‘You’re in charge. We, the internationals are happy to assist if asked’

‘You’re in charge. We, the internationals are happy to assist if asked’

By Johann Sattler* I have a weak spot for Albanian phraseology and I was baffled when I recently discovered a saying which is attributed to the Albanian statesman Faik Konica: Nuk behet Shqiperia me shqiptare (Albania cannot be built by Albanians).

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Albania’s transition, 1990-1992: U.S. support for a nascent democracy

Albania’s transition, 1990-1992: U.S. support for a nascent democracy

By Elez Biberaj* Thank you very much for the invitation to participate in this important conference.  I am delighted and honored to be here in the company of such distinguished personalities, colleagues, and friends. My presentation focuses on the role

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Editorial: The scary healthcare trap in Albania

Editorial: The scary healthcare trap in Albania

There is a popular expression that one hears often in Albania, with various versions of it going: “If you don’t have health you don’t have anything” — “Health comes first” — “Let us wish God gives us health and the

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

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

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

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Albania floods: No major impact on GDP expected as key hydropower sector moves out of crisis

Albania floods: No major impact on GDP expected as key hydropower sector moves out of crisis

TIRANA, Dec. 4 – The massive floods that affected central and southern Albania over last weekend are expected to have no major impact on the country’s GDP growth despite significant damage to thousands of homes, the agriculture sector and public

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Editorial: Tirana’s populist and nationalist exercises

Editorial: Tirana’s populist and nationalist exercises

By Albert Rakipi It is everywhere — in the news portals and television. It is also on the Prime Minister’s own personal digital television station on Facebook — ERTV. Let’s call it the “the special show.” It involves government members,

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First Albanian private-run stock exchange getting ready to offer new investment, financing alternatives

First Albanian private-run stock exchange getting ready to offer new investment, financing alternatives

TIRANA, Nov. 29 – The Albanian Securities Exchange is on track to launch its operations in the next few weeks as the country’s first privately-owned stock exchange serving as a new investment and financing alternative to both local companies and

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Albania mobile market reduced to three operators after Plus sale

Albania mobile market reduced to three operators after Plus sale

TIRANA, Nov. 27 – Ongoing financial straits and failure to meet investment requirements and keep up with its competitors led Plus Communication, the sole Albanian-owned mobile operator, to sell its operations to the country’s two largest mobile operators, the competition

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Tirana International Fair: Albania eyes new Chinese, Serbian investment

Tirana International Fair: Albania eyes new Chinese, Serbian investment

TIRANA, Nov. 27 – Chinese and Serbian companies dominated this year’s 24th edition of the Tirana International Fair, Albania’s largest business fair, reconfirming interest in Albania as a hub to the Western Balkans region with a strategic geographical position, but

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Editorial: Governing for the 1 percent – or just five people

Editorial: Governing for the 1 percent – or just five people

There is an ongoing global debate about rising levels of inequality in the world and the various degrees of power that economic elites exert in comparison to others. The debate has made it even into popular parlance framed with the

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                    [post_content] => By Johann Sattler*

[caption id="attachment_132183" align="alignright" width="300"]Ambasadori Sattler Ambassador Johann Sattler (C)[/caption]

I have a weak spot for Albanian phraseology and I was baffled when I recently discovered a saying which is attributed to the Albanian statesman Faik Konica: Nuk behet Shqiperia me shqiptare (Albania cannot be built by Albanians). From this phrase – which of course has to be seen in its historic context having been created more than 100 years ago - it is a very short distance to the topic of today – the role of internationals in Albania.

Preparing for today I came across a booklet written by the private secretary of Prince Wied, the unfortunate first king who was kicked out of the principality of Albania in 1914 after less than half a year in office. Heaton-Armstrong describes the landing in Durres and Tirana:

‘The market square was crowed to overflowing and the people cheered, applauded and cried with joy. For 500 years the Turks had ruled the country and now at last Albania had a Mbret/King, and what king it had!’ And he continues his observations of Albanians concerning trust and suspicion: ‘Albanians are more suspicious of their own countrymen than they are of foreigner.’ But all the trust they had put in their new foreigner-king had also quickly evaporated. I quote: ‘The Tirana expedition was deemed a great success and none of us thought that exactly a month afterwards an insurrection would drive the King out of his capital.’

And that was the end of Prince Wied’s short reign as souvereign of the Principality of Albania. Wied left Albania unceremoniously in early September 1914.

This episode shows the eagerness with which foreigners are greeted in this country, but it also shows the limitations of foreign intervention. In Prince Wieds case, of course, it had also to do with the enormity of the task of holding together basically an ungovernable country with at the time hostile neighbours, but also with the utter unpreparedness of the Prince for the job. So in way it was a mission impossible. Or, as Fan Noli later put it: Pince Wied can be criticized only for being unable to perform miracles.’

So internationals have played a strong role in this country for a long time, in the early years after independence, in the inter-war period as well as in the recent so-called transition period.

Today’s conference is a good opportunity to reflect, to compare and draw lessons from successes and from mistakes made – in the good tradition of Soren Kierkegaard - Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived – unfortunately I may add - forwards.

The recent transition period in Albania has meant profound political, economic, and social transformations. It included: A political transition from dictatorship to democracy, an economic transition, from centralized planning economy to a market economy; a transition from a rural society to an urban one - with great uncontrolled demographic shifting and a transition from a closed society to a relatively open one

This is a lot for a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, how long can a transition last? We are now soon finishing the third decade of transition, one and a half generations have already passed having seen in their lifetime nothing else but a transition. And it is understandable that people become impatient, asking – when is this transition coming to an end so that we can start a normal life? There is the feeling, as a friend recently had told me that transition is often used as a convenient excuse for the political class. In the sense: things will become normal once the transition period is finished. But when will that be?

During the last decades internationals have been assisting Albania in the different transition aspects mentioned above. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Often we are confronted here with completely unrealistic expectations (Prince Wied being a historic example). And I could bring you many more examples of citizens writing letters to us internationals, ranging from building playgrounds, to fighting the property agency to establishing an Austro-Hungarian protectorate as in the old days.

But how is this outsized role or better these outsized expectations explainable? First of all because there is trust – polls show over the last 20+ years a stable 80% trust rate for international institutions (NATO+EU in the lead), whereas the trust rate for the Government – according to last  Trust in Government Poll 2016 - lies at around 30% (Parliament at 22%, judiciary at 19%). An interesting question of course is if this stable expression of trust towards internationals is deserved. I personally believe the international community over the last decades was a positive factor developing the country. Apart from its role in helping to bring about a functional democracy and a market economy and in building capacities, the role of international  institutions was in my view especially important when it comes to social cohesion, education and the improvement of living standards throughout the country. My country, Austria, for instance, was in the beginning heavily focused on basics, like water supply. Later we added – and this is now seen as our most effective investment – education, building, running and assisting schools and supporting vocational education as the best means to give young Albanians a future in their country.

But I think one of the most important contributions of the internationals came when things got nasty and out of control, like in 1997. I personally happened to be part of the EU crisis management at the time (ECMM). I was surprised to find myself – driving in an armoured car through the streets of Vlora and Peshkopi. I will never forget the stream of Albanian men walking through the pedestrian zone and carrying their Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. And in between three guys in white uniform - of course this being the EU – without any arms.

The decisive role then was played by the OSCE, leading the international efforts to calm the dangerous situation and come to a political solution through early elections and the creation of a more inclusive interim government. It was then when the Danish OSCE Chairman in Office (Foreign Minister Petersen) asked Chancellor Franz Vranitzky to mediate between the political parties. Vranitzky  having survived 11 years of holding together a grand coalition in Austria - was quite effective in bridging the enormous gap between the parties.

I happened to meet Vranitzky recently – where he apologized that for health reasons he cannot be with us today and where he told me with wet eyes about the unbelievable scenes he witnessed but also about the gratitude he received from average Albanians for his efforts; he told me about the long hours he had spent in negotiations on an Italian warship – sent generously by PM Prodi after it was impossible to land in Rinas airport – mediating between politicians, warlords and clan-leaders. He asked me to convey to you his best wishes for the conference and for Albania’s development on its road to Europe.

Now, 20 years later, Albania is a NATO member, a candidate for membership in the European Union starting EU negotiations hopefully next year, and its international and regional role has increased significantly. There are still enough challenges, from a polarised political landscape to corruption to weak institutions and massive social problems. I think that this country has the potential to address also these challenges.

Albanians have shown in the past years that they can manage difficult situations. Or, as you say in your beautiful language: I zoti e nxjerr gomarin nga balta! – The owner/landlord pulls the donkey out of the mud! You’re in charge, you are the landlord. We, the internationals are happy to assist if asked. So that in the end Faik Konica will be proven wrong: Shqiperia po behet me shiptaret. (Albania is being built by Albanians).

These were the remarks Austrian Ambassador to Tirana, Johann Sattler, gave at the OSCE Conference - “The Role of the Internationals in the Transition in Albania” on 6 Dec.2017
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_121212" align="alignright" width="300"]Elez Biberaj Elez Biberaj[/caption]

By Elez Biberaj*

Thank you very much for the invitation to participate in this important conference.  I am delighted and honored to be here in the company of such distinguished personalities, colleagues, and friends.

My presentation focuses on the role that the United States played as Albania embarked on the difficult road of transition in the early 1990s.  After more than four decades of an absence of formal diplomatic contacts and with rising public discontent against Ramiz Alia’s regime, the United States in 1990 saw an opportunity to induce the communists to accept political pluralism and to facilitate a peaceful regime change in what was Europe’s last Stalinist country. Applying lessons learned from the revolutions in other Eastern European countries and working closely with key European allies, the United States began to articulate and publicly enunciate a clear policy, assuming a more direct and prominent role in an effort to reinforce democratic tendencies in Albania.   Washington attempted to effectively promote these policy objectives in several ways:
  • Introducing conditionality in its policy toward Tirana, predicating the restoration of diplomatic relations and support for Albania’s membership into the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) with progress toward political pluralism.
  • Encouraging Albania’s reformist forces, publicly endorsing democratic demands of student demonstrators in December 1990, and providing political support to the newly created opposition parties.
  • Assisting Albanians in laying the groundwork for the reshaping of the country’s political and institutional landscape.
  • And establishing a new constitutional order based on a clear separation of powers and the rule of law.
The collapse of communism in the other Eastern European countries in 1989 had an immediate impact on Albania.  Isolated and unable to address daunting economic and social challenges, Alia’s regime was faced with growing opposition.  Although he introduced some policy changes in spring 1990, Alia was interested in reforming rather than changing the system. However, the social compact that had ensured the regime’s survival was eroding rapidly. The question was no longer will the Albanian regime fall but when will it fall and how violent will it be, since there were no indications that the ruling communists were ready to renounce terror as an instrument of control.  With the outbreak of sporadic anti-government demonstrations in the first months of 1990, the United States saw an opportunity to encourage reformist forces and promote political and economic changes. Washington exerted pressure on Tirana by providing forthright support to calls for democracy and freedom and introducing conditionality in its policy.  In June 1990, Secretary of State James Baker predicated the restoration of diplomatic relations and support for Albania’s membership into the CSCE with progress toward political pluralism.  Baker bluntly laid out the conditions that Albania had to meet if it wished to join the community of free nations: progress toward political pluralism, full respect for human rights, release of political prisoners, free elections, and market economic reforms. The Congress and the influential Albanian-American community were fully supportive of this policy. During this critical period, the Voice of America, at the time the only Western international broadcaster in Albanian, expanded its focus on Albania.  VOA had already gained prominence as a credible, alternative news source for information-deprived Albanians. By May-June 1990, VOA was in a position to conduct telephone interviews with opinion makers in Albania. Through careful gleanings from the Albanian press, VOA attempted to identify and highlight reformist measures and statements. For the first time, Albanian officials and intellectuals with liberal, reformist inclinations were willing to express views which went beyond what were the standard Communist Party talking points.  By providing news and information that was empowering, and engaging members of the political and intellectual elite on politically sensitive issues, such as human and religious rights, political pluralism and market economic reforms, VOA was able to some extent to frame the political debate in Albania and to serve as a significant agent of change. The storming of foreign embassies in July 1990, which sent shock waves throughout the system, exposed the fallibility of the regime and were a clear indication that its slow disintegration was picking up steam.  But these events also showed that Albania was not yet ripe for a regime change.  Although years of disastrous policies pursued by Tirana’s highly repressive and inward-looking regime had caused widespread disillusionment and disaffection, no organized opposition had emerged. The July events captured the world’s attention, and the regime faced unprecedented international pressures.  A delegation of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, led by Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Arizona), visited Albania during August 19-21, 1990.  The delegation concluded that the government had failed to implement “real reforms” and urged the State Department to oppose Albania’s request for membership in the CSCE, which had become a top priority for Alia.   The period following the storming of foreign embassies in Tirana was marked by a backsliding of Alia’s managed reform process, and intimidation of intellectuals. Government actions had a chilling effect on those advocating change, which was also reflected in the reluctance of many intellectuals to talk to VOA. In the weeks following the embassy events, VOA aired a series of interviews with recent refugees, focusing on Albania’s political and economic crisis, the human rights situation, and prospects for fundamental reforms.  The refugees offered new political insight and analysis of the true state of affairs in Albania. In October 1990, Ismail Kadare announced that he had asked for political asylum in France. Kadare’s defection shook the foundations of Albania’s political system and inspired intellectuals to act. In early December 1990, student demonstrations broke out at the University of Tirana, propelling Albania to the top of the international agenda.  With growing support for the students and fearing a popular uprising, Alia rejected the use of force to suppress the demonstrations and agreed to permit the establishment of opposition parties.  Albania was finally on the threshold of a dramatic political transformation. Circumstances in Albania, however, were less favorable for a transition than those in the other Eastern European countries.  
  • Because of the harsh repressive nature of its regime, Albania was the only East European country which was not able to develop an opposition movement before the collapse of the old political order.
  • Moreover, unlike in other East European states, lack of contacts and presence in Tirana had prevented the United States from identifying, engaging and cultivating relationships with individuals – potential agents of change – that could assume positions of responsibility once the country embarked on the road of democratic change.
  • The demise of the one-party state resulted in a societal breakdown and institutional collapse.  
  • The economy had practically collapsed and there was little knowledge of modern economics, the privatization of state owned property, and the mechanism of sharing the proceeds with the populace.
While some considered Albania’s democratic transition as improbable, most Albanians and their international supporters, particularly the United States, had great expectations about Albania’s democratic prospects. Immediately following the student demonstrations, Albania witnessed the creation of several non-Communist political parties. The leadership of the emerging opposition forces was a combination of former communists and regime supporters, liberal democrats, students, and a small number of people who had been imprisoned for anti-regime activities.  Untried and with no experience, opposition leaders faced inordinate difficulties. Their understanding of democracy, the rule of law, and market economy were rudimentary at best.  It was clear that the emerging leadership elites would desperately need assistance and guidance in their uphill battle to force the Communists to relinquish power. In the wake of the December events, the United States adopted a tough line, sharpening its criticism of Alia’s government, calling for a peaceful and orderly transition of power, expressing support for the emerging democratic opposition, and demanding the unconditional release of all political prisoners.  Through their public pronouncements, U.S. officials attempted to exert a moderating influence, emphasizing national reconciliation and the need for Albanians to put their tragic past behind them and embrace democratic principles. As Communists and the emerging opposition battled for control and with Albania facing political and economic meltdown, Washington decided to normalize relations with Tirana. In a highly unusual but significant move, Democratic Party leaders Sali Berisha and Gramoz Pashko were invited by the Department of State to attend the signing ceremony on March 15, 1991, and to meet with senior U.S. officials.  This was the first face-to-face contact between the two opposition leaders and American officials.  While Albania was officially represented by its Foreign Minister, Muhamet Kapllani, American attention was focused almost exclusively on Berisha and Pashko. In the wake of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the United States was now in a position to provide forthright and effective support for the cause of freedom and democracy in Albania. The American vision of Albania was one of a country with a pluralistic system with full respect for democratic norms.  A diplomatic delegation was dispatched to Tirana to prepare the ground for the opening of the U.S. embassy. And the U.S. Helsinki Commission send a large delegation to observe the country’s first multi-party elections, held on March 31, 1991. Although the communists won the elections, their support collapsed rapidly and in early June 1991 they were forced to enter into a coalition with the opposition. Recognizing this as a significant step in Albania’s tumultuous transition, the U.S. responded by endorsing Albania’s full membership in the CSCE, and Secretary Baker visited Tirana on June 22, 1991, extending America’s moral and political backing for Albania’s democratic transition. Baker’s visit was the most important and tangible U.S. expression of support for Albania.  In the midst of a huge outpouring of affection and huge expectations, the Secretary of State told more than 200,000 Albanians gathered at Skenderbeg Square that, “America is returning to you!” “Freedom works!” and “You are with us and we are with you!” In his talks with Alia and opposition leaders, the Secretary of State emphasized that Albania needed rapid changes and that the emerging political order had to reflect strong, democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, a free and pluralist media, fully free and fair elections, security from arbitrary power, and adequate safeguards for civil liberties. In the wake of Baker’s visit, the United States launched a set of assistance programs, which were implemented during the period leading up to the March 1992 elections.  These focused on sustained democratization and economic stabilization:
  • Strengthening parliament and developing impartiality in the functioning of the political system.
  • Helping with political party development; training in election techniques and the general workings of democratic elections.
  • Experts to help draft a new constitution and develop a functional, post-Communist legal system.
  • Providing support for an independent media.  
Washington also dispatched an economic assistance mission to assess Albania’s needs and to assist the authorities to design a strategy of economic recovery. In addition, the United States mobilized international support and was instrumental in Albania gaining membership in the IMF and the World Bank. The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Tirana in October 1991 represented a significant milestone in bilateral relations.  The small group of American diplomats, led by Ambassador William Ryerson and his deputy Chris Hill, played an extraordinary role in promoting Albania’s democratization process and in helping Albanians craft a transition plan.  While continuing to engage President Alia and other leading Communist officials, American diplomats focused their activities on helping the fledgling democratic opposition. Baker, in his meeting with opposition representatives during his June 1991 visit to Tirana, had urged them openly to unite to defeat the Communists in the next elections.  American diplomats as well as representatives of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute helped the opposition develop a coherent strategy to oust the Communists from power, providing pre-election support, civic education, party training, and technical assistance. In the period leading to the elections of March 1992, American support for the Albanian opposition was clear.  This was reflected in statements by senior State Department officials, the American Embassy in Tirana, and members of the U.S. Congress.   The Democratic victory in March 1992 signaled the end of Albania’s long Communist nightmare.  As the Albanians embarked on the difficult road of consolidating their democratic gains, the United States continued to play a critical role, serving as the most important external factor promoting Albania’s democratization, prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic integration. Despite formidable odds and zig-zags during the last 27 years, Albania’s democratic experiment has endured.  Albania has undergone profound transformations and democratic norms have largely been embraced. The overwhelming majority of Albanians accept the narrative that emphasizes their nation’s historical connections to European, democratic values. A member of NATO since 2009, Albania is poised to enter next year the critical phase of accession talks with the European Union.  And the current judicial reforms offer Albania an opportunity to remedy the reputational damage done by pervasive corruption and organized crime. But the transition has been challenging and most of the pillars of Albania’s democracy are still weak.  More than a quarter-of-a-century after the demise of communism, the Albanian polity is characterized by semi-democratic political arrangements, superficial checks and balances, pervasive corruption, organized crime, and daunting social and economic challenges.  The enduring polarizing patterns of Albanian politics, most vividly demonstrated by the inability of the country’s main leaders to forge a consensus on major issues and the propensity of the post-1990 elites to restrict free political contestation, have thwarted efforts of good governance and undermined the institutional basis of the new order. There are many factors that explain Albania’s democratic underperformance: lack of a democratic culture, the communist legacy, and economic underdevelopment.  But a strong case can be made that many of the difficulties that Albania has encountered are a direct function of the choices and decisions made by its governing elites.  Missed opportunities, misguided policies, mistakes, and failures have transcended Democratic and Socialist administrations. Albania finds itself at a critical juncture.  While the United States and the EU remain strongly committed to provide critical political and economic support, the responsibility for Albania’s democratic advancement lies squarely with its political leaders.  The status quo comes at a high price and Albania’s political system desperately needs a reboot. To fully consolidate its democracy, Albania will need to undergo a true institutional transformation, reform its current dysfunctional system of governance, and challenge the deep-seated culture of impunity. It remains to be seen if the Albanian elites have the political will to seize the opportunity and live up to the democratic expectations of their own people or will they simply choose to pay lip service to the imperative of implementing fundamental reforms. Dr. Elez Biberaj is the Director of the Eurasia Division of the Voice of America. This was his presentation at the Conference on “The Role of the Internationals in the Transition in Albania,” organized by the OSCE Presence in Albania on Dec. 6, 2017. [post_title] => Albania’s transition, 1990-1992: U.S. support for a nascent democracy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albanias-transition-1990-1992-u-s-support-for-a-nascent-democracy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-08 09:48:58 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-08 08:48:58 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134894 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134891 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-08 09:39:24 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-08 08:39:24 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134892" align="alignright" width="300"]Citizens bring their own heaters to the maternity ward in Lezha to warm up newborns since central heating is missing. Photo: Screenshot from a video Citizens bring their own heaters to the maternity ward in Lezha to warm up newborns since central heating is missing.  (Photo: Video screen grab from JoQ)[/caption] There is a popular expression that one hears often in Albania, with various versions of it going: “If you don’t have health you don’t have anything” -- “Health comes first” -- “Let us wish God gives us health and the rest will be taken care of.”  If you think these are expressions of a people which values health above all else you are mistaken. What they really mean is that let us seek the help of God not to get sick, otherwise poverty will be at the door. This is a largely due to the situation in Albanian healthcare system, both in the public and private sector, which resembles a scary trap one can only wish away with prayers for good luck. A regional economic report from the World Bank concludes that 4.5 percent of people in Albania were rendered poor because of their illness and healthcare expenditure. More than 120,000 people who experienced illness and had to cover medical bills, buy medicines and take care of themselves or their family members saw their pockets empty and their finances dwindle as a result of this situation. No other country in the region has such negative figures. The reason mentioned in the report is that despite the fairytale of free healthcare, which even the ruling majority has dropped now in its second mandate, the Albanian taxpayer is loaded with at least half of the expenditure for medical bills. Montenegro follows Albania with citizens covering about 42 percent while other countries cover much more leaving only 20-30 percent of the cost to the ordinary people. The picture is even wider and more complex than this: even though the rest of the middle class might make it out of an illness without really sinking into extreme poverty the uncertainty vested with healthcare in Albania is one of the key risk factors in their lives. A serious illness or a sudden accident will strip most of middle class citizens of all savings and make many of them turn to the banks to borrow. Some may borrow from family members when possible to avoid interest rates. This shall initiate a long and arduous circle of financial burdens and insecurities for them. The irony is that the same fate falls upon those seeking assistance both in the public sector and in the private one. In public hospitals conditions are often miserable, medicines have to be found in alternative ways and corruption still exists. Just yesterday the entire team of doctors at the emergency pavilion of the largest hospital in Albania was ready to sign a petition and even quit if necessary to protest the overload in patients and the bad working conditions. In the private sector, exorbitant bills pay for the seemingly better service. And all those who regularly pay taxes and contributions (healthcare contribution is around 4 percent of the income in Albania) do not get any benefits in the private hospitals despite many promises that their taxes would count for something: serving as a price discount in the private sector. A worse fate awaits those who do not live in Tirana or the big towns. Their costs are augmented by the trips they have to take and the job days they have to miss in order to meet with a specialty doctor in one of the bigger regional or capital hospitals since little towns or villages for many years now do not get regular service. That is why they also clog the capital hospitals, which are not prepared for that kind of workload. While this dark reality touches upon lives of Albanians every day, the virtual reality of ministers presenting new renovated hospital wings beams large and undisturbed from television sets. Healthcare is really a trap in Albania: once you step inside be prepared for a major battle, not only for your health but for your financial survival.     [post_title] => Editorial: The scary healthcare trap in Albania [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => editorial-the-scary-healthcare-trap-in-albania [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-08 10:19:08 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-08 09:19:08 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134891 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134842 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-04 17:23:44 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-04 16:23:44 [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 4 – The link among criminal gangs, business and politics has sharply evolved and become sophisticated during the past quarter of a century of Albania’s transition to democracy and market economy reaching a degree that hampers freedom of expression, a study conducted by the Open Society Foundation for Albania has unveiled. “Organized crime has managed to neutralize society to the degree of freedom of expression, seriously infringing the reporting culture,” shows the report. Examining the evolution of organized crime structures in Albania from 1990 to 2015, researchers Fabian Zhilla and Besfort Lamllari say organized crime, business and politics in Albania are linked by a complicated relation of common interests and exploitation for mutual gain. “Another evident aspect of the sophistication of criminal organizations is the integration of crime proceeds in legal businesses and their involvement in policy-making. The financing of elections through proceeds by criminal or dubious activities deserves serious attention by political stakeholders, law-enforcement institutions and the Albanian society," the researchers say. The report shows there is a concerning trend of criminal gangs using businesses as a ‘façade’ to hide criminal activities with the phenomenon being more widespread in trafficking of cocaine. The first criminal gangs in Albania were established in the early 1990s just when the country’s communist regime collapsed. The initial gangs involved redundant former intelligence service officers, border police and drivers, some of whom had smuggled cigarettes to Italian Mafia for about three decades from the 1960s in a communist regime-backed underground operation. “In the early 1990s, corruption and the infiltration of organized crime elements in the weak Albanian institutions guaranteed the impunity of the criminal gang leaders. A considerable number of them used to work as intelligence service agents, police and Republican Guard officers or even drivers and sportspeople during the communist regime,” says the study. Low per capita income of below $20 a month in 1992, the reduction of active enterprises by three times, unemployment rates trebling, the shrink of population by 10 percent as a result of massive migration, the oil smuggling between 1992 to 1996, the loss of about $1.5 billion from the pyramid investment schemes and the opening of military depots in 1997, triggered feelings of public unrest and favored the flourishing of illegal activities, including those with an organized crime character. The Open Society Foundation study analyzed 71 decisions by the first instance Serious Crimes Court on about 50 criminal gangs in the country from 1990 to 2015 and conducted 84 interviews with judges, prosecutors, lawyers and former police officers. Researchers examined several criminal organization and smaller family-run gangs in the country's main regions of Tirana, Durres, Vlora, Fier and Shkodra. “Criminal organizations have ties to politics and politicians intervene by neutralizing law-enforcement agencies through the appointment of trusted people or party militants. The most widespread collaboration between criminal gangs and state bodies is corruption, especially in the justice system which is not a local phenomenon but spread in all regions where organized crime is problematic,” shows the study. Extortion of businesses through 'fines' and 'protection' from other gangs, supporting political candidates or fighting opponents running in the elections and ruining their party rallies, vote rigging and the financing of electoral campaign in exchange for immunity from prosecution and other gains are some of the shades of the relations between politics and crime which has been sophisticated throughout years. “In various regions of the country, rivalry among armed gangs, although having territory control as the main reason, has often had obvious signs of political affiliation. Criminal gang members have often served as commissioners in polling stations. Despite lack of investigations or court decisions, various MPs and ministers have been subject to public accusations on ties to organized crime,” the report shows. Vlora's favorable geographical position in southern Albania and its proximity to Italy at a sea distance of 45 to 60 miles have made it a key hub for trafficking in human beings and narcotics, notes the report which examined narcotics trafficking there as a case study. Vlora has adequate infrastructure on the production and import of vessels such as speedboats used for drug trafficking at a cost of between €50,000 to €150,000 depending on their size, notes the study. Small speedboats trafficking 300 to 400 kg of cannabis to Italy from Vlora earn between €60,000 to €80,000 in transportation fees, covering the vessel’s cost in a single trip. "What’s characteristic about criminal gangs operating in the city of Vlora is that differently from gangs active in 1992-1999 there are no divided territories. It is evident that a lot of killings take place in Vora, but in general the killings are not related to territory control, but areas of influence in international drug and arms networks in EU countries, especially Spain and Italy,” the report adds. Researchers recommend amending the country's Criminal Code by introducing changes similar to the Italian Mafia-type criminal association to punish making use of intimidating power for economic gains, including licenses and concessions or hindering the free exercise of the right to vote. The report also recommends reforming legislation on financing electoral campaigns and political parties in order to prevent financing from crime or dubious proceeds and establishing special anti-Mafia structures with experts of various fields. The authors also suggest amending the Criminal Code to classify every physical or psychological assault and blackmail against investigative journalists, civil society and researchers carrying out reports on corruption and organized crime as a criminal offence. In its latest country report, the European Commission says only less than half of organized crime cases in Albania lead to confiscation of assets. “Less than 50 percent of organized crime cases lead to confiscation of assets. Leaks to the press, violations of the secrecy of investigations and endangerment of the safety of police officers and prosecutors are still frequent,” it adds. Cannabis cultivation and trafficking has seen a sharp increase in the past couple of years, with its crime proceeds estimated to have been invested in real estate and other money laundering activities. Albanian police say they destroyed 2.5 million of cannabis plants in 2016 spread over a 213 hectare area nationwide, a 3-fold increase compared to the whole of 2015, making Albania Europe’s largest cannabis producer. [post_title] => Open Society Foundation: Links among gangs, business, politics hamper freedom of expression [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => open-society-foundation-links-among-gangs-business-politics-hamper-albanias-freedom-of-expression [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-04 17:24:53 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-04 16:24:53 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134842 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134827 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-04 12:32:44 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-04 11:32:44 [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 4 – The massive floods that affected central and southern Albania over last weekend are expected to have no major impact on the country’s GDP growth despite significant damage to thousands of homes, the agriculture sector and public infrastructure. Experts estimate the negative effect on the GDP growth prospects is expected to be compensated by a sharp cut in electricity imports, having cost the country’s hydro-dependent power sector a staggering €200 million, about 0.2 percent of the GDP, in costly imports since mid-2017. Albania's Civil Emergencies Committee says more than 3,300 homes, 40 businesses and 10,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded during last weekend's flash floods as the country's main rivers overflew their banks, causing severe material damage especially in the southern Albania regions of Fier and Vlora. The country’s central areas were also affected with dozens of businesses along the key Tirana-Durres highway flooded for the second time in the course of one year at the place known as ‘Qafe-Kashar’ near the Airport overpass. Some of the businesses claimed damage of about €1 million from the flash floods, an amount which could take some of them to bankruptcy due to being uninsured against natural disasters. Suburban areas in Tirana, Durres and Kruja also suffered huge damage, especially in home, livestock and agricultural crops. The damage is apparently huger in the southern Fier and Vlora region where the overflow of Vjosa River, the country’s second largest river whose first 80 km flow through Greece, caused major damage to thousands of homes and agricultural crops as most livestock had been displaced due to warnings of heavy rains of about 100 mm. Some 56 schools and 65 bridges were also damaged by the weekend floods. With no emergency situation declared, the Albanian government has pledged partial compensation for the flood-affected households, but warned households and businesses at high-risk areas need to insure to protect themselves from natural disasters such as floods. "The state budget cannot always handle everything. It is very important for all households and businesses to become aware and understand that they need to take measures and insure against natural disasters like in every normal country so that damage is compensated in real time based on this mechanism," Prime Minister Edi Rama said on Monday heading the Civil Emergencies Coordination and Management Committee. The country’s financial supervisory authority has already finalized with the World Bank assistance a draft law targeting to turn current voluntary-basis insurance against natural disasters into compulsory on a risk-based system, but it’s the insurance rates and households’ reluctance to pay that are holding it back. "The law has been passed by the Authority and is being discussed with the World Bank and market stakeholders. We have to consider that we have to be careful when legally making it compulsory for households as the service provided must match the rate every household has to pay," Ervin Koçi, the head of the Financial Supervisory Authority has earlier said. The Albanian economy is on track to register a 4 percent GDP growth rate in 2017 fuelled by some major energy-related investment such as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and a big hydropower plant by Norway’s Statkraft as well as recovering tourism sector. The Albanian government expects the 2018 growth to recover to 4.2 percent, but some international financial institutions forecast growth will slow down to about 3.5 percent as major energy-related investment completes. However, the floods are expected to have a negative effect on the key agriculture sector, employing about half of the country’s population but producing only a fifth of the Albania’s GDP. The situation is also expected to be critical for thousands of flood-affected households and dozens of businesses who lost nearly everything unless they receive compensation. On the positive side, heavy rainfall has considerably improved the hydro situation in the country’s northern Drin Cascade, where water levels had reached almost a historic low following one of the worst droughts in decades, triggering compulsory costly electricity imports of about €200 million since last June and posing a key threat to public finances and GDP growth prospects for 2018. The rising water flows in the reservoirs of the state-run HPPs are expected to sharply cut electricity imports and bring the country’s wholly hydro-dependent domestic electricity system back to normality, escaping an apparent financial crisis that was paralyzing much-needed investment in the country’s poor condition power grid. Floods have been the most imminent threat to Albania’s economy in the past two and a half decades, also claiming dozens of lives, and have become an almost annual phenomenon in the past five years, also affecting central Albanian areas. “The annual average population affected by flooding in Albania is about 50,000 and the annual average affected GDP about $200 million,” says the World Bank in a report. Due to climate change risks, population growth, urbanization and the increase in exposed assets both floods and earthquakes are expected to cause much more damage in their 100-year return periods, World Bank experts warn. [post_title] => Albania floods: No major impact on GDP expected as key hydropower sector moves out of crisis [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albania-floods-no-major-impact-on-gdp-growth-expected-as-key-hydropower-sector-moves-out-of-crisis [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-04 12:35:01 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-04 11:35:01 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134827 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134794 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-01 09:20:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-01 08:20:36 [post_content] => By Albert Rakipi It is everywhere -- in the news portals and television. It is also on the Prime Minister’s own personal digital television station on Facebook -- ERTV. Let’s call it the “the special show.” It involves government members, parliament members, local authorities, the mayor and the staff too. There some young people too for good measure and in the full style of the Chinese cultural revolution. This week it happened in Lushnja, cleaning up a park, but it could really be in other places too. The Minister of Economy and Finances appeared with a grass mower, while the head of the parliament’s economy commission gave him directions on how to use it. The Minister of Agriculture was wearing gloves which, weirdly, he’d preferred to combine with the usual suit he puts on during governmental meetings. The rest were dressed semi-official and semi-sportive, but the entire scene looked like the circus had arrived to town and the curiosity of citizens passing by was big. Others looked through their windows just as curiously, but too shy to come closer. Two big signs could be spotted in the background -- “The Albania We Want” and “Let’s Clean Albania” the slogan read. This entire scene turned even more surreal when Prime Minister Edi Rama joined in. He was without a doubt the director and main protagonist. While the government members continued to clean the park and collect the garbage, they simultaneously kept an eye on the ‘big guy’, while the local authorities ran to meet him and welcome him. Dressed completely differently from the rest, neither wearing a traditional suit nor sportive clothes – he is always investing in surrealism – the Prime Minister, with an indifferent look that neared mockery, and without giving a second look to the ministers who were cleaning, took two-three steps towards the stage with a pair of black, dirty sunglasses that strongly resembled those of John Lennon.   This scene, so typical to the Chinese cultural revolution, is in fact the populist core of the current Albanian government. It is the same populist approach regularly applied to foreign policy. But usually, in November, Tirana’s populist methods are more frequent and colorful. Under the slogan “One nation, two governments, one future” not one but two joint meetings with Kosovo’s government were conducted this week – one in Korçë and one in Vlorë. The second one was during the National Flag Day. Big flags, speeches, a state guard -- and a dozen agreements were signed. Actually, cooperation memorandums between the two governments have been signed in abundance. Yet they have no timeframes and no instruments for implementation. So beyond the show of populism and patriotism, the actual relations between the two countries are shallow. During 2016, the economic trade between Albania and Kosovo reached 164 million euros, while the trade between Albania and Serbia reached 166 million euros. This is regardless of the fact that since 2014, Albania and Kosovo have held several joint government meetings. These joint government meetings are just another colorful show full of flags, but very similar with the Lushnja scene, where the ministers were the ones cleaning the park. Having the ministers clean that park in Lushnja is a show that made some people laugh. Albania will not be cleaned through a show, but through policies. The relations with Kosovo will also not develop through a show, but through policies, because, as we’ve seen, these bureaucratic meetings don’t help the economic development between the two countries. Not only are the two governments not proposing instruments that will increase economic cooperation, but in reality barriers that halt this development exist between the countries. Meanwhile, the show through these joint government meetings  -- framed with the slogan “One nation, two governments, one future” -- go beyond the mere populist words and show of the Lushnja park cleanup. It gains a new status and can be deemed populist-nationalist. The government is not the only one to take part in these populist-nationalist methods. The President also visited Medvegja, a commune inhibited by Serbian citizens with Albanian nationality and who represent the Albanian minority in Serbia. Think about the Greek President going to only visit a village in southern Albania, where Albanian citizens of Greek ethnicity live – the Greek minority. Many Albanians would not be very happy. But populist-nationalist methods, different from Lushnja’s cleanup, can also be individualistic. The joint governments meetings this week introduced by a declaration and proposal coming from the Minister of Diaspora – very creative and exhibitionistic in his exercise of populism and nationalism. The minister declared that on Jan. 1 of the following year Albania and Kosovo should open the borders and unite. When the order to go to war came to the good soldier Zvejk, if you remember, he said, confused: “It’s one thing everyone went crazy, but why would everyone go crazy on the same day?” The populist-nationalist methods of Tirana are becoming more frequent, especially in November. “I don’t want to be working in Tirana in November,” a Western, high-ranking diplomat living in Tirana says, “because I have to file long reports, with explanations for all these activities you call populist-nationalist methods.” My advice was simple: Please, show your bosses in the West the government’s cleaning show in Lushnja and come up with an abstract: What results does that show in actually cleaning up Albania?     [post_title] => Editorial: Tirana’s populist and nationalist exercises [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => editorial-tiranas-populist-and-nationalist-exercises [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-01 09:20:36 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-01 08:20:36 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134794 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134756 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-11-29 15:14:05 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-11-29 14:14:05 [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 29 - The Albanian Securities Exchange is on track to launch its operations in the next few weeks as the country's first privately-owned stock exchange serving as a new investment and financing alternative to both local companies and individual investors, but also central and local government units. The expected launch comes six months after the Albanian Securities Exchange, ALSE, was licensed by the country's Financial Supervisory Authority in a bid to reactivate the capital market through private operators following the closure of the state-run Tirana Stock Exchange in late 2014 after 12 years of inactivity. The stock exchange’s success will depend on the number of businesses that will be listed on it considering the tight capital, profitability and transparency criteria companies have to undergo, which in the former Tirana Stock Exchange attracted only a handful of companies, leading to its failure. However, Artan Gjergji, a banking and capital markets expert, who heads the Albanian Securities Exchange, is optimistic that Albanian businesses, especially corporations have matured following about a quarter of century to a market economy and informality is getting lower. “Albanian businesses have reached a maturity stage and overcome the transparency issue. The main reason keeping Albanian businesses away from banks, capital markets is lack of desire for financial transparency and its tendency to engage in tax evasion. But two decades on, businesses, especially corporations have matured and are getting more and more transparent,” Gjergji has told a local TV. "There are serious companies in Albania to which making public all their financial indicators is no problem. They are audited companies with international partners requiring detailed annual financial reports and meeting all criteria and they can join the stock exchange. What remains to be seen is whether they need extra capital on investments and whether they choose the stock exchange to increase the capital," says Gjergji, adding that the first companies have already confirmed their participation. According to him, the stock exchange will bring a new alternative window with more investment and financing options than the market currently offers and help develop the Albanian economy at a faster pace The launch of the stock exchange operations by the end of 2017 will offer investors higher return rates compared to traditional instruments such as deposits and investment funds and give a boost to the local economy by channeling funds internally. “When Albanian companies start increasing their capital through the Albanian stock exchange by getting listed on it, investors will have several alternatives such as deposits and government securities, but also well-diversified investment funds, and can also directly invest by choosing on their own the company shares they want to invest in,” Gjergji has told local Scan TV. The stock exchange is expected to offer higher interest rates and help channel savings internally, instead of abroad as the emerging investment funds do with a portion of their assets to diversify their investments other than government securities. Businesses, which have to meet several quantitative and qualitative criteria especially regarding the transparency of their balance sheets, can also benefit lower loan rates at a time when credit is struggling to return to positive growth rates amid tight lending standards and declining but still high non-performing loans of about 15 percent. “If to date businesses had only reinvesting their accumulated profits and addressing banks as the only way of financing, they will now have another alternative such as issuing bonds in the Albanian stock exchange and inviting the public to become shareholders or borrowers and lenders in relations with an Albanian business,” Gjergji says. The Tirana Stock Exchange is already training its staff and settling some technical problems with e-payment system and the central bank’s government security system before it launches and undertake an awareness campaign on the stock exchange benefits. "The stock exchange will use the same electronic system used by the bourses in Ljubljana, Skopje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Podgorica, meaning that in the future it could potentially be incorporated into the regional SEE link," says London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in its latest transition report announcing the launch of Albania first private stock exchange by the end of 2017. The newly established Albanian Stock Exchange, ALSE, is a joint stock company, with three founding shareholders, including the majority Albanian-owned Credins Banks, the country’s third largest commercial bank, which holds a 42.5 percent stake. U.S.-owned American Bank of Investments also holds a 42.5 percent of the initial 50 million lek (€373,000) authorized capital. The American Bank of Investments, ABI, the 10th largest commercial bank in the country, entered the Albanian market in late 2015 as a rebranded bank after U.S. based NCH Capital Inc, private equity and venture firm took over Credit Agricole’s Albania unit. AK Invest, an Albanian-owned non-bank financial institution which has been operating for 15 years, mainly engaged in money transfer and micro-credit, holds 15 percent of the shares. The Financial Supervisory Authority says it has licensed the Albanian Stock Exchange to trade government securities and other financial instruments, establish a multilateral trading platform facilitating the exchange of financial instruments between multiple parties and educating, promoting and providing information to interest groups regarding the capital market and issuers’ activity. “From the macroeconomic point of view, the establishment of a securities market in Albania represents concrete and clear indicators of the level of maturity the Albanian financial market has achieved. It also makes it possible for companies and the government to find long-term financing on projects which banks could be unable to finance, allows profitable companies to grow by selling their shares to a big number of shareholders and diversifying them and enables investors to invest with greater confidence, transparency in a well-regulated market,” says the Financial Supervisory Authority The establishment of the stock exchange will give small investors the opportunity to engage in the securities market more transparently and minimize trading in online trading platforms, in some cases unprofessionally and through unlicensed operator and bearing a high investment risk for the public. Albanian financial officials say the stock exchange will also be a good opportunity to withdraw in the coming years companies from other Albanian-speaking countries and regions such as the Kosovo market, serving as a unity platform for all Albanian investors. [post_title] => First Albanian private-run stock exchange getting ready to offer new investment, financing alternatives [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => first-albanian-private-run-stock-exchange-getting-ready-to-offer-new-investment-financing-alternatives [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-29 15:14:05 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-29 14:14:05 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134756 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134746 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-11-27 16:44:58 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-11-27 15:44:58 [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 27 – Ongoing financial straits and failure to meet investment requirements and keep up with its competitors led Plus Communication, the sole Albanian-owned mobile operator, to sell its operations to the country’s two largest mobile operators, the competition authority has unveiled after approving the transaction. Albanian-owned Plus, the smallest and sole Albanian-owned mobile operator, has agreed to sell half of its frequency spectrum to Vodafone Albania and the remaining half to Telekom Albania for an undisclosed amount, in a move which makes the country’s mobile telephony market fully foreign-owned and practically reduces market competition with three remaining operators. However, the country’s competition watchdog says the transaction brings no competition distortions and has tasked the electronic communications authority, AKEP, to make available frequency bands for the possible entry of new market operators. "Because of financial difficulties, the enterprise can no longer continue with investment to provide quality and competitive services to consumers and considering AKEP's requirements toward other mobile operators to ensure the continuation of the service provision, Plus requests to transfer the frequencies in its use to the other operators under the deal with these operators,” Plus Communication has informed the competition watchdog. "During all the time it has been operating since 2010, the company has incurred considerable losses... Losses accumulated in years are estimated at considerable amounts of 6.1 million lek (€45,000) and that is the reason the company's shareholders undertook capital restructuring twice to cover losses," the company adds. In its 2016 financial report available on the National Business Center, Plus Communication reported accumulated losses of about 589 million lek (€4.3 million) and a negative shareholder equity of 320 million lek (€2.35 million), calling into question the company's ability to continue its operations, says auditor that examined the company's 2016 financial reports. Plus has also signed an out-of-court deal on the settlement of contested accumulated debts that Plus claimed from the three main mobile operators regarding termination rates, the fees mobile companies charge other carriers to terminate calls on their networks. The competition watchdog says the mobile communications market will continue remaining competitive even after Plus’s market exist when subscribers can choose among three remaining operators. Meanwhile, AKEP says the three competitors can develop a wide range of services, offering high-quality services, competitive prices, a variety of choices and innovation for the general market competition. "The spectrum that the three operators currently possess, the way of making use of it, the services provided, the technology employed and the number of subscribers makes the spectrum transfer by Plus Communication with no impact on market competition. We think the extra spectrum will be used by the two operators to increase their transmission capacity because of demand for higher data traffic,” says AKEP. Plus currently has about 208,000 active subscribers, of whom 5,800 post-paid subscribers. The competition authority says Plus subscribers don't necessarily have to choose between the two companies it was taken over as the number portability service which Albania has been applying since 2011 allows subscribers to port their numbers to any of the three remaining mobile companies operating in Albania within three days and free of charge. Albania's telecommunication market, whose overwhelmingly 90 percent share is held by mobile operators, accounts for about 3 percent of the country's GDP with an annual turnover of about 40 billion lek (€294 million). The sale operation comes amid a sharp decline in income Plus registered in 2016 and failure to increase its 5 percent market share despite obtaining its long-awaited 3G licence last year at a time when its three competitors were already offering 4G services. Plus Communication, owned by some of the country’s richest businessmen, saw its annual income drop by 30 percent to about €16 million in 2016 and net profit drop by ten times to a mere 87.7 million lek (€ 644,000), according to annual reports filed with the country’s National Business Center. The company’s difficult financial continued this year with the closure of several shops in Tirana in the past few months. Plus Communication launched operations in late 2010 after it was awarded the fourth GSM licence in an international tender for €7.2 million. Latest 2016 data shows leading Vodafone Albania operator, part of UK-based giant Vodafone Group, continues dominating the mobile market with 48.6 percent market share in terms of revenue, followed by Telekom Albania (former AMC), part of German Deutsche Telekom with 30.7 percent, Turkish-owned Albtelecom with about 12 percent, and Albanian-owned Plus Communication with 5 percent share. Albania has some 3.4 million active mobile subscribers, the overwhelming 90 percent of whom are pre-paid ones. [post_title] => Albania mobile market reduced to three operators after Plus sale [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => albania-mobile-market-reduced-to-three-operators-after-plus-sale [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-27 16:44:58 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-27 15:44:58 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134746 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134742 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-11-27 12:40:18 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-11-27 11:40:18 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134744" align="alignright" width="300"]Serbian stand at the Tirana International Fair Serbian stand at the Tirana International Fair. Photos: Klik Ekspo Group [/caption] TIRANA, Nov. 27 – Chinese and Serbian companies dominated this year’s 24th edition of the Tirana International Fair, Albania’s largest business fair, reconfirming interest in Albania as a hub to the Western Balkans region with a strategic geographical position, but also plenty of untapped resources and cheap labour costs. The world’s second largest economy acquired some key assets in Albania last year, including the country’s sole airport and the biggest oil company as part of its regional expansion, giving a new impetus to relations with its once key tiny Balkan ally in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, ties with Serbia, the largest economy among EU aspirant countries, have gained new momentum in the past three years as the two key regional players have been normalizing relations held back by historical barriers. Speaking at the launch of the four-day Tirana International Fair last week, Prime Minister Edi Rama described the event’s 24th edition as evidence of interest in Albania and its growing economy. "Albanian businesses are now a new reality in the country's history. They are a consolidated reality and the 'Made in Albania' products are developing and growing," Prime Minister Rama said, noting the tangible progress Albania has made since the fair's inaugural edition in the early 1990s when Albania was making its first steps toward a market economy and democracy after about five decades under a hardline communist regime and a centrally planned economy. "Nowadays, foreign companies coming to our country not only find new investment opportunities, but can also find reliable, knowledgeable and courageous partners whom they can join and target fulfilling their ambitions to invest and make a profit through entrepreneurship in this country," he said. Albania has managed to attract about €1 billion annually in foreign direct investment in the past few years, being the region’s second largest recipient and is set to become a regional energy hub as one of the countries where the major Trans Adriatic Pipeline passes through and its abundant oil and hydropower potentials. Prime Minister Rama said China’s sizeable presence in the fair was an indicator for Albania’s investment opportunities. "China is too big and Albania is too small and if Albania wasn't an attractive country for investment, it would have undoubtedly been a waste of time for the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade to arrange its participation in the fair of this country, which is a neighborhood of an average China city," said Rama. "There is an indicator which I believe joins these interests and that is the consideration for our country and our capital city as a starting point regarding the regional market and opportunities to invest and take advantage of the still quite cheap labor and production costs compared to more developed countries," Rama added. However, China's ambassador to Albania Jiang Yu says there are still some barriers to resolve in order to boost Chinese investment to Albania. "There are some barriers in our cooperation path. I wish the parties resolve these barriers and difficulties through friendly negotiations and in compliance with the respective laws and rules. I also hope the Albanian government supports foreign investment and provides incentives to foreign investors, including Chinese companies, to establish a stable, transparent and predictable environment," the Chinese Ambassador told China Radio International in the local Albanian service. In a key arbitration case, the Albanian government is seeking to settle a $57 million tax dispute with the now China-owned Bankers Petroleum, the country’s largest oil producer, dating back to 2011 when the company was run by the Canadians. The decision came after a third party auditor ordered in mid-2016 the Albanian government to pay back Bankers Petroleum $37 million which the then-Canadian owned company had paid in installments to the Albanian tax administration over the dispute. Albanian and Chinese state-backed companies failed to conclude contract negotiations on the Arbri Road linking Albania to Macedonia in 2015 while a Chinese consortium that was supposed to make a billion dollar investment in the Spitalla industrial park, outside Durres, also failed to materialize. Last year, Chinese companies acquired the Tirana International Airport and the Banker Petroleum oil company, increasing Chinese investment to Albania 10-fold to more than $700 million, and turning China, the country’s third largest trading partner, into one of top investors in a single year. The acquisition reconfirmed China’s investment and trade interest in traditional ally Albania, and could herald other important investment as part of Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative, a plan to wrap its own infrastructure and influence westward by land and sea and the “16+1″ framework expanding cooperation with 11 EU member states and five Balkan countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The Albania Chinese relations date back to the late 1940s when Albania was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and tiny Balkan country helped the Asian superpower regain its seat at the UN as the PRC in the early 1970s. Chinese experts helped rebuild much of the country’s main industries in the 1960-70s, giving rise to an unequal alliance. Four decades on, the present context is quite different as China has turned into the world’s second largest economy, and Albania is now a NATO country and an EU candidate country with its small economy being one of the Western Balkans’ most vibrant and holding one of the greatest potential due to the geographical advantage and natural resources.   Albania-Serbia normalization  Serbia, Albania economic and trade relations are rapidly overcoming their historical barriers and gaining momentum and the Tirana International Fair, Albania’s traditional year-end business gathering where Serbian companies are being represented with their largest ever delegation of some 100 companies in their national stand, is the best indicator for this. Speaking about Albania-Serbia economic relations, Prime Minister Rama said the establishment of a joint Tirana-based chamber of commerce in late 2016 has already paved the way for the establishment of a number of Albanian-Serbian joint ventures targeting to expand not only in Albania and Serbia, but the whole region. "This is a concrete example of the untapped potentials to invest, to promote economic growth and offer real employment and have a direct impact on increasing welfare," Rama said. Marko Cadez, the President of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says his trips to Albania have been monthly during the past year, bringing Serbian companies to negotiate and sign deals with Albanian partners. In an interview with Tirana Times ahead of the kick-off of the four-day fair on Nov. 23 , Cadez, said he sees great opportunities in trade and investment cooperation between the two key Western Balkan countries considering the current quite untapped potentials. “What matters the most is the growing awareness of the fact that our economies are small, that the capacities of our companies, with the exception of few, are insufficient to independently compete at the international market, and that only together our offer can beat the competition … It is also important that we have recognised in each other desirable partners and that there is growing confidence between our businessmen,” he says. Cadez says big Serbian companies are already examining opportunities to invest in Albania’s tourism following the tax incentives the Albanian government has announced. Albania-Serbia trade exchanges are currently stuck at an annual modest level of about €170 million annually and dominated by what experts have previously called medieval era agricultural imports and exports. Serbian foreign direct investment have in the past three years climbed to a modest stock of 20 million euros while Albanian investment in Serbia is almost non-existent. Prospects seem optimistic as the two leading EU aspirant Western Balkans countries have already improved access with the launch of the direct Belgrade-Tirana flights by Air Serbia carrier and are on track to be linked through a shorter distance through the extension of the Albania-Kosovo highway to Nis, south-eastern Serbia. Albania and Serbia had a three-year honeymoon soon after World War II when the communists came to power in both countries but later parted ways on ideological grounds. Relations between the two countries in the past 25 years of transition have remained tense especially after the late 1990s Kosovo war leading to its independence from Serbia in 2008. Ties are now on track to improve as Serbia and the majority ethnic Albanian-inhabited Kosovo are also holding continuous EU-mediated talks to normalize their relations and Albania has offered an ‘agree to disagree’ approach on Kosovo. Relations between the two countries temporarily entered a Cold War era status quo in October 2014 following a drone incident with Albanian nationalistic and patriotic symbols flying over the Partizan stadium in Belgrade in the midst of a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016.   An opportunity to fill FDI gap Potential new China and Serbia investment could fill the gap Albania's FDI is expected to undergo in 2019 when two major energy-related investment such as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and Devoll Hydropower project by Norway's Statkraft complete their investment stages, affecting Albania's annual FDI flows by at least €200 million if no other projects compensate them. Albania is hoping to fill the gap through investment in the rapidly growing tourism industry by offering tax incentives for a 10 year-period in return for investments of 8 to 15 million euros. The Balkan country has also been targeting to attract investors in its first special economic zone of Spitalla close to the country’s biggest port of Durres and has recently cut the corporate income tax on IT companies to 5 percent, down from a standard 15 percent. A modest recovery in commodity prices is also expected to give a boost to oil and mining investment, Albania’s second largest exports which have been severely affected following the mid-2014 slump in international prices. The Albanian economy is on track to grow by about 4 percent in 2017 and 2018, fuelled by major energy-related investment and a rapidly growing tourism industry.       [post_title] => Tirana International Fair: Albania eyes new Chinese, Serbian investment [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => tirana-international-fair-albania-eyes-new-chinese-serbian-investment [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-27 12:40:18 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-27 11:40:18 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134742 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134681 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-11-24 09:34:41 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-11-24 08:34:41 [post_content] => There is an ongoing global debate about rising levels of inequality in the world and the various degrees of power that economic elites exert in comparison to others. The debate has made it even into popular parlance framed with the well-known and frequently used terms of “the 1 percent” versus “the 99 percent,” and fans of both camps are to be found everywhere from politics to the media, from street protest to bank boards. In the United States, it is a well-known fact that the most important billionaires own as much wealth as five0 percent of the population, a staggering figure. It is naïve to believe anything else rather than the fact that these billionaires have unique access to power, unique opportunities to shape policies and decisions and profit from them. If one tries to analyze this in the context of Albania, a certain ugly vulgarity rises from it. The estimation is that in Albania we can find similar concerning numbers. Last week, we got some interesting insight that indeed the 1 percent in this country are five people. Last Thursday, during the parliamentary debate about the 2018 state budget, a key issue for governance, we heard about billionaires from none less than the Prime Minister and the  opposition leader. With a confidence bordering on arrogance, Prime Minister Rama mentioned the five wealthiest people in Albania (definitely among the ten richest although exact ranking may vary), largest tax payers and employers:  Zamir Mane, Bashkim Ulaj, Avni Ponari, Shefqet Kastrati and Rame Geci. His argument was that since these five people have planned investments next year, and since they will do them through the banking sector, then the opposition’s claim that the budget was a money laundering exercise could not stand. Rama could have added a few more names to this list for the sake of accuracy and comprehensiveness: Vilma Nushi, Aleksander Frangaj, perhaps even his former MP and friend Tom Doshi. They are all part of a public and official list from the ‘Pashko’ economic research think tank. But this is not the point, the argument can be made the same either for five or ten. The reaction was immediate, the opposition leader lowered his eyes in sentence probably gulping down in discomfort at hearing the names of his key donors. Indeed Rama pointed out that those five had been traditionally DP supporters, almost enjoying with a large beaming grin how he has managed to turn their sympathies over to his side. Indeed it is this side of the debate that media focused on: the achievement of Rama to turn over these stakeholders. Yet the debate misses several key points: First of all these businessmen have become so rich and powerful largely due to making profits using the natural wealth assets and resources of the country such as chrome, oil and land often manned by cheap labor under less than safe conditions. --a ll of which require significant political support. Just recently the municipality of Tirana has granted at least three of them permission to build skyscrapers in the middle of Tirana. Just last week, another miner lost his life in the chrome galleries of Bulqiza which generate millions in revenues for at least 30 concessionary contracts in the area. The largest of these contracts belongs to the first name in the list. Second, the way their names were used, the way their work were described and the entire tone of the debate creates a sad impression that whoever the Prime Minister is, whatever the government is called, it is going to rise at dawn and lay at dusk sparing no effort to please these people. In a country with persisting and crippling rates of poverty and unemployment, dramatic desire and interest of youth to migrate, punishing quality of public services and issues of transnational organized crime, Albanians must know that come what may the current and the potential Prime Minister and their government are going to work tirelessly to keep these five people happy, keep their balance sheet bottom lines fat and while at it keep their reputation growing. Last but not least, we have yet another confirmation that this so called ‘socialist’ government, skewing the ideology of protecting the middle class with vigor and pride, harbors a special kind of love for the richest and works incessantly to increase their benefits and profits through construction permits, PPPs and concessions and a variety of other means. The only news is that now we know by name, rather than by reputation who is the 1 percent.   [post_title] => Editorial: Governing for the 1 percent - or just five people [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => editorial-governing-for-the-1-percent-or-just-five-people [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-24 09:34:41 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-24 08:34:41 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134681 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) ) [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 134896 [post_author] => 29 [post_date] => 2017-12-08 10:03:47 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-08 09:03:47 [post_content] => By Johann Sattler* [caption id="attachment_132183" align="alignright" width="300"]Ambasadori Sattler Ambassador Johann Sattler (C)[/caption] I have a weak spot for Albanian phraseology and I was baffled when I recently discovered a saying which is attributed to the Albanian statesman Faik Konica: Nuk behet Shqiperia me shqiptare (Albania cannot be built by Albanians). From this phrase – which of course has to be seen in its historic context having been created more than 100 years ago - it is a very short distance to the topic of today – the role of internationals in Albania. Preparing for today I came across a booklet written by the private secretary of Prince Wied, the unfortunate first king who was kicked out of the principality of Albania in 1914 after less than half a year in office. Heaton-Armstrong describes the landing in Durres and Tirana: ‘The market square was crowed to overflowing and the people cheered, applauded and cried with joy. For 500 years the Turks had ruled the country and now at last Albania had a Mbret/King, and what king it had!’ And he continues his observations of Albanians concerning trust and suspicion: ‘Albanians are more suspicious of their own countrymen than they are of foreigner.’ But all the trust they had put in their new foreigner-king had also quickly evaporated. I quote: ‘The Tirana expedition was deemed a great success and none of us thought that exactly a month afterwards an insurrection would drive the King out of his capital.’ And that was the end of Prince Wied’s short reign as souvereign of the Principality of Albania. Wied left Albania unceremoniously in early September 1914. This episode shows the eagerness with which foreigners are greeted in this country, but it also shows the limitations of foreign intervention. In Prince Wieds case, of course, it had also to do with the enormity of the task of holding together basically an ungovernable country with at the time hostile neighbours, but also with the utter unpreparedness of the Prince for the job. So in way it was a mission impossible. Or, as Fan Noli later put it: Pince Wied can be criticized only for being unable to perform miracles.’ So internationals have played a strong role in this country for a long time, in the early years after independence, in the inter-war period as well as in the recent so-called transition period. Today’s conference is a good opportunity to reflect, to compare and draw lessons from successes and from mistakes made – in the good tradition of Soren Kierkegaard - Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived – unfortunately I may add - forwards. The recent transition period in Albania has meant profound political, economic, and social transformations. It included: A political transition from dictatorship to democracy, an economic transition, from centralized planning economy to a market economy; a transition from a rural society to an urban one - with great uncontrolled demographic shifting and a transition from a closed society to a relatively open one This is a lot for a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, how long can a transition last? We are now soon finishing the third decade of transition, one and a half generations have already passed having seen in their lifetime nothing else but a transition. And it is understandable that people become impatient, asking – when is this transition coming to an end so that we can start a normal life? There is the feeling, as a friend recently had told me that transition is often used as a convenient excuse for the political class. In the sense: things will become normal once the transition period is finished. But when will that be? During the last decades internationals have been assisting Albania in the different transition aspects mentioned above. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Often we are confronted here with completely unrealistic expectations (Prince Wied being a historic example). And I could bring you many more examples of citizens writing letters to us internationals, ranging from building playgrounds, to fighting the property agency to establishing an Austro-Hungarian protectorate as in the old days. But how is this outsized role or better these outsized expectations explainable? First of all because there is trust – polls show over the last 20+ years a stable 80% trust rate for international institutions (NATO+EU in the lead), whereas the trust rate for the Government – according to last  Trust in Government Poll 2016 - lies at around 30% (Parliament at 22%, judiciary at 19%). An interesting question of course is if this stable expression of trust towards internationals is deserved. I personally believe the international community over the last decades was a positive factor developing the country. Apart from its role in helping to bring about a functional democracy and a market economy and in building capacities, the role of international  institutions was in my view especially important when it comes to social cohesion, education and the improvement of living standards throughout the country. My country, Austria, for instance, was in the beginning heavily focused on basics, like water supply. Later we added – and this is now seen as our most effective investment – education, building, running and assisting schools and supporting vocational education as the best means to give young Albanians a future in their country. But I think one of the most important contributions of the internationals came when things got nasty and out of control, like in 1997. I personally happened to be part of the EU crisis management at the time (ECMM). I was surprised to find myself – driving in an armoured car through the streets of Vlora and Peshkopi. I will never forget the stream of Albanian men walking through the pedestrian zone and carrying their Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. And in between three guys in white uniform - of course this being the EU – without any arms. The decisive role then was played by the OSCE, leading the international efforts to calm the dangerous situation and come to a political solution through early elections and the creation of a more inclusive interim government. It was then when the Danish OSCE Chairman in Office (Foreign Minister Petersen) asked Chancellor Franz Vranitzky to mediate between the political parties. Vranitzky  having survived 11 years of holding together a grand coalition in Austria - was quite effective in bridging the enormous gap between the parties. I happened to meet Vranitzky recently – where he apologized that for health reasons he cannot be with us today and where he told me with wet eyes about the unbelievable scenes he witnessed but also about the gratitude he received from average Albanians for his efforts; he told me about the long hours he had spent in negotiations on an Italian warship – sent generously by PM Prodi after it was impossible to land in Rinas airport – mediating between politicians, warlords and clan-leaders. He asked me to convey to you his best wishes for the conference and for Albania’s development on its road to Europe. Now, 20 years later, Albania is a NATO member, a candidate for membership in the European Union starting EU negotiations hopefully next year, and its international and regional role has increased significantly. There are still enough challenges, from a polarised political landscape to corruption to weak institutions and massive social problems. I think that this country has the potential to address also these challenges. Albanians have shown in the past years that they can manage difficult situations. Or, as you say in your beautiful language: I zoti e nxjerr gomarin nga balta! – The owner/landlord pulls the donkey out of the mud! You’re in charge, you are the landlord. We, the internationals are happy to assist if asked. So that in the end Faik Konica will be proven wrong: Shqiperia po behet me shiptaret. (Albania is being built by Albanians). These were the remarks Austrian Ambassador to Tirana, Johann Sattler, gave at the OSCE Conference - “The Role of the Internationals in the Transition in Albania” on 6 Dec.2017 [post_title] => ‘You’re in charge. We, the internationals are happy to assist if asked’ [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => youre-in-charge-we-the-internationals-are-happy-to-assist-if-asked [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-08 10:05:00 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-08 09:05:00 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=134896 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [queried_object] => stdClass Object ( [term_id] => 52 [name] => Premium [slug] => premium [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 52 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Please subscribe to have access to articles in our premium section. [parent] => 0 [count] => 343 [filter] => raw [cat_ID] => 52 [category_count] => 343 [category_description] => Please subscribe to have access to articles in our premium section. 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