Albania blocks meat imports from Brazil until tests show it’s safe

Albania blocks meat imports from Brazil until tests show it’s safe

TIRANA, March 27 – Albanian food authorities say they have blocked Brazilian meat imports to the country and have taken samples to test products over their safety after some of the world’s biggest importers of Brazilian meat imposed bans. The

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Prosecutors investigating Vlora judge over alleged ties with drug baron

Prosecutors investigating Vlora judge over alleged ties with drug baron

TIRANA, March 22 – The ongoing investigation on the wealth and assets of a former local government officials and alleged drug baron, Klement Balili, have revealed that a judge of the Court of Appeals in Vlora was paid $47,000 to

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CEC to audit decriminalization declarations of 21 MPs and 8 mayors

CEC to audit decriminalization declarations of 21 MPs and 8 mayors

TIRANA, March 21 – Albania’s Central Election Commission will double-check questionnaires submitted by several MPs and mayors in the framework of the decriminalization bill, indicating that it suspects the self-declarations were not entirely truthful. The CEC will review the documentation

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PM willing to hold elections without the opposition as protest continues

PM willing to hold elections without the opposition as protest continues

Ruling coalition shows cracks over prospects of elections without opposition’s participation TIRANA, March 22 – The upcoming general elections will not be postponed even if the opposition decides not to participate, Prime Minister Edi Rama said this week. The opposition

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Initiative to ban communist-era movies meets strong opposition

Initiative to ban communist-era movies meets strong opposition

TIRANA, March 21 – An initiative by the state-funded Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes to ban the screening of communist era movies on public and private-run TVs because of their propaganda serving the country’s former hardline Stalinist regime

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AmCham: High tax burden remains top concern as business climate recovers to 5-year high

AmCham: High tax burden remains top concern as business climate recovers to 5-year high

TIRANA, March 20 – Some of the country’s biggest local and foreign companies represented by the American Chamber of Commerce in Albania perceive the business climate to have considerably improved in 2016 but high taxes, unfair competition and government bureaucracy

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Eurostat: 29,000 Albanians sought asylum in 2016, Germany remains top destination

Eurostat: 29,000 Albanians sought asylum in 2016, Germany remains top destination

TIRANA, March 20 – The number of first time Albanian asylum seekers to EU member countries more than halved in 2016, but Albania remained for the second year in a row among the top 10 countries of citizenship seeking asylum

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Editorial: Unburdened for all the wrong reasons

Editorial: Unburdened for all the wrong reasons

The key political event of this week was the change of four ministers of the Rama cabinet, all of them of the Socialist Party. Two of the ministers have key positions: that of Interior Affairs and that of Healthcare. These

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News analysis: Questions abound as interior minister sacked

News analysis: Questions abound as interior minister sacked

Kadri Hazbiu, an interior minister in communist Albania, was executed in 1983 after being sacked. Hazbiu had been the longest serving interior minister during the dictatorship period – a champion of success and undying loyalty for the communist dictator. He

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PM reshuffles cabinet ahead of elections, reasons remain murky

PM reshuffles cabinet ahead of elections, reasons remain murky

TIRANA, March 15 – Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama dismissed four ministers from his cabinet earlier this week, including Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri and Health Minister Ilir Beqaj, two powerful figures in the Socialist-led government, who have come under attack

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 27 - Albanian food authorities say they have blocked Brazilian meat imports to the country and have taken samples to test products over their safety after some of the world's biggest importers of Brazilian meat imposed bans.

The temporary ban comes amid concerns that consumers might be at risk as Albania imports about a quarter of its meat products, mainly chicken and poultry, from Brazil, the world's largest meat producer.

In a statement following media reports of “rotten Brazilian beef” entering the country, the National Food Authority says the country has imported no beef from Brazil during the past five months and that it has recently blocked poultry and pork from entering Albania until tests show meat is safe to consumers. The watchdog says the temporary ban has been imposed despite no notice by the European Commission's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.

Food authorities say Albania imports meat from Basil based on a 2006 deal between the two governments and only from plants certified to export to the EU.

China, Chile and Egypt lifted the ban on Brazil meat last weekend while the European Union, the second largest importer after China, announced it would reject produce from the plants under investigation in Brazil.

The Brazilian meat scandal was triggered by a huge police operation that found evidence of meat packers selling rotten and substandard produce for several years, in an operation severely affecting the exports Latin America's largest economy for the past couple of weeks.

Brazil's President Michel Temer says the government has decided to speed up the audit process in the 21 establishments cited in the Federal Police investigation.

"The facts are that among 11,000 employees, only 33 are being investigated into. Out of 4,837 establishments subject to federal inspection, only 21 are allegedly involved in irregularities. The objective of the investigation is not the agriculture and livestock defense system in place, whose rigor is widely recognized, but a few conduct deviations," the Brazilian president is quoted as saying in a statement sent by Brazil's embassy in Tirana.

Albania's imports meat, coffee and sugar from Brazil with imports slightly increasing to 5.7 billion lek (€41 million) in 2016, about 1.2 percent of the country's total. Meanwhile, Albania's exports to Brazil are almost non-existent, according to state statistical institute, INSTAT.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 22 – The ongoing investigation on the wealth and assets of a former local government officials and alleged drug baron, Klement Balili, have revealed that a judge of the Court of Appeals in Vlora was paid $47,000 to act as a legal consultant for the companies owned by the Balili family.

In his 2015 declaration of assets, Judge Petrit Aliaj admitted that he worked as a legal consultant for Balili brothers and received a hefty sum by Albanian standards for his services, according to a report by VoA and BIRN.

Aliaj’s declaration and the probe on the origins of the money used to pay the judge are now part of the investigation on the wealth of the family of the man dubbed as “Escobar of Balkans”. 

Balili has managed to escape an international warrant issued on May 2016. He faces drug trafficking charges.

On June 8, 2015 the High Inspectorate of Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interests filed charges against Judge Petrit Aliaj over the failure to fully disclose the origins of his wealth and assets and false declarations. 

The case was investigated by prosecutors in Elbasan, who are now obliged to submit the findings to prosecutors in Vlora investigating Balili’s wealth. Prosecutors in Elbasan dismissed the original charges blaming lack of evidence.

Documents obtained by Voice of America and BIRN show that in 2006, Aliaj declared to have been paid $47,000 from for three months of legal consultancy services in 2015.

In 2009, Aliaj admitted that he had worked as legal consultant to the companies Balili & Co and Balili Brothers located in Delvina.

In addition, Aliaj submitted two job certificates issued in January and February 2008 issued by the two companies owned by the family of Klement Balili.

The certificates show that Aliaj was paid in cash an annual fee of $24,000  from each of the companies. 

Judge Aliaj has repeatedly been named for his dubious affairs such as hiding the origins of financial means used to build a villa in the coastal city of Saranda, tuition fees paid for his daughter in a U.S school and deposits at the Central Bank.

The judge is suspected to have made several suspicious bank transactions worth thousands of U.S. dollars as a guarantee to get U.S. visas for himself and his family members.

The 46-year-old Klement Balili is the former director of a transport department at the coastal town of Saranda. He owned a luxury hotel and several other businesses. He is wanted in Greece on drug trafficking charges. 

The opposition Democratic Party has repeatedly accused Albania’s Socialist-led government of protecting the suspected drug baron due to his ties with high-ranking politicians. 

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 21 – Albania’s Central Election Commission will double-check questionnaires submitted by several MPs and mayors in the framework of the decriminalization bill, indicating that it suspects the self-declarations were not entirely truthful.

The CEC will review the documentation of a total of thirteen lawmakers and eight mayors. The list includes the names of MPs Eduard Halimi, Florian Mima, Myqerem Tafaj, Spartak Braho, Vangjel Dule and mayors Artur Bardhi, Edmond Themelko, Ndrec Dedaj, Rajmonda Balilaj, Adel Zala, Zef Hilaj, Termet Peci and Adriatik Zotkaj. 

The electoral watchdog announced that the verification process would start with the questionnaire submitted by the secretary general of the Democratic Party, Arben Ristani, and the former Democratic Party chairman, Sali Berisha. The two had been vocal in asking CEC to review the ruling Socialist Party MPs for criminal pasts.

During the CEC meeting, representatives of the center-right opposition Democratic Party demanded that the review process must be extended to only the two mayors Peci and Zotkaj -- where there is information of wrongdoing already -- but the CEC chairman Denar Biba said that the applications of the 21 officials will be double checked for accuracy purposes.

Last week, General Prosecutor Adriatik Llalla called on the Central Election Commission to strip Mayor of Poliçan Artur Zotkaj and the Mayor of Tepelena Tërmet Peçi of their mandates due to criminal records that were not disclosed in the decriminalization process. 

Llalla said that the two local government officials lied about their past and concealed criminal records that would prohibit them from exercising public duty. 

In addition, the General Prosecutor’s office has launched penal proceedings against Zotkaj and Peçi over forgery of documents.

According to prosecutors, Mayor of Tepelena was convicted in 2004 for forgery of documents. While Peçi said he did not remember the conviction, a court verdict reveals that the official pleaded guilty and even showed remorse for his actions.

Furthermore, prosecutors are investigating on allegations that Mayor of Poliçan Adriatik Zotkaj is part of a drug trafficking group.

His declaration form submitted to the Central Election Commission includes three convictions such as a three-year sentence for violation of traffic regulations, 10 month jail sentence for resisting arrest and a one-year jail sentence for an undisclosed criminal act.

The CEC decision is expected to fuel heated political debates as the country prepares for parliamentary elections scheduled for June 18.
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                    [post_content] => Ruling coalition shows cracks over prospects of elections without opposition’s participation

TIRANA, March 22 - The upcoming general elections will not be postponed even if the opposition decides not to participate, Prime Minister Edi Rama said this week.

The opposition says it won’t take part in elections unless Rama resigns and allows a caretaker government staffed by technocrats to manage the elections so there are guarantees that they are fair and free from influence from what the opposition says is an alliance between the ruling Socialists and the criminal world.

The Socialists say the Democrats are just trying to make excuses because the opposition knows it will lose the elections. 

“The absence of the opposition would be a severe anomaly, but we will not be part of such a lack of respect toward the people. We will abide by the election date and commit to the electoral campaign like never before. These are the times we want to create a better future for the Albania of the next generation,” Rama said.

Prime Minister Rama accused the center-right parties of aiming to create an artificial political crisis through an election boycott. 

The statement sparked outrage among supporters of the Democratic Party that have been calling for a caretaker government for weeks. The opposition leader, Lulzim Basha, said elections can not be held without the participation of the opposition and that Democratic Party would not participate without guarantees of a free and fair process outside the influence of criminal world. 

Basha said criminal organizations are expected to invest billions in marijuana profits to help the Socialist Party stay in power.

“There will be no elections with Edi Rama as Prime Minister. The situation is simple: we are with the people, they are tied to crime,” Basha said before heading to United States, aiming to seek support for the anti-government protest.

Rama's junior coalition partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration of Ilir Meta, has said the elections must have the main opposition Democratic Party's participation in order to protect the country's stability.

The two main coalition parties seem to be divided on the possibility of going to elections without the opposition. 

SMI Secretary General Luan Rama said that elections without the participation of the opposition would be a “political farce.”

“Elections without the opposition are formal in the institutional framework, but from a democracy viewpoint they are a farce,” Luan Rama said in a televised interview.

However, the party chairman and Assembly Speaker, Ilir Meta, called on local media to not misinterpret Luan Rama’s statement since SMI’s main objective is to push elections forward and not undermine them.

“We should all work together towards the objective of holding excellent elections and refrain from an approach that would bring catastrophic consequences for Albania and its future,” Meta said.

“Let them all know, that pluralism in Albania came on December 12, 1990.”

The coalition unity is expected to be put to test at the regular parliament session on Thursday, as lawmakers will vote on the presidential decree appointing four new cabinet members. 

The confirmation of the new cabinet members requires a majority of 71 votes.

Last week, opposition parties decided not to register at the Central Election Commission (CEC) for the June 18 elections, threatening to boycott the process until a caretaker government is formed.

However, the CEC announced that it would soon launch procedures to replace commissioners of Democratic Party and Republican Party at the Commissions of Electoral Areas, KZAZ in full harmony with the Electoral Code recommendations.

 

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131687" align="alignright" width="300"]kapedani Kapedani (The Captain), Directed by Fehmi Hoshafi and Muharrem Fejzo, 1972 Photo: Albanian Cinema Project[/caption]

TIRANA, March 21 - An initiative by the state-funded Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes to ban the screening of communist era movies on public and private-run TVs because of their propaganda serving the country's former hardline Stalinist regime has sparked a public debate in Albania on whether such a step should be undertaken 25 years after the collapse of the regime and whether the ban will have the adverse effect of increasing interest on these movies which can be easily accessed via the internet.

Writer Agron Tufa, the head of the Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes and Consequences in Albania, journalism professor Anila Godole and Erald Kapri of the Audiovisual Media Authority are among the few public figures that have come out to back the idea of banning or curbing communist era films on TVs because of having a negative impact on the younger generation.

Meanwhile, film directors, researchers and an apparent major part of the public strongly oppose the censorship idea, arguing tha vital legacy is lost with their censorship.

Agron Tufa

“I don't know what kind of educational role can have the propaganda movies sparking hatred among Albanians, promoting genocide with the class war, religion and the most important post World War II poets, films that invent saboteurs and pay tribute to the party-run trials, that fling mud on the bourgeoisie, Europe and the U.S.,” says Agron Tufa, the initiator of the idea.

[caption id="attachment_131688" align="alignright" width="300"]Writer Agron Tufa Writer Agron Tufa[/caption]

A report by the Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes has unveiled the 45-year communist regime that collapsed in the early 1990s imprisoned or interned for politically motivated reasons more than 90,000 people, of whom about 7,000 were killed or died of tortures.

“Are we trying to educate children and younger generations with the democratic spirit of freedom in order to be decent citizens of the country and Europe? Then, the free food with the genocidal and propaganda movies is not the right way,” says Tufa, who suggests the movies could screen at late hours with a short introduction.

“The proposed approach does not erase everything. We have stressed that the movies should be shortlisted in order to have a selection considering artistic/aesthetic criteria and based on these values, even though there could still be propaganda, the movies should be allowed to air in the late hours, preceding their screening with a five-minute talk. This talk, parenthesis or short speech, should explain that the movie should be understood in the era's ideological context and be aired thanks to its arts values (performing/directorial). A commission composed of cinema, literature, visual arts experts should be set up,” Tufa has told Albanian media in an interview.

According to him, the movies that have less propaganda can be aired with a notification orienting unprepared viewers. “Of course, this is a repertoire serving the former Albanian Labour Party for whoever doesn't know! That's why the late screening hours and the explanations should be compulsory,” he adds.

Tufa says such practice is also being followed in other former communist countries.

“The movies don't disappear. They remain in archives and are open to study, but there should be no free airing as currently happens in more than 30 TV channels. This cinematographic product should be included in the copyright law, because it belongs to their authors and creators. Such a solution has already been made in former communist countries such as East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and even Bulgaria. This means introducing rules in the jungle, otherwise if you offer viewers today such genocidal movies or documentaries, they will for sure keep alive and activate the nostalgic communism channel,” he adds, stressing the need for legal action to support the initiative.

“This should be proposed to the Albanian Parliament to include it under a special law.  A small number likes these movies, but we should act by a law banning propaganda, nostalgia and recidivism, if we have to clearly distance ourselves from our Stalinist dictatorship past as the former ‘people's democracies’ have earlier acted. At least this should come to an end on Albanian TVs. Of course, if you ask filmmakers of that era, they will not accept this at all. But they will also benefit from their copyright because their works are stolen with these transmission methods. If someone wants to watch let them surf on youtube as long as they can,” says Tufa.

Asked if his proposal damages a whole community of creators, directors, and actors, Tufa says "their right goes as far as it does not infringe our right. We are not at the peak of communism. There is no such precedent in the EU member countries, once satellites of the communist camp. When compared to them, like everything else in the field of culture, our cinema is 10-fold more compromised.”

Jonila Godole

[caption id="attachment_131689" align="alignright" width="300"]Jonila Godole Jonila Godole[/caption]

Jonila Godole, a journalism professor with the public University of Tirana who also runs a media and culture NGO, also support the idea of curbing communist era movie propaganda on TV, saying "maybe a single movie would pose no danger, but a thousand ones do.”

"Because these propagandist movies have only caused damage year after year, invented imaginary enemies, unfairly flung mud on social groups, created fake realities, typified the new Socialist man, whose evil model we have not yet removed from our skin, created seemingly historical myths based on nonsense, playing with the emotions of a downtrodden people suffering the need for freedom and independence without being based at all on these facts, if you consider the propagandistic documentaries of the socialist success that still air on TV with no accompanying explanation,” Godole has written on social networks.

The professor says the damage that this propagandist machinery of Albanian movies caused to the Albanians' cultural subconscience has been immeasurable in the past 70 years.

“I don't believe that those who today yell out the opposite are pushed by anybody rather than being the sheer argument of the consequence these movies have left on their individual memory. Why should the younger generation be served dangerous products for their mental and aesthetic health?! Let the respective experts decide on the movie/propaganda product despite their side effects and make decisions based on the cases in point. But first of all, remove them from the TV screens. Whoever is nostalgic, let them watch wherever they want or satisfy their appetite on Facebook, it is permitted."

 Erald Kapri

Erald Kapri a member of the Complaints Council of the Audiovisual Media Authority, AMA, also supports the idea of banning or curbing the screening of communist era movies on TV.

“As a member of AMA's Council of Complaints I will initiate institutional steps on a decision-making on their full ban or their screening in a predetermined hours. Children and youngsters do not have to watch mediocre movies that promote ‘the new man’,” he says.

“In no Eastern Europe country, furthermore in Germany and Italy are former dictatorship films or documentaries screened. This should also apply for Albania. Personally, as a researcher of war and establishment of dictatorship, I have followed with interest every film of documentary of the former communist dictatorship in Albania and almost each of them can be accessed on youtube. Everybody who is interested can find them online but their screening on TV is not legitimate at all,” he says.

 

Against the ban

Regina Longo

[caption id="attachment_131690" align="alignright" width="300"]Regina Longo Regina Longo[/caption]

Regina Longo, an American film and media archivist who heads the Albanian Cinema Project, an organization dedicated to preserving, restoring, and promoting film heritage under communism, is against the initiative to ban communist era movies.

In its four years of operation, the Albanians Cinema Project has already restored five films dating from 1967 to 1982 including Tomka dhe Shoket e Tij (Tomka and his friends) and the Nentori i Dyte (Second November), screening them in Albania and abroad.

“Put in short, according to me, these films bear values and it's worth restoring them and making them livelier even though we have to punish the regime of the era they were created. When we understand the story of how they were produced and how many people worked in the field of cinema in the Kinostudio era and how many studied filmmaking abroad etc. we will notice that not everything was closed down in Albania. There was always an open window. The cinema reflects the culture of the era when these movies were produced, but also a desired image,” Longo says in a letter addressed to director Piro Milkani published on local Albanian media.

“There are so many Albanian movies important from the point of view of artistic value and both historically and politically. As an archivist, my job involves saving and conserving as much as I can with the available tools and make possible the opening of these discussions, be they even tough ones, because in my opinion when we reach the crossroads, we have the opportunity to elaborate on these arguments and understand the past and the present better. If we don't watch them, we cannot discuss their goal and this can take to nowhere,” she adds.

Piro Milkani

[caption id="attachment_131691" align="alignright" width="300"]Piro Milkani Piro Milkani[/caption]

“I have the answer on the tip of my tongue and I am not at all hesitant about it. I have said as many times as I have been asked even when this debate was not open. I don't know yet if it was a good or bad thing but at a time when Hitler's Mein Kampf is published in Albania and banned in Germany there is no room for discussion,” says Piro Milkani, one of the country's best directors who studied filmmaking in Prague in the 1960s.

“Are Albanian movies so dangerous? I think this is a rather exaggerated debate despite the great respect toward those who in contrast to us were persecuted and suffered a lot under communism,” says Milkani, who has directed some of the country’s best movies films both under communism and during the past 25 years of transition.

Citing late Macedonian-Albanian politician Arben Xheferi, Milkani says the films produced at that time were not made for 3 million Albanians, but 10 million Albanians wherever they live.

"That is why I think that those who try to censor these movies, should bear in mind once and for all. They want to censor not 3 million, but 10 million Albanians,” he adds.

Elvira Diamanti

[caption id="attachment_131692" align="alignright" width="300"]Elvira Diamanti stars in 1987 Perralle nga e Kaluara (Tale from the past) movie Elvira Diamanti stars in the Perralle nga e Kaluara (Tale from the past) 1987 movie[/caption]

“As the director of the State Central Film Archive I want to tell you that we possess invaluable film heritage involving 8.5 million meters of film and that must be preserved with every means because we are not only Albania's archive, but also part of regional and world heritage,” says actress Elvira Diamanti.

She says launching this idea on the absolute TV ban of pre-1990s movies is in the best case something hurried and rancor that this piece of heritage does not deserve.

“A small and poor country such as Albania has one of the Balkan region's richest archives, even because of the passion Enver Hoxha's dictatorship had to document everything. What's going to happen after this? Should we ban all pre-90s literature, sculptures and everything created in those years,” says Diamanti, famous for her roles in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“Today in the internet and information boom era, how is it possible for youngsters to be damaged by the propaganda of these movies. This is impossible and underestimation for the Albanian society's intelligence. I think that in the end, only the passing of time will select the Socialist realism works and make it possible for their directors, actors and composers to get what they deserve.”

 BBC Radio

[caption id="attachment_131693" align="alignright" width="300"]Thomas Logoreci Thomas Logoreci[/caption]

The debate has also caught the attention of BBC radio who interviewed these days Thomas Logoreci, an Albanian-American filmmaker based in Tirana and one of the founders of the Albanian Cinema Project, created to protect the endangered Albanian film archive.

"Not elaborating on the aesthetic part which is different depending on viewpoints, I think these movies represent great historical values, because we have fiction, documentary animated films that were created under a period of great repression from 1944 to 1990,” said Logoreci.

"These movies also tackle social issues and this was recently researched by Juljan Bejko and I think these movies convey everything about that period even the regime's absurd aspect,” added the filmmaker, describing the initiative as politically motivated and an action that can have a bad impact on future movies.

Julian Bejko, a sociology professor with University of Tirana who has been researching into the history of the Albanian cinema for six years, says the communist-era movies serve to better understand the past and present.

“Albania today suffers from a more sophisticated type of amnesia in which discourse is fragmented into easy narratives that fit the political agendas of both right and left. Only through a nuanced understanding of communist modes of representation, rather than a facile dismissal of these tactics as an instrument of propaganda, can we begin to understand Albania’s complex and fractured development over the past two decades. It is this silence that ultimately harms memory and it is vital to undertake research to better realize the present visible within our cinematic past,” Bejko has written.

 Communist nostalgia remains strong

[caption id="attachment_131694" align="alignright" width="300"]Protesters in Tirana topple the statue of dictator Enver Hoxha in February 1991 Protesters in Tirana topple the statue of dictator Enver Hoxha in February 1991[/caption]

Albania has changed drastically since the death of the country’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, 31 years ago. But Hoxha, the leader of a brutal communist regime that murdered thousands of innocent Albanians, crushed all opposition and left the country in dire poverty in the late 1980s, is now seen in a positive light by a surprising large number of Albanians, a late 2016 survey supported by the OSCE Presence in Albania found.

According to a survey report on the Understanding and Perception of Citizens of the Communist Past in Albania, almost half of the population of Albania sees Enver Hoxha’s role in the history of the country as positive. The study found that 55 percent of citizens in the regions of southern and southwestern Albania that were interviewed, had the most positive view of Albania’s former communist dictator.

Almost half of the people surveyed think that Communism in Albania was “a good idea, poorly implemented.” Over a third of respondents think that Communism was simply “a bad idea.”

 
                    [post_title] => Initiative to ban communist-era movies meets strong opposition
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 20 – Some of the country’s biggest local and foreign companies represented by the American Chamber of Commerce in Albania perceive the business climate to have considerably improved in 2016 but high taxes, unfair competition and government bureaucracy remained the top three concerns for the second year in a row.

Once again the high level of taxes tops the list of concerns as Albania’s tax burden has climbed to one of the region’s highest in the past few years, with the economy losing its competitiveness to neighbouring countries applying flat tax regimes of about 10 percent.

Since 2014, when Albania abandoned its 10 percent flat tax regime, 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 the country one of the region’s highest.

Albania climbed 32 steps to rank 58th among 190 global economies in the latest Doing Business report to record its best ever ranking, but yet lagged behind some of its key regional competitors offering lower taxes and easier procedures. At 36.5 percent of profit, Albania’s total tax rate is slightly lower only compared to Serbia’s 39.7 percent, the largest economy among the six EU aspirant Western Balkans countries.

On a 0 to 100 scale, Albania’s business climate measured by the AmCham hit a five year-high of 43.78 last year and is expected to further improve in 2017 as relations with tax authorities, the performance of the economy, the business climate and corruption levels were perceived to have improved in 2016 when the country’s economy is estimated to have picked up to 3.2 percent boosted by some major energy-related investment and a recovery in consumption. However, 44.4 percent of AmCham members continued to view the business climate in Albania in 2016 as unfavorable, or very unfavorable.

The confidence boost comes after the AmCham index measuring the country’s business environment hit a four-year low of 37.94 in 2015 as the government undertook a rather aggressive campaign on tax evasion and approved a sharp hike in penalties, later turned down by the country’s Constitutional Court as disproportionate to income and offences committed.

Only a third of the surveyed businesses said demand for their goods and services both in Albania and abroad improved and increased staff and investment in 2016 when domestic consumption slightly improved but the poorly diversified exports relying on garment and footwear and oil and minerals continued suffering due to a slump in commodity prices.

Finding local qualified staff emerged as the top fourth concern for Albanian and foreign businesses in 2016 while the high level of informality dropped to the fifth most problematic issue for doing business despite a late 2015 nationwide campaign formalizing thousands of businesses previously operating informally.

“Finding local qualified staff in 2016 remained difficult, or very difficult for most of the responding companies (67.5 percent) causing a decline of this indicator for the third consecutive year," the survey showed.

Once among the top concerns for doing businesses in the country due to frequent power cuts, energy supply is now rated as the least problematic issue in a top 20 list as the country’s state-run electricity sector has stabilized after the electricity distribution operator was taken back under state administration in mid-2014 following a failed privatization and a nationwide campaign was launched later that year to collected hundreds of millions of euros in accumulated unpaid bills and cut off illegal grid connections.

Relations with ministries, local government authorities and customs authorities as well as public order and safety were also perceived better in 2016.

Reducing taxes, settling the long-standing property title issue, increasing transparency in public procurement, lifting reference prices in customs offices and the implementation of a judiciary reform were among the top concerns in comments made by the surveyed businesses.

"Because of monopoly, unfair competition and less favorable business environment compared to the region we have lost business from international investors," a business representative is quoted as saying on condition of anonymity.

"Review taxes immediately to match the region in order to encourage consumption and foreign investment," says another respondent.

In his foreword to the report, U.S. Ambassador to Albania Donald Lu says improving the business climate is key to creating new jobs, triggering economic growth and opening up new opportunities. The ambassador says the implementation of the long-awaited justice reform approved in consensus in mid-2016 will increase both consumer and business confidence.

"I believe that judicial reform, once implemented, will provide additional confidence to investors that their commercial interests will be protected, pushing the ABI [business index] to higher levels in the years ahead," said Lu.

The AmCham business index published annually by one of the country’s most active associations in defending business interests, measures key elements such as government policy, the level of taxes, corruption, informality, law enforcement, but also perceptions about the overall performance of businesses and the Albanian economy.

Some 142 companies including Albanian and foreign owned ones as well as joint ventures, participated in the survey conducted in January 2017.

Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the Foreign Investors Association of Albania, FIAA, showed two-thirds of businesses in Albania consider the business climate unfavourable with courts, corruption and frequent changes in legislation and tax procedures as the top concerns.

The Albanian economy is expected to pick up to 3.8 percent this year boosted by some major energy-related investments such as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, some major hydropower plants and a recovery in commodity prices increasing oil and mineral prices. However, a political deadlock ahead of next June’s general elections and failure to implement a long-awaited justice reform that is expected to overhaul the highly perceived corrupt judiciary are considered key to improving the business environment in one of the region’s most attractive FDI destinations in the past few years.

 

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 20 - The number of first time Albanian asylum seekers to EU member countries more than halved in 2016, but Albania remained for the second year in a row among the top 10 countries of citizenship seeking asylum protection in list dominated by war torn Asian and African countries and Russia.

A recent report published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, has shown the number of Albanian asylum seekers to EU countries dropped to 28,925 in 2016, down from a record 65,935 in 2015 when the country faced a massive exodus.

Germany was once again the main destination of asylum seekers with about 15,000 or half of total first time asylum applicants in EU member countries, down from a record 54,000 in 2015.

The number of Albanian asylum seekers in Germany registered a sharp 72 percent decline in 2016 when about 14,853 Albanians filed applications with German authorities, down from a record 53,805 in 2015, according to a report by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, BAMF.

The 2016 figures are still alarming and rank Albania as the sixth top country of origin for asylum seekers in a list dominated by war-torn Middle East countries.

However, only a few dozen out of 69,000 Albanian asylum-seekers in Germany in the past couple of years have had their asylum applications accepted.

The sharp decline in Albanian asylum seekers comes at a time when German authorities have made it clear chances asylum will be granted to Albanian citizens are exceptionally low after the country was designated as a safe country of origin by German authorities in late 2015 following a wave of migrants as rumors spread that the country needed workers.

France was the second most favourite destination for Albanian asylum seekers in 2016 with about 6,850 applications or a quarter of the Albanian asylum seekers in the EU, ranking Albanians the top country of citizenship for asylum protection in France, according to Eurostat.

Albanian asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, mostly entering the country illegally due to visa requirements, also rose to 1,755, accounting for 6 percent of the total Albanian asylum seekers to the EU.

Next came the Netherlands where about 1,665 Albanians sought asylum, ranking the top third asylum seekers there.

In addition to France and the Netherlands, Albanians ranked among the top three countries of citizenship for asylum seekers also in Ireland and Luxembourg with 220 each and Iceland with 230 first time applications, according to Eurostat data.

Thousands of Albanians who had their asylum requests to Germany turned down in the past couple of years are thinking of leaving the country again, but this time legally by first learning German and acquiring the necessary labour skills before applying for a job and getting a working permit, a study has found.

Obvious reasons for Albanian citizens leaving their home country include high unemployment, small income which in some cases is lower than the social benefits as asylum seekers in Germany, lack of trust in state institutions perceived as corrupt and inefficient, real or perceived lack of job perspectives and unrealistic expectations compared to income in Western European countries, primarily Germany, according to a late 2016 German-funded study conducted by the Tirana-based Cooperation and Development Institute.

Europe’s largest economy, Germany was selected because of its comparative advantage regarding the pull factors, an organized welcoming system and generous financial benefits while waiting for an asylum request to be proceeded.

Crisis-hit neighbouring Italy and Greece, where an estimated 1 million Albanian migrants live and work and are easier to reach, were not perceived as offering the same kind of future that Germany promises.

The after-shock effects of the 2008 global financial crisis that led to more than 130,000 Albanian migrants leaving crisis-hit Greece and Italy to permanently settle in Albania again, a sharp decline in migrant remittances, and the slowdown of the Albanian economy also led to the exodus in Germany which peaked in 2015 with a record 53,800 asylum applications filed.

During the past 25 years of transition, Albania has been one of the hardest hit migration countries with an estimated more than 1.5 million people having left the country, mainly to Italy and Greece. The country’s resident population is estimated at 2.8 million compared to 4.4 million people counted on the civil registry.

 
                    [post_title] => Eurostat: 29,000 Albanians sought asylum in 2016, Germany remains top destination
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                    [post_content] => The key political event of this week was the change of four ministers of the Rama cabinet, all of them of the Socialist Party.

Two of the ministers have key positions: that of Interior Affairs and that of Healthcare. These two have been for most of the time subject to multiple accusations for corruption, abuse of power and even connections to crime.

The other two portfolios that of Welfare and Local Governance are of secondary importance and seem to have been done only to de-escalate the dramatic effect of the change itself.

The most striking change of course is that of the Minister of Interior, Saimir Tahiri, trumpeted by the majority as the success story of the ‘Renaissance’ and relentlessly attacked by the opposition. Tahiri is also considered by many as a contender to follow Rama in the leadership of the party in the future.

Tahiri’s departure from the Ministry has been throughout these days a real mystery. Prime Minister Rama called this “an unburdening” – the freeing up of the Minister from the duties of the executive in order for him to focus fully and exclusively on the upcoming election campaign. Rama argued that Tahiri is responsible for the region of Tirana whose share of MPs in the Assembly is at an unparalleled 34 out of 140 in total. This is the first time in the history of Albanian transition that someone tries to make the claim that an ex-minister of interior can do better electorally then a minister.

This reason is most likely not true and if true is definitely very concerning. In any democratic state and society the prevalent interest should the public one and not the electoral one. Relieving a successful minister, as this government has claimed, from the public duty just three months before the elections is a signal that public interest is at best of secondary importance. Elections and power are the real priority here for this specific side and in a rare show of genuine political spirit it is being proclaimed openly.

This reason which the Premier himself made public and tried to advocate for, does not fulfil the basic conditions of transparency, accountability and legitimacy. This reason does not make this move right. The confusion over the move is a direct result of this: for many days it was discussed whether there was a quitting, firing or letting go, until the ‘unburdening’ term was coined.

In a funny attempt to add to the confusion, the head of the government also wanted the public opinion to consider that now the executive has almost 50 percent women. Entertaining this thought for a minute, for it is worth no more, that would be again a wrong reason. Gender equality is not and should not be the byproduct of ad hoc political games but a truthful objective which is pursued with seriousness and integrity.

Another reason, equally not very likely, is that Tahiri’s departure was a request from the junior coalition partner, SMI. Again, if this is true it is similarly a borrowed prop from the Byzantine times, especially in the form of trying to camouflage it with three other ‘unburden-ings.’

In the same vein, Tahiri’s removal has not satisfied the demands of the opposition, still camped in front of the PM office and publicly wanting still the technical caretaker government. As for a potential suggestion or demand from the international community to let go of the Minister of Interior Affairs, it would still be inexplicable. 

Finally the Albanian citizens do not have a truthful reason why their Minister of Interior Affairs, possibly the most important sector in the country for all these years is no longer occupying his seat. The reasons given so far are pure smoke and mirrors. Hence most likely they are hiding a seriously grave reality.  
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Unburdened for all the wrong reasons
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                    [post_content] => Kadri Hazbiu, an interior minister in communist Albania, was executed in 1983 after being sacked. Hazbiu had been the longest serving interior minister during the dictatorship period – a champion of success and undying loyalty for the communist dictator. He was executed in a purge as part of an alleged international effort to eliminate Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator, through a deal with American, Russian and Yugoslav secret services. At least that was the official explanation. The regime believed in an unwritten rule that it never violated: The public needed to be clear about why something had happened – it was its own version of what in today's world we call “transparency.” Hazbiu was the last in a long line of people close to Hoxha to be removed through execution – a model used by other dictatorships throughout history, with North Korea being the most recent example. But regardless of the nature of regime, even paranoid dictators give an explanation for the ousting of high level officials. So in Hoxha's regime, as absurd as things were, serious changes in cabinet went explained with serious reasons that could be accepted by at least the regime supporters – an impending coup, a plot against the party, an international plot to overthrow the regime – things that could hurt the people, the homeland and the party.

Fast forward this week to the sacking of the government's most powerful minister, Saimir Tahiri, who lead the Ministry of the Interior.

In liberal regimes and democratic systems there need to be even more serious reasons made public when a minister or other senior official is fired. There needs to be accountability and transparency in a decision as important as replacing someone who holds a cabinet seat. The main difference between dictatorships and democratic governments however is that one must show that public interest is what guides the prime minister in all decisions, including replacing ministers.

The main question that remains with the weak and unacceptable reason given for Tahiri's removal – to help the party win more votes in the next election – is how is the public interest protected with his replacement?

Prime Minister Edi Rama came under fire from independent analysts and journalists for refusing to give a clear explanation as to why Tahiri, “a champion” minister in Rama's words, had to go. In a televised interview, Rama said Tahiri was needed to spearhead the Socialist Party electoral campaign in Tirana and could not do both jobs at once. When pressed for the real reason, the prime minister got visibly agitated and started attacking the usually government-friendly host, asking whether the host was sober in asking the question.

Several commentators say the explanation remains opaque and it is unlikely to be the real cause. This lack of transparency has encouraged a wave of conspiracy theories as to the real motives that led Rama to dismiss the most successful minister to date, according to the prime minister.

One of these theories came from the former justice minister, Ylli Manjani, who noted that international partners had pushed for Tahiri's dismissal due to alleged ties between Tahiri and those who control the marijuana cultivation and trafficking in Albania.

The U.S. Ambassador to Tirana, Donald Lu, told the Voice of America, the United States will expect the new interior minister to fight organized crime aggressively. While there was no direct statement to this from the ambassador, the commentators read into his statement that the dismissed minister, Tahiri, might not have enjoyed the support of the Americans.

Another scenario widely discussed in the media is that Tahiri was made a scapegoat to appease Rama's coalition partner, Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration. Rama needs SMI to stick with him in the next elections, otherwise a second mandate is unlikely to become a reality.

In addition, Rama is now facing a major crisis as the opposition has stated clearly that it will not participate in the next general elections because it does not believe a government led by Rama can guarantee free and fair voting without interference from the criminal world. The opposition Democrats want a caretaker government staffed with technocrats to conduct the elections instead.

Ultimately, even if voters take the prime minister's implausible explanation at face value, that Tahiri is needed to get more votes for the Socialist Party than to manage like “a champion” the interior ministry, it shows the public interest takes back seat to party politics, and that does not put the prime minister in the best light, commentators say.

 
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Questions abound as interior minister sacked 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131621" align="alignright" width="300"]beqaj-tahiri Removed from office this week, Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri (center) and Health Minister Ilir Beqaj (left), were two powerful figures in the Socialist-led government, who have come under attack by the opposition over allegations of corruption[/caption]

TIRANA, March 15 – Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama dismissed four ministers from his cabinet earlier this week, including Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri and Health Minister Ilir Beqaj, two powerful figures in the Socialist-led government, who have come under attack by the opposition over allegations of corruption.

Blendi Klosi, the welfare minister, and Bledi Cuci, the local government and anti-corruption chief, were also dismissed in what Rama said were changes driven by the need to have the former ministers campaign in different parts of the country to get more votes in the next elections.

Rama said the dismissals were not performance-related, calling Tahiri “a champion” for his work in reforming the state police.

Rama also said the government changes were not an answer to the ongoing protest the opposition is holding to seek a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections.

Lulzim Basha, the opposition leader, said only Rama’s resignation will satisfy the opposition’s demands, adding the sacked ministers were “scapegoats.”

Rama also dismissed media reports that the changes came as a result of requests by Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration, his chief coalition ally.

The incoming ministers are Fatmir Xhafa at the interior ministry, Olta Xhaxhka in the social welfare and youth ministry, Eduard Shalsi in the local government ministry and Ogerta Manastirliu as health minister.

Xhafa is a member of the old guard in the Socialist Party, serving as the head of a key commission in parliament. He has spearheaded the parliamentary work on the justice reform.

Xhaxhka and Shalsi are MPs close to Rama. Shalsi, a chief spokesman for Rama since his deputy mayor days at the Tirana Municipality, is reviled in civil society circles for his role as chief advocate for the import of recyclable waste into Albania.

Manastirliu is a newcomer to high level politics. She currently serves as director of the country’s largest hospital. She previously worked under Rama when he was Tirana mayor.

The cabinet now also has two more women ministers than it did before.

President Bujar Nishani has received the request and is performing the necessary background checks before officially appointing the new ministers, the president's office said.


Reasons behind the changes remain murky


Officially, all four ministers left to focus on their party roles in preparation for the upcoming 2018 general elections. All four are Socialist Party coordinators in key districts of Albania.


"The government changes reflect the need for our leaders to focus on new energies and be near people during the June 18 electoral campaign," Rama said in a Facebook post.

However, many commentators remain skeptical, pointing to opposition pressure, alleged scandals and trouble within the ruling coalition.

On Monday, Rama dismissed claims that the cabinet reshuffle was done as a result of pressure from the junior ruling coalition party, Socialist Movement for Integration, or to satisfy the opposition which has been calling for a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections.

Rama called the claims as “conspiracy theories,” and praised the former ministers for the work done during the government’s first mandate.

The Democratic Party, which has been protesting for weeks, announced that it would not be fooled by Rama’s “new tricks.”

DP leader Lulzim Basha vowed to continue protests until Rama resigns and until a technocrat government is set up to guarantee free and fair elections.

Over the past three years, Democratic Party has repeatedly criticized Saimir Tahiri and Ilir Beqja over alleged crime ties and corrupt dealings.

Tahiri, one of the youngest ministers in the cabinet, was under attack over his alleged ties to the “multi-billion-euro industry” of cannabis cultivation.

Democrats believe that the government is taking advantage of the widespread cannabis cultivation to use the money to influence the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2018.

In the past three years, cannabis cultivation has flourished at an extraordinary rate. Italian authorities reported that cannabis traffic in 2016 alone increased threefold.


Cannabis cultivation explosion marred Tahiri's tenure


While, the former interior minister, Tahiri, repeatedly claimed that the fight against drug smuggling was a top priority, figures of destroyed and seized cannabis shipments reveal that Albania has turned into a major drug cultivator, a trend that is threatening to distort the economy, politics and democracy, according to analysts.

In 2015, State Police proudly announced the destruction of, 860,000 cannabis plants. 2016 was aptly named “the year of cannabis” as authorities destroyed a record 2.5 million cannabis plants. 2016, also marked a shift in the reality of drug trafficking, making Albania a big supplier and grower of cannabis in Europe, according to Europol.

Last month alone, Italian police in Ancona seized 8 tons of marijuana originating from Albania which has an estimated street value of $40 million.

The massive amounts of marijuana sparked concern among the international community as well.

“There are more than 2 billion euros in dirty money in the market. There is a high risk that this money can be used to buy off MPs,” the Head of OSCE Presence in Tirana, Bernrd Borchardt said in a televised interview in February.

Following the statement, Borchardt met with former minister Tahiri and claimed that his statement was a misunderstanding and that OSCE welcomed the “strong stand of government and opposition against cannabis cultivation.”


Beqaj faced graft accusations as healthcare underperformed


During the successful 2013 election campaign, the Socialist Party pledged to reform the health sector, free the market of monopolies and reduce medicament prices. Edi Rama said that that once in power the Socialists would implement universal public health care coverage and improve services.

However, in the past three years, former Health Minister Ilir Beqaj has been constantly under attack over allegations of graft and inability to keep the promises of providing proper healthcare services.

Instead of providing universal coverage through public institutions, the government created public private partnerships to offer basic health care services that never resembled universal healthcare coverage. These contracts were awarded to private companies and hospitals with direct or indirect connections to the Socialist Party in power, leading to corruption allegations.

At first, the government paved the ground for PPPs by launching an anti-corruption campaign in the health sector. Then, the health ministry awarded a ten-year multi-million contract to an inexperienced company allegedly with close ties to the Socialist Party. The PPP aimed to provide general free health checkup for people between 40-65 years old.  Another public private partnership approved by former Minister Beqaj aimed to provide free hemodialysis procedures to patients while the third Public Private Partnership for the sterilization of medical equipments was awarded to another ghost company with no experience in the health sector, according to multiple media outlets.

Rama’s government has agreed to pay more than $300 million in taxpayer money to the concessionaire companies.

In November 2016, Democratic Party filed criminal charges against former minister Ilir Beqaj over the concessionaire contract for the Healthcare Check Up, which according to the opposition has caused huge financial damages to the state budget.

In addition, the opposition believes that Beqaj and Rama approved lucrative contracts in violation of the law, making the healthcare checkup service one of the biggest corrupt affairs of the Socialist led government in the past three years, according to the opposition.

The deterioration and corruption in public hospitals and the engagement of some private hospitals in corrupt deals with the central government, made Albanian patients the main victims to pay the highest price of the reform, according to critics.

According to World Bank, out-of-pocket payments in Albania are the highest in Europe. In its 2016 report, World Bank said that Albanians pay 49.9% of their income for health care.
                    [post_title] => PM reshuffles cabinet ahead of elections, reasons remain murky 
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, March 27 - Albanian food authorities say they have blocked Brazilian meat imports to the country and have taken samples to test products over their safety after some of the world's biggest importers of Brazilian meat imposed bans.

The temporary ban comes amid concerns that consumers might be at risk as Albania imports about a quarter of its meat products, mainly chicken and poultry, from Brazil, the world's largest meat producer.

In a statement following media reports of “rotten Brazilian beef” entering the country, the National Food Authority says the country has imported no beef from Brazil during the past five months and that it has recently blocked poultry and pork from entering Albania until tests show meat is safe to consumers. The watchdog says the temporary ban has been imposed despite no notice by the European Commission's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.

Food authorities say Albania imports meat from Basil based on a 2006 deal between the two governments and only from plants certified to export to the EU.

China, Chile and Egypt lifted the ban on Brazil meat last weekend while the European Union, the second largest importer after China, announced it would reject produce from the plants under investigation in Brazil.

The Brazilian meat scandal was triggered by a huge police operation that found evidence of meat packers selling rotten and substandard produce for several years, in an operation severely affecting the exports Latin America's largest economy for the past couple of weeks.

Brazil's President Michel Temer says the government has decided to speed up the audit process in the 21 establishments cited in the Federal Police investigation.

"The facts are that among 11,000 employees, only 33 are being investigated into. Out of 4,837 establishments subject to federal inspection, only 21 are allegedly involved in irregularities. The objective of the investigation is not the agriculture and livestock defense system in place, whose rigor is widely recognized, but a few conduct deviations," the Brazilian president is quoted as saying in a statement sent by Brazil's embassy in Tirana.

Albania's imports meat, coffee and sugar from Brazil with imports slightly increasing to 5.7 billion lek (€41 million) in 2016, about 1.2 percent of the country's total. Meanwhile, Albania's exports to Brazil are almost non-existent, according to state statistical institute, INSTAT.
            [post_title] => Albania blocks meat imports from Brazil until tests show it's safe
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