News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania’s opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of

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Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

TIRANA, Feb. 21 – Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region’s lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing

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Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation

Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The favourable hydro-situation and the launch of several new private and concession hydropower plants, including the Banja HPP by Norway’s Statkraft in late 2016, gave a boost to domestic electricity production last year, according to data

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Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports

Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The rapid development of the country’s oil industry in the past decade has turned Albania into one of Europe’s top three least dependent countries on imports of fossil fuels, according to a report published by Eurostat,

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Opposition set for parliamentary boycott, indefinite protest

Opposition set for parliamentary boycott, indefinite protest

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – Albania’s opposition will boycott parliament and hold an indefinite protest until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and fair elections, opposition leaders said Monday. The announcement followed the largest anti-government rally in years and

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Walking through the chaotic Tirana – Thoughts of a citizen from abroad

Walking through the chaotic Tirana – Thoughts of a citizen from abroad

By Baldur Baldoni* With the beginning of spring I start spending more time on the streets of Tirana. By walking to meetings or for shopping one gains many impressions and this stimulates some bitter thoughts about the recent situation. Imagine

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More Italian youngsters, pensioners turn to Albania for a living

More Italian youngsters, pensioners turn to Albania for a living

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – It is now the Italians who are looking for a job in Albania, Italian media have noted in the past few years as the neighbouring country’s economy, also host to some 500,000 Albanian migrants, continues to

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Editorial: The tax of shame starts at 6.5 percent

Editorial: The tax of shame starts at 6.5 percent

Another week, another breathtaking scandal as a armoured vehicle transporting large amounts of money was stopped and robbed on its way to the airport. None of the security measures which are mandatory had been followed. Yet again the security of

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Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records

Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – The General Prosecutor’s Office is seeking further information on nine elected representatives — members of parliament and mayors — it suspects of hiding brushes with the law in their decriminalization declarations. If the prosecutors’ suspicions are

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Business climate rated as unfavorable by two-thirds of investors

Business climate rated as unfavorable by two-thirds of investors

TIRANA, Feb. 16 – Two-thirds of businesses in Albania consider the business climate unfavorable with courts, corruption and frequent changes in legislation and tax procedures as the top concerns, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the Foreign Investors

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131280" align="alignright" width="300"]rovla2 Based in Tirana, Ambassador Romana Vlahutin heads the EU Delegation to Albania. (Photo: pdp)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania's opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of EU's delegation to Albania.

Basha had asked that Ambassador Vlahutin be left out of the meeting, a departure from protocol for meetings of this type. The leader of Albania's opposition had wanted to make a public show of the fact that the EU ambassador no longer enjoys the trust of the opposition, a source familiar with the situation said.


The opposition's stance comes at a critical moment for Albania's democracy, as the opposition has started to hold an indefinite protest in front of the prime minister's office, seeking Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a caretaker government to oversee the upcoming June general elections. 


In addition, Sali Berisha, the country's former prime minister and a dominant figure in the main opposition Democratic Party said in a television interview this week that not only does the opposition no longer trusts Vlahutin to be impartial, but she is now seen as an active government supporter.


It is the first time an Albanian opposition representative says the Tirana-based EU ambassador is not trusted, and it is clear that as far the Democratic Party is concerned, Vlahutin has crossed a red line.


In recent news, Albania's chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, said in television interviews that the EU ambassador had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to arrest of senior politicians, and one diplomatic source tells Tirana Times, that Berisha himself was at the top of the list. 


Llalla informed President Bujar Nishani, his direct superior on the Council of Justice, of the request. Nishani, a former high official in the Democratic Party, then appears to have called in Vlahutin to explain her request and its basis.


A senior official in the Democratic Party said Vlahutin has undermined the credibility of the European Union in Albania by “being an emotional supporter of the government and the prime minister,” adding this opinion is shared by the wider public, not just the opposition. 


Berisha has also made public that known Socialist activists and supporters of the prime minister have been employed in Vlahutin's staff in Tirana. 


Vlahutin's background is unusual for an EU ambassador. A Croatian national, she had previously worked for her country's president before being sent to Albania as an EU representative following Croatia's 2013 accession to the European Union. 


She first raised eyebrows in Albania when she said that the justice reform could be approved without the opposition participation if needed, when both international and domestic leaders saw that consensus was the only way forward. 


Vlahutin also stayed silent when the prime minister said that when it came to the justice reform, the opposition stood against the European Union, the United States and the ruling Socialist-led majority.


This week's public gesture by the opposition to show its distrust of the head of the EU delegation to Tirana also comes at a time when Albania's progress toward EU integration seems to be a standstill.


Independent observers have concluded that the EU delegation to Albania, which Ambassador Vlahutin leads, as well as Prime Minister Rama had created great public expectations for opening of the official membership negotiations between Albania and the European Union. 


The question of opening negotiations was reduced the approval of the justice reform in parliament, which happened with a unanimous vote, even-though both Vlahutin and Rama said that the opposition was the main obstacle.

However, that approach was wrong. The opening of the membership negotiations has now been pushed beyond any realistic prediction.

The Tirana-based EU representatives neglected a key factor of importance in the country's progress: free and fair elections and preparations for a such a process.

Another key issue that has caused great damage of trust has been the issue of marijuana cultivation, now spread across the country at an industrial scale, a fact which the opposition says has the tacit support of the government. 


Prime Minister Rama has had a curious answer to such accusations: Go ask the internationals. 


The EU representatives in Tirana have been curiously silent on the matter, even-though the problem is self evident through the tens of tons of marijuana seized by international and domestic authorities on a regular basis. 


Albanians have had a great trust in the European Union. Support for EU integration remains at near-unanimous levels, research by the Albanian Institute for International Studies shows. 


However, as the country seems to head into another political crisis, the lack of trust the opposition has in EU's delegation to Tirana could undermine EU's credibility and power of influence to resolve future crisis.
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU's credibility among Albanians, opposition warns
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 21 - Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region's lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing the country's competitiveness in some key sectors, such as the garment and footwear industry, the country's top exporter relying on low labour costs.

Trade union representatives have demanded a 4,000 lek (€29) to 26,000 lek (€190) increase in the minimum wage after repeated demands for a hike were not taken into account in the past three years. Meanwhile, business representatives seem willing for a 2,000 lek (€15) hike to 24,000 lek (€176) and a lower 1,000 lek (€7.3) wage increase for some 100,000 garment and footwear workers, most of whom are paid at minimum wages.

The debate comes ahead of the upcoming June general elections at a time when the Socialist Party-led government has announced a 7 to 36 percent hike for some 164,000 public sector employees, accounting for 18 percent of total employees, following a three-year freeze.

The minimum wage for some 6,900 public sector workers is set to increase by 36 percent to 30,000 lek (€220) starting next March, ahead of the June 18 elections. The hike is part of the government’s plans to spend about $100 million on wage and pension increases in 2017, when police forces will benefit a 17 percent hike and the public administration is expected to get a 10 percent increase in monthly wages.

"Taking into account the past four years, the increase that business representatives are proposing is lower than adjusting it to inflation rate and economic growth. That is why we oppose it. Our initial demand was for a 30 percent hike, while the final compromise is at 26,000 lek (€190)," said Kol Nikolla, the head of Albania's Confederate of Trade Unions, at a meeting last weekend with the National Labour Council, a consultative body with government, employer and employee representatives.

Luan Bregasi, the head of the Business Albania association, said the 24,000 lek (€176) minimum wage is accepted by all industries, except for the garment and footwear industry.

"All industries accept a 2,000 lek (€15) increase in the minimum wage. Our proposal for garment and footwear producers is a 1,000 lek (€7.3) increase for this year and adjusting the hike to inflation rate in the coming years," said Bregasi.

Other business representatives say the hike could have negative impacts on exporting businesses relying on low labour costs.

"It is likely that the products' cost will artificially increase and the effects low profit businesses will suffer will be either cutting exports or cutting staff," says Alban Zusi, the head of Albanian Exports' Center.

Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj said next March's government decision on the minimum wage would be a traditional increase that will not damage the country's competitiveness, hinting a 5 percent increase to 23,000 lek (€168).

Social Welfare Minister Blendi Klosi said the "increase will be made by taking into account interests of both employees and employers without damaging the labour market compared to the regional one."

Albania's current minimum wage of €157 is lower compared to all regional EU aspirant countries, including Kosovo which applies a €130 minimum wage for people aged up to 35 and €170 for elder employees.

Minimum wages in the other Western Balkans EU aspirants range from €206 in Bosnia and Herzegovina to €213 in Macedonia, €235 in Serbia and €288 in Montenegro.

While Albania offers the cheapest labour skills in the region, the tax burden is one of Western Balkan’s highest, being a barrier to attract foreign direct investment in sectors other than oil and mining despite the country’s favourable geographic position and Mediterranean climate.

Employment in Albania's private sector is led by self-employment in the agriculture sector, which provides about half of the country's jobs, but only 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling the poor efficiency of the sector which suffers underfinancing and poor investment and technology.

Employment in the private non-agricultural sector, led by the garment and footwear industry with some 100,000 workers, accounts for 37 percent of the total 972,000 employees in the country where the official unemployment rate is at 15.2 percent and youth unemployment at 30 percent. The real jobless figure is estimated to be far higher as jobless people in rural areas are almost all counted as self-employed in the agriculture sector due to possessing farmland.
                    [post_title] =>  Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-20 17:31:21
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 20 - The favourable hydro-situation and the launch of several new private and concession hydropower plants, including the Banja HPP by Norway's Statkraft in late 2016, gave a boost to domestic electricity production last year, according to data published energy regulator, ERE.

The wholly hydro-dependent domestic electricity generation rose by 21 percent to 7,136 GWh in 2016, meeting the overwhelming majority of the country's needs.

State-run KESH power utility, which manages the country's three biggest hydropower plants situated in the northern Drin River cascade and produces about three-quarters of domestic electricity, saw its energy production increase by 14 percent to about 5,100 GWh compared to 2015.

Meanwhile, private and concession hydropower plants increased their share in the domestic hydropower production by 4 percent to 28 percent with a production of 2,000 GWH in 2016.

The 73 MW Banja HPP that delivered its first electricity in Sept. 2016, being the first of two major HPPs Norway's Statkraft is building as part of its Devoll hydropower project, produced only about 70 GWh during its first three months of operation in 2016.

The Ashta HPP, a €200 million by Austria’s Verbund and EVN, operational since early 2013, increased its production to 276 GWH in 2016, accounting for 13 percent of electricity produced by about 100 private and concession hydropower plants.

The Vlora thermal power plant, a new 97 MW $112 million low-sulphur distillate oil fuelled power plant, available for use since 2010, but which has not been put to use because of high fuel costs, was not involved in electricity production. The power plant has not been taken over by Albanian power utility KESH yet as it faces an arbitration trial with an Italian company that built it due to financial disputes and problems in the plant’s cooling system. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline, already in its construction stage and scheduled to bring the first Caspian gas flows to Europe by 2020 is the only hope to make the plant operational due to its cheaper operation on natural gas.

Earlier this month, the Albanian Parliament approved a new renewables law following a deal with small HPP investors who had raised concerns and warned of a legal battle over the initial draft law on promotion of energy use from renewable sources.

The Albanian Renewable Energy Association (AREA), representing some 60 small and medium-sized HPPs with a capacity of up to 15 MW with a total investment of Euro 650 million, had warned the proposed transfer of the HPP contracts from state-run power utility KESH to the other state OSHEE distribution operator did not guarantee the sale of the electricity they produce and was a high-risk move that could take investors to bankruptcy. The dispute was settled last December following months of disputes with mediation by Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat which will be involved in the setting of a methodology for the calculation of a support scheme applicable to existing producers.

Albania is liberalizing its energy market by disconnecting big electricity consumers from the state-run OSHEE distribution operator, but the reform has faced difficulties due to few private sector operators.

Most recently, some 73 companies linked to the 35 kV grid have had their deadline to disconnect from the public operator and find other alternatives by June 30, 2017.

The nationalization of the country’s electricity distribution operator in 2013 following a failed three and a half years privatization and the launch of a nationwide campaign to collect hundreds of millions of euros in accumulated unpaid debts and cut off illegal connections has considerably improved the country’s electricity situation with grid losses estimated to have dropped to 28 percent, compared to a record 43.4 percent in late 2013.

With domestic energy production relying on rainfall dependent hydroelectricity, Albania has also diversified its electricity resources by building a new interconnection line to Kosovo but its operation is being held back by Serbia over a transmission grid dispute with Kosovo, in a conflict that continues nine years after majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

The new German-funded interconnection line and the expected joint power exchange will help Kosovo’s lignite-fired power plants and Albania’s hydro-dependent electricity system exchange electricity during their peak production levels, reducing dependency on costly imports.
                    [post_title] => Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-20 14:41:29
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 20 - The rapid development of the country's oil industry in the past decade has turned Albania into one of Europe's top three least dependent countries on imports of fossil fuels, according to a report published by Eurostat, the European Union's statistical office.

With an import dependency rate on fossil fuels at 11 percent in 2015, Albania lagged behind only Norway and Denmark, two of Europe's largest oil producers. A decade earlier, just before the first concession oil exploration and production contracts were signed in 2005, Albania had an import dependency rate of 73 percent.

Back in 1990, just before the collapse of the country's communist regime, Albania also ranked as Europe's third least dependent economy on imports of fossil fuels, with a dependency rate of only 8 percent, showing the extent to which an economy relies upon imports in order to meet its energy needs.

Due to lack of investment and its outdated drilling and refining technology, Albania's state-run oil sector almost paralyzed for more than 15 years to take a new impetus only in 2004 when a 25-year concession contract was signed with Canada-based Bankers Petroleum to develop Patos-Marinza, the largest onshore oilfield in continental Europe situated in southwestern Albania.

Huge investment turned Bankers Petroleum into the country's largest exporter with a production that peaked at slightly more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day in 2014 ahead of the slump in commodity prices forcing the company to revise downward its drilling and investment plans until it was sold to China's Geo Jade for €392 mln in mid-2016 following disputes with the Albanian government over taxes and the safety of its drilling operations affecting local residents.

The Eurostat report shows Albania's energy consumption has remained unchanged at 2.2 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) in the past decade, compared to 2.6 toe in 1990 just before the collapse of the 45-year communist regime and much of its industry. The country’s resident population during the past 25 years has also dropped from an estimated 3.2 million in the early 1990s to a current 2.8 million affected by massive migration and lower birth rates.

Albania’s share of fossil fuels, involving non-renewable energy sources such as coal, natural gas, crude oil, petroleum products, dropped to 59 percent in 2015, down from 67 percent a decade earlier and 76 percent in 1990.

The decline is also a result of rising renewable energy production as dozens of new hydropower plants have been made operational in the past decade on concession contracts, making domestic electricity production wholly hydro-dependent.

An earlier Eurostat report showed that thanks to its huge oil and renewable hydro-electricity production, Albania is one of Europe’s least dependent countries on energy imports.

Due its poor quality and heavy-refining needs, much of Albania’s crude oil is exported, making the country almost totally reliant on oil imports for its consumption needs, with fuel prices being one of Europe’s highest due to their huge tax burden, despite the country having one of the continent's lowest GDP per capita.

The gradual pickup in international oil prices following the mid-2014 slump is expected to give a new boost to the country's oil industry where Dutch giant Shell is also involved in some major explorations.

Meanwhile, domestic electricity production is currently wholly dependent on the hydro-situation making it vulnerable to weather conditions, but meeting the overwhelming majority of the country’s needs.

A World Economic Forum report has also ranked Albania as one of the top 20 performers globally on its ability to deliver secure, affordable and sustainable energy because of the country's wholly hydro-dependent electricity production and huge oil production.

In addition to hydropower, Albania is estimated to have large untapped wind and solar energy potential that can be cost-competitive.
                    [post_title] => Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131254" align="alignright" width="300"]Opposition leader Lulzim Basha at a protest rally. (Photo: DP handout) Opposition leader Lulzim Basha surrounded by supporters at a Tirana protest rally. (Photo: DP handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – Albania’s opposition will boycott parliament and hold an indefinite protest until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and fair elections, opposition leaders said Monday.

The announcement followed the largest anti-government rally in years and the setting up of a large tent in front of the prime minister’s office, where hundreds of people have stood since the anti-government rally on Saturday.

The Democratic Party has dubbed the protest venue, a major intersection in Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard as “Freedom Square.”

“Until they agree with our demands, our parliamentary activity will move right here, on Freedom Square, venue of direct democracy,” said Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha.

Caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections

Basha and other opposition leaders at the protest said the current Socialist-led government cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections because it has a record of using “criminals and drug money” in previous elections.

There is little trust in the government’s will to hold free and fair elections, not only among the opposition but also large parts of the population that might not be supporting the Democratic Party directly, analysts say, pointing to the case of the local elections in Dibra showed how a central government can win an election through a mixture of vote-buying and voter intimidation through criminal elements.

Opposition and other anti-government activists also point out that avoiding the influence of money from crime and drugs in the electoral process stands at the foundation of stability and security in the country.

Albania has recently seen a massive growth in marijuana plantations, which the opposition says have the tacit support of government officials. In addition, several elected representatives – both members of parliament and mayors – have had to give up office or are under investigation as part of a decriminalization process that started after the Socialist-led government chose people with criminal pasts to run for office.

Channeling growing popular discontent

Protesters weathered rain and colder than usual weather to hold uninterrupted overnight protests, where leaders of the Democratic Party and smaller allies held speeches.

Protesters speaking at the rally said they had come because they feel neglected by “an arrogant government” that is not performing well enough, causing a difficult economic situation, increased unemployment as well as an increase in crime. Protesters also say corruption is widespread at every level of administration.

At Saturday’s rally, Democratic Party leaders spoke only after people who had suffered directly under government oppression expressed their experiences, with which thousands of Albanians can identify.

One woman said she had been quickly fired from a public sector job because of being a Democratic Party member. Another woman, holding a baby, said she had been forced to shut down her small tailor shop due to repression from tax authorities and higher electricity bills.

The Democratic Party is trying to channel growing public discontent against the government’s reforms, which increasingly are facing a perception of being tough on the weakest members of the society while helping powerful economic interests become even stronger.

But ultimately the opposition believes that it can only win polls on a level playing field and that only a caretaker government can guarantee free and fair elections.

“There is no going back from the way we have chosen without winning on the promised demand: There will be free elections only with a government that doesn’t have Edi Rama as a prime minister,” Basha said.

Protesters remember dictator’s monument toppling

Opposition leaders have been showing the protest nonstop live on Facebook, and have accused mainstream media of not giving it enough attention due the fact that the media outlets “have been bought by the government.”

Monday, the third day of the indefinite protest, was also the anniversary of another popular rally that led to the toppling of the statue of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist-era dictator, and signifies to this day the fall of communism in Albania.

The Democrats see Rama’s government has a direct descendant of the country’s communist rulers, not only because Hoxha’s Labor Party became the Socialist Party in 1991, but also because it is using the same methods of intimidation to hamper free and fair elections, said Arben Imami, a long-time opposition leader.

Many opposition supporter who come from families that were politically persecuted under Hoxha’s regime also point out that many high government officials have direct family ties to the former communist ruling class.

Reacting to the protest on Facebook, Prime Minister Rama said the opposition was protesting to protect itself from the justice reform.

“Citizens have as part of their rights to protest against the government and to call of its resignation, but if this tent birthed by the protest was set up to protect those who have hijacked the justice system then the protesters themselves will be betrayed by the protest leaders,” Rama said.

The Democratic Party voted in favor of the justice reform, but has expressed concerns over the constitutionality of some of its elements.

The protest has been largely peaceful, and police said they would not interfere with the siting as long as there are no acts of vandalism, although the rally permit expired on Saturday.
                    [post_title] => Opposition set for parliamentary boycott, indefinite protest
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-17 11:49:41
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-17 10:49:41
                    [post_content] => By Baldur Baldoni* 

With the beginning of spring I start spending more time on the streets of Tirana. By walking to meetings or for shopping one gains many impressions and this stimulates some bitter thoughts about the recent situation.

Imagine you were somebody else in your society – you would be shocked

Sometimes I imagine to be somebody else – for example a disabled person or a mother with a child, one in a buggy. While I am sometimes scrambling on bad pedestrian zones (if available and not blocked by cars or hoardings) I start to realize the situation of a mother with a buggy: No way! It would be even worse if I were a disabled person in a wheelchair: absolutely no way! Back on some sidewalks that are possible to walk on (at least for some meters) I think of my Albanian friends who are so polite and helpful – why isn’t society like that as well? Is there such a big difference between Albanians and the structures they have to live within? A visitor once came to Tirana and mentioned publicly that the city or even the country gave her the impression that there were no disabled people in it. This is an understandable glimpse since one nearly never sees them. They are imprisoned at home due to an infrastructure that has totally forgotten them! And mothers with buggies need to have a car and mostly a nice husband, understanding parents, good friends and so on in order to reach the central playground by car – buses are not very helpful too. Unfortunately they don’t find playgrounds around their houses and flats. Why not? So Tirana doesn’t seem to have children either; children that would like to play outside, to do sport or playing games on a little piece of nature. Either they seem to be used playing with computers or mobiles at home, or they have to be carried like packages by car somewhere else to find what they are looking for. It is a bitter finding that this city – for a third of all Albanians – is only made for healthy people between 16 and 60! This is the contrary of the impressions a foreigner gets when he or she is lucky to meet his or her first friends in Albania. They personally are so careful, helpful and polite – society is just the opposite!

Highest pollution ever – without industry or coal-fired power station etc.

Talking about healthy people – are they really living in a healthy town? Of course not! While the Bashkia is praising car-free Sundays for better air in the city, it is only realizing dreams of some who obviously don’t have to live in the center of the city. The Skanderbeg Place shall become the new “heaven” of the citizens, a pedestrian zone with a nice outfit and modern looking. But it is a nightmare for all normal people who cannot have these nice dreams since they have to struggle for energy or water! And also the new football-stadium will not make forget the daily problems that most of the citizens have. A lot of money is spent for the sake of only a few, that was my first thought when I realized the plans and later saw the mass. Yes, pollution might shrink on the Skanderbeg-Place but it doubled and more around it, because you get the most dangerous exhaust gases of cars which are standing, not driving but with running engines. They are standing longer than in many other cities in the region where we have much more cars per capita than in Tirana. So one has to find out who could really start blocking the main streets and even roads before managing alternatives. Is it because things have to be ready before elections (like every four years) or only because the main political actors and their planning teams simply are not capable enough? Whatever the answer may be, I still don’t understand why people are not protesting more. In other countries there are for example Motor Clubs with a membership of car-drivers. Most of these interest organisations are really big and have a strong influence. I only imagine how they would act against the daily stupidity of traffic planning and traffic regulation of policemen who even don’t know what every beginner in car driving has to learn.

It is still your country – but one has to fight for a livable country

Coming back to my office I try to understand why things can happen here which were impossible in other neighbor countries in Europe. Following polls etc. people are not really satisfied with all responsible actors and organizations – in contrary. But why are they always voting for them again only few months later without any question or demand for better policies? Unfortunately you only get to know about other people’s thoughts in cafeterias but not in public political debates. Have the Albanians already given up their dreams of the 90ies? They shouldn’t! The city of Tirana and the whole country are really worth fighting for in order to achieve positive changes and better living conditions.

*Baldur Baldoni is a German living in Tirana
                    [post_title] => Walking through the chaotic Tirana – Thoughts of a citizen from abroad
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-17 11:18:21
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 15 – It is now the Italians who are looking for a job in Albania, Italian media have noted in the past few years as the neighbouring country’s economy, also host to some 500,000 Albanian migrants, continues to struggle with the crisis effects.

With a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent and minimum pensions not enough to make ends meet, more and more Italians youngsters and pensioners are discovering Albania as a land of hope and low cost.

Back in his native Rome, 25-year-old Fabio managed to earn about €1,000 euros but spent €800 on his house rent compared to only €270 in Albania where €60 are enough for entertainment and food for about a week.

He is one of an estimated thousands of Italians who live, work or study in Albania.

“Even though I am far away from home, I am always there with my heart. I had a job in Rome but I was made redundant because the company went bankrupt. I tried to find another job in Rome but it wasn't easy,” Fabio, who works in Tirana at an Italian-run call center company offering marketing services for Italy-based companies, tells Italy’s Mediaset.

Alex from Palermo, southern Italy, is another Italian youngster who has chosen to work in Tirana at the same company.

Call centers have emerged as the key employer for Albanian young men and women in the past few years including newly graduates whose university degrees do not match labor market needs, employing about 25,000 people.

"We have 20,000 customers who trust their online growth to us. There are 150 youngsters who work here with the average age at 23,” says Katerina Bojaxhiu, a product manager at Italian-run LocalWeb company.

“Considering the average cost of living in Albania we pay pretty well, at an average of €500 month, without including bonuses if operators achieve their monthly targets,” she adds.

Students, mainly studying medicine at an Italian-run university in Tirana, business managers, entrepreneurs and pensioners make up the rest of the Italian community in Albania.

The Albanian government says there is community of some 20,000 Italians in Albania but Italy’s La Repubblica has earlier estimated there are some 3,000 Italians living in Albania, of whom 500 are resident workers and around 1,000 are students mostly studying medicine at the Zoja e Keshillit te Mire University which has a twinning deal with the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

In a recent article, La Repubblica dubbed Tirana as the “Las Vegas of Call Centers.”

The expansion of the booming call center industry in Albania, mainly providing services for neighbouring Italy, has recently received a blow after the Italian Parliament approved last December some changes making the supply of services from non-EU countries such as Albania tighter.

Pensioners 

pensionIt is also Italian pensioners who have decided to spend the rest of their lives in Albania. A RAI TV documentary has shown dozens of Italian pensioners have settled in Tirana and Durres because of considerably lower prices.

“Now the land of eagles has turned into a land of hope for Italians and a symbol of living at a low cost. Carmine, Giuseppe, Giancarlo and Vincenzo are some of the Italian pensioners who live between Tirana and Durres,” the documentary noted.

Comparing the cost of living the Italian journalist said “in Albania a coffee costs only 40 cents while the house rent is at only €150. If you also put the average electricity and water supply bills at about €50, this is an extra reason for Italians to come and live in Albania.”

“This way a minimum pension of €500 that can hardly make ends meet in Italy, becomes a small treasure that you can manage without worrying too much in Albania,” said the Italian reporter.

 ‘Separated by the sea, united through mentality’

In the early 1990s when the communist regime collapsed it was the Albanians who left the country in a mass exodus to Italy. Twenty years on, a wave of Italians is coming to Albania as Italy faces its worst recession since World War II.

“The country which twenty years ago sparked despair, is now hosting Italian immigrants. At the beginning there were entrepreneurs thirsty for low-cost labor force, but today there are also workers, craftsmen, electricians, plumbers, welders, mechanics, marble workers but even lawyers, doctors, architects and students,” says Italian daily La Repubblica in a 2013 article titled “Italians in Albania: We are the migrants now.”

Italy is the country's main trading partner and one of the top investors in Albania with key enterprises mainly operating in the banking, energy and the 'garment and 'footwear sectors but also in the booming call center industry.

Italian companies, mostly focused on the services sector, dominate the list of foreign companies operating in Albania with an estimated 2,750 at the end of 2015, according to state statistical institute, INSTAT.

More and more Albanians who have been living for a long time in Italy have decided to permanently return home and invest their savings in Albania following the 2009 recession.

The neighboring country across the Adriatic can be reached daily through only a one-hour flight or six-hour trip through sea by several operators.

Italian photographers often post clear pictures of Albanian snow-capped peaks viewed from southern Italy through the Otranto Strait which is only 45 miles from Albania.

Italian coach Gianni De Biasi who led Albania to a historic first ever major competition debut such as the Euro 2016 and turned into a national hero, recently said upon receiving an Italian presidential order of merit, he was proud to have created a linking bridge between the two countries “separated by the sea, but united through the same mentality.”

 
                    [post_title] => More Italian youngsters, pensioners turn to Albania for a living
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-17 10:55:00
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-17 09:55:00
                    [post_content] => Another week, another breathtaking scandal as a armoured vehicle transporting large amounts of money was stopped and robbed on its way to the airport. None of the security measures which are mandatory had been followed. 

Yet again the security of citizens trying to reach the only airport in the country was compromised. Time after time banks and private security firms have shown irresponsibility, complicity with crime and a head bashing inability to learn from their mistakes. Time after time police have suffered blows to their credibility. 

It does not help that political actors jump in the debate immediately taking sides, considering the institution of the police as a political tool for maneuvering. The success of the police in catching the culprits in short time is laudable. Their initiatives to take over the money transfers to the airport on the other side shows the deep flaws that exist in the strategically important financial sector when it comes to their security.

On the larger scale the episode highlights the additional cost of doing business in Albania. What is the cost of crime and insecurity, fear and lack of protection? The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has actually measured and quantified it. It is 6.5 percent of the gross annual revenues and for business who are more exposed to risk it goes up from there. This is how much business have to pay, this is their loss to criminals, to incidents like this, to kidnappings, thefts, bribes and racketeering.

For those who pretend to struggle why FDI doesn’t increase in Albania, the answer was made a bit more clear this week. There is an additional tax of 6.5 percent. Of course Albania is not the only country in the region or for that in the world to have this. In Serbia the tax is 4 percent, the average regional figure is at 5.9 percent. This hidden cost is of course more than numbers. It is a cost that often determines the decision of investors whether to start at all an economic activity, it keeps large companies away. Combined with the unfortunate heinous attacks on foreign business people such as the beatings last year it puts quite a few things in perspective.

Negative developments like this dismantle achievements in other fronts with incredible speed. Once again, they can happen everywhere, even in countries where public safety and order are much better preserved. Yet, the re-occurrence of such a similar theft of the money from a bank, at the vicinities of the airport, largely due to fault sin private security firms is a sad repetition. Many people have written tons of sound advice after it had happened. Yet much of it was not taken by the relevant stakeholders. The incident only adds to a series of thefts near and inside the airport, adds to the already forgotten dark saga of the money stolen from the treasury department of the very Central Bank for which the Governor was sacked yet declared innocent in court. And so on.

Hence it seems only a matter of time until the next thing strikes. In the meantime cross fingers that the 6 percent tax of shame does not jump higher.  

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: The tax of shame starts at 6.5 percent 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130019" align="alignright" width="300"]Albania's parliament (Photo: PoA Handout) Albania's parliament (Photo: PoA Handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – The General Prosecutor’s Office is seeking further information on nine elected representatives -- members of parliament and mayors -- it suspects of hiding brushes with the law in their decriminalization declarations.

If the prosecutors' suspicions are proven true, the representatives would be sacked and replaced.

The list published by several media outlets includes the name of six members of parliament -- Artan Gaci, Armando Prenga, Gledion Rehovica, Aqif Rakipi, Omer Mamo and Mhill Fufi -- as well as the mayors of Polican, Tepelena and Pogradec. 

Five MPs represent the ruling majority whereas Fufi has been expelled from the Democratic Party after he broke with party orders over votes in parliament. Among the mayors, two are from the leftist coalition and one from the center-right one.

Prosecutors have called for the assistance of the Central Election Commission to provide more information on the self-declaration forms of these officials done as required by the country's decriminalization law, which aims to get people with criminal convictions out of elected office.

In December 2016, the Decriminalization Unit at the General Prosecutor’s Office called for the suspension of two parliamentarians and a city mayor over non-disclosure of information in the framework of the decriminalization process. 

The unit is chaired by Prosecutor Rovena Gashi, who recently made headlines after her name was mentioned among many other judges and prosecutors whose visas were revoked by the U.S. Embassy. 

The most affected political party by the prosecution’s fight against officials with criminal records is the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity.  

MP Dashamir Tahiri was in the first representative of this party to have his mandate suspended after he was accused of having criminal records.  

MP Artan Gaci responded to accusations saying that if “prosecutors would have any evidence on his alleged wrongdoing, they would have made it public already.”

The CEC has been collecting forms from all MPs and mayors, however, the chief prosecutor’s office is the only body that can investigate and do background checks on the past of these officials to find any criminal record registered in the country or abroad. 

After the files are delivered to the CEC, the electoral watchdog will rule on the suspension of their mandates. 

The verification process done by the prosecutors is carried in the framework of the decriminalization bill that entered into force in 2015. 

The law forced 1,836 politicians and 5,000 senior officials in Albania to declare their criminal past and obliged authorities to check their statements. 

According to provisions, anyone with convictions requiring jail terms of up to two years will be banned for 10 years, but a government official found guilty of corruption would be banned from public office for 20 years.

At least 30 MPs have resigned or been replaced in the last two years, with several being accused of being involved in criminal activities. 

 

 
                    [post_title] => Nine more elected representatives could lose jobs over suspected criminal records
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-16 12:57:11
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                    [post_content] => survey

TIRANA, Feb. 16 – Two-thirds of businesses in Albania consider the business climate unfavorable with courts, corruption and frequent changes in legislation and tax procedures as the top concerns, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the Foreign Investors Association of Albania, representing the country’s top investors.

Expectations for 2017 remain grim with only 10 percent of the 70 surveyed foreign investors describing the business environment as favorable and more than a third as unfavorable.

Courts and corruption became a tougher issue for about three-quarters of foreign investors in 2016 as the country struggled to approve a long-awaited justice reform that is expected to overhaul the highly corrupt perceived judiciary by vetting all prosecutors and judges over their professional proficiency, moral integrity and independence from the influence of the organized crime, corruption and political power.

Courts were rated as a severe problem by 78 percent of the surveyed businesses, followed by corruption with 72 percent. Both ratings registered a 10 to 12 percent increase compared to 2015.

Interestingly enough, the poor efficiency of administrative courts became a severe problem for more than two-thirds of the surveyed businesses compared to only about half in 2015.

Three years after their establishment, administrative courts are failing to examine business appeals in time and about three-quarters of their decisions are in favour of the public administration, according to an earlier report by the Albanian Investment Council, an institution with the goal of enhancing public private dialogue.

Frequent changes in legislation and tax procedures are also an issue for 67 percent of surveyed businesses.

One year after a rather aggressive nationwide campaign against informality that formalized thousands of businesses previously operating informally, informal or illegal competition remains a top concern for 66 percent of foreign investors compared to 65 percent in the previous year after the campaign was launched in Sept. 2015.

The predictability of policies and the clarity and understanding of the tax framework and procedures also remain a concern for two-thirds of businesses.

The long-standing issue of clear property titles was a concern for about 60 percent of the respondents while the tax burden remained a concern for 55 percent of investors.

Violence against an American-Lebanese executive last August led to a Dubai-based company withdrawing from a major tourist resort investment worth $450 million that was supposed to create 1,200 jobs by 2018 at the Gjiri i Lalzit Bay, just outside Durres, some 35 km from Tirana.

Businesses have often voiced concern over high taxes as a barrier curbing foreign direct investment considering tough competition from neighboring countries applying lower tax rates.

Since 2014, the corporate income tax and the withholding tax on dividends, rents and capital gains have increased by 5 percent to 15 percent, making the tax burden in Albania one of the region’s highest and the key concern for the business community in the country.

Labor regulations, access to electricity, finance and skilled labor as well as the crime and theft situation are rated as Albania’s best performing indicator but yet are considered an issue by more than a third of surveyed businesses.

Silvio Pedrazzi, the president of the Foreign Investors Association in Albania and the CEO of one of the country’s leading commercial banks, said the implementation of reforms and rule of law were the biggest concerns for doing business in Albania.

“Businesses are moving through a complicated path. The level of expectations goes hand in hand with the level of the implementation of reforms. The business environment is becoming more demanding as competition gets tougher,” Pedrazzi was quoted as saying.

Dietlof Mare, the CEO of Vodafone Albania which has been operating in the country for the past 15 years, singled out the issue of corrupt judges as the top concern affecting businesses in Albania, demanding transparency, consistency and rule of law.

Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj, who has been repeatedly praising progress with the country’s economy, described the survey findings as not representative of the business climate due to the small sample of only 70 companies taken into account, citing progress in the latest Doing Business report.

Albania climbed 32 steps to rank 58th among 190 global economies in the latest Doing Business report to score its best ever ranking, but yet lagged behind some of its key regional competitors offering lower taxes and easier procedures.

Albania’s foreign direct investment is set to register a considerable boost in the next few years boosted by some major energy-related projects and a pickup in commodity prices but face headwinds by 2020 when key investments such as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline have been completed.

The Devoll hydropower plant and TAP have been the main sources of FDI in Albania in the past couple of years following the mid-2014 slump in commodity prices paralyzing investment in the key oil and mining sectors and considerably affecting the country’s poorly diversified exports.

Albania has been the second largest FDI recipient among five EU aspirant SEE economies for the past six years lagging behind only Serbia which is a much bigger economy. Thanks to huge investment in energy-related projects such as oil and hydropower plants, Albania has managed to attract about $1 billion in FDI annually in the past few years.
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131280" align="alignright" width="300"]rovla2 Based in Tirana, Ambassador Romana Vlahutin heads the EU Delegation to Albania. (Photo: pdp)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania's opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of EU's delegation to Albania.

Basha had asked that Ambassador Vlahutin be left out of the meeting, a departure from protocol for meetings of this type. The leader of Albania's opposition had wanted to make a public show of the fact that the EU ambassador no longer enjoys the trust of the opposition, a source familiar with the situation said.


The opposition's stance comes at a critical moment for Albania's democracy, as the opposition has started to hold an indefinite protest in front of the prime minister's office, seeking Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a caretaker government to oversee the upcoming June general elections. 


In addition, Sali Berisha, the country's former prime minister and a dominant figure in the main opposition Democratic Party said in a television interview this week that not only does the opposition no longer trusts Vlahutin to be impartial, but she is now seen as an active government supporter.


It is the first time an Albanian opposition representative says the Tirana-based EU ambassador is not trusted, and it is clear that as far the Democratic Party is concerned, Vlahutin has crossed a red line.


In recent news, Albania's chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, said in television interviews that the EU ambassador had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to arrest of senior politicians, and one diplomatic source tells Tirana Times, that Berisha himself was at the top of the list. 


Llalla informed President Bujar Nishani, his direct superior on the Council of Justice, of the request. Nishani, a former high official in the Democratic Party, then appears to have called in Vlahutin to explain her request and its basis.


A senior official in the Democratic Party said Vlahutin has undermined the credibility of the European Union in Albania by “being an emotional supporter of the government and the prime minister,” adding this opinion is shared by the wider public, not just the opposition. 


Berisha has also made public that known Socialist activists and supporters of the prime minister have been employed in Vlahutin's staff in Tirana. 


Vlahutin's background is unusual for an EU ambassador. A Croatian national, she had previously worked for her country's president before being sent to Albania as an EU representative following Croatia's 2013 accession to the European Union. 


She first raised eyebrows in Albania when she said that the justice reform could be approved without the opposition participation if needed, when both international and domestic leaders saw that consensus was the only way forward. 


Vlahutin also stayed silent when the prime minister said that when it came to the justice reform, the opposition stood against the European Union, the United States and the ruling Socialist-led majority.


This week's public gesture by the opposition to show its distrust of the head of the EU delegation to Tirana also comes at a time when Albania's progress toward EU integration seems to be a standstill.


Independent observers have concluded that the EU delegation to Albania, which Ambassador Vlahutin leads, as well as Prime Minister Rama had created great public expectations for opening of the official membership negotiations between Albania and the European Union. 


The question of opening negotiations was reduced the approval of the justice reform in parliament, which happened with a unanimous vote, even-though both Vlahutin and Rama said that the opposition was the main obstacle.

However, that approach was wrong. The opening of the membership negotiations has now been pushed beyond any realistic prediction.

The Tirana-based EU representatives neglected a key factor of importance in the country's progress: free and fair elections and preparations for a such a process.

Another key issue that has caused great damage of trust has been the issue of marijuana cultivation, now spread across the country at an industrial scale, a fact which the opposition says has the tacit support of the government. 


Prime Minister Rama has had a curious answer to such accusations: Go ask the internationals. 


The EU representatives in Tirana have been curiously silent on the matter, even-though the problem is self evident through the tens of tons of marijuana seized by international and domestic authorities on a regular basis. 


Albanians have had a great trust in the European Union. Support for EU integration remains at near-unanimous levels, research by the Albanian Institute for International Studies shows. 


However, as the country seems to head into another political crisis, the lack of trust the opposition has in EU's delegation to Tirana could undermine EU's credibility and power of influence to resolve future crisis.
            [post_title] => News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU's credibility among Albanians, opposition warns
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