AIIS director: Albania-Kosovo union would create a weak state, if not an ungovernable one

AIIS director: Albania-Kosovo union would create a weak state, if not an ungovernable one

An interview with Albert Rakipi, the executive director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies What is your first reaction to the declarations of the Prime Minister Edi Rama according to whom should the perspective of the European Union membership

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Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies

This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these

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Socialist Party hires services of lobbying firm with ties to Donald Trump

Socialist Party hires services of lobbying firm with ties to Donald Trump

TIRANA, April 17 – The Socialist Party of Albania has hired Ballard Partners, a Florida-based firm with ties to U.S. President Donald Trump for “advising, counseling, and assisting the foreign principal in communications with US government officials” aiming to increase

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Main ruling parties do not register as coalition at the CEC

Main ruling parties do not register as coalition at the CEC

TIRANA, April 20 – Albania’s main ruling parties, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration, have filed a request to the Central Election Commission, demanding the extension of the deadline for the registration of electoral entities for the

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Suspected of working with cartels, several police stations see purges

Suspected of working with cartels, several police stations see purges

TIRANA, April 20 – At least 10 police officers and eight customs officials at the port of Durres and at the Qafe Thane border point were arrested Monday, following suspicions that they had facilitated the crossing of two various shipments

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Environmentalists slam Kosovo billionaire’s national park development project as dangerous

Environmentalists slam Kosovo billionaire’s national park development project as dangerous

TIRANA, April 20 – Plans to develop a luxury tourist resort in a protected national park and lagoon along the Adriatic just 80 km south of Tirana have sparked concerns by environmental NGOs and activists who say the project seriously

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Rising cannabis cultivation blamed for massive bee losses

Rising cannabis cultivation blamed for massive bee losses

TIRANA, April 17 – The massive nationwide cannabis cultivation even after the mid-2015 crackdown on the notorious internationally renowned marijuana-growing village of Lazarat, southern Albania, is having detrimental effects on the key agriculture sector, driving farmers away from cultivating traditional

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Editorial: May we live in interesting times

Editorial: May we live in interesting times

There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And it sure is an interesting time in Albania. The political crisis is ongoing, with what appears to be no end in sight and increasingly the actors are

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Albanian company gets bonus for offering to complete Arbri Road for €245 mln

Albanian company gets bonus for offering to complete Arbri Road for €245 mln

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, April 13 – Two months ahead of the upcoming general elections, the ruling Socialist Party-led government has made a new effort to reactivate a major highway project linking Tirana to the undeveloped Dibra region and neighboring

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Chinese Vice Premier’s visit expected to herald new era in Sino-Albanian relations

Chinese Vice Premier’s visit expected to herald new era in Sino-Albanian relations

TIRANA, April 11 – China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli will visit Albania in the next few days in what is expected to be the highest level government delegation in five decades as the two countries are engaging in a new

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130553" align="alignright" width="225"]Albert Rakipi, PhD Albert Rakipi, PhD[/caption]

An interview with Albert Rakipi, the executive director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies

What is your first reaction to the declarations of the Prime Minister Edi Rama according to whom should the perspective of the European Union membership for Albania wane then the country will seek unification with Kosovo?

European integration has been the driving force of state building in Albania, during the entire process of post-communist transformation, aiding the building of a functioning state, the modernization of the society, the establishment of a democratic system, establishment of the rule of law, the respect for basic freedoms and human rights as well as economic development.

This transformation process has in turn furthered the perspective of European integration of Albania. 

I believe that the logic behind such a statement is very fallible: that should the EU not accept Albania as a member then the country will unite with Kosovo. Kosovo and its unification with Albania could never replace the magic transformational power of the EU. To reach this conclusion is enough to reflect on how the unification with Kosovo could ever assist the establishment of a modern and functioning state, the rule of the constitution and the law in Albania, the values of freedom, the economic development and the modernization of the society.

What will happen if indeed there is no more enlargement of the EU or if for any other reason Albania and other countries which aspire to integration are no longer welcomed in the EU?

The integration of Albania in the European Union is not a matter of unification with a certain territory, in this case of uniting with the territory of the member states. Conceptualizing integration in such a way is very wrong in my opinion. According to this logic then if Albania is not united to the territory of the Union then it can be united to Kosovo.

The European Union is currently facing some very major challenges which concern its very survival (for example a victory of Le Pen, who has promised to do away with the Union, in France, automatically would mean the end of the Union). However does this mean that Albania and similar countries should abandon their project of building democratic systems and societies which are based on rule of law and freedom and human rights? The West and the societies that live in freedom have existed long before the European Union. 

Does this seem like a threat or some form of blackmail that is coming repeatedly from Albania?

This makes the situation even more ridiculous. Albania continues to try to play the giant in foreign affairs. This comes out of the communism’s political cultural legacy. I am reading a new study on bilateral relations between Albania and  China in their last period (under communism) when Hoxha sends a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist party of China and strongly condemns the fact the Pekin (Beijing) has decide to welcome the visit of President Nixon, without first consulting this with the Albanian Communist Party.  But it is not only a matter of the culture that comes from communism. Albanian leaders regularly and primarily are occupied with matters of international relations. This is one way to avoid facing the failures of domestic policy and also one way to think that they are in the radar of attention of European if not global stakeholders. Let’s remember here also the declarations of warnings from Albanian leaders of what would happen to the world should Donald Trump be elected as a president.

If indeed Albania and Kosovo are united then we have a risk. Both are very weak states and Kosovo is even an unconsolidated one. Both states are very much damaged by internal political conflict, have low state functionality and low democratic standards. The unification if it happens, would bring a bigger state but of course one that is very weak and perhaps even impossible to govern. This is without mentioning the integration of the two societies, which despite sharing the same language are very different and this would create a permanent tension. I know that the ‘colorful’ entourage of fanatic nationalists will become nervous towards anyone who speaks against national unification or against the national question, for which they speak as if we were one hundred years ago. Even more nervous will get those people who are still sheltered in the nationalist-communist bunker, from which they attack repeatedly with their long written complaints the American imperialism.

The national question has been solved with the independence of Kosovo and what our leaders and societies should do is to build states where rule of law prevails and develop societies that stop living under fear. Last but not least, Albania as a member of NATO not only should refrain from threatening but considering its small size should show seriousness and maturity in its behavior.

But doesn’t the idea of the unification between Albania and Kosovo exist even in Kosovo?

According to the latest study of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, only 9 percent of Albanians in Albania would consider unification of the two states as a positive thing. We also know that in Albania there is not one single political party, organization of influential individual that supports or encourages a political movement that calls for the unification of Kosovo with Albania. Even one political party in Albania that was launched with a platform for the unification of all Albanian (speaking) territories in the Balkans, did not receive even one percent of the national vote in the last two rounds of parliamentary elections.

In Kosovo there exists a political party, Vetëvendosja, which doesn’t recognize the state of Kosovo and which calls for the unification in one single national state but I think it is a public secret that despite the populism, which by the way is on the rise in political, cultural and intellectual elites, it is precisely the former, the political elites that in fact do not desire and are additionally actively against a potential unification option. 

 
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                    [post_content] => This week Albanian media, quoting an American website, reported that the Socialist Party has acquired the lobbying services of a company closely tied to the Trump presidential campaign, ‘Ballards Partners’ based in Florida. It is the third time within these four first months of 2017 that such a lobbying contract is made. Previously both the Socialist Movement for Integration and the Democratic Party had done similar contracts with US firms. The latter is reported to have as much as three different lobbying companies trying to service ties with the new US administration. The sums involved are considerable: the SP will pay 20.000 dollars per month, while the recent contract of the DP signed only one month ago with “Stonington Strategies,” is worth 25,000 dollars per month.  In the last year alone SMI spent around 300.000 dollars for lobbying services which got them, among other things, invitations to the latest presidential inauguration. 

It is now a consolidated reality that Albanian political parties are paying hefty sums to companies that have the potential to improve relations of political parties and especially their leaders, set up occasions for meetings that are then glorified back at home as well as perpetuate narratives that better serve one side. Prestigious lobbying tags of Washington D. C have become interestingly familiar names in small Albania and its citizens.

Albania is by no means the only small country that uses precious resources to buy political clout abroad. Many of the neighboring countries which share more or less the same problems, behave very similarly. Contracts such as these are common for authoritarian dynasties in the Middle East or former Soviet republics now run by eternal dictators.

On the other side even large and well established democracies are using think tanks as lobbying outlets to buy influence in the United States, according to a 2014 report of the New York Times. However with one key difference, these contracts have a much more beneficial set objective in that they try to service some well-defined national goals and not service one separate political side.   The British Authority of Tourism is well justified in lobbying for its national economic interest while Japan may have a record number of lobbies working to further economic and business interest of its countries’ companies in the United States.

None of these other examples make what is happening at home right. It is very difficult to shed light over both the means of financing and the real impact of the services bought. Regarding the latter it is clear that they serve no public interest such as political party leaders would like to boast under the pretenses that they are developing bilateral relations and improving Albania’s image abroad. Those services clearly serve short term political interest by blurring truths often in the process. No lobbying contract of a political party should cover the services and tasks that in fact belong to the government. Extending and consolidating bilateral relations is the duty of governments and state institutions not political entities. If the Albanian parties overtake foreign policy then they should go ahead and dismantle the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The main question is where the money comes from. There is very little transparency over political party finances in Albania so the source of these funds is shrouded in darkness. There are absolutely no guarantees that the money spent is legitimate and not taken out of public finances or murky donations.

These lucrative contracts against the backdrop of a small, poor and underdeveloped country generate a stark contracts as well as ensuing a feeling of outrage. Of course parties can claim that they are using their own party finances as they see fit. However that does not exclude the fact that these kind of expenditure seems criminal when one compared to the standing emergencies that the country has in providing basic infrastructure and basic public goods, including education and healthcare, to many rural and marginalized communities, to mention just the extreme cases.

Albania is amidst a harsh political crisis with parliamentary boycott, gridlock in implementation of key reforms and a very pessimistic perspective of further steps in its integration path. The electoral campaign has started despite the fact that the opposition insists on rejecting the process. In these desperate times, the absurdness of the lobbying contracts becomes even more palpable.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Buying influence outside, forgoing interest at home: The ‘criminal’ expenditure on lobbies 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 17 – The Socialist Party of Albania has hired Ballard Partners, a Florida-based firm with ties to U.S. President Donald Trump for “advising, counseling, and assisting the foreign principal in communications with US government officials” aiming to increase bilateral relations with the United States and to boost its profile in America.

The news broke out on thehill.com website and was picked by several Albanian outlets. The website referred to disclosures filed to the Justice Department which do not provide details disclose the duration of the contract, or how much the firm is earning, which is typically included in registration forms.

The firm was founded by Brian Ballard who served as finance chair in Florida for Trump during the presidential campaign in the United States and also as a top fundraising official to help raise money for the president-elect’s inauguration.

The Socialist Party’s new lobbying services comes at a time when Albania is in the midst of a political crisis, as opposition parties have boycotted parliament and plan not to participate in the parliamentary elections.

Data shows that all Albania’s main political parties have had lucrative contracts with influential lobby firms.

During his visit to the United States earlier in March, the chairman of Democratic Party signed a three month contract with the lobbying company Stonington Strategies for a fee of 25,000 US dollars.

Earlier in January, the junior coalition ally, Socialist Movement for Integration hired the services of US lobbyists McKeon Group to secure invitations to attend the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump and to foster special relations between the party and the Republican administration. The agreement shows that SMI will pay 15,000 US dollars for six months.

In 2016, the Socialist Movement for Integration spent 26.1 percent of its declared expenses on consultancies and polls.

In the past years, Albanian political parties have hired the services of companies such as Podesta Group, Blue Star Strategies, Dutko International, BKSH & Associates and Rasky Baerlain Strategic Communications.

In 2009 and 2010 alone, the government and political parties spent 1.38 million US dollars in lobbying in the US.

U.S. President Donald Trump has imposed tough restrictions on former administration officials lobbying for foreign governments. In his first weeks in the Oval Office, he signed an executive order banning anyone who worked in his administration from ever registering as a foreign agent with the Justice Department.

 
                    [post_title] => Socialist Party hires services of lobbying firm with ties to Donald Trump
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132084" align="alignright" width="300"]Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration. (Photo: SP/SMI 2013 campaign)  Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration. (Photo: SP/SMI 2013 campaign)[/caption]

TIRANA, April 20 - Albania’s main ruling parties, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration, have filed a request to the Central Election Commission, demanding the extension of the deadline for the registration of electoral entities for the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 18.

The letter sent to the Central Election Commission was signed by the chairs of the parliamentary groups of the two ruling parties, Gramoz Ruci and Luan Rama.

“The Socialist Party, the Socialist Movement for Integration and the other parties of the Alliance for a European Albania have made constant attempts to negotiate with the opposition to enable the participation of all political parties of the country in the parliamentary elections,” the letter reads.

The letter however fails to mention the number of days required for the extension of the deadline but it states that “postponing the deadlines by few days would contribute to an all inclusive process.”

Prime Minister Edi Rama took to social media to welcome the request saying that it “represents a good gesture towards the Democratic Party,” but he hinted that the opposition will not respond to this “good deed.” 

Representatives of the opposition on the other hand condemned the letter saying that it does not represent an invitation to the opposition rather than a deceptive move.  

Oerd Bylykbashi, Democratic Party MP, says that the letter aims to “legalize the electoral farce without the Democratic Party.” According to him, the fact that Socialist Party and Socialist Movement for Integration are not being registered as a coalition shows that the two allies want to run against each other during the parliamentary elections. 

April 19 at midnight marked the end of the legal deadline for the registration of coalitions at the Central Election Commission.  Although parties were registered as electoral entities until April 10 no coalition has been registered yet.

The Socialist Party and Socialist Movement for Integration have not signed a new collaboration agreement but they have joined forces to demand a postponement in the deadline for the registration of coalitions and political parties as well.

The request is unprecedented. 

Extending the deadline is not a simple move for CEC, which Thursday decided not to approve the request. If the electoral watchdog were to extend the deadline, then the move would pave the way to the visit of David Mcallister representative of the European People’s Party who will come to Albania to help parties find a solution to the crisis.
                    [post_title] => Main ruling parties do not register as coalition at the CEC
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 20 – At least 10 police officers and eight customs officials at the port of Durres and at the Qafe Thane border point were arrested Monday, following suspicions that they had facilitated the crossing of two various shipments of roughly 10 metric tons of cannabis sativa to nearby Italy. 

The two shipments crossed the border in February and March, prosecutors said.

On Feb. 5, Italian officials seized eight tons of drugs hidden in a truck which was revealed to have entered Albania through the customs of Qafe Thane and then made it out through the Durres Port to Italy. Four police officers in Qafe Thane had already been arrested for their involvement on this case.

On March 24, Italian authorities detained an Albanian citizen driving a truck loaded with 2.2 tons of cannabis.

According to a statement issued by the high crimes prosecutors, the arrested officials had cooperated to help the drug shipments get out of Albania. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of drug trafficking.

Sharp increase in trafficking

The news of the arrests comes at a time when trafficking of marijuana from Albania has increased sharply. Since the beginning of 2017, local authorities in collaboration with officials from neighboring Italy and Greece, have seized huge amounts of of marijuana.

In 2016, authorities destroyed about 2.5 million marijuana plants and seized 30 tons of cannabis some of which was confiscated at border crossing points or from boats bound for neighboring Greece and Italy.

Police and political ties with traffickers suspected

In the latest push to fight against traffickers, authorities have resorted to disbanding entire police stations in several parts of Albania, because they suspect tens of police officials are involved in the criminal activity of growing and trafficking marijuana. Entire police stations in places like Permet, Skrapar and Lac have been purged.

Only recently, several drug laboratories have been discovered in Tirana and Fier, giving more fuel to the perception that cannabis is now being cultivated on an industrial scale.

The opposition has accused the prime minister and certain government segments of not just tolerating the drug cultivation and trafficking, but of being in control of the criminal activity.

Independent observers say it is not possible to cultivate drugs at such a scale without the control and protection of law enforcement.

Every day there are news items showing massive amounts of cannabis being seized by Italian or Greek police, as Albanian smugglers attempt to transfer drugs using sea or land routes.

Opposition denounces political ties

Two years ago, the Albanian opposition first publicly denounced drug trafficking through air routes, through small aircraft. This denunciation of the opposition in parliament was not seriously taken into account and the government said the small planes were spraying for mosquitoes. But the truth was quite different. At least two planes crashed near the Adriatic coastline, clearly looking to smuggle drugs. A couple of improvised runways were also discovered.

The Albanian domestic market is relatively small so it is clear the massive amounts being cultivated in Albania are destined for the West. 

Experienced experts who deal with fighting organized crime have also raised concerns that while everyone is focussed on cannabis, new smuggling routes of stronger drugs from Afghanistan and Turkey, including heroin, are taking root to establish Albania as a transit hub for the West, all with reaction from Albanians or the international community. 

Negative impact on the country

The criminal world and its money are working to get influence the country’s politics, many believe. The parliament speaker, Ilir Meta, who leads the junior coalition partner, has called for the creation of a government of trust to make sure the opposition can agree that no dirty money will be used to fund the electoral campaign.

According to OSCE’s head of presence in Albania, there are 2 billion euros in drug money circulating in the country, but other independent observers claim the figures are even higher. 

The opposition is worried the money will be used to buy votes and influence during the general elections. 

The opposition has long denounced what it says are the government's and prime minister's connections with the criminal world. 

In addition to everything else, the massive amounts of marijuana being cultivated are having a huge negative impact on the economy.

In many rural areas, viable agriculture businesses are being abandoned in favor of growing marijuana. Many workers have left their jobs to work in the marijuana fields and processing, further hurting legal businesses.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132058" align="alignright" width="300"]The proposed Mabetex design project The proposed Mabetex design project[/caption]

TIRANA, April 20 - Plans to develop a luxury tourist resort in a protected national park and lagoon along the Adriatic just 80 km south of Tirana have sparked concerns by environmental NGOs and activists who say the project seriously endangers the local flora and fauna, including the already endangered population of Dalmatian Pelican.

The project has been proposed to the Albanian government by a Switzerland-based company owned by Kosovo-Albanian billionaire and politician Behgjet Pacolli known for its construction projects in Russia and Kazakhstan during the past two decades. If given the okay by the Albanian government, the proposed 3,342 hectare project is expected to be implemented under the so-called Albania 1 Euro initiative which provides investors free of charge construction sites and facilities in return for investment and job creation.

Environmental NGOs have come together to lobby against the construction project at a national park whose lagoon has been under the protection of the Ramsar Convention since 1994.

"The project targets occupying and transforming 10 percent of the park's territory while road, lighting and sea infrastructure will have a negative impact on all of the park's area. The company is seeking to occupy about 12 km of coastline for an amount of only 1 Euro and planning to build 2,400 apartments, 370 villas, a 90-hectare tourist resort and a town for 18,000 residents, almost double compared to population of Divjaka town spanning in a much bigger area," say the NGOs.

"The urbanization named as the ‘Divjaka Resort Albania’ master plan proposed by the Mabetex Group to the Albanian authorities is nothing more than a new construction project in a protected area seeking to privately benefit from a national heritage site preserved for centuries and legally protected since 1964," says environmentalist Taulant Bino.

The reaction comes after the Mabetex Group introduced the project in Tirana earlier this month at a round table with environmentalists arguing that the development project represents extraordinary economic and social opportunity for residents of the region and the whole country due to job creation and stimulus to the agriculture and transportation sectors and offering security to the park's wildlife.

"The park’s extraordinary ecosystem, with its lagoons, forest and wildlife, is the project’s stand-out feature, both in terms of its implementation and its profile. A carefully balanced construction work schedule has been planned in areas of the park that over the years have been subjected to wholesale changes," says the company on its website about the project whose cost is estimated at about $1 billion.

The Mabetex Group executive Behgjet Pacolli, 65, is apparently the richest ethnic Albanian businessman with his fortune estimated at $1 billion. He is also involved in Kosovo politics heading the New Kosovo Alliance Party and also served as the country's president for slightly more than a month in 2011, three years after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

[caption id="attachment_132059" align="alignright" width="300"]Divjaka forest Divjaka forest[/caption]

The Divjaka-Karavasta national park spans over a surface of 22,230 hectares offering a variety of habitats such as river delta, lagoons, sand dunes and rich flora and fauna.

The Karavasta Lagoon, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, is home to about 5 percent of the world’s endangered Dalmatian Pelican population.

The national park is recently also emerging as a bird watching destination and has also been recommended by prestigious Lonely Planet tourist guide.

The park is also known for its sandy beaches, pine forests and trekking.

Last year, Albania extended its hunting ban with another 5 years in a bid to protect its endangered fauna.

Environmentalists say Albania is home to an impressive number of species of birds that vary from residents, that stay all year around, to breeding birds, that spend a good part of the growing season in Albanian to raise their young, migrants who pass through the country with the seasons, to wintering birds who like to spend a good part of the winter in Albanian to escape colder conditions up north.

One of the most special species is the Dalmatian pelican in the Karavasta lagoon where only a few dozen have survived in the past two decades due to illegal hunting.
                    [post_title] => Environmentalists slam Kosovo billionaire’s national park development project as dangerous 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132022" align="alignright" width="300"]morava Some of the country's biggest beekeeping farms have also turned to agritourism to boost their income, also attracting tourists such as the Morava farm in Korça, southeastern Albania.[/caption]

TIRANA, April 17 - The massive nationwide cannabis cultivation even after the mid-2015 crackdown on the notorious internationally renowned marijuana-growing village of Lazarat, southern Albania, is having detrimental effects on the key agriculture sector, driving farmers away from cultivating traditional crops and making them take the risk of much more profitable illegal cannabis growing.

The thriving cannabis industry has most recently been blamed as one of the key factors with an impact on huge losses incurred by the developing Albanian bee industry, causing dozens of millions of euros in damage to beekeepers.

The Albanian Association of Beekeepers estimates that 40 percent of the bee population in the country has disappeared in the course of one year, mainly due to severe weather conditions as the country faced its harshest winters in three decades with snowfall and freezing temperatures even in coastal area, but without excluding the effects of rising cannabis cultivation distracting and even killing bees while pasturing.

Nationwide losses from the destruction of 144,000 beehives, about 40 percent of the total, are estimated at Euro 60 million, a considerable amount for Albania's underdeveloped agriculture sector, employing about half of the country's population but producing only about a fifth of the GDP.

Beekeepers interviewed by Monitor magazine claim it is exactly the growing cannabis cultivation and its pastures which are killing bees.

Beekeepers in Permet, Kukes and Librazhd regions where large areas of cannabis were reportedly cultivated last year say new varieties of cannabis plants are destroying the local bee populations.

One farmer outside Tirana who lost 171 beehives claims tests carried out in Turkey showed the bees had been killed by pasturing in cannabis plantations, according to Monitor magazine.

Albanian economy expects have earlier warned the growing cultivation of cannabis and its potential mass increase could have detrimental economic and social impacts, including the shift of attention from the key agriculture sector, distorting the labour market and strengthening the criminal economy.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that farmers have shifted to more lucrative cannabis production which seems to have flourished nationwide after police cracked down on the notorious Lazarat village in mid-2015 when they destroyed 102 tons of marijuana and 530,000 marijuana plants with an estimated market value at the time of some 6 billion euros, which is more than half of the country’s annual gross domestic product.

Albanian police say they destroyed 2.4 million of cannabis plants in the first three quarters of 2016 spread over a 213 hectare area nationwide, a 3-fold increase compared to the whole of 2015.

Albania's agriculture sector grew at below 1 percent in the past couple of years, registering one of its lowest growth rates, according to state statistical institute, INSTAT.

Agriculture is a key sector in the Albanian economy, employing about half of the country’s GDP but producing only about 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling its low productivity which is hampered by fragmentation of farm land into small plots and poor financing and technology employed.

 

Emerging bee industry

The Beekeepers’ Association is however more careful when analyzing the causes for one of the biggest losses in bees, attributing it mainly to severe weather conditions taking beekeepers by surprise and parasitic diseases.

“Last year's losses demoralized bee keepers a lot. Because of the harsh winter we faced devastating losses, maybe the biggest on record at about 40 percent of bees in Albania. The reasons for this are quite different, there's the harsh winter and lack of precautionary measures by beekeepers to handle this situation. There was also lack of timely treatment and inefficient medication,” Lejla Shehu, the head of the Albanian Beekeepers Association, earlier told Scan TV in an interview.

The Varroa destructor mite, a widespread parasite of European honey bees, also caused a lot of damage.

Albania's annual honey production is more than 3,200 metric tons a year, with a kilo or organic honey at about €10. However, production leaves a lot to be desired due to lack of disciplining and underdeveloped agriculture sector which directly influences on the performance of beekeeping.

Agriculture university professors say domestically produced honey has more than doubled in the past decade with imports covering only about a tenth of the country's needs.

Most production is sold in the domestic market while exports are relatively small due to not meeting EU requirements and tough competitiveness from regional countries offering lower prices.

The majority of honey is produced in the southern Vlora and Korça and Saranda regions. The northeastern region of Tropoja is also famous for its chestnut honey which has good potential to succeed in the international market.

“Poisoning from pesticides used in the agriculture sector also affected honey production and quality. Beekeepers are not informed on frequent sprays of up to 15 times a year of certain products such as apples,” the head of the beekeeping association has said.

Although still taught as a subject at Albania's sole public Agriculture University of Tirana, the collapse of the country's communist regime and its planned economy, has left the bee industry without proper training and state supervision.

“It is not easy breeding bees, you need to follow and get to know them which is one of the most important issues facing beekeepers. We nowadays lack a beekeeping institution, there are no real experts in state institutions which considering the nationwide development of beekeeping, the agriculture ministry should at least have a bee specialist and a specialized bee testing lab,” says Shehu.

Insect pollination is one of the main contributions of bees to agriculture crops.

“There is fresh evidence by scientists that one out of three mouthfuls is a direct contribution of bees due to their pollination of most agricultural plants. In different species such as apples and cherries, not only does it have an impact on increasing production and yield but also improves quality, bringing more profits to the agriculture sectors rather than beekeepers,” adds the Albanian bee expert.

Some of the country's biggest beekeeping farms have also turned to agritourism to boost their income, also attracting tourists such as the Morava farm in Korça, southeastern Albania.

Albanian organic honey and its royal jelly also known as ‘bee milk’ is known for its effects on balancing between low and high blood pressure, all kinds of anemia and the Alzheimer’s disease.

Speaking about the future of this sector, Shehu says beekeeping is a promising sector in for Albania considering its favourable climate and geographical conditions.

"Albania has very favourable conditions but we need to preserve these conditions. The fact is that this part of the Mediterranean we belong to has a Mediterranean, coastal and continental climate producing all kinds of good quality honey from light brown to dark brown and even black honey. But Albania has damaged pastures which means lots of woods have been cut down affecting food resources. However, this has been compensated by spontaneous wild plants and herbs which give Albanian honey special flavor,” she adds.
                    [post_title] => Rising cannabis cultivation blamed for massive bee losses
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                    [post_content] => There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And it sure is an interesting time in Albania. The political crisis is ongoing, with what appears to be no end in sight and increasingly the actors are becoming more deaf to each-others' requests.

The opposition parties, as promised, ignored a deadline to register with the Central Elections Commission for the general elections, as they say such elections should not take place until Prime Minister Edi Rama resigns – to allow a caretaker government to hold free and fair elections that fall outside the influence of “mafia and drug money.”

With massive and record amounts of marijuana seized in Albania and neighboring areas this week, that powerful criminal influence is nothing that can be swiped under the rug, despite the fact that the government and international community representatives appear to be unconcerned about it, with little or not public reaction to appease the opposition’s and ordinary Albanians' fears on this matter.

What makes the situation more interesting is that we are seeing an unprecedented clash between Albania's center-right opposition and the international community, fueled by what many Albanians believe is a strong pro-government and pro-Socialist bias of foreign diplomats, particularly those representing the European Union. A recent statement from the highest officials of the European Union appealed for the return to the parliament and the progress with the justice reform, leaving little doubt that the DP faces an uphill battle to achieve international backing for its request for free and fair elections through a caretaker government before having to vote for the vetting law -- the Socialists' preferred narrative of the crisis.

The junior coalition partner, which had tried to become a domestic mediator, did not walk out of the coalition arrangements this week, as it had threatened. The Socialist Movement for Integration of Ilir Meta seems to tread very carefully in their calculations and they have not managed to deliver a solution so far.

And things will get even more interesting ahead as the opposition is organizing a protest rally instead of participating in the upcoming mayoral by-elections in Kavaja. They have said the protest will be peaceful, but the fact that it takes place on election day leaves no doubt that it aims to at least delegitimize the voting process if not stop it altogether.

If this week couldn't get any more interesting, the next will be even more so as discussion for the next president start. The incumbent President Bujar Nishani has to leave his post by the end of July and therefore the Parliament has to replace him within the constitutional time limits. According to the juridical administration of the parliament the procedures for choosing a new president can start now. After a request to the Speaker of the Parliament to start with the procedure the first round of voting for the new Head of State is set on the evening of April 19.  In the meantime groups of MPs can launch their proposed candidates.

A few figures have expressed their intent or ambition to be considered. These include incumbent President Nishani as well as the current Minister of Defense, Mimi Kodheli. Neither can be considered a bipartisan figure that would be considered as beyond the sides, unless the majority tries to appease the opposition by leaving the incumbent in place, something that is unlikely to work since the opposition is set on the resignation of the Prime Minister itself.

The figure of the President has remained largely symbolic after the constitutional changes that reduced its election in the Parliament to a simple majority and after the approval of the justice reform that strips him of some powers related to the judicial sector. Therefore those who claim that the selection of the President can be an opportunity to reach common ground, negotiate and eventually go out of this paralyzed situation, walk on very thin argumentative ice.

Time is running out fast and the clouds keep only gathering. Unless all sides figure out a completely novel way to reach a compromise and diffuse tensions, the conditions are going to become worse and the polarization insurmountable. The power of the international community to serve as facilitator of dialogue, which has been an asset in the past, in this case has all but disappeared. Albania’s institutions are coming to the end of their time mandates including here the President, the justice system entities. Soon the real campaign will start with major rallies planned as early as this weekend.

Despite the fact that life has been going on mostly normally (with no major instability) since the start of the crisis there is not telling what will happen once the processes get rushed for time reasons. The perfect storm might be just at the doorstep.

 
                    [post_title] => Editorial: May we live in interesting times
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-13 15:05:38
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-04-13 13:05:38
                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, April 13 - Two months ahead of the upcoming general elections, the ruling Socialist Party-led government has made a new effort to reactivate a major highway project linking Tirana to the undeveloped Dibra region and neighboring Macedonia after the failure of concession negotiations with a Chinese company.

Gjoka Konstruksion, an Albanian-owned company has been awarded a 10 percent bonus for an unsolicited bid, placing it at an advantage when an international tender is held, likely later this year after the June 18 general elections whose run-up has been accompanied by a political deadlock with the main opposition Democratic Party threatening to boycott unless a caretaker government is installed to guarantee free and fair elections.

One of the country's biggest construction companies, already engaged in the construction of some Arbri road segments financed by the Albanian government, Gjoka Konstruksion has offered to complete the highway's remaining 40 km for 33.6 billion lek (€245 million) in about four years.

Under the proposal made by the Albanian company, the 69 km project will be partly funded with Euro 60 million by the Albanian government in the first four years of construction.

Socialist Party Prime Minister Edi Rama, who is seeking a second consecutive term as Albania's Prime Minister says the Arbri Road will be the first project as part of an ambitious recently announced public private partnership program that is expected to inject about Euro 1 billion in key road, education and health projects.

"The first project of the Euro 1 billion national reconstruction program has entered its final stage. After 25 years of unkept promises and disappointments after every voting process, 2017 will be the year of the start of works for this road axis making Dibra a closer neighbor of Tirana and giving an economic, social and tourist impetus to a whole region of extraordinary natural beauties and resources left in oblivion for about a quarter of a century," Prime Minister Edi Rama wrote after this week's government decision.

The Albanian company which has proposed a 69 km highway with a tunnel and a bypass is planning to fund part of the highway investment by introducing €4 tolls. Meanwhile, the Albanian government is expected to pay back the company for its proposed €190 million investment in annual instalments for the next 10 to 15 years.

If materialized, the project will be vital for the underdeveloped northeastern region of Dibra, mainly relying on agriculture and mining.

The project is also expected to boost trade exchanges with landlocked Macedonia and make access to Durres Port easier. In addition, the tourism sector is also expected to get boost as tourists from Macedonia, where more than a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, are the second top foreign visitors to Albania.

However, securing financing will be a key risk for the Albanian company while the Albanian government risks incurring hidden costs affecting its program to reduce public debt from a current 71 percent of the GDP to a more affordable 60 percent of the GDP for the current stage of Albania’s economic development.

Back in 2015, the Albanian government approved a special law offering China State Construction Engineering Corporation to complete the Arbri Road under a concession deal but contract negotiations failed.

Public-private partnerships have become a hot topic in Albanian politics after some risky concessions and warnings by international financial institutions that some 55 public-private partnerships the Albanian governments have signed during the past decade, have created commitments with a present value of about 7 percent of the GDP or €700 million in which the government will either pay the cost of the investment in installments or guarantee the revenue of concessionaires.

The completion of the Arbri Road would be the second major road project in Albania in the past decade after the country completed the Highway of Nation linking it to neighboring Kosovo in 2010.
                    [post_title] => Albanian company gets bonus for offering to complete Arbri Road for €245 mln
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131952" align="alignright" width="300"]amb China's Ambassador to Albania Jiang Yu[/caption]

TIRANA, April 11 - China's Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli will visit Albania in the next few days in what is expected to be the highest level government delegation in five decades as the two countries are engaging in a new long-term cooperation and China strengthens its position as one of Albania's key trading partners and investors.

China's Ambassador to Albania Jiang Yu describes the April 16 to 17 visit by a Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Gaoli as key to the further progress in Albania-China relations dating back to the early 1960s when the now economic superpower emerged as the top ally of then-communist Albania.

“A Chinese proverb says ‘A year’s plan starts with spring’ and the visit of the Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli will definitely have a historic and realistic significance to deepening traditional Sino-Albanian friendship and mutual trust between the two sides. The visit will also help both countries reach new consensus on concrete cooperation in various areas, bringing more vitality to both countries," Ambassador Yu has told Albanian state-run ATA news agency in an interview.

The Chinese Vice Premier’s visit comes as China has emerged as the country’s second largest trading partner, overtaking traditional recession-hit neighbouring Greece and the world’s second largest economy  has quickly turned into one of the country’s top investors with two key acquisition in the oil and air transport sectors.

The last time a higher level Chinese official visited Albania was in 1964 when then Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai visited the country for one week to lay the foundations of Chinese assistance to Albania's economic development and complete large scale industrial projects the Soviets had left behind in 1961 after the two countries split on ideological grounds.

Last year, a Chinese consortium led by China Everbright Limited acquired a 100 percent stake in Albania’s sole international airport for an undisclosed amount that is estimated at €82 million. Another Chinese company, Geo-Jade Petroleum Corporation, completed the acquisition of Canada-based Bankers Petroleum, the country’s biggest oil producer for C$575 million (€392 mln) earlier in 2016, increasing China’s presence as a foreign investor in Albania from almost zero to almost half a billion euros, although the Tirana International Airport has been unveiled to be fully owned by Singapore-based Real Fortress Private Limited, according to Albania's National Business Center.

The Chinese investments come 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 in 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 people will never forget Albania’s historic contribution towards restoring China’s lawful seat in the United Nations. After powerful winds and heavy rains in the history of the past 68 years, the sun is again increasingly shining on the Sino-Albanian friendship of the new historic era," says Ambassador Yu.

"The acquisition of the Tirana International Airport and Bankers Petroleum company by Chinese companies turns China into one of the most important trading partners for Albania while cooperation in the education, cultural, youth, publishing, media and local governments are increasing every day," she adds.

The investments also come at a time when China's growth has slowed down to a so-called new normal following decades of strong double digit growth rates and ample liquidity.

Several other much-rumored Chinese investments in Albania including a concession highway linking Albania to Macedonia known as the Arbri road and an industrial park outside Durres failed to materialize despite years of efforts and negotiations.

Trade exchanges between the two countries rose to 58 billion lek in 2016 (€423 million) in 2016, with only a slight advantage over traditional second largest trading partner and top foreign investor Greece, which has experienced one of its worst recession periods since the 2008 global crisis, but accounting for only a fifth compared to top trading partner Italy.

The trade exchanges with China accounted for about 10 percent of Albania's trade volume in 2016 and were mainly dominated by imports from China, about seven times higher compared to Albania's overwhelming majority chromium dominated exports, according to INSTAT, Albania's state statistical institute.

An unequal alliance?

U.S.-based journalist Elez Biberaj, one of the world's leading political scientists on Albanian issues has examined the honeymoon in relations between the two countries for about two decades until the late 1970s in his "Albania and China - An unequal alliance" book, a publication of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, one of the country’s top think tanks.

"Domination in the alliance by the Great Power reduces the Small Power to the status of a satellite, rather than an ally. The Small Power thereby suffers a loss of sovereignty. Such was not the case with the unequal alliance between the smallest and one of the largest communist states: Albania and China,” says Biberaj in his book.

“For seventeen years (1962-1978) Albania used this alliance as a strategy to pursue and secure its national objectives. This interaction, examined from the Albanian viewpoint, was made all the more unique by a basic incongruity of interests, a great geographical distance, profound historical and cultural differences and significant disparities in economic and military capabilities,” adds Biberaj, the director of VoA's Euroasia Division.

Almost four decades on after the cut of ties in the late 1970s, China is emerging as a powerful player in Albania and the region with key investments.

"The acquisition by the Chinese company ‘China Everbright International Limited’ of the Tirana International Airport in early October 2016 points to an increasing influence of China in strategic sectors of the Albanian economy," says Isilda Mara, a researcher with the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

"These developments are reminiscent of the close alliance Albania and China had between the late 1950s and the late 1970s," she adds in her paper "Albania: China the new old strategic partner?"

 

 

 

 
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130553" align="alignright" width="225"]Albert Rakipi, PhD Albert Rakipi, PhD[/caption]

An interview with Albert Rakipi, the executive director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies

What is your first reaction to the declarations of the Prime Minister Edi Rama according to whom should the perspective of the European Union membership for Albania wane then the country will seek unification with Kosovo?

European integration has been the driving force of state building in Albania, during the entire process of post-communist transformation, aiding the building of a functioning state, the modernization of the society, the establishment of a democratic system, establishment of the rule of law, the respect for basic freedoms and human rights as well as economic development.

This transformation process has in turn furthered the perspective of European integration of Albania. 

I believe that the logic behind such a statement is very fallible: that should the EU not accept Albania as a member then the country will unite with Kosovo. Kosovo and its unification with Albania could never replace the magic transformational power of the EU. To reach this conclusion is enough to reflect on how the unification with Kosovo could ever assist the establishment of a modern and functioning state, the rule of the constitution and the law in Albania, the values of freedom, the economic development and the modernization of the society.

What will happen if indeed there is no more enlargement of the EU or if for any other reason Albania and other countries which aspire to integration are no longer welcomed in the EU?

The integration of Albania in the European Union is not a matter of unification with a certain territory, in this case of uniting with the territory of the member states. Conceptualizing integration in such a way is very wrong in my opinion. According to this logic then if Albania is not united to the territory of the Union then it can be united to Kosovo.

The European Union is currently facing some very major challenges which concern its very survival (for example a victory of Le Pen, who has promised to do away with the Union, in France, automatically would mean the end of the Union). However does this mean that Albania and similar countries should abandon their project of building democratic systems and societies which are based on rule of law and freedom and human rights? The West and the societies that live in freedom have existed long before the European Union. 

Does this seem like a threat or some form of blackmail that is coming repeatedly from Albania?

This makes the situation even more ridiculous. Albania continues to try to play the giant in foreign affairs. This comes out of the communism’s political cultural legacy. I am reading a new study on bilateral relations between Albania and  China in their last period (under communism) when Hoxha sends a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist party of China and strongly condemns the fact the Pekin (Beijing) has decide to welcome the visit of President Nixon, without first consulting this with the Albanian Communist Party.  But it is not only a matter of the culture that comes from communism. Albanian leaders regularly and primarily are occupied with matters of international relations. This is one way to avoid facing the failures of domestic policy and also one way to think that they are in the radar of attention of European if not global stakeholders. Let’s remember here also the declarations of warnings from Albanian leaders of what would happen to the world should Donald Trump be elected as a president.

If indeed Albania and Kosovo are united then we have a risk. Both are very weak states and Kosovo is even an unconsolidated one. Both states are very much damaged by internal political conflict, have low state functionality and low democratic standards. The unification if it happens, would bring a bigger state but of course one that is very weak and perhaps even impossible to govern. This is without mentioning the integration of the two societies, which despite sharing the same language are very different and this would create a permanent tension. I know that the ‘colorful’ entourage of fanatic nationalists will become nervous towards anyone who speaks against national unification or against the national question, for which they speak as if we were one hundred years ago. Even more nervous will get those people who are still sheltered in the nationalist-communist bunker, from which they attack repeatedly with their long written complaints the American imperialism.

The national question has been solved with the independence of Kosovo and what our leaders and societies should do is to build states where rule of law prevails and develop societies that stop living under fear. Last but not least, Albania as a member of NATO not only should refrain from threatening but considering its small size should show seriousness and maturity in its behavior.

But doesn’t the idea of the unification between Albania and Kosovo exist even in Kosovo?

According to the latest study of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, only 9 percent of Albanians in Albania would consider unification of the two states as a positive thing. We also know that in Albania there is not one single political party, organization of influential individual that supports or encourages a political movement that calls for the unification of Kosovo with Albania. Even one political party in Albania that was launched with a platform for the unification of all Albanian (speaking) territories in the Balkans, did not receive even one percent of the national vote in the last two rounds of parliamentary elections.

In Kosovo there exists a political party, Vetëvendosja, which doesn’t recognize the state of Kosovo and which calls for the unification in one single national state but I think it is a public secret that despite the populism, which by the way is on the rise in political, cultural and intellectual elites, it is precisely the former, the political elites that in fact do not desire and are additionally actively against a potential unification option. 

 
            [post_title] => AIIS director: Albania-Kosovo union would create a weak state, if not an ungovernable one
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