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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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What Albania can do to appeal to Chinese tourists

What Albania can do to appeal to Chinese tourists

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Dec. 12 – Albanian movies accompanied an entire generation of Chinese people in the 1960s and 1970s when then communist Albania was China’s key ally in the region. Almost five decades on, this generation has retired

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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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                    [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.
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                    [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.

 
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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
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                    [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  
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                    [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
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                    [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.
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                    [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 
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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-12 17:22:30
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Dec. 12 – Albanian movies accompanied an entire generation of Chinese people in the 1960s and 1970s when then communist Albania was China’s key ally in the region. Almost five decades on, this generation has retired or is about to retire and would be willing to visit Albania to see the transformation of the Balkan country first-hand.

However, with tourism on top of the agenda as one of the key drivers of Albania’s growth, Albanian authorities are doing little to attract this target group and appeal to hundreds of millions of other tourists from the world’s second largest economy who now know nothing or little about Albania, especially the younger generations.

A visa regime still in place, lack of direct flights and lack of enough promotion of Albania are main barriers.

Due to its favorable geographical position in the Adriatic, old ties with the Chinese people, the country’s sole international airport now run by a Chinese company, Albania holds an advantage in attracting Chinese tourists, but Albanian authorities are lagging behind regional Western Balkan countries in efforts to introduce incentives to Chinese tourists.

Aware of the potential of Chinese tourists, landlocked Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina lifted the visa regime with China reciprocally in the past year, introducing 30-day visa free travel for normal passport holders. Neighboring Montenegro, where tourism is a key sector, has also unilaterally lifted visas for Chinese tour groups this year and it has worked almost doubling the number of Chinese tourists there.

Albania, which regularly offers unilateral visa-free travel to several former Soviet Union and Gulf States for about five months a year in a bid to attract more tourists, has not started negotiations to lift visas with China yet in what could be a missed opportunity for the country’s emerging tourism sector.

The potential is huge as China is expected to have 127 million outbound tourists spending more than $110 billion in 2017, ten times the Albanian GDP and managing to attract only a tiny portion of the tourists would have huge benefits for Albania’s economy, which still remains one of Europe’s poorest.

Chinese tourists regularly visit neighboring countries with a much earlier tradition in tourism such as Italy and Greece, but visits to Albania remain sporadic and it’s mostly visits by the retired Chinese who grew up with Albanian movies and are nostalgic for Albania in the 1960s and 70s when thousands of Chinese engineers and experts helped build Albania's infrastructure with a key contribution in the major hydropower plants.

Prospects seem optimistic as with a visa regime still in place, more than 10,000 Chinese citizens have visited Albania this year, almost double compared to a year ago.

Albania's tourism industry currently attracts more than 4 million tourists and generates €1.5 billion a year in travel income, about 12 percent of the country’s GDP. However half of that is dedicated to what is known as ‘patriotic tourism’ by ethnic Albanian tourists from neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia and Albanian immigrants around the world.

The Balkan country, which was Europe’s most isolated for about five decades until the early 1990s when the hardline communist regime collapse, has emerged in the past decade as an undiscovered destination, being dubbed ‘Europe’s last secret’ and a ‘hidden gem.’

Aware of the sector’s potential, the Albanian government has recently offered incentives to potential investors, stripping luxury tourism investments of taxes for a 10-year period in a bid to also promote luxury travel in the country in addition to the rapidly growing mass tourism.

However, as investment grows targeting new major markets is key and the state authorities can play a huge role to help private investors with that.

The lift of visas for Chinese tourists, a more active promotion of Albania among Chinese tourists could be the first steps to attract Chinese tourists to Albania.

Chinese investment in the Albanian tourism sector benefiting of the tax incentives could help make direct links with potential tourists while the launch of direct Albania-China flights would further facilitate the process.

Regional package holidays, as Western Balkan countries are already planning, could also be more appealing to Chinese tourists considering the small size of six EU aspirant regional countries but with emerging coastal and mountain destinations and a variety of civilizations and cultural heritage dating back to ancient times.

Albania- China relations have gained new momentum in the past couple of years with China turning into one of the top foreign investor in Albania in addition to being the third largest trading partner.

Last year, Chinese companies acquired two of Albania’s most important assets, the country’s sole international airport and the largest oil company, increasing Chinese investment to Albania 10-fold to about $760 million, and turning China into one of top investors in a single year.

The acquisition reconfirmed China’s investment and trade interest in traditional ally Albania, and could herald other important investment as part of Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative, a plan to wrap its own infrastructure and influence westward by land and sea and the “16+1″ framework expanding cooperation with 11 EU member states and five Balkan countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, Chinese diplomats say there are still barriers in cooperation between the two countries and a stable, transparent and predictable environment is needed to attract more Chinese investors.

The Albania-Chinese relations date back to the late 1940s when Albania was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and the tiny Balkan country helped the Asian superpower regain its seat at the UN as the PRC in the early 1970s.
                    [post_title] => What Albania can do to appeal to Chinese tourists
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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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                    [post_date] => 2017-12-04 17:23:44
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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_date] => 2018-01-15 15:54:01
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            [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.
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