public posts and halts pro-Russian controlled media that bring instability into the region,” it was written. Among the recommendations addressing the international community, especially the EU and NATO, were the acknowledgment of external actors’ influence in the region (Turkey, Russia) in civil society and media working against democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, it was recommended that the EU should urge all states to create Action Plans to open accession negotiations, as well as strategically plan the use of funds to assist the media and civil society, which are underfunded. In this vein, the report noted that “The EU should uphold the same standards for its member states and publicly denounce negative developments in the context of democratic standards for the member states that result as non-inspiring cases.” In an economic context, the report underlined, “Investors need a well-functioning, independent and effective juridical system which guarantees rapid and impartial conflict-solving in courts.” For this reason, countries should adopt the best regional practices that have been proved efficient and draw lessons from the negative experiences of other countries. Lastly, the report recommended that CSOs should be more active and concerned with providing civic education in order to contribute to the rule of law. Moreover, media outlets should be careful not to promote or use hate speech, especially during political campaigns. More specifically, the report said: “Donors should promote and financially support independent media and particularly reports which focus on investigative journalism.” The report comes at a time when the reforms in many EU aspirant countries, and particularly Albania, are being put to the test by political developments and citizens are mainly untrusting of the functionality of the rule of law in everyday situations. Albania lost 19 places in the 2016 Rule of Law Index to rank 72nd out of 113 countries worldwide on deteriorating perception on corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, and justice enforcement. [post_title] => AIIS report lists threats to rule of law in the region and ways to aid its establishment [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => aiis-report-lists-threats-to-rule-of-law-in-the-region-and-ways-to-aid-its-establishment [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-22 10:33:51 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-22 09:33:51 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135099 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135068 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-22 09:34:41 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-22 08:34:41 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135070" align="alignright" width="300"]Nuncio with religious leaders The Apostolic Nuncio (second from left) with Albania's Muslim, Orthodox and Bektashi religious leaders[/caption] A Tirana Times interview with the Apostolic Nuncio in Albania, the Vatican’s ambassador Your Excellency, welcome to Albania. Can you tell us about the priorities in this country? Thank you very much for the chance to speak with you and with the readers of The Tirana Times.  I am really delighted to have this opportunity.  As your readers know, the name “Apostolic Nuncio” simply refers to the Ambassador of the Holy See, which has its territorial base in the Vatican City State.  So, as Ambassador, my priorities would be very similar to those of other Ambassadors, that is, to strengthen the ties which exist between the entity that I represent, that is, the Holy See under the authority of Pope Francis, and the country of Albania.  And in that sense, I have a very pleasant job because the relationship between the Holy See and Albania is in excellent shape!  As Nuncio, I also have the responsibility of acting as a link between the Holy See and the local Catholic Church here in Albania, which makes my position somewhat different from that of the other Ambassadors in Tirana.  Pope Francis, as your readers surely know, has a special love for Albania, and I think that his affection for Albania is reciprocated in Albania’s love and respect for Pope Francis, which was very evident when he visited the country in September 2014.  I will never forget my meeting with him soon after he had appointed me as Apostolic Nuncio to Albania.  I met with him on 7 April 2017 and he impressed upon me his great affection for Albania, as well as his well-informed knowledge of the political situation here.  One of the things he asked me to do as Nuncio was to go out of the Embassy as much as possible and get to know the people of Albania.  I’ve been trying to do that since I arrived in Tirana last May.           Albania is well-known for its harmony between its various Muslim and Christian communities. What can the country do to promote these values more to the world at a time when they are needed? I think that the inter-religious harmony which exists in Albania is one of the greatest aspects of this country.  In a world where we often see examples of distrust and even violence between people of different religions, Albania stands out as a place where followers of different religions do not simply coexist, but cooperate harmoniously with each other.  It is well known that Albania has a high number of inter-faith marriages, so many Albanians trace their family roots to two or more religious traditions.  Of course, one way to promote inter-religious harmony is through dialogue, communication and contacts between religious authorities from the various communities.  I would certainly say that my experience of Albania in the seven months since I arrived has been of numerous contacts and healthy communication among the various religious leaders in Albania.  The example of Albania in the area of inter-religious harmony is indeed a witness to the world of what can be possible. This country also has a dark side in its history, when the communist state persecuted religious leaders and clerics and banned religion altogether.  Has Albania done enough to educate the younger generation to remember this dark stain in its history to make sure it does not happen again? There can be no doubt that part of the reason for the exemplary inter-religious harmony existing in Albania today is because all the religions were cruelly persecuted by the Marxist-Leninist regime that finally imploded in 1991.  Muslim and Christian believers suffered together in prison and in other forms of internment.  That common experience of atheistic persecution and suffering surely created a bond of unity and understanding among believers of the various religious traditions, which, thanks be to God, still exists today.  From my relatively brief experience of living in Albania, my sense is that young people are indeed aware of the Communist past and, to some degree, are also aware of the persecution that people of religious faith endured in those very dark decades.  At the same time, however, we must never tire in studying that period, and especially in studying the individual lives of the people who were persecuted for their religious faith in those times.  It’s by being familiar with the lives of those who were persecuted that we can prevent the same thing from happening in the future.  With regard to the Catholic Church, last year thirty-eight martyrs from the Communist period were beatified in Shkodër, which was a beautiful way of remembering their witness of faithfulness and integrity.  Of the many crimes of Communism, perhaps the most characteristic one was the suppression of freedom of thought, freedom of conscience.  People were told not only how they were supposed to live, but also how they were supposed to think.  For Christians, freedom is a necessary precondition for faith, in the sense that faith, if it is to be authentic, needs to be free, a free personal response to the God who reveals himself to us in the person of Jesus.  If religion is imposed or forced, then it is not really faith, precisely because it is not really free.  This is why Pope Francis has often spoken out against “proselytism” which we would define as any form of illegitimately constraining people to accept a religion.  But, in actual fact, in the modern world, there is a kind of secular proselytism, which seeks to impose a secular ideology, which seeks at times to marginalize or even to silence voices of faith.  Pope Benedict spoke famously about the danger of a “dictatorship of relativism”.  This is a danger in some places today, thankfully however not in Albania. Were you familiar with Albania and Albanians before being assigned to the country? Pope Francis, in choosing Albania as the first European country to visit, said it was “on the margins” and needs more attention. It is a major change from your last posting in Ireland, is it not? I must say that my knowledge of Albania before being named as Nuncio here was relatively superficial.  A year ago, if someone had asked me about Albania and Albanians, perhaps one of the first things that would have come to my mind would have been the person of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom I had the great privilege of meeting many times in Rome and in other places.  The second thing which would have come to my mind would have been the particular history of Albania in the twentieth century, with its unusually harsh form of Marxist-Leninism.  Finally, as I am from the city of New York, mention of Albania would have called to my mind the Albanian diaspora community in New York, with whom I would have had some interaction.  Having arrived in Albania in May, I have tried to learn as much as I can about the country, its history and its people, and I must say that in these first months, I have been extremely happy here in Albania.  As you mentioned, I had spent a bit more than five years in Ireland before Pope Francis sent me to Albania.  Ireland is a country with some similarities to Albania.  Both are relatively small nations; both had been conquered and incorporated into large empires and only regained their national sovereignty in the first part of the last century; both have very large and influential diaspora communities, especially in the United States.  Among the differences would be the fact that Ireland is a country in which a large majority identifies itself as Catholic, and it is a country in which the economy has made huge progress since the 1970’s, so that it is now a prosperous country where the GDP per capita is among the highest in the world. Albania's population is shrinking at an alarming rate, with high emigration and low birthrates. This is not just an Albanian problem, but some local Catholic clergy have been vocal on this issue. What can be done to reverse this trend? (Both to improve life here and to value it more.) I grew up in America in the 1970’s, and I remember vividly how my father had a book called The Population Bomb, published in 1968, which contained all kinds of apocalyptic predictions of the disasters that were going to be caused by overpopulation in the world.  It turned out that it was almost complete nonsense.  Indeed, for many countries today, the problem is precisely the opposite: the drop in population.  In the case of Albania and other countries of Europe, I firmly believe that those in positions of responsibility should do everything possible to counter this trend, by implementing child-friendly and family-friendly policies that will encourage parents to have more children.  The loss of population through emigration is another issue, and a complex one.  It is obvious that the great majority of people who emigrate from Albania do so for economic reasons and therefore the solution to population loss through emigration is the development of the economy in Albania.  In that area, there has been real progress in recent years, but of course much remains to be done. On a personal level, Your Excellency, you represent the Holy See, of course, but you are a New Yorker, an American by birth, and Albania is one of the most pro-American countries in the world. Do you think that will affect your work in Albania and dealing with the people of this country? There’s no doubt that my American background is an asset for me here in Albania, because, as you say, Albania is a very pro-American country.  There are indeed many Albanians in the United States, especially in New York where I was born, and also in Detroit, where my mother is from.  I have been very well received during my seven months here in Albania.  Having said that, however, my contact with my international colleagues in the Diplomatic Corps in Tirana has shown me how well all foreigners – and not just Americans! – are treated in Albania.  There is a tradition of hospitality to strangers, to foreigners, which is very strong in this country.  Indeed, it is said that for Albanians, there are no foreigners, but only guests.  It is a quality that Albania should be extremely proud of, especially in a time of increasing xenophobia in many parts of the world.    Is there anything else you'd like to add? Only that it is a particular pleasure for me to begin my diplomatic service in Albania in this commemorative year marking the 550th anniversary of the death of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, which was recently inaugurated by Prime Minister Edi Rama.  I am sure that this year will serve to increase awareness and appreciation of your great national hero, as Albania looks towards the future.  The present moment in Albanian history is an important one, as your country seeks to move toward integration in the European Union, an objective that is greatly desired by the people of Albania.  I feel very privileged to be representing Pope Francis in Albania at this time, and I have been immensely happy since arriving in your beautiful country last May.  Allow me to conclude by wishing all the readers of The Tirana Times a merry Christmas and a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year 2018! [post_title] => Albania’s past, present and future in the eyes of Archbishop Charles Brown [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albanias-past-present-and-future-in-the-eyes-of-archbishop-charles-brown [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-22 09:38:35 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-22 08:38:35 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135068 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135034 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-20 12:36:26 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-20 11:36:26 [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 20 – Albania’s asylum wave continues although at a slower pace following massive rejections of unfounded applications and deportations by EU member countries. Data published by Eurostat, the European Union statistical office, shows the number of first-time Albanian asylum seekers to European Union member countries dropped to about 15,200 in the first three quarters of this years, with Germany, France and the Netherlands as the main destinations. The lower wave also comes amid tighter border controls Albania has been applying since last summer in order to prevent unfounded asylum-seeking applications following ultimatums issued by France and the Netherlands and pressure that visas could be unilaterally introduced unless measures to prevent the influx are taken. However, despite warnings by German authorities that asylum-seeking is the wrong way and that only legal migration though employment contracts is the way to make it in Germany and other wealthy EU members for both qualified and non-qualified workers, there are still thousands who try their luck. "Maybe my son is lucky. We sacrificed a lot and paid €1,300 to the people who arranged the papers to take him to Germany. That is huge money for my poor income," Agron, a fruit and vegetable street vendor tells the Deutsche Welle in the local Albanian service about his son Gezim seeking asylum in Germany. "He doesn't want to live in the village and sell in this open air market with me. He wants a better life and a better future. Gezim is now learning German in the camp. He likes to be a social worker. We pray to God he will not be deported and manage to get a job contract," he adds. Agron, a middle-aged man who lives in a village outside Tirana is the only one to work and has to earn a living for his wife and four children at the municipal-run market, but says the income he gets is hardly enough to make ends meet. Obvious reasons for Albanian citizens leaving their home country include high unemployment, small income which in some cases is lower than the social benefits as asylum seekers in Germany, lack of trust in state institutions perceived as corrupt and inefficient, real or perceived lack of job perspectives and unrealistic expectations compared to income in Western European countries, primarily Germany, according to 2016 study conducted Tirana-based Cooperation and Development Institute. Albanian authorities say the tighter border crossing measuring introduced last summer are having a positive result in preventing ungrounded asylum-seeking from a NATO member and EU aspirant country such as Albania. "We are cracking down on criminal gangs and smugglers who sell Albanian citizens fake documents to seek asylum in Germany, France or other EU countries as well as travel agencies involved in the fake documents business," says Aida Hajnaj, the Border and Migration director at the Albanian State Police. "Procedures and requirements for every Albanian citizen travelling to EU countries have tightened and parents abandoning their minor children in Schengen Area countries to seek asylum face criminal charges something which has yielded positive results," she adds. With only few applicants managing to get asylum, more and more Albanians have turned to studying German language in the past couple of years, joining a Western Balkan trend of preparing to integrate into the German labor market and escaping high unemployment and low-income jobs in their home countries. Repatriated asylum-seekers are also among the German language students as they plan to move to Germany legally through employment contracts. Opportunities have increased as what non-qualified workers need is only an employment contract and no proven language skills. The number of work visas for Albanians, Bosnians and citizens from other Western Balkans countries grew by 70 percent to 63,000 in the first eight months of this year, being the recipients of about a third of visas issued to third-country nationals, German newspaper Die Welt reports referring to data by the Federal Employment Agency. Since early 2016, Germany has been applying easier work visa procedures for the Western Balkans, with its citizens required to having an employment contract as the only condition to be provided with visa. The easier procedures for non-qualified workers came following an asylum wave and after Germany added Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro on the list of safe countries of origin in late 2015. The work visas have been mainly issued for jobs in the construction industry, but there is also need for gastronomy and elderly care workers, German media report. The program applies until 2020 in addition to the Blue Cad program seeking experts and requiring applicants to have an employment contract, the required qualifications and knowledge of German language. German Ambassador to Albania Susanne Schütz says the German economy needs qualified workers, but travelling to seek asylum is not the right way for Albanians. “Travelling to Germany with the intention of getting employed, but filing an asylum application upon arriving to the country is not the right way leading to employment, but a cul-de-sac,” the German ambassador has earlier told Deutsche Welle in the local Albanian service in an interview. “Germany has classified Albania as a safe country of origin. That means asylum applications by Albanians as well as citizens from other Western Balkans countries undergo fast-track processing and are practically refused in any case,” she adds. Rejected asylum-seekers have to return to Albania and get a five-year Schengen ban if sent back forcefully. The number of first time Albanian asylum seekers to EU member countries more than halved in 2016, but Albania remained for the second year in a row among the top 10 countries of citizenship seeking asylum protection in list dominated by war torn Asian and African countries and Russia. Eurostat data shows the number of Albanian asylum seekers to EU countries dropped to 28,925 in 2016, down from a record 65,935 in 2015 when the country faced a massive exodus. Germany was once again the main destination of asylum seekers with about 15,000 or half of total first time asylum applicants in EU member countries, down from a record 54,000 in 2015. However, only two out of 100 Albanians who applied for asylum in EU member countries during the past couple of years have been granted protection under a final decision. EU member countries, mainly the UK, France and Germany granted asylum status to some 1,780 Albanians in 2015 and 2016 out of a total applications of about 95,000, Eurostat says. [post_title] => Asylum wave continues, although at a slower pace [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => asylum-wave-continues-although-at-a-slower-pace [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-20 12:36:26 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-20 11:36:26 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=135034 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134998 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-15 10:42:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-15 09:42:01 [post_content] => By Sidonja Manushi “Professionalization, prestige, the market, the publishing house, the critics…all these things could kill, metaphorically, a writer. You have to keep fighting that, and write!”  Rosa Montero, Spanish award-winning writer and journalist, said at the end of our conversation, as a way of motivating the young and aspiring writer interviewing her. A feeling of excitement could be sensed in the auditorium where Montero was to address and converse with students of Tirana’s Spanish language faculty in the context of a conference hosted by the embassy. Despite it being the 8th of December, a national holiday in Albania, the auditorium was packed with students, faculty and media. While even the Spanish ambassador to Tirana, Vincente Montero, was present at the cultural event, it was the students preparing and practicing questions, self-conscious they’d speak to a personality one probably doesn’t get to meet more than once in their lives, that was most interesting to see. Automatically, the pride a beginner journalist like me felt for getting to interview a professional turned to something else – doubt that I would ever manage to sit and ask questions, without stuttering, to the woman who has interviewed, in her long career of more than 2,000 interviews, people like Indira Gandhi, Richard Nixon and Jaser Arafat. And yet, as I also reconfirmed later while sitting with her in a corner of the auditorium, talking of literature, journalism and art, Rosa Montero’s energy, activism and positive vibe make it impossible for anxiety and doubt to dominate the environment she’s in. Now in her late sixties, Montero entered the room looking ageless, dressed in leathered tights and a red sweatshirt that matched her short, unruly hair all too well. Her laugh was dynamic, it filled the room and, soon enough, I was captivated by the conversation that was developing between her and the students, despite not speaking a word of Spanish. She answered all kinds of questions, as my helpful language app informed me, from her journalistic opinion on the possible similarities between Catalonia and Kosovo (she thinks there is no point of comparison), to her favorite authors and books as a writer. This made me curious to later ask her whether it happens to sometimes combine the two types of writing for an end result. “No, you shouldn’t,” she told me with a smile, as if she’d been asked this question before and the answer was on the tip of her tongue. “To be a journalist in a newspaper is actually a literary genre, it’s like poetry or essay writing. Usually, it’s rare for a writer to write only one genre and the biggest part of writers were also journalists – Hemingway, Marquez, Eliot, Kipling…you should know the limits between the genres to do them both. If you use literature for journalism, it wouldn’t be good journalism, because you wouldn’t be sure of the reality of it. And if you do a novel mixed with journalism it won’t be a good novel, because it would be superficial. So, they are ultimately two very different ways of approaching reality” She added: “On journalism, clarity is a value. The clearer, the more factual it is, the better it is. In a novel, the ambiguity is the value. The more interpretations the novel has, even if they are contradictory, the best. It is deeper, it is more complex, more profound and it reflects life in a better way, because life is always contradictory and ambiguous.” No wonder that, while we were on this topic, she also confessed her preferred genre to be fiction, as it best helps her to cope with reality. Even though Montero still works for one of the most prestigious newspapers in Spain, El Pais, she explained that journalism is just a part of her life, as opposed to “that other thing”, the demanding process of creation, which is her life. The devotion expressed while she talked about writing fiction and the simultaneous clarity and complexity of her ideas made me curious about her creative process, whether she was an author that wrote from within, or with an audience in mind. Though the passionate way she described writing as ‘her life’ already gave me an idea of the answer, I anticipated the way she would put it into words. “It starts with a small idea for a novel, an idea that is an image that appears in your head, without knowing where, and you have a lot of these ideas all the time, and some of them disappear…but, one of these ideas is so touching for you even you don’t know why. So touching that it’s too big to be in your heart or in your mind, and then you say ‘I have to share this, I have to tell this to someone’. So you write as a need for communication in the first place.” Then she continued: “but on the other hand, when you write, it is so intimate because you don’t think about the readers; you just write the novel that you would like to read. And because all we writers are readers, we love to read, you try to write the novel you would like to read – you write to your inner reader.” Montero’s most influential work, in terms of cause and effect, has been accomplished in the field of journalism. When I asked her about the influence her work has had, however, she only affirmed five or six “small things” to have changed from her reporting, such as prison tortures during the time of transition, or some negative elements of society that she denounced. Humble of her praised journalistic work, she was much more interested in talking about the principle of changing society and the ways journalism and literature differ in achieving that. “In journalism and in essays, you can fight for your ideas. In novels, you shouldn’t, because you don’t write novels to teach anything, you write novels to learn. The sense of writing is looking for the sense of life. It’s a way of knowledge, writing novels, and you can’t gain that knowledge by giving answers already, so you cannot use novels to fight for your ideas. You just try to shed a bit of light in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of your heart.” Majorly inspired about the direction our conversation was taking us and the way she was speaking of literature combined with life, society and change made me ask her about Albania, a society she is only familiar with through another great author – Ismail Kadare, who happens to be one of her favorites. Feelings like a school pupil, I told Montero of the primary role politics have in Albanian society as opposed to art, especially art generated by young people. Montero, having begun writing at a very early age and having already told me that, in her understanding, fiction could help one cope with the ambiguity of life, while journalism could be used to fight for one’s ideas, felt like the right person to ask about the dangers of a society without young artists. “A society, a culture, without young artists in all the fields, without young writers, without young poets is a society in danger of dying, absolutely. Because this is the heart of the society – it is absolutely the heart. Fernando Pessoa, who was a wonderful Portuguese writer, has a sentence that said: ‘Literature is the proof that life is not enough’. And it’s true, life is not enough, we need literature to have a real life. And if a society has no new artists that means something very difficult and very dangerous is going on with this society.” The moment this vein was hit and much more was to be said about the tragedy of a society without artists, a glance at my watch reminded me that Montero was on a tight schedule, having other appointments to attend. Feeling as if it was the end of a conversation, rather than an interview, I didn’t hesitate to ask her what her two favorite books are, pleasantly understanding that I was no longer nervous or anxious and that some of her professionalism had been transmitted to me during our brief talk. She told me that Nabokov’s Lolita was the book that appealed to her realistic side, while Ursula K. Le Guin is the suburb author that fulfills her fantastical preferences in literature. As she hugged me and wished me luck with the warmth only a person who understands people can possess, I thought about what she’d meant earlier during the conference when she said that “will, perseverance and standing one’s ground” was what helped her survive during her career as a journalist and felt happy, above all, that she was there to tell the story.     [post_title] => Rosa Montero on the art of writing, journalism and life [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => rosa-montero-on-the-art-of-writing-journalism-and-life [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-01-29 16:36:31 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-01-29 15:36:31 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134998 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) ) [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 135676 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2018-02-05 11:52:16 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-02-05 10:52:16 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_135678" align="alignright" width="300"]Young Dalmatian Pelicans in the Narta-Lagoon © Taulant Bino Young Dalmatian Pelicans in the Narta-Lagoon
© Taulant Bino[/caption] TIRANA, Feb. 5 - Germany-based EuroNatur Foundation has slammed the Albanian government's hurry in proceeding with an international airport project in a protected southern Albania area as incompatible with preserving the local ecosystem. The reaction came on February 2, the World Wetlands Day, one day after the Socialist Party majority approved a bill in Parliament, paving the way for fast-track contract negotiations with a Turkish consortium to build a new international airport outside the southern Albanian coastal city of Vlora at a site which is part of a protected lagoon and ecosystem. The new airport, set to become the country’s second international airport, is projected to be built along the Narta Lagoon, where one of Europe's last wild rivers flows and the endangered Dalmatian pelican feeds, the German environmental foundation says. The projected airport lies within the Narta-Vjosa Protected Landscape, one of the largest near-natural wetland complexes along the Adriatic coast and is internationally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area, with a central role for bird migration along the Adriatic Flyway, German environmentalists say. "It goes without saying that the construction of an international airport in this sensitive location will pose irreversible damage to the ecosystem of Narta-Vjosa and even the whole Adriatic coast," EuroNatur director Gabriel Schwaderer writes in an open letter to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, calling for an environmental impact assessment that meets international standards before concluding project negotiations. “We are convinced that a serious assessment can only conclude that the planned airport is incompatible with preserving the Narta-Vjosa ecosystem,” the EuroNatur director says. "We believe that Albania as part of the most important multilateral environmental agreements (Ramsar, Bern Convention, Bonn Convention), cannot afford to lose one of its natural crown jewels along the Adriatic coast," concludes the letter to the Albanian prime minister. [caption id="attachment_135679" align="alignright" width="300"]flamingo The Narta Lagoon is also a valuable habitat for flamingos. © Ferdinand Bego[/caption] The Narta-Vjosa Protected Landscape, also a valuable habitat for flamingos, has also been officially nominated a candidate Emerlad site as an area of special conservation interest. EuroNatur and several other European environmental watchdogs have also condemned the Albanian government's approval without proper environmental assessment of hydropower plant concessions along the Vjosa and Valbona rivers, two of Europe's last remaining wild rivers. The Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, PPNEA, a local environmental NGO, had earlier warned the airport’s proposed location at Akerni village, some 20 km outside Vlora in an area where a small military air base used to operate, threatens the local ecosystem's integrity. The Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape is a 194 km2 area rich in wetlands and aquatic birds encompassing the Narta Lagoon along with the delta of the Vjosa River and its surrounding areas with freshwater wetlands, marshlands, reed beds, woodlands, islands and sandy beaches. “The construction of this kind of infrastructure threatens the ecologic integrity of this area because of the habitat alienation during the investment phase and disturbance during the operational phase. In addition, this construction violates the regulatory and legal norms on protected areas," PPNEA warned in late January as the government approved fast track negotiation procedures with a Turkish consortium. The Albanian government has not yet responded to environmental concerns, but stressed the importance that a second international airport would have on breaking the monopoly the Tirana International Airport has enjoyed so far, leading to lower ticket prices and giving a boost to the emerging tourism industry. Infrastructure Minister Damian Gjiknuri says the Turkish consortium has offered to invest €100 million for the new airport in Vlora in details that will be determined during a 90-day negotiation period with government representatives. The Turkish consortium that has offered to build the Vlora airport is composed of Cengis, Kalyon and Kolin Construction, three companies also involved in the construction of Istanbul’s third airport, a multi-billion dollar investment that is set to become the world’s largest. While the airport investment will be private, the Albanian government is expected to guarantee the concessionaire a minimum annual income in traffic guarantees in return for the investment and operation over a period of time that will be determined during the negotiations. Meanwhile, local residents see the construction of the new airport as a new opportunity that gives added value to their lands, where the salt business is one of the few employment opportunities in the local marshlands. The airport, whose construction is expected to begin this year, is located 133 km, a 2-hour drive from Tirana, making it competitive only in case it attracts low-cost carriers. Due to expensive prices and low number of low-cost carriers, more and more Albanian passengers have been travelling through neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia or Montenegro airports in the past few years. The Tirana International Airport, which until mid-2016 enjoyed exclusive rights on international flights says it supports "any initiative that aims to stimulate the economic development of the country, including the establishing of airports that enable a freer movement of Albanian citizens, as well as foreigners wishing to visit Albania." Last year, the Chinese-run consortium managing TIA, the country’s sole international airport, handled a record 2.6 million passengers, an 18 percent increase compared to 2016. 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