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Xarra mandarin cooperative, a success story in Albania’s undeveloped agriculture

Xarra mandarin cooperative, a success story in Albania’s undeveloped agriculture

TIRANA, Dec. 7 – Mandarin production from the country’s most famous private-run collective farm in Saranda, a rare example in Albania’s fragmented and individually-run farms, has registered a new historic high this year, meeting domestic consumption needs and expanding its

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Open Society Foundation: Links among gangs, business, politics hamper freedom of expression

Open Society Foundation: Links among gangs, business, politics hamper freedom of expression

TIRANA, Dec. 4 – The link among criminal gangs, business and politics has sharply evolved and become sophisticated during the past quarter of a century of Albania’s transition to democracy and market economy reaching a degree that hampers freedom of

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Kune-Vain Valley’s natural habitat renewed under protection moratorium

Kune-Vain Valley’s natural habitat renewed under protection moratorium

TIRANA, Nov. 30 – Albania’s valleys offer a wide range of natural diversification both for the country and the region. The Kune-Vain valley in Lezhë was the first area to be declared protected in Albania, 77 years ago. Though the

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Tougher penalties sought for domestic violence

Tougher penalties sought for domestic violence

TIRANA, Nov. 26 – Reacting to the recent increase in domestic violence cases, which are mainly directed towards women and often end tragically, Albania’s Democratic Party has submitted a request for the toughening of measures against the perpetrators of such

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LGBT people, one of Albania’s most victimized in access to justice

LGBT people, one of Albania’s most victimized in access to justice

TIRANA, Nov. 30 – Lack of protection by the police and the justice system as a whole from systemic and widespread violence is one of the most pressing issues facing the gay community in Albania, considered one of Europe’s homophobic

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Famous Albanians – From Skanderbeg to Mother Teresa

Famous Albanians – From Skanderbeg to Mother Teresa

Most importantly, these sons and daughters of a small country like Albania confirm the vitality and the verve these people hold, by proudly listing Albanians on the big human terrestrial family. The humanity, the geniality, the verve and the vitality

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Camera traps reveal presence of rare Balkan Lynx in Albanian Alps

Camera traps reveal presence of rare Balkan Lynx in Albanian Alps

TIRANA, Nov. 15 – Camera traps have revealed the presence of the Balkan Lynx which experts have dubbed the ‘jewel of Albanian forests’ in the northern Albanian Alps and several other endangered species, a watchdog says. Monitoring through camera traps

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Albanian Bektashi leader handed ‘Global Peace Icon’ award

Albanian Bektashi leader handed ‘Global Peace Icon’ award

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

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The man who built a temple at 82-years of age

The man who built a temple at 82-years of age

By Eduard Alia Earlier this year I read an article about a man in Spain who had devoted his life’s work to build a cathedral.  It was a fascinating story – worthy of media attention!  Though, it got me thinking

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

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

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

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 7 - Mandarin production from the country's most famous private-run collective farm in Saranda, a rare example in Albania’s fragmented and individually-run farms, has registered a new historic high this year, meeting domestic consumption needs and expanding its exports map to Poland in addition to regional markets.

The fifth mandarin festival held this week in Xarra, Saranda, southernmost Albania, found local farmers with a record production of about 18,000 metric tons from about 500 hectares of mandarins in a joint enterprise where about 450 farmers have come together to produce a success story in Albania's agriculture sector.

Still notorious because of the legacy of the communist regime, Xarra farmers were the first to join and establish a commercial cooperative in 1995, only few years after the shift to a market economy.

Experts describe the cooperative as a wise way of breaking with the Albanian tradition of individual farm business and a model which has paved the way for the introduction of Albanian products to foreign markets.

Dhimo Kote, a former head of the Xarre commune and a citrus entrepreneur, who is now the country's deputy agriculture minister, has dedicated the success to the cooperative venture which has expanded to 85,000 trees, of which 75,000 are mandarins.

"We plant 500 hectares of mandarins and produce about 16,000 metric tons which at a price of 45 lek (€0.33)/kg account for Euro 6 million," Kote has earlier said, adding that exports are destined for Kosovo, Macedonia and Poland.

Mid-term targets are to increase citrus production to about 50,000 metric tons and employ about 1,000 people.

"Cooperative models in Divjaka, Berat, but also Xarra and Korça are an example of agriculture and livestock development with a very positive result,” Kote has said, suggesting that products such as nuts, bean and kiwi can be successfully cultivated in cooperative farms and destined for exports instead of illegal cannabis cultivation.

Located in southernmost Albania just off the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint, the Xarra cooperative near the Ionian coastline also benefits from a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine.

Since its establishment in 1995, the number of farmers who have joined forces to work together in Xarra has increased from a mere seven to 450. The cooperative employs more than 400 people, 250 of whom from outside the local area.

The success of the farm is also a result of USAID’s assistance to farmers to increase the production, marketing, and sales of citrus fruits.

USAID says it has worked with mandarin growers in Xarra to develop a citrus production growth strategy, and over the last several years has provided technical assistance to support investments in new technologies and infrastructure.

Albania has an early tradition of cultivating citrus.

Citrus orchards grew strongly in communist post-war Albania from a national total of less than 100,000 trees to more than 1 million by 1990. The citrus sub-sector reached a low point in terms of size and performance in 1998, right after the 1997 financial collapse of the country.

A study has shown agricultural cooperatives, legally recognized since 2012 but poorly developed because of their bias under communism when they were state-run, can serve as a tool of economic growth and political instrument in Albania.

Agriculture is a key sector of the Albanian economy, employing about half of the country’s population, but providing only 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling its untapped potential and poor productivity.

The fragmentation of farm land into plots of little more than one hectare split in four parcels in the early 1990s land reform is described as a huge burden for the development of Albanian agriculture in terms of access to financing and investment, reducing their competitiveness due to high costs.

The Albanian government spends only 0.5 percent of the GDP on agriculture while credit to the agricultural sector represents only 2 percent of total credit to businesses, according to central bank data.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 4 – The link among criminal gangs, business and politics has sharply evolved and become sophisticated during the past quarter of a century of Albania’s transition to democracy and market economy reaching a degree that hampers freedom of expression, a study conducted by the Open Society Foundation for Albania has unveiled.

“Organized crime has managed to neutralize society to the degree of freedom of expression, seriously infringing the reporting culture,” shows the report.

Examining the evolution of organized crime structures in Albania from 1990 to 2015, researchers Fabian Zhilla and Besfort Lamllari say organized crime, business and politics in Albania are linked by a complicated relation of common interests and exploitation for mutual gain.

“Another evident aspect of the sophistication of criminal organizations is the integration of crime proceeds in legal businesses and their involvement in policy-making. The financing of elections through proceeds by criminal or dubious activities deserves serious attention by political stakeholders, law-enforcement institutions and the Albanian society," the researchers say.

The report shows there is a concerning trend of criminal gangs using businesses as a ‘façade’ to hide criminal activities with the phenomenon being more widespread in trafficking of cocaine.

The first criminal gangs in Albania were established in the early 1990s just when the country’s communist regime collapsed. The initial gangs involved redundant former intelligence service officers, border police and drivers, some of whom had smuggled cigarettes to Italian Mafia for about three decades from the 1960s in a communist regime-backed underground operation.

“In the early 1990s, corruption and the infiltration of organized crime elements in the weak Albanian institutions guaranteed the impunity of the criminal gang leaders. A considerable number of them used to work as intelligence service agents, police and Republican Guard officers or even drivers and sportspeople during the communist regime,” says the study.

Low per capita income of below $20 a month in 1992, the reduction of active enterprises by three times, unemployment rates trebling, the shrink of population by 10 percent as a result of massive migration, the oil smuggling between 1992 to 1996, the loss of about $1.5 billion from the pyramid investment schemes and the opening of military depots in 1997, triggered feelings of public unrest and favored the flourishing of illegal activities, including those with an organized crime character.

The Open Society Foundation study analyzed 71 decisions by the first instance Serious Crimes Court on about 50 criminal gangs in the country from 1990 to 2015 and conducted 84 interviews with judges, prosecutors, lawyers and former police officers.

Researchers examined several criminal organization and smaller family-run gangs in the country's main regions of Tirana, Durres, Vlora, Fier and Shkodra.

“Criminal organizations have ties to politics and politicians intervene by neutralizing law-enforcement agencies through the appointment of trusted people or party militants. The most widespread collaboration between criminal gangs and state bodies is corruption, especially in the justice system which is not a local phenomenon but spread in all regions where organized crime is problematic,” shows the study.

Extortion of businesses through 'fines' and 'protection' from other gangs, supporting political candidates or fighting opponents running in the elections and ruining their party rallies, vote rigging and the financing of electoral campaign in exchange for immunity from prosecution and other gains are some of the shades of the relations between politics and crime which has been sophisticated throughout years.

“In various regions of the country, rivalry among armed gangs, although having territory control as the main reason, has often had obvious signs of political affiliation. Criminal gang members have often served as commissioners in polling stations. Despite lack of investigations or court decisions, various MPs and ministers have been subject to public accusations on ties to organized crime,” the report shows.

Vlora's favorable geographical position in southern Albania and its proximity to Italy at a sea distance of 45 to 60 miles have made it a key hub for trafficking in human beings and narcotics, notes the report which examined narcotics trafficking there as a case study.

Vlora has adequate infrastructure on the production and import of vessels such as speedboats used for drug trafficking at a cost of between €50,000 to €150,000 depending on their size, notes the study.

Small speedboats trafficking 300 to 400 kg of cannabis to Italy from Vlora earn between €60,000 to €80,000 in transportation fees, covering the vessel’s cost in a single trip.

"What’s characteristic about criminal gangs operating in the city of Vlora is that differently from gangs active in 1992-1999 there are no divided territories. It is evident that a lot of killings take place in Vora, but in general the killings are not related to territory control, but areas of influence in international drug and arms networks in EU countries, especially Spain and Italy,” the report adds.

Researchers recommend amending the country's Criminal Code by introducing changes similar to the Italian Mafia-type criminal association to punish making use of intimidating power for economic gains, including licenses and concessions or hindering the free exercise of the right to vote.

The report also recommends reforming legislation on financing electoral campaigns and political parties in order to prevent financing from crime or dubious proceeds and establishing special anti-Mafia structures with experts of various fields.

The authors also suggest amending the Criminal Code to classify every physical or psychological assault and blackmail against investigative journalists, civil society and researchers carrying out reports on corruption and organized crime as a criminal offence.

In its latest country report, the European Commission says only less than half of organized crime cases in Albania lead to confiscation of assets.

“Less than 50 percent of organized crime cases lead to confiscation of assets. Leaks to the press, violations of the secrecy of investigations and endangerment of the safety of police officers and prosecutors are still frequent,” it adds.

Cannabis cultivation and trafficking has seen a sharp increase in the past couple of years, with its crime proceeds estimated to have been invested in real estate and other money laundering activities.

Albanian police say they destroyed 2.5 million of cannabis plants in 2016 spread over a 213 hectare area nationwide, a 3-fold increase compared to the whole of 2015, making Albania Europe’s largest cannabis producer.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 30 – Albania’s valleys offer a wide range of natural diversification both for the country and the region. The Kune-Vain valley in Lezhë was the first area to be declared protected in Albania, 77 years ago. Though the valley was damaged after 1990 due to illegal hunting and unplanned construction around it, the implementation of a moratorium prohibiting hunting has led to the recuperation of the valley’s flora and fauna and the return of some long-gone species of birds.

Kune-Vain was not only declared a protected area 77 years ago, but was also officially named the State Hunting Reservoir. Located within 55km from Tirana, the valley now holds the status of Managed Natural Reservoir and is considered one of Albania’s treasures. In addition to illegal hunting and construction, the habitat was also damaged from waste and industrial pollution and coastal erosion. This brought the extinction of some rare colonies of birds and the loss of the reservoir’s natural beauty.

However, the enforcement of a moratorium that prohibits illegal hunting during the last two years has brought real improvement to the area’s diversification. In addition to this moratorium, the Albanian government is also cooperating with the Environmental Program of the UN, which granted almost $2milion to the Albanian government for the habitat’s renovation based on the best environmental and economic project for the area.

“We monitor the valley every day to define the species and numbers of birds. You’ve noticed it’s hundreds of birds. We haven’t had problems because the surrounding community is now aware they shouldn’t use hunting guns around the valley,” Pjetër Toni, of the Protected Areas Agency, told the Voice of America.

Toni also listed the different types of birds returning to the valley, some of which, like the pelican and flamingo, declared extinct since 1993. Toni told the VoA the valley hosts around 400 flamingos, moving between the areas of Kune and Vain and around 25 pelicans. As the species of birds keep increasing by the day, Toni said the valley can now be again called like the old experts did – “birds’ maternity ward”.

Around 4,400 hectares, the valley houses around 227 types of plants and 196 types of birds. Meanwhile, the valley’s residents note that the moratorium’s execution has improved the condition of the valley’s ecosystem, as well as significantly increased tourism in the area. Different residents report that the difference between the valley’s conditions now as opposed to a few years back is drastic, and that no one could have imagined this level of improvement was possible. Nonetheless, raising awareness among the area’s inhabitants is an ongoing process for which efforts from both institutions and other environmental organizations operating in the area should not stop.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 26 – Reacting to the recent increase in domestic violence cases, which are mainly directed towards women and often end tragically, Albania’s Democratic Party has submitted a request for the toughening of measures against the perpetrators of such crimes.

The move was made public by Democratic Party MP, Albana Vokshi, one of several lawmakers, who had signed a resolution on the matter.

The opposition lawmakers note that the government is yet to take any significant measures in order to keep domestic violence at a minimum, as there is a lack of strong parliamentary supervision and no one to properly look into domestic violence denouncements.

Parts of the motion suggest that the Parliament establish a special commission to legally handle the phenomenon of domestic violence in Albania, to hand in a data analysis, as well as create a national register for domestic violence in the country.

In addition, the motion suggests that a sole legal entity should be created to deal with the issue at hand and be made entirely responsible for domestic violence prevention and the victims’ protection guarantee.

The deputies also signed in favor of lawfully expelling from any amnesty or sentence reduction any crimes involving domestic violence.

The motion also argues that the protective measures against violence should be reevaluated and that the cohabitation between the violator and the victim in a closed environment should not be allowed.

“We should not keep quiet during these days, but react against governmental violence, which begins from the Prime Minister and expands like an epidemic in all its forms, and in each institution,” Vokshi said.

Despite the added political colors of the debate between the government and opposition, it is a well-known fact that domestic violence prevention is indeed failing across the country.

Several experts have told local media the system in place to protect the lives of children and women at risk of family violence has clearly failed, as well as have urged authorities to do more.

Government has proposed changes

However, the government did propose some changes to the current laws earlier this year, in a bid to offer better protection. Changes such as speeding up the issue of protection orders and providing victims with free legal assistance are already in process.

The current law punishes domestic violence perpetrators with up to five years in prison, but tighter penalties adopted in 2013 have not helped curb the phenomenon.

Under the government’s proposed changes, courts will also have to decide on protection order applications within 15 days while their decisions will be final in order to avoid common appeals delaying victims’ protection from immediate threat.

“Under the changes we are proposing, domestic violence victims will receive free legal assistance and free lawyers from the National Chamber of Advocacy. The proposed legal changes also clearly envisage the obligation by all state authorities for the free of charge provision of expertise in domestic violence cases, while the cost of experts summoned by the court such as psychologists and forensic experts will be covered by the perpetrator,” the Minister for Health and Social Protection, Ogerta Manastirliu, said earlier this year.

Week to fight domestic violence marked

Meanwhile, the International Day of Eliminating Violence against Women found Albanian Civil Society Organizations (CSO-s), initiating a variety of awareness campaigns, as another woman’s life was recently taken from her husband’s hand in the town of Kavaje.

“The situation is truly grave and the measures taken so far by the courts, police and other human rights organizations are insufficient. Another woman lost her life in Kavaje two days ago and numerous cases of violence are registered around the country,” Fabiola Egro, from the Network of Community Centers Today for the Future told the Voice of America.

In this context, both the capital and the peripheries are undertaking a number of activities aiming to raise awareness among the citizens coming from the most rural of areas.

These awareness campaigns will last for two weeks and will see to cover as many areas of life as possible because, according to sociologists, domestic violence in the country is related to a number of factors such as living conditions, unemployment and poverty. Of the 2,100 penal cases supervised by the courts during this year, more than a third was related to violence against women.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 30 - Lack of protection by the police and the justice system as a whole from systemic and widespread violence is one of the most pressing issues facing the gay community in Albania, considered one of Europe's homophobic countries, a survey has found.

Members of the LGBTI community are vociferous in their belief that they are being persecuted by police officers who are either indifferent to their plight or are openly hostile to them, says a UNDP-commissioned survey measuring access to justice in Albania among members of disadvantaged groups including the poor, the Roma and domestic violence victims.

“Police departments persecute us. They [police officers] look at us like we are different creatures. Even when they try to comfort us, they don’t do anything. There are even instances when they say to perpetrators, ‘Bravo for what you did,’" a gay person is quoted as saying on condition of anonymity.

Community members say the police have a habit of humiliating LGBT people and that their treatment of sex workers and transsexuals is even more brutal.

Research shows LGBT people's right to privacy is often violated as a means of dissuading them from their activism or from pursuing their complaints, with police officers disclosing sensitive information to the media and commonly using the victim-blaming practice.

LGBTI citizens that are not assisted by the police rarely have avenues for seeking justice. Their support networks are small and friends and family often shun them, says the UNDP report.

“If police officers do not respond, we don’t do anything. The family doesn’t provide help; friends neither,” another gay is quoted as saying.

In addition, common obstacles faced by all Albanians such as high court tariffs and expert fees, lack of a functioning legal aid system, the length of court proceedings and widespread perception of a corrupt justice system further hamper the LGBTI access to justice.

“The justice system is corrupt…. As a community, we see corruption everywhere. To obtain any kind of service, we have to pay. If you pay, the person doesn’t care if you are gay or not. All they care about is the money,” says another LGBT person.

Research shows that attitudes and practices by police and other justice system stakeholders have to drastically change in order for LGBT people to fully enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

"Due to the widespread discrimination against the LGBTI community, both in the justice system and in society as a whole, the LGBTI community cannot avail itself of the services of the justice system or exercise its rights under the law," concludes the research, suggesting strengthening the legal aid system and raising awareness among justice system workers and LGBTI community as a measures that would improve their access to justice.

A nationwide survey conducted as part of the research has shown most Albanians remain homophobic when it comes to LGBTI rights, especially at work and that the Albanian population is not prepared to broaden its conceptions of justice to include the LGBT population.

In a nationwide survey with more than 1,700 people, 37 percent of respondents believe employers should fire gay people if they make them feel uncomfortable. The gap is wider when it comes to sexual orientation at work with about three-quarters of the respondents saying that gay people shouldn’t be open about their sexuality at work.

However, only a quarter of high-income earners holding university degrees were in favor of firing gay people for making employers feel uncomfortable.

LGBT organizations in Albania have been regularly staging gay pride parades in the past six years in downtown Tirana, demanding equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who are often victimized and neglected because of their sexual orientation despite legislation already in place banning all forms of discrimination toward them.

Activists say young gay and lesbian Albanians face discrimination at school, and they are often kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families. In many cases, young LGBT people fall prey to violence, abuse and are not given the opportunity to live freely and with dignity, they add.

The LGBT community has been demanding amendments to the Family Code so that partners of the same sex can legally marry or cohabit, paving the way for adoptions and inheritance rights for same sex couples, a request that was not taken into consideration in the justice reform package that Albania adopted in July 2016.

Homosexuality has long been a taboo subject in conservative Albania, like in most of the Balkan region.

Under the communist dictatorship until the early 1990s, homosexuality was a criminal offence punishable with up to ten years of imprisonment.

It was decriminalized in 1995, and since 2010 it has been illegal to discriminate against solely on the basis of sexual orientation.
                    [post_title] => LGBT people, one of Albania’s most victimized in access to justice
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134570" align="alignright" width="300"]Mother Teresa Mother Teresa[/caption]

Most importantly, these sons and daughters of a small country like Albania confirm the vitality and the verve these people hold, by proudly listing Albanians on the big human terrestrial family.

The humanity, the geniality, the verve and the vitality of this small nation is revealed and signified in many outstanding figures, each of whom has proudly brought their extraordinary work to the international arena in helping the development of global prosperity, peace, art and culture as well as science worldwide.

On top of the list is undoubtedly the national hero and ruler of Medieval Albania Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who led the small Albanian nation and united the people under a 25-year resistance against the Ottoman Empire that was the strongest army of that era. That is the reason he deserves a golden place in Albania’s history and about 150 books, operas, paintings etc. have been dedicated to him from Renaissance to present day. Skanderbeg was one of the greatest generals and strategist of the medieval era.

Albania is also home to the great figure of humanity, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose maiden name is Gonxhe Bojaxhi and whose parents were both Albanians. Her activities in humanitarian assistance to people in need, the poor and the victimized by wars are unprecedented, transforming her into the image of a saint for the entire world.

[caption id="attachment_134571" align="alignright" width="300"]kadare Ismail Kadare[/caption]

Ismail Kadare has been published in almost every country in the world and has won many prestigious international awards for literature, including the inaugural “Man Booker International Prize” in 2005. He has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Achieving a position in the history of contemporary visual arts is an indisputable merit which Ibrahim Kodra, born in Durrës but educated and shaped as an artist in Italy, managed to. His masterpieces stand alongside other famous painters such as Modigliani and are on display in some of the most renowned galleries around the world.

One of the most sought-after photographers of former U.S.-based Life magazine, Gjon Mili was a pioneer in the use of stroboscopic instruments to capture a sequence of actions in one photograph. Trained as an engineer and self-taught in photography, Gjon Mili was one of the first to use electronic flash and stroboscopic light to create photographs that had more than scientific interest.

Opera singer Inva Mula ranks among the ten best sopranos of the world, with a collection of extraordinary arias from nearly all the best opera composers of all time. The soprano has performed in the most prestigious opera houses around the world and is particularly appreciated at La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But she is not alone, Ermonela Jaho, another great soprano and Saimir Pirgu, a well-known tenor are also shining on international stage.

[caption id="attachment_134572" align="alignright" width="300"]Ibrahim Kodra Ibrahim Kodra[/caption]

Violinist Tedi Papavrami has been described by the media as the “little Albanian virtuoso” because of his skillful violin performances on international stage ever since he was a child.

Another major talent, named in the French media as a genius of contemporary choreography, is the Paris Opera House ballet maestro, Angelin Preljocaj, whose works stand alongside the works of the great Nureyev. Born in 1957 to Albanian parents who migrated to Paris, Preljocaj began his career by studying classical dance before turning to contemporary dance. He has received many prestigious awards, among which the “Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters."

In the contemporary art stage, Anri Sala, Adrian Paci and Sisley Xhafa are doing very well and their exhibitions have been showcased from the New Museum in New York to the Venice Biennale and other important venues.

Pop stars Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Bebe Rexha and Era Istrefi also have Albanian roots originally from Kosovo and Macedonia.

Football stars include newly retired Albania legendary captain Lorik Cana, Shkodran Mustafi who plays for Germany and Xherdan Shaqiri who plays for Switzerland. The Xhaka brothers are unique in Europe with the younger Arsenal playmaker and Swiss international Granit Xhaka and his elder Basel and Albanian international player becoming Europe’s first two brothers to face each other in the Euro 2016 group stage fixture when debutant Albania played Switzerland.

[caption id="attachment_134573" align="alignright" width="300"]Rita Ora Rita Ora[/caption]

On the other side of the Atlantic, many other famous Albanians are contributing to their respective areas. Ferid Murad is the 1998 Nobel Prize winning inventor of the Viagra pill.

Laura Mersini is an Albanian-American cosmologist and theoretical physicist, and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a proponent of the multiverse hypothesis, which holds that our universe is one of the many.

Famous Hollywood actors of Albanian origin include Jim Belushi, his late brother John Belushi, and Eliza Dushku.

Stan Dragoti is famous not only as a film director but also as the man who led the “I Love New York” promotion campaign.

Many art critics consider Fadil Berisha, the New York-based photographer, to be a genius in his field.

(Courtesy of the Albanian Tourism Agency, Edited by Tirana Times)
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134542" align="alignright" width="300"]Brown bear in northeastern Albania. Picture: PPNEA Brown bear in northeastern Albania. Picture: PPNEA[/caption]

TIRANA, Nov. 15 - Camera traps have revealed the presence of the Balkan Lynx which experts have dubbed the ‘jewel of Albanian forests’ in the northern Albanian Alps and several other endangered species, a watchdog says.

Monitoring through camera traps at the Nikaj-Merturi regional nature park in northeastern Albania bordering Kosovo has captured pictures of the Balkan Lynx, a critically endangered species which has also been previously traced in the Munella Mountain in the district of Puka and Mirdita, northern Albania.

The Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, PPNEA, has earlier warned illegal logging in the Munella Mountain, northeastern Albania, the country’s sole sanctuary of the Balkan lynx, is further putting at risk one of the most threatened wildlife species in serious danger of extinction.

The Balkan lynx is a critically endangered species, with only about 40 or 50 individuals reported to exist in total. About 5 or 6 of these have been reported to live in the Munella Mountain in the district of Puka and Mirdita.

Back in 2015, the Balkan lynx was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered.

"This is the second evidence that we have for this species in Albanian Alps, after the photography received three years ago by a local guide in Thethi. In addition, the cameras also photographed other important species for the area, such as, chamois, wolf, wild cat, badger, and fox," the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania watchdog said in a statement.

The brown bear, the wild boar, the roe deer and the red fox are some of the other endangered species pictured through camera taps at the Nikaj-Mertur valley in the Albanian Alps.

Proclaimed a regional nature park in 2014, Nikaj-Mertur is becoming a rapidly growing mountain tourism destination along the Valbona River Valley in Tropoja, attracting thousands of tourists in its spectacular landscapes and characteristic guesthouses.

Back in 2013, camera traps at Albania's Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, eastern Albania close to the border with Macedonia, spotted the presence of a brown bear, a wolf, a red fox, badgers, a wild cat, a European hare and a wild boar, revealing the park’s spectacular wildlife.

Camera trapping is a technique that has been used worldwide in recent years for research and recording of wildlife presence. Its main advantages are minimal disturbance of wildlife and the possibility to confirm and prove the presence of particular species in the area, says Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature which conducted the monitoring at the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park four years ago.

At the same time, camera trapping makes it possible to determine behaviour and activity patterns of animals. In some cases this technique can also provide quantitative information on the population of various species.

Animal rights activists have recently submitted more than 37,000 signatures in a petition addressed to MPs seeking to make animal cruelty punishable by fines and even imprisonment by amending the country’s Criminal Code.

Watchdogs say wild animal cruelty continues despite a hunting moratorium in place to protect Albania’s declining endangered fauna species.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surveys show residents of Albania to be among Europe’s least religious people in terms of practicing any of the country’s four faiths, but according to the latest 2011 census, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, Orthodox Christians nearly 7 percent, and the Bektashi, a form of Shia Sufism, 2 percent.
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                    [post_content] => By Eduard Alia

2Earlier this year I read an article about a man in Spain who had devoted his life’s work to build a cathedral.  It was a fascinating story – worthy of media attention!  Though, it got me thinking that I knew of someone in a remote village in northern Albania who had single-handedly built a church which had gone largely unnoticed even within Albania.

So I decided that on my next trip to Kryezi, in the district of Puka, I will try to meet the man who single-handedly built a church. I was curious to find out a bit about what had driven him to do this.

And so I did. Ylli Rrapi, a vivacious man of 86 years, showed up on a hot autumn day, I must say he was dressed very dapper. He sports a moustache and a hat. He’s all buttoned up but no tie. So much for the formal clothing, you can but sense there is a lot of strength in him, not least from his handshake. He is a stone mason, a master by all means, who has built more than 100 homes over a career spanning about 70 years. He was 82 years of age when he built the church.  One would expect to meet a tired man, Ylli is quite the contrary.

He showed me around the detail of his work on the chappell. It’s very respecting to the rather unique traditions of stone masonry of High Albania, but a bit peculiar too. For instance, I noticed the church’s windows are gothic on the outside, yet bearing roman arches on the inside. Ylli provides a tour of his work with absolute delight.

“There was once a church here which was sacred to both Muslims and Catholics of this area, ” he explains, “the communist regime destroyed it, and with it they destroyed some centuries old oak trees that once stood on its grounds”.

According to local legend the church is more than 800 years old. Written records which exist confirm it was there in 1657, same for the oak trees.

Ylli shows where he had to compromise with the old and where he tried his best to stick to the original church even though no blueprints of the original church exist. For instance the church had been oriented north/south previously – with the entrance to the south. It was no longer possible to build it that way as most of the land, once seized by the communist dictatorship to turn into farming, is still used for this purpose by the locals. So Ylli had to turn the new church to face west.

The windows are no compromise – Ylli located the ancient stones and re-built them to reflect the old church as much as possible. His attention to historical detail is evident from the corner stones which hold an arch over their shoulders. These are most peculiar: one bearing the cross, one bearing an “X” sign. Ylli was grateful to have located those ensigned stones as most were either thrown away or used for support walls to the arable land. He says “they clearly demonstrate the ancient origins of the church.” As I found later online, the “X” sign was indeed used by early Christians along with the sign of the cross. The two ensigned stones now proudly support the beatiful arched entrance to the church – a testament to the old, which unfortunately has not found much respect in Albania’s recent troubled history.

Ylli further explains that the church is rather special, something already confirmed by its rare symbols really. “As the church is dedicated to St Venera (Shen Prenda / Veneranda in Albanian), people, especially women, with fertility problems came here to pray and their problems would go away. For as long as I can remember, locals have not allowed burials on the grounds of this church”.  Now, the St Venera connection helps me to make sense why the chappel is of importance to both Muslims and Christians alike.

Ylli’s village, Kryezi, has three churches and two mosques. As is the case all over Albania, Muslims and Christians live in complete harmony. But very few Albanians take religion very seriously and whilst I can see that Ylli himself is about as religious as the average person in Albania, religion is clearly not what he lives and breathes.

To get to the point, I ask Ylli about his motivation. He replies “I built this for the generations to come. The dictatorship took this [church] away from us, I wanted to re-build this monument so that it can be enjoyed for another 800 years”.

I can sense he wanted some retribution against the communist regime but more than that his motivation is purely one of contributing to the community, it’s clearly much less to do with religion per se. This really is a temple intended to bring people together, in its mystic charms and obscure history.

And as to the generations to come? I learn later that Ylli’s only family have emigrated to Italy in search of a better life, as have many Albanians – his grand-children will not enjoy the fruits of his work. His wife passed away recently and he lives alone in a beatiful stone house which he built himself and which, I must say, is very stately.  If it’s not about him, then it must be all selfless really.

I was informed that his family opened the doors of their home to be used as the village’s only school in the 1930’s when it didn’t have one. A community spirit runs in Ylli’s blood. I wish more Albanians were like that.

After a photoshoot and saying my goodbyes I ask him whether he would like to change anything to this art-piece (he would not agree to call it his masterpiece!). He replies with a bright spark in his eyes that he wants to plant some cypress trees – he will pay for these himself too, as he has done for much of everything else with this object.

I once again shake his strong hand – I am in awe of this man who built a monument to the re-gained freedom, a temple to the community - at the age of 82. A genuine selfless act for others. I wish more people around the world were like him.
                    [post_title] => The man who built a temple at 82-years of age
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 1 - Taking an adventure trip to Albania has been rated as one of the top tours on travelers’ to-do-list for 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The communist past is also what fascinates tourists about Albania, which was cut off from the rest of the world under a Stalinist dictatorship.
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            [post_date] => 2017-12-07 18:18:00
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 7 - Mandarin production from the country's most famous private-run collective farm in Saranda, a rare example in Albania’s fragmented and individually-run farms, has registered a new historic high this year, meeting domestic consumption needs and expanding its exports map to Poland in addition to regional markets.

The fifth mandarin festival held this week in Xarra, Saranda, southernmost Albania, found local farmers with a record production of about 18,000 metric tons from about 500 hectares of mandarins in a joint enterprise where about 450 farmers have come together to produce a success story in Albania's agriculture sector.

Still notorious because of the legacy of the communist regime, Xarra farmers were the first to join and establish a commercial cooperative in 1995, only few years after the shift to a market economy.

Experts describe the cooperative as a wise way of breaking with the Albanian tradition of individual farm business and a model which has paved the way for the introduction of Albanian products to foreign markets.

Dhimo Kote, a former head of the Xarre commune and a citrus entrepreneur, who is now the country's deputy agriculture minister, has dedicated the success to the cooperative venture which has expanded to 85,000 trees, of which 75,000 are mandarins.

"We plant 500 hectares of mandarins and produce about 16,000 metric tons which at a price of 45 lek (€0.33)/kg account for Euro 6 million," Kote has earlier said, adding that exports are destined for Kosovo, Macedonia and Poland.

Mid-term targets are to increase citrus production to about 50,000 metric tons and employ about 1,000 people.

"Cooperative models in Divjaka, Berat, but also Xarra and Korça are an example of agriculture and livestock development with a very positive result,” Kote has said, suggesting that products such as nuts, bean and kiwi can be successfully cultivated in cooperative farms and destined for exports instead of illegal cannabis cultivation.

Located in southernmost Albania just off the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint, the Xarra cooperative near the Ionian coastline also benefits from a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine.

Since its establishment in 1995, the number of farmers who have joined forces to work together in Xarra has increased from a mere seven to 450. The cooperative employs more than 400 people, 250 of whom from outside the local area.

The success of the farm is also a result of USAID’s assistance to farmers to increase the production, marketing, and sales of citrus fruits.

USAID says it has worked with mandarin growers in Xarra to develop a citrus production growth strategy, and over the last several years has provided technical assistance to support investments in new technologies and infrastructure.

Albania has an early tradition of cultivating citrus.

Citrus orchards grew strongly in communist post-war Albania from a national total of less than 100,000 trees to more than 1 million by 1990. The citrus sub-sector reached a low point in terms of size and performance in 1998, right after the 1997 financial collapse of the country.

A study has shown agricultural cooperatives, legally recognized since 2012 but poorly developed because of their bias under communism when they were state-run, can serve as a tool of economic growth and political instrument in Albania.

Agriculture is a key sector of the Albanian economy, employing about half of the country’s population, but providing only 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling its untapped potential and poor productivity.

The fragmentation of farm land into plots of little more than one hectare split in four parcels in the early 1990s land reform is described as a huge burden for the development of Albanian agriculture in terms of access to financing and investment, reducing their competitiveness due to high costs.

The Albanian government spends only 0.5 percent of the GDP on agriculture while credit to the agricultural sector represents only 2 percent of total credit to businesses, according to central bank data.
            [post_title] => Xarra mandarin cooperative, a success story in Albania’s undeveloped agriculture 
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