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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Week sets new record in cannabis seizures

Week sets new record in cannabis seizures

TIRANA, April 9 – Police have seized a record 12 tons of marijuana worth more than $7 million hidden inside an abandoned state-owned warehouse in the southern Albanian village of Pagri, near the town of Permet. Officials were tipped off

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Opposition sets protest rally for Kavaja byelection day

Opposition sets protest rally for Kavaja byelection day

TIRANA, April 10 – The Democratic Party of Albania and other opposition parties plan to hold a national protest on May 7 in Kavaja, on the same day that the western city holds a local mayoral byelection in which the

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World Bank: Uncertainties related to June 18 elections pose threat to growth prospects

World Bank: Uncertainties related to June 18 elections pose threat to growth prospects

TIRANA, April 10 – Economic and political uncertainties resulting from both internal and external factors could put Albania’s growth prospects at risk in the short to medium run as the country heads to general elections in two months in a

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Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

From kingmaker to peacemaker? By Albert Rakipi On the 22nd of July last year, at 00.35 in the morning, the 140 members of the parliament in Albania together with a large entourage of diplomats watching from the upper lodges, sleepy

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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.
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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.
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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.

 
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                    [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_date] => 2017-04-11 18:05:18
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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?"

 

 

 

 
                    [post_title] => Chinese Vice Premier’s visit expected to herald new era in Sino-Albanian relations
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-11 00:04:57
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 9 - Police have seized a record 12 tons of marijuana worth more than $7 million hidden inside an abandoned state-owned warehouse in the southern Albanian village of Pagri, near the town of Permet.

Officials were tipped off on April 7 and immediately launched an operation which led to the seizure and two arrests. One man is still wanted. 

Police said it had evidence that two former administrators of the building knew of the drugs stored there. The chief of the Pagri village, Koco Zaimaj, was also detained for failing to inform the authorities over the illegal activity. 

General Director of Albania’s State Police Haki Cako fired several officers, including the local police chief for not discovering the cache sooner.

In addition, authorities have launched disciplinary proceedings against several high ranking officials in the Police Directorate in Gjirokastra, including the Director of the District Police, his deputy and the head of the Anti-Drugs department. 

Authorities said that the sacked officials “did not do their job and did not carry out necessary inspections in the area and in the depots, despite numerous warnings from people in the area.” 

Local police has not provided any details in regards to the cultivation area of the seized drugs. 

The massive stash of cannabis is larger than anything the Albanian police has ever seized before in one operation -- even-though cannabis seizures and related arrest are becoming normal in Albania and abroad. 

The record narcotics haul comes at a time when trafficking of marijuana from Albania has increased sharply.

 Albanian police, together with authorities from neighboring Italy and Greece, have seized tons of marijuana since the beginning of 2017. 

In its latest report on the fight against the production and trafficking of drugs for 2016, the U.S. State Department has identified Albania as the main source country for marijuana and a transit route for cocaine and heroin to EU countries. 

Albanian police said it seized 30 tons of cannabis in 2016 and destroyed 2.5 million roots of narcotic plants. Furthermore, 1,349 people have been arrested for drug trafficking while 273 others are being investigated. 

Earlier in March, deputy Prime Minister Niko Peleshi announced the national action plan against cultivation and trafficking of drugs for 2017-2020. The Action Plan increases institutional efforts on a national crackdown on cannabis. 

The opposition has criticised and accused the government for exploiting the multi-billion euro industry in an effort to secure a second governing mandate. The issue of drugs has become a cornerstone in the opposition’s fight for free and fair elections. 

 
                    [post_title] => Week sets new record in cannabis seizures
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 10 – The Democratic Party of Albania and other opposition parties plan to hold a national protest on May 7 in Kavaja, on the same day that the western city holds a local mayoral byelection in which the opposition won’t participate.

The announcement is seen by many as a threat to disrupt the vote in the city once known as the stronghold of opposition Democrats and a preamble of what can happen with the general elections in June if the ruling Socialists decide to go ahead and hold them without the opposition.

On Monday, Democratic Party chairman Lulzim Basha said that the opposition parties will boycott the local elections in Kavaja and the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for June 18.

Basha reiterated the request for a caretaker government that according to him would be able to guarantee free and fair elections in the country. 

“The opposition coalition has decided to not register to the Central Election Commission until a political national deal is reached. Let’s get together on May 7 for a national protest in Kavaja. We are determined and we will not allow a façade of elections,” Basha said, addressing party supporters at the tent erected in front of the prime minister’s office, where an ongoing protest has been held for nearly two months.

Basha has repeatedly accused the Socialist-led coalition of using drug money to rig elections.

Local elections are due in Kavaja following the decision of the Central Elections Commission to abrogate the mandate of its mayor Elvis Rroshi over his criminal record -- in the framework of the decriminalization law. 

The opposition has been protesting at Tirana’s main boulevard since mid-February. Center right parties have also boycotted parliament and prevented the implementation of the vetting process, part of the judiciary reform aimed at uprooting corruption from the justice system.

The parliament will convene Tuesday to elect the members of the bodies which will vet over 800 judges and prosecutors in the country.

The opposition plans to continue the boycott as it blames the ruling majority of using the reform to capture the system, although the document was drafted by EU and U.S. experts.
                    [post_title] => Opposition sets protest rally for Kavaja byelection day
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                    [post_date] => 2017-04-10 16:33:42
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 10 - Economic and political uncertainties resulting from both internal and external factors could put Albania's growth prospects at risk in the short to medium run as the country heads to general elections in two months in a tense climate and a time when global market conditions and growth in key euro area trading partners remain sluggish, the World Bank warns.

In its latest Spring report examining economic developments in six EU aspirant Western Balkans countries, the World Bank warns Albania’s political uncertainties could hamper progress with structural reforms and fiscal discipline.

“Political uncertainty as a result of elections scheduled for mid-2017 could affect the pace of reforms and fiscal consolidation, which would weaken Albania’s fiscal position and push up risk premiums,” says the World Bank report.

“If political uncertainty leads to delays in delivering on structural reforms or slippages in maintaining fiscal discipline, this could reduce growth prospects and compromise the quality and durability of fiscal adjustment. To mitigate these risks, the policy mix will need to give precedence to prudent short-term policies with continued fiscal consolidation, coordinated monetary policy and a strategy to build up the financial sector,” adds the report.

Albania's main opposition Democratic Party and its allies have been staging an indefinite protest in front of the Prime Minister's office in Tirana's central boulevard for about two months since a Feb. 18 rally, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama and a caretaker government to handle free and fair elections. The opposition parties have been boycotting Parliament and are set on boycotting even the June 18 elections unless they receive guarantees about impartial handling of elections which they claim are endangered by people with criminal records and drugs money from massive cannabis cultivation.

The political deadlock and failure to find a solution also has implications for the country’s economy, triggering uncertainties among both domestic and foreign investors while a further escalation of political crisis could also damage the country’s promising tourism industry as Albania gears up for its peak 2017 season.

The World Bank warning comes as the run-up to the general elections has always been accompanied by threats to public finances in Albania in the past 25 years of transition with incumbent governments sharply increasing public investments and putting at risk budget deficit and public debt targets, apparently to gain an electoral advantage.

A number of other key financial institutions and international organizations including the IMF, the European Commission and the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, have also warned of political and economic risks related to next June’s general elections.

External threats

Meanwhile, external factors such as weaker than expected growth in the Eurozone and especially main trading partners Italy and Greece, as well as the performance of commodity prices  following the mid-2014 slump are also expected to play a key role in the Albanian economy.

“Uncertain global market conditions, in particular slower growth in the Euro area, could reduce exports and FDI inflows, which would then translate into lower tax revenues, less public investment, and thus slower growth in output,” says the World Bank.

The Washington-based lender also warns of the risk of a further strengthening of Albania's national currency, lek, which currently stands at a six-year high of 135 lek against Europe's single currency with a negative impact on the country’s ailing exports, already suffering due to a slump in commodity prices severely affecting oil and mineral exports.

"The faster pace of normalization of global interest rates also poses a risk. An appreciation of the Albanian lek could affect competitiveness and lead to a deceleration in exports. Should that happen, harnessing growth will require keeping the economy stable while putting in place structural reforms to improve the business climate, such as continuing judiciary reforms, enhancing the management of public investments, addressing high non-performing loans and improving the skills of the labor force," says the World Bank in its Spring 2017 Western Balkans Regular Economic report.

Growth prospects 

The World Bank expects the Albanian economy to grow by 3.5 percent in 2017 and 2018 and accelerate to 3.8 percent in 2019, supported by private investment in large energy-related project mainly the Trans Adriatic Pipeline bringing Caspian gas to Europe and a recovery in consumption and exports. The forecasts are about 0.3 percentage point lower compared to the Albanian government’s more optimistic forecasts.

“Construction, tourism-related services, and trade are expected to continue driving growth,” says the World Bank.

At 3.5 percent, Albania is forecast to register one of the highest growth rates among six EU aspirant Western Balkans countries in the next couple of years.

Albania’s economic growth hit a six-year high in 2016 when it grew by an estimated 3.46 percent boosted by the long-ailing construction sector which is back as a key driver of growth fuelled by some major private sector energy-related investments and a boost in the trade and tourism industry, according to INSTAT, the state-run statistical institute.

Public debt currently hovering at 71 percent of the GDP and non-performing loans at about 20 percent holding back a recovery in credit are also seen as two key risks for the current stage of Albania’s economic development.

The World Bank says the Albanian government’s new mid-2016 fiscal rule mandating that debt decreases each year until it reaches 45 percent of the GDP “does not specify a deadline or path to achieve this target, which may dilute its effectiveness.”

"Like other countries in the Western Balkans, Albania has at times found it difficult to apply its fiscal rule. Among the challenges are budgeting for multiyear commitments, especially those related to public private partnerships (PPPs); overestimation of revenues that leads to unrealistic spending plans that contribute to arrears in unbudgeted spending; and national accounts data that require significant revisions,” says the World Bank.

The World Bank estimates that about half of the country's population, some 45.5 percent, continue to live in poverty, measured against the regional standardized benchmark of living on less than U.S.$5/day in 2005 purchasing power parity terms, worse than almost all regional countries. The poverty rate has only improved by 1.7 percentage points over the past four years, data shows.

The World Bank is one of country's main donors, having supported a total of 90 projects comprising around U.S.$2.56 billion in credits and grants during the past 25 years of Albania's transition to democracy and a market economy.
                    [post_title] => World Bank: Uncertainties related to June 18 elections pose threat to growth prospects  
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_130553" align="alignright" width="225"]Albert Rakipi, PhD Albert Rakipi, PhD[/caption]

From kingmaker to peacemaker? 

By Albert Rakipi

On the 22nd of July last year, at 00.35 in the morning, the 140 members of the parliament in Albania together with a large entourage of diplomats watching from the upper lodges, sleepy eyed journalists and bodyguards and even a few waiters burst into a frenetic applause and loud acclamations. The reason: the justice reform had just been approved with 140 votes, unanimously. More than ever, in the 25-year-old history of democracy in Albania, the parliament resembled extremely much to the pseudo-parliament of the dictatorship time, where a single party used to gain 100 percent of the possible votes. However, exempting the caricature of the parliamentarism under dictatorship, the vote of the 22nd of July 2016, was perhaps the most consensual vote possible. However it was too much facade not to try to look beyond the grand consensus: almost too fake to believe. Only 48 hours earlier the parliamentary majority was ready to vote on the justice reform  unilaterally. Furthermore, they had declared the opposition not only an enemy of the reform but an outright enemy of the West, of the United States and of the European Union. The miracle of complete change, of course, couldn’t have happened within 48 hours.

For a consecutive period of 25 years since the fall of communism, Albanian politics has been dominated by a harsh political conflict, ever-growing enmity, the strong zero-sum game culture as well as total dependence from the international community. The reconciliation between political sides and the reaching of agreements has happened only after major crisis and only with the help of the intervention of the internationals. This heritage of conflict and disagreement that is keeping Albania’s political progress at bay made the consensus of the 22nd of July last year too good to be true. But it happened nevertheless: The justice reform was voted in the parliament by the government and the opposition together. Due to one single factor: the Meta factor and his public refusal for the politics of conflict, for the politics of division and the eternal political tensions. (One could see the motives of this public refusal of the conflict as a political instrument as a pragmatist positions that further only Meta’s personal political interest. But heroes do not exist anymore. The progression of interest is essential.)

Now Ilir Meta has surfaced again in a key moment which is critical for the future of democracy, pluralism and stability of this country. In the culmination of the political conflict between the government and the opposition, when the country is going almost in ‘a party mood’ toward a full-fledged political gridlock which would be just at its start if the elections happened without the opposition, Meta has reappeared. He seems to be engaged in preventing a dangerous showdown between one side, that of the Prime Minister and the Socialist Party and the other side of the Democratic Party and the other opposition ally parties. The latter seek the resignation of the Prime Minister as well as the establishment of a caretaker government in order to secure free and fair elections.

There is a theory in International Relations that refers to countries in a collision course, out of every kind of compromise. The theory can very well applied to internal political developments. It is “the game of chicken,” getting its name from two drivers going toward a head on collision and the first one to veer away is considered to be “the chicken” or the weak one. It is not the first time that Albania is engulfed in the political game of chicken. What differs is that in the previous editions of the chicken game, the international community has intervened to prevent the collision. Now that role seems to belong to an internal factor, the Speaker of the Parliament. Ilir Meta has taken an important step to take both sides out of the chicken game with his proposal to go towards elections with a “government of trust” whose mandate would include several elements. 

The mandate of the “government of trust,” according to Meta would include the harsh war without any compromises against narcotics in Albania. According to the ambassador of the OSCE, in Albania circulate 2 billion euro that come out of the drugs trade. What has happened that this country is being inundated with drugs? What has happened in this country, which despite not being at war like Syria, produces a number of asylums seekers abroad that is only second to Syria? In a country where more than 70 percent of citizens say that they would leave Albania if they had a chance, what hope remains?

The “government of trust” that Meta proposes should stop the criminal and illicit financing of elections. In the local elections of Dibra (November 2016) the majority candidate that won over the opposition reached a number of votes that was ten times more than 2015, when in that year the SP candidate running against three candidates of the DP reached only three hundred votes surplus. The Dibra elections were otherwise described by independent analysts as a pilot project to test vote buying with drug money.

How will this be changed? Are political parties ready to sever their links to criminal financing sources for elections? Ilir Meta includes in the mandate of “the government of trust” the full implementation of the decriminalization process (which stems from the decriminalization law -- approved largely thanks to the strong support of, and pressure from, the U.S. ambassador). Is it feasible? We have seen a number of high level elected officials involved in crimes despite giving up their elected or appointed posts have not left politics per se. On the contrary. Therefore will these elections be free from the influence of the strong men, the gangsters, the criminals, up to the very alleged murderers that we saw climb up to get seats in parliament, elected in regular manner in elections monitored and certified by OSCE-ODHIR and other monitoring units?

Last but not least, there would be a ban from engagement of the public administration in elections. This clearly means that the public administration is not neutral in political elections. In the last three years, this government has been forced to pay no less than 62 million euros for the civil servants that were laid off for political reasons. (How many schools and hospitals could have been built with 62 million Euros?)

Ilir Meta proposes compromise when consensus is not possible. In the last four years we have seen the systematic exclusion of the political adversary up the level of declaring it an enemy, the total refusal to acknowledge the achievements of the other political side. According to the extreme version of this narcissism, 2013 is year zero. Everything has started after it: the state, democracy, progress...

The essence of the game of chicken is that neither side wants to retreat because it would be seen as weak … like a chicken. Ilir Meta with his second initiative within one year has facilitated the path to retreat in order to avoid conflict and ultimately collision. But in the game of chicken time is limited. In the Albanian game of chicken time is even more limited. After that comes the collision.

 
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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.
            [post_title] => Suspected of working with cartels, several police stations see purges
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