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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Shkodra, end of the XIX Century. In view of the fact that the photograph of last week’s edition, showing the Monarch, the other gentlemen and the gilded furniture may have created some illusion of high society, today

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An Albanian story: Astrit Cela’s integration into Italy

Astrit Cela works for the Milan Chamber of Commerce, and is an example of how an Albanian immigrant has successfully integrated into Italian society. MILAN, May 10 – Astrit Cela, 41, started life in neighboring Italy like any other Albanian;

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European integration, Spanish experience

In the context of the European week in Albania, the Spanish embassy, in collaboration with the Albanian Institute for International Studies, invited International and European Law Professor as well as former school friend of the current ambassador, HE , Andreu

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Skopje – living in the divided city

By Alba Cela After the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement the Macedonian example, that is what the successful resolution of the emerged conflict was named, served as a reference point every time minorities were mentioned in the international conflict arenas. Indeed

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Tirana: the summer of the Year 1938. The King puts on a reception at the Royal Palace. On the occasion of different festivities and ceremonies, the protocol included visits by top authorities of the country (civilian, military,

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Tirana, 1940. In view of the fact that we honoured Teacher’s Day only a few days back, I cannot fail to remember this day either, but in my own way. In the dark years of occupation, the

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10 years ago: Albania in Crisis –

Part I: Pyramid Frenzy By Nicola Nixon From 1992 to 1996, Albania appeared to have made significant progress economically speaking on the road from the Enverist communist system. During that period, the country boasted the highest economic growth in the

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Tirana, 1965. Comrade Enver Hoxha, glorious leader of the Party and people, together with top officials of our State and People’s Amy. From the left: Sadik Bekteshi, Spiro Moisiu, Kadri Hazbiu, Beqir Balluku, Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu,

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Postscript

Cultural life a one well knows is largely a monopoly of capital cities. True, with globalization in full swing, it has become quite usual for art festivals and other interesting cultural venues to be distributed in small towns or even

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame On the road again. As if I haven’t got enough troubles of my own without having to shoulder all the messages I receive in reply to what I write. I received an e-mail on the last edition,

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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Shkodra, end of the XIX Century. In view of the fact that the photograph of last week's edition, showing the Monarch, the other gentlemen and the gilded furniture may have created some illusion of high society, today I have chosen some other snap shots.
Over the past two Centuries, the Albanian highlands have constantly been the object of study and admiration for many foreign scholars, which gave wings to the myths of our mountains, the highlanders, hospitality, the Cannon, honesty, the word pledged and so on. But this entire image that was built up has constantly suffered a knock back, whenever these highlanders have come in contact with the world of today in the developed countries. Having descended to the lowlands and the towns and cities, they have often become heartless murderers, unscrupulous plunderers, liars, perfidious, and it goes as far as thousands of young woman and girls from the highlands ending up on the streets of Italy and Greece, dealing the final blow to these myths. There is a saying today that has a scathing ring to it, that the tradition of the "pledged word" was searched for and sung to throughout the highlands because they were so treacherous. How can this contradiction be explained? Allow me to provide this explanation in next week's edition.
In the photograph you can see a group of highlanders, in the middle of a squabble, obviously fighting over the division of spoils lying on the ground. As if all the guns were not enough, two of the highlanders, the one wearing the black cape and the other one who is holding on to his arm, hold swords in their hands, ( a little difficult to discern without looking closely), and stand threatening each other. They both have back-up behind them, and their associates level their guns against the adversary; the fifth highlander stands between the two groups and is trying to persuade them to back down, naturally, using as an argument, his own arm.
They are all dressed in the characteristic attire of the northern highlands, pointed leather opinga, leggings, vests and woolen caps. Naturally, the clothes are not the newest or cleanest possible, but this makes them appear even more threatening and fearless. Two of them are holding Martini-Henry rifles, known in the north as "Martini" rifles and which were used in the ranks of the Turkish Army in 1890. The highlanders continued to use them for centuries, because, as one foreign author writes, "The Highlanders continued to use them; the Albanians liked them because they were very noisy when fired." The third holds an English rifle, an 1867 model known in Albania as "the cartridge."
It is most probable that this photograph was taken in Shkodra, especially because of the high stone wall in the background, where the pebbles were typically from Shkodra.
Naturally the persons in the photo have obviously posed for this photograph. If it were a genuine scene of a real fight it would be hard to believe that the photographer lived to tell the story. However it reveals what it would be like to fall into the hands of these people. 
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                    [post_content] => Astrit Cela works for the Milan Chamber of Commerce, and is an example of how an Albanian immigrant has successfully integrated into Italian society.
MILAN, May 10 - Astrit Cela, 41, started life in neighboring Italy like any other  Albanian; working in second-hand or menial labor positions. Today, however, he works for the Milan Chamber of Commerce handling marketing and computer science responsibilities. Also, he is involved in after-work programs such as inter-cultural projects at schools and at a nongovernmental foundation.
Cela, who is a 1987 graduate in French from the Albanian Faculty of History-Philology of the Tirana University, is now a long-time employee of the Milan Chamber of Commerce. His first job with the Milan Chamber was answering the telephone, but soon he was promoted to office manager. After so many years of 'loyalty' at the job he does not hide his ambition to pass on to another job level, probably in international relations. Born an Albanian, he knows he could make good use of his contacts in Albania and Kosova, the two areas which he knows best.
Cela studied to become a French elementary and high school teacher. However, he left his country with hundreds of thousands of other Albanians in 1991 aboard ships in Durres heading toward the western window, Italy. He chose to go to northern Italy, a more developed area in that country and moved to Milan. 
"I knew Italy from television," he says, "But nevertheless I left Albania without any real information about Italy, and left illegally without any documents at all. At that time it was impossible to obtain them. I challenged fate and it has gone well for me".
For six months he worked in menial labor. Then his career path moved quickly at the Milan Chamber of Commerce, very much by luck, one should acknowledge.
"I have attended many marketing and communication courses and I had a promotion to the second level in 2000. It had been a great satisfaction," he recalls. 
But not everything went so smoothly. "I have also suffered due to the prejudice against Albanians, especially from the daily media coverage of crime events, many blaming my co-patriots," he says. 
"But in Milan people know how to differentiate. They highly value everyone who works and lives a normal, committed life despite the nationality of the person."
Cela's life also changed after his marriage to an Italian in 1999. They now have a son, who loves to come to his dad's homeland and talk in Albanian with his relatives.
But besides family life, Cela developed other interests. Cela became involved in a project on inter-cultural exchanges at high schools in Lombardy, organized by a missionary center. ("I speak with students of the necessity of integration, beginning from my history, to get rid of prejudices"). 
Two years ago he also published a calendar with pictures from Albania, printing 2,000 copies at his own expense. 
"Albania is not only crime and crime," he says. "There is also an ancient culture that is rich in castles, monasteries, and landscapes. I wanted to transmit to the Italians a positive image of Albania". 
Cela has also been involved as a founder of the "Albania and Future" association.
"Our logo is a bridge," he explains, "because we want to promote mutual acquaintances, valuing the Albanian contribution of the many students, entrepreneurs, workers and intellectuals who live in Italy and contribute to its development".
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                    [post_content] => In the context of the European week in Albania, the Spanish embassy, in collaboration with the Albanian Institute for International Studies, invited International and European Law Professor as well as former school friend of the current ambassador, HE , Andreu Olesti from the University of Barcelona, to give a couple of lectures in Albania. Mr. Olesti had never been here before he was surprised at the geographical proximity of Albania and Spain, their similar Mediterranean features. He spoke to Tirana Times about the integration challenges of Albania, his academic work in Spain and the contribution of the Bosman Act of Football*  to the European feeling.

Albanian integration challenges
Albania is just at the start of the integration process," Mr. Olesti stresses, "and a lot of work still needs to be done." Despite being a professor of law, he agrees that the main challenges in the case of Albania will not be to adapt the legal package of thousands of pages but to implement it. The process affects all the sectors of the society and needs to be willingly adopted by all economic and social actors. Borrowing from Spain's experience when an undisputable large political consensus and a social willingness to become part of the European family smoothed away the road to integration, Mr. Olesti explains the importance of will and persistence in the difficult and long way towards the EU. As far as internal EU attitudes towards enlargement are concerned, Mr. Olesti does not see them as determinant. Even when Spain entered there were sides pro and contra. No country has the luxury to have all on board. The important thing is that can be no red line denominating Europe's border and no one can say, now we have reached the limit and it's enough. We don't know that limit yet." 

European Union
"The European union is always perceived as being in a crisis. Every 6-8years there is some fundamental issue that once again raises the debate about its life. But look at where we are now, 27 countries, some of them have even given up a strong  currency to adapt the euro, something that would have sounded unbelievable 20 years go,"- Mr. Olesti says. On the topic of the European constitution he does not see the current disputed version as something that will be approved soon, but recognizes the need to support a powerful binding instrument of this nature.  

On football and culture
According to Mr Olesti a big fan of not only his city's club, the well-known Barcelona, but also of Liverpool, football is an integral feature of Europe's culture. The Bosman Act that allows players of diverse nationalities in one tem has done more for a shared European feeling than many laws taken together. Now aficionados across the border line up to see their favorite team and it is no uncommon for Spaniards to be dedicated fans of Arsenal, Milan or Chelsea. 
Similarly the exchange program in the education and culture fields should be made priority even in the case of Albania so that people know each-other, their values and experiences and learn to appreciate diversity. Talking about Spanish movies, Olesti says that for example Almadovar, the most famous director, "addresses universal issues by appealing to local aspects." 
 Impressions from a first visit

When he landed in the modern terminal of Mother Teresa Airport, Mr. Olesti knew that he had to readjust his expectations. He found the standard features of a country on the Mediterranean: good weather lost of people in the streets enjoying the sun. During his short visit, in between a lecture on the challenges of integration and a seminar on Spanish education system realized in cooperation with the Albanian Institute for International Studies, he found time only for a brief visit to Kruja. Hence the law professor might be back to enjoy the rest of the country that he once thought was so different and far way from Europe. 

* Jean-Marc Bosman brought his famous action when his club RFC Liege refused to allow him to join French side Dunkerque because they could not agree a transfer fee, even though the player's contract had expired. Consequently, players were allowed to move for free after their deals were completed and restrictions on the number of players from different EU countries were also scrapped.
                    [post_title] =>  European integration, Spanish experience 
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Cela 
After the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement the Macedonian example, that is what the successful resolution of the emerged conflict was named, served as a reference point every time minorities were mentioned in the international conflict arenas. Indeed the agreement granted the necessary rights to the significant Albanian community living in Macedonia which, according to official statistics, makes up slightly more than 20 percent of the population. Important changes in language and education policies, coupled with more representation in politics and police forces calmed down the fighting factions and avoided a new bloody turmoil in the fragile Balkans. An observation of daily life in Skopje, the lively capital of Macedonia, inhabited by around half a million people, shows that the picture might not be that rosy and that there is significant room for improvement in the relationship between the two major ethnic communities. 

The stone bridge
The Albanian quarter lies immediately on the other side of the Stone Bridge, which in itself is an impressive white stone, multi-arched, Ottoman structure that could illustrate Andric's "The bridge over the Drina." As in the book, the bridge is the symbolic boundary between the two major communities. On the Albanian side lies the magnificent old bazaar where history and religious diversity have marked the place with a special magic ambiance. Old water 観me-s (water taps), traditional mosques and small bazaar style stores form a labyrinth which is a pleasure to cross. One hears Albanian and Turkish spoken more frequently than on the other side where the majority of the communication is in Macedonian. The divided city is manifested with a subtle mistrust between the two communities which informally and in friendly tables do not hesitate to admit their fears and insecure feelings towards the other side.

Internal fears and tensions
"The Macedonians feel that they will be overwhelmed demographically and not only," our tour guide tells us. "The birth rate frequencies are very different- he laughs,- in a decade we might be looking at  a situation of 50/50." A representative of the Association for Democratic Initiatives in Macedonia addressing a conference on minorities in South Eastern Europe describes the feelings between the two communities as conditioned by a mutual fear and tension. "Macedonians feel that the Albanian community is getting unfair privileged treatment after the Ohrid agreement. The focus has been placed on ethnicity fo job allocations. The redistricting of administrative zones such as that of Struga has led to a decrease of Macedonian urban population and an inflow of Albanian rural one. Problems still go on in the education field when Albanian and Macedonain study in different shifts and do not know each other. Two generation are being brought up polarized. With the introduction of religious classes this is bound to get worse." 
It seems that other communities -Macedonia is after all a multi-ethnic and not a bi-ethnic state,- are left unsatisfied from a solution that addresses only the most numerous sides.  

A beautiful little capital of their own
Macedonia is justified in having one of the greenest capitals in the region. The city of Skopje has a plentitude of public spaces gracefully adorned with quiet urban art and a lot of parks. The castle overlooking the city looks fascinating under the special night-lighting. A huge lighted cross placed on the hill above the city seems to be an awkward monument in a multi-religious community.
The bar-filled river bank and the blooming Makedonya Street host a very young crowd enjoying the April evening.  The city museum is marked by the old clock which stopped at in 1963 when a devastating earthquake shattered most of the buildings. Now it hosts a collection of historical coins and traditional costumes that tell the history of the town in a colorful fashion. Another important site is the place where the house of Agnes Bojaxhiu, or as known to the world Mother Teresa, was born. An Albanian by origin she spent her life professing faith and charity throughout the world and has been proclaimed a saint by the Vatican. 
                    [post_title] =>  Skopje - living in the divided city 
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                    [post_date] => 2007-05-07 02:00:00
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Tirana: the summer of the Year 1938. The King puts on a reception at the Royal Palace.  On the occasion of different festivities and ceremonies, the protocol included visits by top authorities of the country (civilian, military, religious, diplomatic), to the King at the Palace. Visits by different groups were conducted within fifteen minutes of one another, so each group had time to meet the King. This photo depicts the reception of the religious authorities. Like today, there were four religious leaders in those days too, representing the main religions. The Prime Minister is also present at the reception. The photo shows, from left to right: Prime Minister Ko诠Kotta, the Catholic Archbishop, King Zog, Bekteshi Leader Sali Njazi Dedei and the Orthodox Archbishop Kritofor Kissi.
PM Koco Kotta (1889-1948) wears an evening coat suit and tails in compliance with ceremonial protocol. You can also see the black and red ribbon of the Order of Skenderbeg. Decorations failed to save the Prime Minister from prison after 1945, where he also died from hunger in 1948. He had been elected Prime Minister of Albania twice, about five times Minister and for some time he was also Speaker of Parliament. According to our criteria, he fully deserved imprisonment.
Two years later, in the evening of 28 November 1940, the Bekteshi Leader, a patriot of the Old School, was assassinated, an act that was never explained.
King Zog wears the white summer military uniform and bears the ceremonial sword in its waist sheath.
Out of the men in this photograph only Kristifor Kissi manages to survive the turmoil of the War and remain in his post until 1949, when he was finally compelled to step down from the Chair of Archbishop and hand it over to Pais Pashko Vodica.
What strikes the eye is the luxurious furniture, the paintings on the walls, the engraved ceiling, the beautiful carpets on the floor, the wall dressings, the armchairs etc. In view of the fact that there was no other building, King Zog used the building that houses the Academy of Sciences today as the Royal Palace, which was privately owned and which he rented. Very little remains today of the grace and glory of the past of this edifice despite the extraordinary history it hosted.
Packets of cigarettes spread out over the marble surface of the table for the guests, according to Albanian customs. How times change!. Today the Stabilization-Association Agreement (SAA) prohibits smoking in public places which, at that time, would have compelled us to drop a well known Albanian custom. As if we preserved other customs and we regret saving this one! Or it's not as if we implemented all the other rules and regulations of the SAA and public smoking is the only one left!!
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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                    [post_date] => 2007-04-30 02:00:00
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Tirana, 1940. In view of the fact that we honoured Teacher's Day only a few days back, I cannot fail to remember this day either, but in my own way.
In the dark years of occupation, the foreign occupiers did their utmost to distract our thoughts from the fight for liberty by building schools in Tirana.
The first photograph shows the initial work on the opening of the foundations and the erection of the walls of the "Kosovo" School. The building site has still not been cleared of the grass and weeds, trampled underfoot by the building workers as they go backwards and forwards with carrying their tools, bricks and mortar. Beyond the construction site is Elbasan Street, which at that time had still not been tar sealed; that was to take place about one year later. Worthy of mention here is that from then on this road remained unchanged for sixty years until 2004 when it was finally widened beyond the breadth the Italians left it at. In the left hand corner of the photo, you can see the corner of the villa that belonged to the Jupi Family, which to this day is still inhabited by that family. Further, in the centre of the photo there is a large, white building of neo-classic style the owners of which, which, unfortunately, did not enjoy it for much time. In 1945 it was nationalized by the State and entire generations of Albanians visited it as the "Lenin-Stalin" Museum. After 1990, Lenin and Stalin exited the scene and the Italian Ambassador in Albania made it his residence, which is what it remains to this day. 
With a little more scrutiny, in the distance you can make out the building of the US Embassy which houses the same Embassy today too. To the right of the photo, in the distance, up on the hill, the structure of the Royal Palace under construction can be discerned which no Monarch ever got the opportunity to enjoy and this building went down in history as the Palace of the Brigades.
In the second photo, the school building has been completed and work is continuing on the play ground, but obviously it is almost ready to welcome the pupils you can see in the third photograph. Ever since that day, so may years ago, and up until somewhere in 2000, this school that bore the aspiring name, "Kosovo" welcomed and provided initial schooling for dozens of generations of children who grew to adulthood and grew old in this city, one of them being the author of these lines. But suddenly, on the dawning of the new Century the school was closed, then it fell into wrack and ruins, and then, one day we learnt that the property it had stood on had been given back to the original owners. And that occurred on the occasion of the millennium of the Internet. 
To draw wool over our eyes, the Italian occupiers built schools for us, whilst we, the occupied, when our eyes were opened, we closed down schools and substituted them with business. Sure, we lost a school, but, hey, we gained a property owner!!
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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                    [post_content] => Part I: Pyramid Frenzy
By Nicola Nixon
From 1992 to 1996, Albania appeared to have made significant progress economically speaking on the road from the Enverist communist system. During that period, the country boasted the highest economic growth in the region, a low unemployment rate and a stable currency and, as such, was roundly congratulated by its European neighbours. Indeed, at that time, the country was considered a fine example of post-communist economic transition. 
From the early 1990s, numerous pyramid banking schemes had popped up all over the country offering staggering interest rates of up to 50% a month to investors. The instability of these schemes lay in the fact that, generally, rather than using savers' money for external investments, they relied on the money of new depositors to pay interest to the existing ones. Since that requires a constantly increasing flow of money into the scheme, it is simply not sustainable. Albania was not the only country in the post-communist region to see the rise of such schemes, where large pyramid schemes collapsed in the early 1990s in Russia and Romania.

The Heyday

1996 was the boom year for the pyramid schemes which had emerged in Albania in 1994. Throughout the year people all over the country - an estimated two thirds of the population - were selling up everything they had to put their money into the schemes. During 1996, a number of foreign journalists travelled to Albania and described the scenes of the good life that people were enjoying from the return on their investments, just a few months before they began to collapse. In May, CNN's Jamie McIntyre thought he could feel the onset of an 'Albanian spring' in the rising prosperity that surrounded him on his visit to Tirana. Similarly, in the same month, Steve Pagani of Reuters was impressed with the new atmosphere in the capital:
The capital, Tirana, is where it is at. The city, home to 300,000 people, is noisy, bustling and brash.  The days of queuing outside monochrome shops selling shoddy Chinese-made goods or sitting over a local brandy and thin coffee in one of the few dimly lit cafes are over. Kiosk and stall owners sell a range of goods from live chickens to second-hand television sets. Bicycles crowd the streets. Spruce shops containing expensive Western-made consumer goods rub shoulders with new marble-fronted offices, such as branches of foreign banks, to whom Albania's conservative government appears only too happy to issue licences.  Downtown, the central bazaar spills over with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, olives, lentils, beans and sacks of paprika in a riot of colour. Nearly 3,000 privately owned bars and restaurants have opened since 1991. Some are modest, others, boasting awnings and terraces, could grace any European capital.

For a long time, the schemes had chugged along reasonably calmly with interest rates of around 6 per cent per month. Yet during the summer of 1996, an interest-rate war began between the schemes which saw rates rocket to 100 per cent or more. It was that which started the investment frenzy. Reporters in Albania later in the year, therefore, noted the direct relationship between the new found affluence and the activities of these schemes. Some of their reports provide a very human image of the hope with which people invested everything they had into the schemes. In October, for example, Jane Perlez of the New York Times, spoke to Gjergi Peci, who 

sat in his easy chair and explained how, like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, he could afford to relax, not work too hard and even buy a grander place in the future. sat in his easy chair and explained how, like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, he could afford to relax, not work too hard and even buy a grander place in the future. A few months ago, he sold his apartment in a good section of this dilapidated capital for $30,000, paid off some debts and sank $20,000, his entire savings, into a pyramid scheme called Vefa. He collected his first interest payment of $3,200 a few weeks ago, he said, and is confident that he will get $6,400 more and his principal by February. 

Similarly, in November, Joanna Robertson of London's Guardian, spoke to a couple of investors in Tirana: 

Huddled among the kiosks crammed into Tirana's main park, the thriving Cafe Marlboro is usually filled with drinkers. This morning it is almost deserted. Kristina, the waitress, explains that most of her customers have gone to collect their monthly payouts from the high-interest pyramid schemes that have become wildly popular in Europe's poorest country. Kristina, aged 20, is a history student at Tirana university. She earns pounds 30 a month waitressing and recently put her savings into a scheme called Demokracia Popullore Xhaferri. If the bubble doesn't burst, her 70,000 lek ( pounds 410) investment will double in value in three months. At first, she says, she was reluctant. But she watched her friend Zana make more than pounds 3,000. She lives with the rest of her family in one cramped flat, but Kristina says things are looking up. Her father has invested his life savings in a scheme, and plans to use the interest to buy a new home. 

Ƈene is queueing in the mud outside the deposit office of a Gypsy woman offering to pay 50 per cent per month on cash deposited in her scheme during the next five days. A peasant from a village in the mountainous north, Gene slaughtered his small flock of sheep when news of the interest rate reached him and brought the cash straight to Tirana. With no sheep left he is no longer a farmer but plans to live instead on the monthly interest payments - as long as they last. Next to him, clutching two carrier bags crammed with grimy lek notes, is Sokol. He grins and says that he has just sold his flat. He expects to double his money in just a few weeks. In the meantime, he will live with 14 members of his family in a two-roomed flat, as his brothers have also sold their property.

Widespread inactivity and relaxation, where thousands wiled away the days in cafes and bars - in between bouts of investment activity - was a characteristic of life in pyramid-scheme Albania that many reporters commented upon. The BBC reported that in late 1996, an Italian entrepreneur tried to start a business in the northern town of La绠a town with a very high unemployment rate. To his surprise, despite offering twice the money for a public sector job, he was unable to employ anyone. He was told quite simply, by the residents, that they earned more from the pyramid schemes than from working, so what was the point.
The frenzied atmosphere of investments in the schemes had begun to ring warning bells among the international financial community and in some parts of the local and international media. By October, the IMF was urging the government to actively intervene and put a stop to the schemes, fearing the consequences of their collapse. The Economist reported rather presciently at the time, 'When the collapse comes, depositors may not take it quietly.'
1996 had also seen the third multi-party elections in Albania since the fall of communism that were held on May 26. These elections, which saw the re-election of the DP government, are widely considered to have been blatantly rigged. While the OSCE expressed concern over certain 'irregularities', Human Rights Watch was considerably less flattering. In their report, HRW identified, 'numerous human rights violations before, during and after the vote', 'physical attacks, ballot stuffing and voter list manipulation' and 'extreme cases of police violence after the elections.' 
The manipulation of these elections by the DP resulted in increased distrust and disappointment in the government, and Berisha himself, as President. Thus, there was already considerable anti-government sentiment prior to the disintegration of the pyramid schemes. Ironically, the DP campaign slogan had been "Vote Democrat and everybody profits."

Bankruptcy
By late 1996 there were eight major lending schemes in operation throughout the country - VEFA, Kamberi, Silva, Cenaj, Xhaferi, Populli, Gjallica, Sudje - as well as some smaller ones.
VEFA Holdings, headed by Vehbi Alimucaj, was the largest of the pyramid schemes. According to the Guardian, in January 1997, Vefa was thought to have accumulated investments of around 100 million dollars. At that time, the average deposit was between $10,000 and $30,000; a lot of money for a country where the average wage hovered around $100 a month. After the collapse of other pyramid schemes, Vefa also closed its pyramid banking activities in early March 1997, owing investors some 60 million dollars. 
Another large Tirana-based scheme was Sudje, set up by former factory worker, Maksude Kademi, who promised investors up to 50% returns on their deposits. It was the first to collapse and began preventing investors from withdrawing their money in November 1996 and finally collapsed in mid-January 1997 when the Gjallica lending scheme also collapsed. The declaration of bankruptcy by these two schemes marked the start of the riots that were to continue for the next few months.
The Xhaferi scheme, started in early 1996 by a former army general, Rapush Xhaferi, was one of the more surreal examples of the flamboyance that accompanied the moneylending phenomenon in Albania. Based in Lushnje, Xhaferi had bought the local soccer team and had paid a large sum to lure the former Argentine national team coach, Mario Kempes, to coach it. Xhaferi also brought out 19-year-old Nigerian forward, Leonardo Nosa Ineh, who suddenly found himself without a team to play on in early 1997. In February that year, a journalist from the Scotsman found the young soccer player stuck in Lushnje, 'bewildered, penniless and dependent on local charity in a one-room flat without a telephone,' when by that time, Xhaferi's scheme had collapsed. Xhaferi was arrested in mid-January along with the head of the Populli scheme, Bashlim Driza, when both schemes had ceased to make payments. 
In response to the collapse of the other schemes, the VEFA, Silva, Cenaj and Kamberi schemes attempted to demonstrate their credibility to investors by reducing their interest rates to 5 or 3 per cent. This attempt failed and they too stopped making payments to investors in the early months of 1997.
According to an IMF report released in 2000, of the schemes, VEFA had the largest liabilities when it collapsed, with 85,000 depositors. Closely linked to the government, it had attracted some of the more affluent investors in the country including employees in the government. The scale of the pyramid frenzy, however, is better illustrated by the Xhaferi and Populli schemes which, according to the IMF, at attracted some 2 million depositors during their existence. 
It is estimated that overall, the schemes cost Albanian investors something in the vicinity of 1.2 billion dollars.

Penniless
With the collapse, hundreds of thousands of Albanians lost their life savings, homes, and any other valuables they had managed to turn into cash investments. In late January, a reporter from the Financial Times interviewed Agem Mucaj, an unemployed building worker in Rrogozhine, who had invested the $30,000 he had saved while working in Germany and had lost it all. Another Rrogozhine resident, Xhyer Lamani had lost $24,000 that he had saved while working illegally in Crete. "I wanted to build a house in Tirana and make a proper life for my family, but now there's nothing else to do but go back to Greece." Meanwhile, a Guardian journalist spoke to a bank employee in Vlora for whom the loss was not only money. "I have lost my dreams," he said. Reporting from Tirana, in early February, Helena Smith wrote that the cafes and bars that had become 'wooden shrines to idle luxury' now 'stood eerily empty.'
In the meantime, the government had done little, if anything, to prevent the crisis, despite numerous warnings from international organisation. The finance ministry did not start to warn the public about the dangers of the schemes until October 1996, at which time it was too late. Even then, according to the later IMF report, 'it drew a false and misleading distinction between companies with real investments, which were believed to be solvent, and pure pyramid schemes.' Companies such as VEFA were therefore defended by the government to the end. 
By late January, people had begun to vent their anger over their lost savings on the streetsō
To be continued.
                    [post_title] =>  10 years ago: Albania in Crisis - 
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Tirana, 1965. Comrade Enver Hoxha, glorious leader of the Party and people, together with top officials of our State and People's Amy. From the left: Sadik Bekteshi, Spiro Moisiu, Kadri Hazbiu, Beqir Balluku, Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu, Petrit Dume, Mihallaq Zi誳ti, Aranit ȥla. Note the steel like unity that predominates between them. You can see how their eyes shine with the utmost faith in one another, in Comrade Enver and in the Party.
Major General Sadik Bekteshi, partisan, founding member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Political Director of the People's Army. At the end he was an enemy of the Party and people. During the war he had been imprisoned and exiled as a political prisoner, first of all in Naples and later on in Ventotene. True he managed to get out of the prison of the fascists after one year, but he did not escape being thrown into the prison of the Commander, where he was interned for twenty years, but at least he survived those years and died a free man in a democratic society in the making, two years ago.
Major General Spiro Moisiu (1900-1980), Career officer of the Army since the time of Ahmet Zog, then in Italy and later on in the Party. A General, Deputy, Chief of the General Staff. Although the victim of several knock-backs time after time, he managed to survive Enver Hoxha, dying from old age, only one year prior to the uncovering of the plot of Poly-agent Mehmet Shehu, during which the Commander would have found some kind of excuse to have had him backed up against the wall before a firing squad.
Kadri Hazbiu (1922-1983), partisan, Brigade Commander, general, Minister of the Interior for more than 20 years, MP, Minister of Defence and last but not least a sworn enemy of the Party and People. He was executed before a firing squad following a grueling eleven months of investigation conducted by the Prosecutor's Office which the Commander knew how to do so well.
Colonel General Beqir Balluku (1917-1974), partisan, Brigade Commander, Division Commander, Three star General (the only one to reach this rank), Chief of Staff, MP, 22 years Minister of Defence, Deputy Prime Minister  and finally sworn enemy of the Party and people. Executed by firing squad.
Mehmet Shehu (1913-1981), volunteer in the Civil War of Spain, Brigade Commander, General, Hero of the People, MP, Minister of Defence and for 27 years on end Prime Minister (held this post the longest). Only to be branded a spy on the pay rolls of many Secret Services and a sworn enemy of the Party and people. No one ever got to the bottom of whether he committed suicide or was shot, but I recall the version his son Bashkim delivered to the public back then of how his father died. He said, "Mehmet Shehu was forced to self inflict death."
Lieutenant General Petrit Dume. Partisan, Brigade Commander, Division Commander, Hero of the People, MP, Graduate of two Soviet Academies, Chief of Staff for more than 10 years and last but not least, sworn enemy of the Party and people, and, to top it off, he was charged  with "high treason." Executed by firing squad in 1975.
Major General Mihallaq Zi誳hti, partisan, General, Deputy Minister of the Interior. In 1982, his brother Llambi Zi誳hti, Minister of Health was executed by firing squad and naturally Llambi was also imprisoned as an enemy.
One after the other, sentence was passed on all of these individuals by Aranit ȥla, who in the capacity of Chairman of the High Court, presided over their Court hearings. And how were they to know that this man, in civilian dress who sat, withdrawn at the end of the row would be the one to send them all to their deaths. Only the Commander went unscathed, and he lent more emphasis to his presence by hanging his own portrait above his head. It is quite a blessing that these gentlemen did not realize they were enemies because they may have joined forces and I dread to think what mischief they could have done to the Commander, who in the photo is alone amidst a pack of wolves. And the people, mind blown by the emergence of all these enemies, happily and blissfully sang, "Mehmet Shehu would have led us to the slaughter/ Saved by Enver and the Party, may they live for ever more."
And this was going on in Europe, the Champion of Liberty, Prosperity and Civilization of the seventies and eighties, in the middle of Europe of the Treaties and Conventions on the Rights of Animals, and here were we still dragging Ministers and General before firing squads. Truly a tolerant people with traditions, you cannot deny it!!!
Whilst we are on the subject of tradition and so as not to upset tradition, Aranit Cela, who did not manage to serve time when his own party ruled the roost in Albania, did serve time in the time of the party of Sali Berisha.
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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                    [post_content] => Cultural life a one well knows is largely a monopoly of capital cities. True, with globalization in full swing, it has become quite usual for art festivals and other interesting cultural venues to be distributed in small towns or even villages hosting traditional annual events. Still in a capital city the rhythm of cultural life is more regular, performances more frequent and novelties reach there first. 
In describing the latest trends of cultural life in this big chaotic and yet loveable city let me make use of a comparison, perhaps not the best one, with Budapest. While a student there I would go to a cultural event every single evening: jazz festivals, movie festivals, modern dance performances, novel acting premiers combined with video projecting or even the good old classical music performance in an imperial theater setting. 
In Tirana, oh well, one finds these things more rarely. The important thing is though that they are sprouting more and more steadily. 
What lacks is access and proper publicity. Their audience is limited and exclusive, almost guarding this exclusivity with the typical sophisticated jealousy of elites. The information about a certain performance reaches a limited amount of people. Otherwise, I cannot explain the absence of students in cultural events.  One could argue that there is alack of willingness, yet with the high number of young people living in this city indifference can not be the only explaining factor in the list. 
In a friendly conversation with students, I was informed that professors do not encourage students enough to diversify their learning experience with attendance in cultural events. I regard this as a particularly concerning handicap of the education system. What better illustration of social problems for social work students than a documentary on poverty, children trafficking and immigration? Literature students learn a lot on the contemporary literary trends by attending theater plays. Students writing papers on cultural diversity should be particularly attentive to foreign art.
Money could also be the issue. Students do not usually have a generous budget to afford all tickets to these events. To address the financial problem the Ministry of Culture could promote alternative pricing models with students getting discounts. Such an initiative was recently launched by The Youth Council with the "under 26" card which will offer discounts to all young people for certain cultural events.  What impressed me from the range of actives that I wrote about is that half of them were free to the large public. Yet they were poorly followed. 
Thus, I believe that the real problem stands in the accessibility of information and poor promoting strategies. When I set out to write my impressions of the latest performances, those that I have been lucky to know about, I wanted to give a chance to readers to know that there is an emerging universe of art in this city, with contemporary trends. In an interview with the lovely lady Griffin, patron of arts here, she confessed me her biggest worry was the insufficient exposure of Albanian art toward new global trends. It seems though that the trend is changing. What we need is an eager informed public that is willing to be subject of that global artistic exposure.

Entries from a cultural diary
Albane ou les yeux mauves, modern dance
A wonderful show combining Albanian traditional folk music with powerful aggressive dance and amazing video projections. Attended by and large by the francophone community though quite understandable even for us who unfortunately do not speak la langue noblesse.
The festival of Human Rights Documentaries
Located in the altogether too far periphery of Kinostudio, at the wonderful acting school Marubi. Not attended by ay government officials responsible for social policies, ant discrimination laws and the similes. Not supported by domestic authors. The head of the enterprise, well-known movie director Kujtim Cashku did not get tired of repeating these complaints to the largely foreign audience after each movie projection. Free entrance yet not attended by people who do not posses a car, thus lower middle class art lovers.
The dream of the hippopotamus , theatre 
Attended by an aggravating audience which was more appreciative of coarse jokes involving physiological processes then of the complex intertwining of comic and tragic elements of socio-psychological depth.
Nights without sleeping, Egyptian movie. 
Free entrance again. The cinema was almost empty. The event is part of the francophone week.  Charming exploration of couple related problems with the necessary psychological depth. Colorful display of Oriental culture and music.
                    [post_title] =>  Postscript 
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
On the road again. As if I haven't got enough troubles of my own without having to shoulder all the messages I receive in reply to what I write. I received an e-mail on the last edition, the essence of which is an allegation that I sling mud against my own people, raising aloft an invader and so on and so forth. Just as well I also receive messages saying that I do not belittle my own people and that I do not praise invaders because otherwise I would have abandoned this work. So, in view of the fact that I have apparently praised Italy, I will continue to present photographs on the same subject.
The larger photograph shows an Italian soldier working in a military workshop on the preparation of road signs. The signs appear to be somewhat primitive, but, in the final account, they are a great deal for Albania of those times. They were made of hardboard and painted blue with white lettering. Look closely and you can see that above the direction, for example, "TO TIRANA", you can see the letters MdS in small print (Milizia della Strada). Later on after the Albanian Traffic Militia was set up, the letters "MSR" these signs had the letters "MSR." Further along, there are several "NO GO" signs, and below this, for those who do not understand the symbols, (of whom I am sure there are not a few), there were explanatory tables in three lines, "Directory of Tourism/ Entry Prohibited." The Directory of Tourism is mentioned because this was the institution charged with issuing licenses and caring for the road infrastructure, apart from tourism, hotel management etc.
The post card presented in the next photograph, is a promotional publication of the same Directory and helps the Albanians become acquainted with road signage. The majority of these signs, with a few minor alterations, remain almost the same today. There is also a sign for railway crossings. It is obvious that the signage copy the Italian models, because on the sign that reads, "Telephone service," the telephone number has four digits. In fact, in 1940, the telephone exchange in the capital was still three digital.  There is even a sign that indicates traffic must give way to buses on an incline. Who knows what the buses of Italy wanted on the mountainous roads of Albania. Naturally, we should review the image we have formed of that time, because the roads not only served as arteries of the country along which you could ambush a blood thirsty enemy, but also for vehicles to travel along and to respect road signage.
In a corner of the larger, coloured photograph there is the insignia of the Traffic Militia of the time. In the other corner there is a sign of a bus station of those years. In the centre you can see the name of the company that administers the Bus Line of Tirana: Societa Albanese Transporti Automobilistici," SATA, initials which were impressed on the memories of the Albanians so firmly that even in the seventies the elderly still called the local buses "Sata." The Italians were also careful to use black and white as the colours of bus station signs so that the nationalist sentiments of the Albanians were not offended, otherwise the Albanians may have gone back to using their mules if the signs were not black and red. 
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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            [post_date] => 2007-05-17 02:00:00
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            [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Shkodra, end of the XIX Century. In view of the fact that the photograph of last week's edition, showing the Monarch, the other gentlemen and the gilded furniture may have created some illusion of high society, today I have chosen some other snap shots.
Over the past two Centuries, the Albanian highlands have constantly been the object of study and admiration for many foreign scholars, which gave wings to the myths of our mountains, the highlanders, hospitality, the Cannon, honesty, the word pledged and so on. But this entire image that was built up has constantly suffered a knock back, whenever these highlanders have come in contact with the world of today in the developed countries. Having descended to the lowlands and the towns and cities, they have often become heartless murderers, unscrupulous plunderers, liars, perfidious, and it goes as far as thousands of young woman and girls from the highlands ending up on the streets of Italy and Greece, dealing the final blow to these myths. There is a saying today that has a scathing ring to it, that the tradition of the "pledged word" was searched for and sung to throughout the highlands because they were so treacherous. How can this contradiction be explained? Allow me to provide this explanation in next week's edition.
In the photograph you can see a group of highlanders, in the middle of a squabble, obviously fighting over the division of spoils lying on the ground. As if all the guns were not enough, two of the highlanders, the one wearing the black cape and the other one who is holding on to his arm, hold swords in their hands, ( a little difficult to discern without looking closely), and stand threatening each other. They both have back-up behind them, and their associates level their guns against the adversary; the fifth highlander stands between the two groups and is trying to persuade them to back down, naturally, using as an argument, his own arm.
They are all dressed in the characteristic attire of the northern highlands, pointed leather opinga, leggings, vests and woolen caps. Naturally, the clothes are not the newest or cleanest possible, but this makes them appear even more threatening and fearless. Two of them are holding Martini-Henry rifles, known in the north as "Martini" rifles and which were used in the ranks of the Turkish Army in 1890. The highlanders continued to use them for centuries, because, as one foreign author writes, "The Highlanders continued to use them; the Albanians liked them because they were very noisy when fired." The third holds an English rifle, an 1867 model known in Albania as "the cartridge."
It is most probable that this photograph was taken in Shkodra, especially because of the high stone wall in the background, where the pebbles were typically from Shkodra.
Naturally the persons in the photo have obviously posed for this photograph. If it were a genuine scene of a real fight it would be hard to believe that the photographer lived to tell the story. However it reveals what it would be like to fall into the hands of these people. 
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