Italian legal changes put Albania’s booming call center industry at risk

Italian legal changes put Albania’s booming call center industry at risk

TIRANA, Nov. 28 – Legal changes initiated by the Italian Parliament risk putting at risk the booming call center industry in Albania, one of the country’s key employers in recent years with a huge impact on tackling high youth jobless

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Turkish couchsurfer: It’s a social responsibility for me to host people visiting Albania

Turkish couchsurfer: It’s a social responsibility for me to host people visiting Albania

By Jona Kuka Alaattin is an avid traveler and an active participant in the famous traveler’s website, couchsurfing.com. This website is great for those that want to explore countries of the world, while they meet and talk to local people.

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New ‘shady’ PPPs to cost taxpayers €52 mln for 2017

New ‘shady’ PPPs to cost taxpayers €52 mln for 2017

TIRANA, Nov. 24 – Financial support to six concession contracts the Albanian government has signed in key sectors over the past three years and two new public-private partnerships expected to be made operational next year will cost Albanian taxpayers an

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Euro hits 6-year low against lek, further affecting ailing exports

Euro hits 6-year low against lek, further affecting ailing exports

TIRANA, Nov. 23 – Europe’s single currency hit a six-year low against Albania’s national currency this week, further affecting the country’s exports, already on a downward trend due to a slump in international commodity prices. The euro dropped to as

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Proposed income tax changes to increase companies’ burden

Proposed income tax changes to increase companies’ burden

TIRANA, Nov. 21 – Some newly proposed changes to the income tax will increase the companies’ corporate income tax by lowering the amount of tax deductible interest involving borrowing expenses that taxpayers can claim to reduce taxable income, sparking concerns

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Lumpy skin disease increases poverty rates among affected farmers

Lumpy skin disease increases poverty rates among affected farmers

TIRANA, Nov. 22 – The lumpy skin disease continues claiming livestock lives throughout Albania, most recently in the central part of the country, increasing poverty rates among thousands of households who rely on cows to make a living. The disease

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EC: Albania’s narcotics business generates €260 mln annually

EC: Albania’s narcotics business generates €260 mln annually

TIRANA, Nov. 24 – The narcotics business in Albania, which has thrived nationwide even after a mid-2015 police crackdown on the notorious marijuana growing Lazarat village, has a much higher share to the GDP compared to leading EU members, the

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Activists arrested as protests against waste imports continue

Activists arrested as protests against waste imports continue

TIRANA, Nov. 23 – Activists of the Alliance Against Waste Imports and other members of civil society in Albania have launched fresh protests against a bill that would allow Albanian companies to import waste for recycling. “Two young protesters were

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Minister of Education hit with tomato sauce as part of protest against university reform

Minister of Education hit with tomato sauce as part of protest against university reform

TIRANA, Nov. 22 – Albanian Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla was attacked with tomato sauce earlier this week as she attended a conference on the International Day of Students. A video of the attack, filmed by the group of student

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Rama dismisses claims of Greater Albania in Greek media interview

Rama dismisses claims of Greater Albania in Greek media interview

TIRANA, Nov. 23 – In a wide-ranging interview for a Greek television station, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has denied speculations that Albania is pursuing border changes and pushing forward the concept of “Greater Albania.” “We have Albania, Kosovo, Albanian

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 28 – Legal changes initiated by the Italian Parliament risk putting at risk the booming call center industry in Albania, one of the country’s key employers in recent years with a huge impact on tackling high youth jobless rates, whose overwhelming majority of services are offered to Italian companies.

The changes which are pending the final approval by the Italian Senate have created panic among some call center owners who say 25,000 jobs in Albania are endangered as Italian MPs are about to tighten rules for the transfer of Italian call center companies to non-EU members and make it compulsory for them to tell which country they offering their services from.

Other investors say the panic is unjustified as the Italian legal changes only curb the expansion of the industry by tightening the transfer of call centers to non-EU countries, but pose no threat to current businesses operating in Albania.

Ines Muçostepa, the director of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and a manager of one of the country’s leading call centers, says the changes the Italian Parliament has undertaken affect only Albania as Italian companies can still move to other EU member countries with cheaper labour costs such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

“If also approved by the Italian Senate, this bill will also have consequences for Albania, maybe not immediately, but gradually and we risk losing thousands of jobs,” says Muçostepa.

The legal changes were initiated by Italian trade unions worried over the massive transfer of Italian call center and their services to Albania, where cheap labour costs and good Italian language skills make it a much sought-after destination.

“Of course we lobbied hard against these legal changes but there has been strong pressure by Italian trade unions which have a strong say in Italian politics,” Muçostepa says, adding that Albania should intensify its lobby efforts with the fact that it is already about to open accession negotiations with the EU and can provide guarantees about data protection.

However, Agron Shehaj, a successful Albanian investor in the call center business, says there is no room for immediate panic.

“The current form of the draft law and the way it is intended to be approved poses no threat to the closure of call centers in Albania. The panic that has spread is unjustified. The thing is there are some rules that prevent the displacement of jobs from Italy to Albania for those who intend to invest in Albania or those who are already in Albania but want to expand their businesses. This will simply curb it,” says Shehaj.

Shehaj who in 2008 founded IDS, the country’s biggest call center currently employing some 3,000 people, sold the business to a London-based company for €10 million in late 2014. He still serves as its administrator.

Italian legal changes envisage huge €150,000 fines for call centers whose operators don’t inform customers about the country they are calling from or when answering to customer enquiries, something which up to now was avoided.

The legal changes also make it more difficult for Italian companies to change their location or contract non-EU third parties who have to provide guarantees about data protection.

A booming industry

The booming call center business registered another sharp increase in 2015 when the number of companies operating in Albania doubled and the workforce rose to 25,000, but had a small impact on reducing high youth unemployment rates.

Data shows there were 847 call center companies operating in Albania at the end of 2015, compared to 414 in 2014 and only 75 in 2010 when Albania emerged as an attractive call center destination for the Italian market due to cheap labor costs and language skills by Albanian youth.

This service mainly engaged in marketing campaigns and customer service for big operators in Italy has seen a boom in the past five years mainly due to low operational costs and the fluent Italian that Albanian youngsters speak.

Operating costs are estimated three times lower compared to Italy where average wages for a call center job range from €900 to €1,000 compared to €280 to €350 in Albania.

The call center jobs have also become attractive to students attending university because of the flexibility they offer, by allowing employees to choose their working hours.

During the past few years, the call center industry has served as an alternative employment opportunity for thousands of newly graduates who find it impossible to find a job matching their university skills. Yet, youth unemployment rates remain at a record high of 30 percent, reconfirming the mismatch between the education system and job market needs.

The booming call center business and the traditional garment and footwear manufacturing are emerging as two of the key employers for Albanian young men and women aged from 15 to 29.

While the call center business dominated by Italian companies mainly attracts university students and newly graduates who are unable to find a job in the occupation they have graduated in, the façon industry, a traditional employer producing garment and footwear mainly for export to Italy, is attracting a considerable number of youngsters who have finished only the compulsory education or secondary education but failed to attend university.

Albania has some 100,000 jobless youngsters aged between 15 to 29, a considerable number of whom joined the exodus in 2015 when more than 65,000 Albanians left the country to seek asylum in EU member countries, mainly in Germany.

 
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                    [post_content] => By Jona Kuka

Alaattin is an avid traveler and an active participant in the famous traveler’s website, couchsurfing.com. This website is great for those that want to explore countries of the world, while they meet and talk to local people. The upside of a website like couchsurfing is its safety and the variety of the people you can choose to meet on your travels. 

Alaattin, what is couchsurfing for you? 

Couchsurfing is mostly used by backpackers or in other words low budget travelers. These people aren’t looking for cheap solutions, but they prove, that money shouldn’t be a barrier when you desire to explore the world. Couchsurfing.com is designed as a website where all its participants get a chance to help each other. Accommodation is a significant expense when you travel. Not knowing the local language and the best places to hang out can also hinder on your travel experience. So, there is couchsurfing.com to help you spend time with local people, be a guest in their house, their culture and their dinner tables. There could be issues of trust when meeting strangers, however the system has references and reviews for each host and you can use your sound judgment when choosing to stay with one. You might visit people’s profiles, read their descriptions, and inquire on other people’s opinion for this person.

Alaattin has 141 references from travelers who have stayed in his house in Tirana. His positive energy is spread all over the comments left by the different couchsurfers. All the couchsurfers would have stayed with him again. They say about him that he has a good sense of humor; he is a good cook; he has knowledge about places and cultures; he can hold interesting conversations; and so continues an almost endless scroll of positive comments.

Some of the travelers consider themselves lucky to have met you. Why do they think that? 

It was a pleasure to have met with all of the amazing travelers. The best think about couchsurfing is that we have at least one similar interest, and that is traveling. When receiving guests, comfort is priority, in the Turkish way of hospitality and I think the Albanian custom isn’t far different. I consider it my social responsibility to host people who would like to visit and learn more about Albania.

He has welcomed people from Kenya, Russia, Lithuania, Canada, Denmark, USA, Finland, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Turkey, Argentina,  Hungary, Spain, Portugal, France, Netherland, Germany, Belgium, UK, Sweden, Ukraine, and Thailand just to mention some, and they have great things to say, not only about his personality ,but also about his cozy and funky house. 

Alaattin is from Turkey and he is also a musician and a photographer. Where do you draw inspiration from in photography?

I believe that we are all designers. We began our life and that was our biggest art. Whenever I look at my design, I try to make it better and better. Photography is a fixed point, which helps me see my designs from a distance. In every season of my life, I can see different angles, compositions, and the adventure of finding sources of lights.

Alaattin is a very busy professional guy. As a Multimedia Designer & Programmer, what is your line of work in a day to day basis?

I have two different responsibilities in Albania. I have one multimedia designing and photography company, AlbElite. The other one is in consultancy, created in a partnership with the Turkish Law firm, Istanbul Law and Consultancy. I am spending most of my working time for AlbElite and its sub-brands : Remember You Are Independent, Tirana City Guide or Motion Tease.

What is your favorite routine of the day? 

Not every day is the same for me. My priorities change and it is very hard for me to generalize. I work in the day time, and then try to rest and learn new things before I go to sleep. On weekends, I like to discover new places in or around Albania. But, sometimes I like to organize cooking weekends and invite my friends to cook together to discover new tastes and recipes. Other times I organize movie Sunday and watch some movies with friends.

What is your favorite dish to cook then?

Stuffed melon. We call it in Turkish “Kavun Dolmasi.”

What kind of dish have you learned to cook from a couchsurfer? 

I learned several dishes, but most valuables are sushi and raclette.

Sina Opalka, a couchsurfer from Berlin Germany, had the impression that your mind is always moving and creating new ideas and projects? Can you uncover one or two of these projects?

I will mention Remember You Are Independent and Tirana City Guide. In 2012, I created the project named Remember You Are Independent, which was inspired from 100th years of independence in Albania. We made 10.000 km around Western Europe and we recorded videos of people we met on the road. We talked to them about Albania and enticed them to visit.  Tirana City Guide is a guide for entertainment life in Tirana, which can also be downloaded as an app for android or iOS. You find weekly events with map and descriptions.

If a traveler had only three days to spend in Tirana, where would you suggest they went? 

The most important adventure in Tirana is spending time to know the Albanian people, and see how generous, friendly, helpful and hospitable Albanian people truly are. So, I always suggest travelers I meet to stay longer and live and see. On the other hand, I highly suggest them to go visit National Museum, BunkArt, Dajti, Skender Beu Square, Pyramid, Open Air Communism Museum and so on.

What is your favorite media for news?

News from the internet but I also follow BBC for international news Sozcu and Hurriyet for Turkey.

You have a mountaineering license, how did you get that and what mountains have u climbed so far?

I am a licensed member and instructor in Turkish Climbing Federation. This federation has several training camps to teach new climbers about Alpinism. Latest mountains I climbed Kackar Dagi (3.932 m) and Kucuk Dermirkazik (3.425 m).

Why are the Balkans so great for a traveler to visit and explore? 

The people of the Balkans are hospitable, helpful, friendly and warm. So it is very easy to hang out and share with them lots of things. The nature of the Balkans is very unique and valuable. I want to give you the feeling when traveling in the Balkans:  sometimes, while you are watching an interesting movie, you wish it never ended and you want to watch it more and more; I’ve had exactly the same feeling while traveling in the Balkans, the wish it never ends.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 24 - Financial support to six concession contracts the Albanian government has signed in key sectors over the past three years and two new public-private partnerships expected to be made operational next year will cost Albanian taxpayers an estimated 7.2 billion lek (€52 million) for 2017, the finance ministry has unveiled.

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.

While experts say Albania can benefit a lot from engaging in public private partnership, the transparency over their award and implementation remains key to their effectiveness.

"Currently there are six concession contracts or public private partnerships receiving budget support and it is expected that two new contracts signed by the ministries of environment and health become operational in 2017," says the government in its 2017 draft budget.

The government says it will pay 787 million lek (€5.7 million) in 2017 in financial support to a 10-year medical checkup whose extension to legal residents aged between 35 to 70 years has raised further eyebrows over lack of transparency and allegations of corruption. The company that has been awarded the concession, one of the country's biggest importers of tobacco and alcohol products, had no prior experience with health services.

The provision of surgical equipment, the treatment of biological waste and the disinfection of surgical rooms, another 10-year concession awarded in 2015, will cost Albanian taxpayers 1.2 billion lek (€8.9 million) for 2017.

The dialysis service for patients suffering from kidney diseases, another 10-year concession which started this year, will cost the government 947 million (€6.9 million) for next year.

The government will also pay a concessionary that built a waste-to-energy plant in Elbasan, central Albania, 476 million lek (€3.5 million) for 2017. The plant which is expected to be made operational this year under a seven-year concession deal will also produce electricity from the burning of waste through an incinerator.

Refunds for replacement roads build by Norway's Statkraft for its major Devoll hydropower plant in southeastern Albania will also cost the government about 1.3 billion lek (€9.3 million) for next year.

Meanwhile, a 15-year concession contract on a customs scanning service that kicked off in 2014 is expected to cost taxpayers about 900 million lek (€6.5 mln) for 2017. The concessionaire already charges €22 for declarations of more than 1,000 euros with customs authorities and €5 for declarations of less than 1,000 euros in the country’s customs points.

The government will also pay about 886 million lek (€6.4 mln) on a new 10-year concession that will kick off in 2017 to offer hospital lab services.

The construction of a new waste-to-energy plant in Fier, southwestern Albania, a project which has been met with strong protests by the local community over environmental concerns, will cost taxpayers 676 million lek (€4.9 million) for 2017.

The concessions whose term range from 5 to 15 years, with government payments scheduled for each year, have all been signed in the past three years and become operational starting 2015. They were all awarded by the ruling Socialist Party-led government except for the scanning concession, another costly public-private partnership awarded by the former Democratic Party-led, which was renegotiated by the current majority in 2014 to reduce scanning fees.

In its report to the 2017 draft budget, the ruling government says the amounts the government will pay pose no threat to the public finances as they don't exceed the statutory limit of 5 percent of the tax revenue. For 2017, the amount the government will pay will be at about 2 percent of the 2016 tax income.

Earlier this year, the Albanian government also announced plans to award a concession on a new electronic platform on the collection of VAT, the key tax levied at a fixed 20 percent rate on almost all goods and services and accounting for a third of total government, but later withdrew following evidence the concessionaire could earn a lucrative contract.

Proposed legal changes by the Socialist Movement for Integration,  the ruling Socialists’ junior ally, to also involve Parliament in the approval of PPPs whose term exceeds four years, the same as the mandate of a majority from general elections, in a bid to seek cross-party consensus have not received support.

In its latest progress report on Albania, the European Commission recommends Albania should further harmonise with EU public procurement rules, including in the area of concessions and set up the concessions/public private partnerships registry.

The Commission also raises questions marks over their transparency.

“Around 170 PPPs have been signed so far, constituting 6.1 percent of GDP. Although required by law, value for money analysis has not been systematically carried out before approval of the PPPs. There is no regular report on PPPs, including projected receipts and payments over contracts' lifetime. Overall, the technical skills and capacity to design and assess concession and PPP projects needs to be further improved,” says the Commission.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 23 - Europe's single currency hit a six-year low against Albania's national currency this week, further affecting the country's exports, already on a downward trend due to a slump in international commodity prices.

The euro dropped to as low as 135.81 lek this week, down 1.3 percent compared to last September when it slightly strengthened against lek following the end of the tourist season.

Europe's single currency also recently hit a 20-month low against the U.S. dollar this week when it slumped to $1.0518, and is now in touching distance of the 12-year low it hit in March 2015 when the European Central Bank began its government bond buying programme. The situation has been fuelled by a slowdown in Europe's leading German economy and almost a 100 percent chance that the Federal Reserve will hike U.S. interest rates next month.

Meanwhile, in a similar trend with the euro-dollar pair, the Albanian national currency also depreciated against the U.S. dollar which climbed to a year-high of 127.84 lek this week. The U.S. dollar, whose weight in the Albanian economy and lending is much lower compared to the euro, hit a 12-year high against the Albanian lek and the Euro in March 2015 when oil prices fell to as low as $30 a barrel.

The depreciation of the Euro against the Albanian lek is good news for borrowers in Euro who have their income in lek and the government’s external debt payments, but bad news for Albanian exporters who are also facing a sharp cut in commodity prices, keeping exports at negative growth rates.

Albania’s exports dropped to 177 billion lek (€1.3 billion) in the first nine months of this year negatively affected by a sharp cut in international oil and mineral prices.

Albania faces high euroization rates, with the single European currency accounting for more than half of total credit and being the main currency in the real estate market, which makes the central bank’s easier monetary policy little efficient.

The euro has depreciated by 2.3 percent since mid-2015 when it traded at 140.82 lek.

The national currency, lek, has lost around 15 percent during the past seven years against the Euro. In November 2008, when the global crisis broke out, the Euro stood at an average of 123.29 lek. Since then, Europe’s single currency has been on a constant appreciation trend against lek, climbing to a historic record high of 141.97 lek in June 2011 and remaining at an average of 140 lek until late 2015 when it embarked on a downward trend.
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 11:41:55
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2016-11-25 10:41:55
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 21 - Some newly proposed changes to the income tax will increase the companies' corporate income tax by lowering the amount of tax deductible interest involving borrowing expenses that taxpayers can claim to reduce taxable income, sparking concerns among Albanian and foreign businesses over a new hike in the tax burden, already the main issue of concern for companies operating in the country.

"The changes proposed in this draft law are part of the 2017 fiscal package on the tax deductions to calculate the corporate income in case of borrowing between affiliated companies. Financing with very high debts between affiliated companies is a cause for unacceptable erosion of their income basis because differently from the dividend, the debt interest is tax deductible,” argues the government.

“Considering that the recognition of tax deductible interest has an impact on lowering the taxable income, then, the affiliated operators, target choosing debt financing even in cases when this is not necessary,” government experts say.

Currently, if the loan and its pre-payment exceed the own capital by four times, the interest paid on the extra amount is not recognized as tax deductible.

The ruling majority is proposing another rule for affiliated companies in addition to the existing capitalization regulation based on the debt to capital ratio.

The new method is based on the net interest income involving the difference between interest earned and interest paid, under which in case net spending on interests exceeds by 30 percent the  earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), it is not recognized as tax deductible.

"This provision treats the use of debt by affiliated parties and among affiliated companies in order to prevent excess tax deductible interests or financing the generation of tax free income," says the government in its 2017 draft budget.

The draft law will enter into force in 2018 and extend its effects starting 2019 in order to leave companies enough time to restructure their financing deals.

Bank and non-bank financial companies as well as insurance and leasing companies have been excluded from this rule.

The business community has strongly opposed the proposed measures.

Reacting to the proposed changes, the American Chamber of Commerce described the legal changes as an increase in the tax burden, already the key concern for foreign business community representatives.

"Clearly, this change would increase the corporate income tax payment to the budget as long as companies incurring losses will have no opportunity to recognize as tax deductible the interest rates paid on their debts. As a result, the proposed change is an increase in the tax burden, which runs counter to the government's commitment not to further increase the tax burden,” says the AmCham.

The Tirana Chamber of Commerce says the new regulation would also affect lending, already struggling to recover to positive growth rates.

"We think such a measure will reduce lending, increase the tax burden or increase chances for tax evasion. Albania is a developing country where the basis for the creation of capital is lending and the tough credit situation would further increase the burden for businesses," says the Tirana Chamber of Commerce.

Since mid-2014 new legislation has been in force in Albania on transfer pricing, an activity that involves one department in a company charging another department in the same company or another company in the same group for supplying goods and services, bringing it in line with EU and international standards.
                    [post_title] => Proposed income tax changes to increase companies’ burden
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 11:39:37
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 22 - The lumpy skin disease continues claiming livestock lives throughout Albania, most recently in the central part of the country, increasing poverty rates among thousands of households who rely on cows to make a living.

The disease has recently affected households in Lushnja and Elbasan, central Albania, where vaccination and vet services have not been available from the beginning despite the virus affecting several areas of the country since last summer.

The situation is more critical in some villages of Elbasan where milk and calves secures a living for most local farmers.

“The cow started going numb and we called the vet. He told us we have no vaccines and can’t stop the disease from developing. The cow is our only hope and we don't know what to do know, wait for her to recover or slaughter her. The government should help us because we are hopeless. We have no other income. We take the milk to town and bring back bread," Fatmir Bedeli, a farmer from Mjekes village in Elbasan has told BIRN in the local Albanian service.

Some 500 head of cattle have been confirmed infected with the lumpy skin disease in the region of Elbasan of which 100 were destroyed due to the aggravation of the disease.

The situation in Lushnja, southwestern Albania, is also critical, but authorities say the situation is getting under control following vaccination and treatment by local vets.

The market value of a cow in Albania ranges from Euro 1,000 to 1,500.

Last August, Albania lifted temporary ban on domestic meat trade following a vaccination campaign in several affected areas of the country.

Albania imposed a two-week ban on domestic meat trade in late July after more than 270 head of cattle were identified infected lumpy skin disease, also known as Dermatitis nodularis, in northeastern Albania. The temporary measure was imposed to prevent the spread of the viral disease which is transmitted quickly among animals but is not reported dangerous to humans.

Agriculture Minister Edmond Panariti said Albania managed to save some 200,000 head of cattle, worth about Euro 300 million, from the nationwide vaccination campaign in the past couple of weeks.

Albania had some 504,000 heads of cattle in 2015, with dairy cows accounting for about three-quarters, according to state statistical institute, INSTAT.

Albania has yet to meet standards to export livestock products, as well as meat to the EU market.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, says the lumpy skin disease has been present in the Balkan region since 2015 with outbreaks in Turkey, Greece and more recently also Bulgaria and Macedonia.

The disease affecting cattle has considerable economic impact due to production losses such as milk drop, reduced quality of skins and movement and trade restrictions imposed on the affected areas, say FAO experts.

Agriculture is a vital sector in the Albanian economy, employing about half of the country’s population but providing only about 20 percent of the GDP.
                    [post_title] => Lumpy skin disease increases poverty rates among affected farmers
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 11:35:02
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 24 - The narcotics business in Albania, which has thrived nationwide even after a mid-2015 police crackdown on the notorious marijuana growing Lazarat village, has a much higher share to the GDP compared to leading EU members, the European Commission warns in its latest progress report on Albania.

The Commission estimates illicit proceeds of narcotics in Albania is equal to 2.6 percent of the GDP, about €260 million, only slightly lower compared to the 2.9 percent of the GDP the Albanian government plans to spend on the key health sector for 2017.

"According to specialized UN bodies, profits from the illicit opiate trade continued to constitute considerable financial incentives for organized criminal groups in Albania. Illicit proceeds of narcotics account for a significant proportion of Albania’s GDP (2.60 percent, compared to 0.07-0.19 percent for countries such as France, Germany, Italy and United Kingdom)," says the report.

Albanian economy expects have warned the growing cultivation of cannabis and its potential mass increase could have detrimental economic and social impacts.

Experts argue the mass cannabis cultivation will have severe economic consequences for the country, including the shift of attention from the key agriculture sector, negative social impacts, the distortion to the labour market and the strengthening of 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 metric 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 have 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 remains a major source country for marijuana, as well as a transit route for shipment of cocaine and heroin destined for European markets, the United States Department of State says in its International Narcotics Control Strategy report.
                    [post_title] => EC: Albania’s narcotics business generates €260 mln annually
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 11:04:49
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 23 - Activists of the Alliance Against Waste Imports and other members of civil society in Albania have launched fresh protests against a bill that would allow Albanian companies to import waste for recycling.

"Two young protesters were detained by police as activists set up tends in front of the parliament building and stayed overnight as part of an ongoing protest. They were released the next day but face prosecution for “disturbing the peace,” police said.

Protests started Wednesday evening and activists vowed to continue the protests until Thursday evening as the parliament holds its weekly parliamentary session.

Members of the Alliance Against Waste Imports have called on citizens nationwide to join the protests, which have been backed up by members of the opposition, which has called on citizens to join the protests.

“Politicians can join the protest for as long as they want to voice their concerns as ordinary citizens and not representatives of political parties. This is a civic cause and not a political one,” AAWI said in a statement.

Organizers of the protest stood all night in front of the parliament, calling on members of the assembly to not approve the controversial waste bill.

Civil society and environmentalists have increased pressure on the Socialist Party-led government, fearing Albania will become Europe’s dumping site.

The government claims that the waste bill aims to revive the struggling recycling industry and imported waste will not be hazardous to citizens health. The ruling majority approved the bill on Sept. 22, a decision met with a spate of protests by environmental activists and outrage on social media.

The bill also revealed cracks in the ruling coalition as only 63 MPs voted in favor, while several members of the coalition were not present.

However a month later, President Bujar Nishani overturned the bill arguing that the waste imports are not an obligation that derives from the Stabilization and Association Agreement or any other international accord ratified by the Republic of Albania and that the waste import clashes with the priority set for the treatment of waste produced in the Albanian territory.

The parliament can still override Nishani’s veto, but it will need more votes than the minimal 63 lawmakers out of a total of 140 the Socialist-led ruling coalition was able to muster the last time.

Ben Blushi, an opposition lawmaker and former member of the Socialist Party and critic of the ruling majority, said that the coalition partners are feeling insecure to approve the bill in parliament because they lack the necessary quorum.

Blushi took to social media to say that “the parties are afraid to approve the bill, but are also afraid to abrogate it.”

The bill was not included in this week's voting agenda in parliament, and activists said they will continue to protest to make sure the bill does not pass.
                    [post_title] => Activists arrested as protests against waste imports continue
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 11:01:11
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                    [post_content] => nikollaTIRANA, Nov. 22 – Albanian Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla was attacked with tomato sauce earlier this week as she attended a conference on the International Day of Students. A video of the attack, filmed by the group of student protesters, went viral online.

Mirela Ruko a young activist of the University Movement in Tirana poured sauce on Nikolla’s hair in a sign of protest over the recent education reform. Minister Nikolla was immediately whisked out of the hall.

In a press statement, the University Movement said that the “activists threw sauce on the minister in a similar act to what the minister and the Socialist-led government are doing to the public universities.”

“The action of our activists is an act of responsibility which Minister Nikolla avoided for so long toward the failed education reform, the chaotic university admission system and the favoring of private universities for financial gain,” the release read.

Police escorted the young activist at the police station where she was held for few hours. Dozens of students protested in front of the station calling for Ruko’s release. Ruko emerged out of the police station after a couple of hours.

This is not the first time university students from the same group, target government officials to express their dissatisfaction with reforms in the education sector.

Earlier this year, members of the Movement for University threw eggs at Prime Minister Rama when he was visiting a university building.

Members of the University Movement have been protesting against Ministry of Education regulations since June 2014.

One of these regulations caused a chaotic situation with university admissions, after faculty enrollment scheme was changed in a last minute, forcing many students to not be able to register in their favorite faculty.

Calls for the resignation of Minister Nikolla have intensified, but the Socialist-led government have made no plans for a cabinet reshuffle.

 
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-25 10:47:30
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 23 - In a wide-ranging interview for a Greek television station, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has denied speculations that Albania is pursuing border changes and pushing forward the concept of “Greater Albania.”

“We have Albania, Kosovo, Albanian people living in south of Serbia, living in Macedonia, in Montenegro. So what? There is no plan, there is no foreseeable one, to collect all these in one natural or Greater Albania,” he said in an interview for Skai TV broadcast Tuesday.

The interview came at a time when the relations between the two countries have hit a new low falling a string of incidents and comments on both sides.

During the interview, Rama also discussed the issue of Cham community and their property left behind in Greece when they were expelled from country during World War II.

“I don’t think that is irredentist to tell people, to tell our kids where Albanians lived and I don’t think it is irredentist to tell people that it was an area that was named Chameria,”

“The Cham community’s claims are a human rights issue,” Rama added calling for the inclusion of this issue in negotiations between the two countries, although Greece Greece has dismisses such claims, saying they were Nazi collaborators.

The Albanian prime minister admitted that during the Second World War, some of these people had committed war crimes, but he said it is impossible for an “entire community to be labeled as collaborationist for the fault of few.”

“These people were banned from their homes in Greece and they have the right to return whenever they want and claim their properties if they want to. What’s the problem here?” Rama said insisting that Cham community is not seeking for their area “to be an autonomous one in Greece.”

Regardless of several pending issues, Rama described relations between Greece and Albania as very important. However, he suggested that both countries engage in dialogue under the principles “of mutual generosity and understanding,” keeping in mind that “the interests of Albanians and Greeks cannot stop us to build a brilliant future together”.

Rama highlighted the “insanity” behind certain claims that south of Albania is “Vorio-Epirus of Greece”

“They are crazy to think that Greece must extend as far as central Albania,” he added.

“These are notions generated by others, who are scared or who have created this notion due to different agendas” Rama said, underlining that Albania is only interested to join the European family.

The Albanian prime minister also reiterated the theory that the Acropolis temple was saved from total destruction due to the efforts of an “Albanian archbishop,” a statement which sparked anger among Greeks when Rama first spoke of it earlier last month.

“The fact that Albanians have contributed for Greece and for the Greek society and the fact that at that time, many people spoke the Albanian language, doesn’t make Athens an Albanian city,” he said.

“This should not be an insult rather than a pleasant historical fact. An Albanian happened to be in the right place, at the right time and he was the right person to negotiate and prevent the destruction of Acropolis. The man in question could have been Greek, a Chinese, but he happened to be an Albanian,” Rama added.

During the interview, Rama was asked to comment about the State of War Law that is still being enforced by Greece, urging the neighboring country to abolish it. “This law is an obstacle for the Chams to follow a legal path in seeking their rights,” Rama said.

In terms of the maritime borders between the two countries, Rama suggested the involvement of a third party to help Greece and Albania settle the matter and also denied claims of Turkish influence in the abrogation of the agreement.

Earlier this week, the Albanian prime minister's held a phone conversation with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras. According to a press release by the Greek PM’s office, interlocutors talked about the decision of local authorities in the town of Himara to demolish the homes of several “ethnic Greek families.”

Tsipras called on Albania to protect the rights of minority ethnic Greece and “to restore a climate of trust which is necessary to foster bilateral relations.” However, Rama was adamant that the demolitions are part of a wide-reaching urban renewal program.

 
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            [post_date] => 2016-11-28 14:28:44
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 28 – Legal changes initiated by the Italian Parliament risk putting at risk the booming call center industry in Albania, one of the country’s key employers in recent years with a huge impact on tackling high youth jobless rates, whose overwhelming majority of services are offered to Italian companies.

The changes which are pending the final approval by the Italian Senate have created panic among some call center owners who say 25,000 jobs in Albania are endangered as Italian MPs are about to tighten rules for the transfer of Italian call center companies to non-EU members and make it compulsory for them to tell which country they offering their services from.

Other investors say the panic is unjustified as the Italian legal changes only curb the expansion of the industry by tightening the transfer of call centers to non-EU countries, but pose no threat to current businesses operating in Albania.

Ines Muçostepa, the director of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and a manager of one of the country’s leading call centers, says the changes the Italian Parliament has undertaken affect only Albania as Italian companies can still move to other EU member countries with cheaper labour costs such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

“If also approved by the Italian Senate, this bill will also have consequences for Albania, maybe not immediately, but gradually and we risk losing thousands of jobs,” says Muçostepa.

The legal changes were initiated by Italian trade unions worried over the massive transfer of Italian call center and their services to Albania, where cheap labour costs and good Italian language skills make it a much sought-after destination.

“Of course we lobbied hard against these legal changes but there has been strong pressure by Italian trade unions which have a strong say in Italian politics,” Muçostepa says, adding that Albania should intensify its lobby efforts with the fact that it is already about to open accession negotiations with the EU and can provide guarantees about data protection.

However, Agron Shehaj, a successful Albanian investor in the call center business, says there is no room for immediate panic.

“The current form of the draft law and the way it is intended to be approved poses no threat to the closure of call centers in Albania. The panic that has spread is unjustified. The thing is there are some rules that prevent the displacement of jobs from Italy to Albania for those who intend to invest in Albania or those who are already in Albania but want to expand their businesses. This will simply curb it,” says Shehaj.

Shehaj who in 2008 founded IDS, the country’s biggest call center currently employing some 3,000 people, sold the business to a London-based company for €10 million in late 2014. He still serves as its administrator.

Italian legal changes envisage huge €150,000 fines for call centers whose operators don’t inform customers about the country they are calling from or when answering to customer enquiries, something which up to now was avoided.

The legal changes also make it more difficult for Italian companies to change their location or contract non-EU third parties who have to provide guarantees about data protection.

A booming industry

The booming call center business registered another sharp increase in 2015 when the number of companies operating in Albania doubled and the workforce rose to 25,000, but had a small impact on reducing high youth unemployment rates.

Data shows there were 847 call center companies operating in Albania at the end of 2015, compared to 414 in 2014 and only 75 in 2010 when Albania emerged as an attractive call center destination for the Italian market due to cheap labor costs and language skills by Albanian youth.

This service mainly engaged in marketing campaigns and customer service for big operators in Italy has seen a boom in the past five years mainly due to low operational costs and the fluent Italian that Albanian youngsters speak.

Operating costs are estimated three times lower compared to Italy where average wages for a call center job range from €900 to €1,000 compared to €280 to €350 in Albania.

The call center jobs have also become attractive to students attending university because of the flexibility they offer, by allowing employees to choose their working hours.

During the past few years, the call center industry has served as an alternative employment opportunity for thousands of newly graduates who find it impossible to find a job matching their university skills. Yet, youth unemployment rates remain at a record high of 30 percent, reconfirming the mismatch between the education system and job market needs.

The booming call center business and the traditional garment and footwear manufacturing are emerging as two of the key employers for Albanian young men and women aged from 15 to 29.

While the call center business dominated by Italian companies mainly attracts university students and newly graduates who are unable to find a job in the occupation they have graduated in, the façon industry, a traditional employer producing garment and footwear mainly for export to Italy, is attracting a considerable number of youngsters who have finished only the compulsory education or secondary education but failed to attend university.

Albania has some 100,000 jobless youngsters aged between 15 to 29, a considerable number of whom joined the exodus in 2015 when more than 65,000 Albanians left the country to seek asylum in EU member countries, mainly in Germany.

 
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