Albania announces de-euroisation strategy

Albania announces de-euroisation strategy

TIRANA, March 14 – Albania’s central bank says it is undertaking measures to implement a de-eurisation strategy that would accelerate the reduction of the current high levels of foreign currency in the country’s banking system, considered a key barrier for

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Austrian-Polish-Albanian JV gets 30-year concession to monitor gambling industry

Austrian-Polish-Albanian JV gets 30-year concession to monitor gambling industry

TIRANA, March 8 – An Austrian-Polish-Albanian joint venture has won the right to set up, operate and maintain an online central monitoring system on Albania’s gambling industry for the next 30 years pending the conclusion of contract negotiations, says the

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Heading for crisis, opposition withdraws elections registration

Heading for crisis, opposition withdraws elections registration

TIRANA, March 9 – In a new escalation of the political crisis in Albania, the opposition says it will withdraw its registration with the Central Elections Commission, taking the first official step to boycotting the next parliamentary elections scheduled for

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Claims of Italian hazardous waste secretly dumped in Albania under investigation

Claims of Italian hazardous waste secretly dumped in Albania under investigation

TIRANA, March 8 – Prosecutors in Durres have launched an investigation over suspicions that large amounts of hazardous waste from Italy entered Albania last summer to be illegally dumped. The waste was supposed to transit the country on the way

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Reflecting on women in Albania instead of a well-deserved party

Reflecting on women in Albania instead of a well-deserved party

By Alba Çela The beginning of the month of March in Albania brings along with the new season two important holidays, 7 and 8 of March respectively Teachers’ Day and Women’s Day. And since a large majority of teachers are

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News analysis: Is the EU neglecting the political crisis in Albania?

News analysis: Is the EU neglecting the political crisis in Albania?

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said in Tirana earlier this week that Albania has a real chance at clinching accession talks. It was a bit of a déjà vu moment as a year ago,

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EU export quota hold back growth for emerging fish industry

EU export quota hold back growth for emerging fish industry

TIRANA, March 9 – Albania’s emerging fish processing industry has been suffering in the past few years as its rapid growth has led to companies meeting the EU duty free export quotas in only seven months, paralyzing work and investment

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Matryoshkas and friends

Matryoshkas and friends

By Genc Pollo* The matryoshkas are a set of egg-shaped, empty, wooden dolls painted as a mature woman and they fit into one another from the smaller to the biggest one. They can be found in Russia and its neighborhood

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Experts petition against gov’t bypass project in UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra

Experts petition against gov’t bypass project in UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra

TIRANA, March 7 – Architects, academics and culture heritage specialists have come together to strongly oppose government plans to build a bypass in Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Albania, warning that the concrete modern structure ruins the

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Signs of compromise to overcome political deadlock emerge as Mogherini visits Albania

Signs of compromise to overcome political deadlock emerge as Mogherini visits Albania

TIRANA, March 5 – Albania’s political leaders showed signs of compromise on Friday as the opposition staged their 14th days of protest over free and fair elections and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited the country as part of

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_1299" align="alignright" width="300"]Central bank governor Gent Sejko Central bank governor Gent Sejko[/caption]

TIRANA, March 14 - Albania's central bank says it is undertaking measures to implement a de-eurisation strategy that would accelerate the reduction of the current high levels of foreign currency in the country's banking system, considered a key barrier for the transmission of its easier monetary policy and giving a boost to sluggish credit and consumption.

Governor Gent Sejko says the country's highest financial authorities have already identified some measures, including charging higher fees on transactions in foreign currency to curb high levels of foreign currency in the banking system, estimated at 60 percent for credit and almost 50 percent for deposits, with the overwhelming majority being euro-denominated.

"As a banking monetary and supervisory authority, the Bank of Albania is working to identify some measures that target increasing the cost of using foreign currency in banking transactions, strengthen the resistance of the banking system against foreign currency liquidity stress and further improve requirements on raising awareness among foreign currency borrowers toward the accompanying risk of currency exchange. When we have reached a final conclusion on these measures, the Bank of Albania will be careful that their implementation stage in banks is gradual," says Sejko in an interview published on the central bank's website.

With the key interest rate at a historic low of 1.25 percent, credit has shown poor signs of recovery affected by non-performing at about 20 percent keeping lending standards tight and poor demand by both businesses and households despite loan rates having considerably dropped in the past few years.

Since late 2011 when the key rate was at 5.25 percent, the central bank’s easier monetary policy has been mostly reflected on deposit rates and T-bill yields on government’s internal borrowing, rather than lower interest rates for lek-denominated loans which at an average of 7.5 percent in January 2017 were at almost half of the pre-global crisis rates, but yet about seven times higher compared to deposits in the national currency just slightly above zero.

The governor says the de-euroisation strategy, which is being consulted with the Financial Supervisory Authority and the finance ministry, is intended to be implemented in the mid to long-run.

“There are several studies by Albanian and foreign authors classifying Albania as a country with a high euroisation rate. In this respect, Albania is still similar to some regional countries and reflects among others the exposure toward foreign currency influxes because of important economic links to some EU and Eurozone countries. Without going into details for the reasons of the euroisation level, I would like to stress that this is a complex and challenging phenomenon to tackle and the impact of various measures can be tangible only gradually and in the mid and long run,” says the governor.

Albania conducts about two-thirds of its trade with Eurozone countries, mainly Italy and Greece and also attracts huge foreign direct investment and migrant remittances from the Eurozone countries.

The central bank says that high levels of euroisation or dollarisation, mainly attributed to periods of high inflation rate, considerable depreciation of the national currency, macroeconomic-related imbalances and financial crises, have the ability to lead to unwanted structural changes, with prices in general starting to be indexed to the foreign currency if no measures are taken.

Albania’s inflation rate has picked up in the first couple of months of this year after hitting a 16-year low of 1.3 percent in 2016, 1.7 below the central bank's 3 percent target, reflecting the slump in global oil and food prices, but also sluggish domestic consumption as the economy is estimated to have grown by slightly above 3 percent, mainly thanks to major energy-related investment, at almost half of the 6 percent growth rate estimated to bring welfare to one of Europe's poorest economies.

"From the point of view of economic and financial policies, a high level of euroisation in the banking sector can be accompanied by a reduction in the central bank's monetary policy efficiency and increased financial stability risks with negative implications on lending in the domestic currency and exposure to currency exchange risks,” says Sejko.

The Albanian economy is highly euroized with euro-denominated deposits and loans accounting for half of the total. The euro is also the main currency used in the real estate industry. U.S. dollar-denominated loans also hold about 10 percent of loans while their weight in deposits is quite negligible.

“Despite the difficulties I believe that it is necessary to react with determination toward the euroisation phenomenon. This would help increase the Albanian economy's resistance, mainly by reducing its exposure toward risks and improving the efficiency of the required economic and financial policies to tackle these risks,” says governor Sejko.

In its latest country report on Albania, the International Monetary Fund, also warns measures to encourage de-euroization should be implemented in a gradual manner with due consideration of disintermediation risks in case of interest rates rising sharply.

"The Bank of Albania lowered its main policy rate by 175 basis points over 2014–16, to a historical low of 1.25 percent. However, high bank risk aversion, weak credit demand, and pervasive euroization have limited the transmission to lending rates," says the IMF in a report after the Albanian government concluded a 3-year binding deal supported by a €331 million loan earlier this year.

Informing the IMF about its de-euroisation plans, the central bank says it is envisaging a set of measures on the banks’ liabilities side, including "the establishment of different reserve remunerations for euro and lek deposits and higher requirements for highly liquid assets to be held against foreign currency deposits."

"A schedule of foreign exchange auction purchases for 2017 has been duly and transparently communicated to the market. This operation may also contribute to counteract any possible upward pressure on exchange rate coming from the success of the de-euroization strategy, while maintaining a fully market determined exchange rate," says the central bank.

During the past year, Albania’s national currency has considerably strengthened against Europe's single currency which stands at an almost six-year low of about 135 lek with a negative impact on the country’s ailing exports, already suffering due to a slump in commodity prices, negatively affecting the key oil and mineral exports.

While the central bank governor attributes the appreciation to the market economy considering the country's free-floating currency exchange regime, he cites factors such as higher levels of foreign direct investment, higher tourism income and efforts to reduce tax evasion leading to a stronger national currency.

Other experts have also linked the national currency appreciation with an influx of euro stemming from increased cannabis cultivation in the country during the past couple of years.

Lending in the national currency lek has gained around 13 percentage points in the past few years and now accounts for about 40 percent of the total credit portfolio compared to only slightly more than a quarter just before the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. Deposits in the national currency stand at about half of total savings.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 8 - An Austrian-Polish-Albanian joint venture has won the right to set up, operate and maintain an online central monitoring system on Albania's gambling industry for the next 30 years pending the conclusion of contract negotiations, says the finance ministry.

The winning joint venture is made up of “Admiral Sportwetten” GmbH, a subsidiary of Austria-based Novomatic Group already present in Albania with a chain of electronic casinos and having acquired the Lotaria Kombetare (National Lottery) from another Austrian company in mid-2016.

The joint venture also includes Poland-based "ATSI” spolka akcyjna games and software designer and Albanian-owned MC Networking, the latter an internet provider engaged in software and web design and being the joint venture's legal representative.

Another joint venture composed of Austrian and Albanian companies also ran in the January 23 tender.

The pre-electoral concession comes after the ruling majority approved in late 2016 a two-year extension to the a law disciplining gambling in downtown areas citing concerns over gambling businesses not being ready to move to tourist attractions and the possible spread of illegal gambling and the state budget losing millions of euros in taxes, in a move which came following apparent successful lobbying by the lucrative gambling industry.

The winning concessionaire is expected to charge gambling companies two fees related to the system maintenance and a turnover fee to pay off its investment on the setup of the monitoring system.

The government says the concession is aimed at preventing tax evasion and money laundering in the industry which employs about 1,800 people and generates an annual $125 million in taxes to the state budget.

The late 2015 legal changes initially expected to enter into force in Jan. 2017 targeted reducing the high informality in the booming industry and the negative social impacts among gamblers by transferring casinos from downtown highly populated areas to tourist attractions.

The central monitoring system was initially scheduled to be set up and operated by the state-run Games of Chance Supervisory Authority.

Casinos and sports betting shops continue packing the country’s streets despite a nationwide campaign launched in late 2013 which closed down dozens of unlicensed operators.

While a new tax on casinos operating in downtown Tirana has been in force since mid-2013, casino owners seem to prefer continuing paying more rather than transferring their businesses outside the capital and pay less in taxes.

Gambling is a booming business in Albania and varies from casinos to sports betting. Albania has one casino, more than 20 bookmakers, 22 companies that organize gambling games and nine offering lottery tickets, including a national lottery. Thousands of betting shops are scattered across the country. A gambling law, which has been in force for several years, bans people under 18 from entering betting shops. Regardless, teenagers are often seen there.

The gambling sector is considered one of the most informal in Albania although generating more than €100 million annually in turnover.

An IMF report has identified illegal gambling establishments and exchange bureaus, as well as the vulnerabilities that relate to cross-border transportation of currency as illegal practices which put Albania at risk of money laundering activity.

Differently from recent public-private partnerships in which the Albanian government will either pay the cost of the investment in installments or guarantee the revenue of concessionaires, the latest gambling monitoring concession will have no direct costs to Albanian taxpayers.

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.

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, according to the 2017 budget.

The concessions, many of which in the public health sector, have sparked concerns over their high costs and efficiency.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 9 - In a new escalation of the political crisis in Albania, the opposition says it will withdraw its registration with the Central Elections Commission, taking the first official step to boycotting the next parliamentary elections scheduled for June 18.

The opposition says that to guarantee they will be free and fair, elections can only be held under the supervision of a caretaker government, known as a “technical government” in Albania, and it won't participate in any elections until Prime Minister Edi Rama resigns.

The opposition says the Socialist-led government will use money from criminal sources to buy off votes and criminals to influence the elections.

"This is not a boycott, because elections under a facade of crime cannot be held," said the chairman of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha.

The Democrats' two main allies, the Republican Party of Fatmir Mediu and the Agrarian Party of Agron Duka withdrew Thursday from their registration with the Central Election Commission.

Parties have another month to sign up for the elections and submit their lists of candidates.

The move however could make it harder to set up the election infrastructure, which relies heavily on participation of party activists.

The opposition has been protesting for 21 days in front of the prime minister's office and continued to boycott parliament despite call from the international community to return to the legislative body.

It said it will expand ongoing protests in cities and towns around the country.

The ruling Socialist Party says the opposition has a single goal with its protest, to make it impossible to implement the justice reform.

Rama lampooned the Democrats for their requests of a “technical government,” saying the opposition has the right to asks for anything, a government of “technicians, plumbers, engineers, energy experts and astronomers.”

All the government can do is listen and discuss, he added, giving no indication he would be open to resigning ahead of the elections.

Rama added that each party decides on its own whether they want to participate in the elections.





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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131499" align="alignright" width="300"]The waste came to Albania via ships, claims in Italian media say. (Photo for illustration purposes only) The waste came to Albania via ships, claims in Italian media say. (Photo for illustration purposes only)[/caption]

TIRANA, March 8 - Prosecutors in Durres have launched an investigation over suspicions that large amounts of hazardous waste from Italy entered Albania last summer to be illegally dumped.

The waste was supposed to transit the country on the way to Macedonia to be destroyed, but there is no record of it making it there, according to media reports.

“There are suspicions that chemical waste has entered Albania through port of Durres, which is the only port that processes the entrance of containers in the country. There are sufficient data to back up the start the penal proceedings. An investigation is required to shed light on the circumstances and legal accountability behind this act,” said a statement issued by Prosecutor Agron Gjana.

News reports from Italy and Greece mention the port of Durres as the entry point of about 1,300 containers weighing 30 tons each, filled with chemical and radioactive waste. According to these reports, authorities lost track on the containers as soon as they entered the country and they may been dumped in different Albanian districts, including Fier, Vlora, Shkodra and Dibra.

The story broke on Pianeta Italia News, a little know online news outlet, but it was latter picked up by larger news organizations, referring to sources from Guardia di Finanza and Italian embassies in Tirana and Skopje, according to which the hazardous waste never made it to Skopje, hinting a possible involvement of a major criminal organization, the Ndragheta.

Authorities suspect that the waste might have been destroyed or buried in Albanian territory.

The political opposition has raised the alarm on the issue, saying that the news reveals the true face of the Socialist-led government.

“We are facing a large-scale criminal event. About 1,300 containers may have entered Albania illegally, in violation of the Constitution and against the will of the Albanian people. We are dealing with a threat to the health and safety of Albanians,” said Lulzim Basha, chairman of Albania’s Democratic Party.

Albania’s ambassador to Italy, Anila Bitri, has sent an official letter to the news agency that broke the story, saying that the news report are distorting and are damaging the image of of Albania. According to Ambassador Bitri, facts mentioned in the news reports are not accurate and the article in question targeted Prime Minister Edi Rama and the government of Albania “causing damages that have severe consequences in the social and political balance in the country.”

Initial reports in Albania cited Chief Prosecutor Adriatik Llalla who said that “there was no investigation about the possibility of illegal entrance of waste containers in Albania.”

However on Wednesday, prosecutors in Durres said they will investigate any wrongdoing in the port of Durres that might have led to the entering of illicit waste containers in the country.

The Department of Customs is reviewing clearance documents for 1,120 containers that entered to port last year with final destination in Macedonia. Customs officials say that containers were carrying food products and traveled through Qafe Thana customs.

Albania’s Criminal Code says that the import, export, transit and sale of hazardous materials is punishable by a jail sentence from seven to 15 years. If the offense is repeated or carries out serious consequences jail sentences amount up to 20 years.

In 2013, Prime Minister Rama canceled the controversial waste import bill and two years later reintroduced an amended version, excluding possibilities of import of chemical waste in the country. The second version never passed met with massive opposition from the civil society.
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Çela

The beginning of the month of March in Albania brings along with the new season two important holidays, 7 and 8 of March respectively Teachers' Day and Women's Day. And since a large majority of teachers are women it turns into a two-day party of flowers, speeches and parties for women, by women and mainly with women. Indeed women deserve to get the attention, appreciation and special treatment for the heroic venture they carry out every day: surviving and being successful in a country where they face many obstacles.

Although I tend to look a bit down on the partying and the flower frenzy, I look at this as my own problem with cynicism and sincerely hope that women have a good day and a good time. On International Women's Day I believe in any case, before or after or without the party, there is a need to reflect on the current state of affairs.

Albania has come a long way with its improvements in legislation (still incomplete!), participation in politics (still largely dependent on male party leaders) and distinguishing themselves in economic and social life (still after many hurdles which their male peers never face).

Gender imbalance due to gender selective abortions are a problem in Albania according to Council of Europe and other international sources. Hence problems for women are starting from the right to live and in the same vein domestic violence is another major threat. It continues to be the number one threat to women security and well-being in Albania, including the position of children often affected in the same process.

Domestic violence also generates many murders and other grave crimes whose victims are usually women. Women rights just as in general human rights are also under threat from corruption as the latest State Department report points out as well.1 This is more pronounced in sectors like healthcare which affect access and quality to public health, one of the key importance issues for women.

Another facet of life deserves attention as well: financial and economic power and women stake in it.

Take one example from a very interesting and through study carried out recently, poignantly by women researchers. Although according to official nationwide statistic women run about 30 percent of business companies or are business legal persons in Albania, only 5 percent of the contracts from municipalities are won by women (roughly in the period 2015- 2017). These contracts make up only 3.2 percent of the total allocated value from public funds at the local level.2 Even those cases that look like success stories turn out to be companies in which the husband has transferred shares to the wife for purposes not related to women empowerment.

Women participation and strength in political decision making and economic activity of Albania needs not only a jump forward in quantity but also in substance, in style and in fairness. It needs to be a process of multiplication, through which more and more women get empowered and uplifted.

Poverty, unemployment, discrimination at the job place continue to mar the experience of women in the economic life and initiatives taken so far are simply not enough or not well-structured enough to become systemic.

The process of reflecting on the problems that women face in my country certainly does not put me in the party mood. Then those women know better than me, better than being all grumpy on women day. In any case I hope there are as many voices reflecting seriously and trying to make changes as there are those celebrating.


1 https://al.usembassy.gov/2016-human-rights-report-albania/


2 Data is taken from http://open.data.al/sq/lajme/lajm/id/1919/Vlera-te-kontratave-me-Pale-Subjekte-Biznesi-zoteruar-nga-Femra-finalizuar-me-Njesive-te-Qeverisjes-Vendore-korrik-2015-deri-31-Janar-2017?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OpenDataAlbaniaFeeds+%28Open+Data+Albania+%28No+Media%29%29
                    [post_title] => Reflecting on women in Albania instead of a well-deserved party
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-09 20:09:56
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-09 19:09:56
                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131505" align="alignright" width="300"]mog EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini speaks in front of Albania's parliament. (Photo: PoA)[/caption]

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said in Tirana earlier this week that Albania has a real chance at clinching accession talks. It was a bit of a déjà vu moment as a year ago, during her first visit to Albania, Mogherini also spoke in parliament about the good chances that Albania had of opening negotiations in November 2016, a time in which the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations. However, the European Council threw cold water on the idea. Try back in about a year and a half, the general message was at the time, causing understandable anger in Albania.

What Mogherini said this week was that there is now a real chance of clinching accession talks once the vetting process of the justice reform has started. In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Edi Rama, Mogherini said that membership negotiations will start as soon the as the vetting process starts. The vetting process is one of the components of the justice reform, which Albania's parliament voted unanimously last summer. It is the first time that the opening of negotiations is conditioned by only the start of a component in a reform. A year earlier, Mogherini called on Albanian politicians to vote in favor of the justice reform so negotiations can start. However, the negotiations did not start despite the unanimous vote and the EU commission recommendation. The European Council, made up by member state ministers and heads of government, confirmed that the opening of negotiations is tied to five priorities. In addition, in December, the member states set conditions on opening negotiations  including the holding of free and fair elections, rule of law in relation to cannabis cultivation and the decriminalization of the political process. 

It is the same position sought by the Albanian opposition. Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was very blunt, using a term this newspaper cannot print, when he said that idea that opening negotiations relies solely on the vetting process is nonsense. 

There is little doubt that the EU uses the opening of negotiations as leverage to encourage the undertaking of reforms in Albania, including the justice reform. But it seems very naïve to think that by simply starting the vetting process, one step in the justice reform implementation – which is expected to take five to ten years to be fully implemented – can convince all European Council members to open negotiations with Albania. That is even more the case when the EU itself has made it clear that enlargement is no longer a priority in the short to medium terms thanks to numerous crisis the union faces.

Albania's government likes the narrative of a single condition – justice reform vetting. That's because having free and fair elections as a condition would be harder on ruling Socialist Party. 

When the EU Ambassador in Tirana was asked about the importance of the general elections in the in integration process, she said that free and fair elections were a given, a statement that causes some surprise in a country where free and fair elections have been the apple of discord in Albania for more than two decades. Political conflict over the elections has destabilized the country over and over since the fall of communism. 

Are the EU and the Socialist-led government on the same page on opposition requests for a caretaker government and the Democrats' boycott of parliament?

What are the real chances of Albania's progress in its EU bid when it seems the country is headed into another political crisis? The opposition has practically abandoned the parliament and says it will not return until a single request is met: a caretaker government in charge of organizing the next elections. The opposition says the next elections can only take place if an impartial government is in power, because the current Socialist-led government does not enjoy the confidence of the opposition to organize the elections.

According to the opposition, Prime Minister Rama and his party will use the criminal world and its funds to buy and influence the polls. The opposition says the ties between the government and criminals are clear in the industrial scale cultivation of marijuana across the country and the people with criminal records that the opposition says Rama handpicked to become members of parliament. 

Despite the approval of a decriminalization law that led to the expulsion from politics of several elected representatives – in parliament and local governments – these people with murky backgrounds have not withdrawn from political involvement. Some have been seen at political events held by government representatives and are likely to play part in the next electoral campaign, according to the opposition. 

In addition, critical media and voices are more oppressed than ever through a political-business alliance, a climate that speaks ill of free and fair elections. Without a thriving independent media, including critical television stations that reach every corner of the country, the chances of having free and fair elections are virtually zero.

With a parliament without an opposition and with parliamentary elections set for June 18, and in which the opposition says it will not take part, the country seems to be heading for a bad political crisis. 

With this situation in this country, when the European Commission says, through Mogherini, that all it takes to open membership negotiations is the start of the vetting process, then it is clear the European Commission does not want to see the actual political reality in Albania.

While it might still be early to say that the European Commission is neglecting the political crisis in Albania, the reality is that the EU and the international community in general has been reluctant to express opinions and guarantees that with the current climate there can be free and fair elections. 

Despite this, the U.S. Ambassador has recently stated publicly that criminals should stay out of politics and drug money should not be allowed to influence the general elections. 

For those unfamiliar with Albania: Buying votes is a normal phenomenon in this country. According Pandeli Majko, a former Socialist prime minister, the price of one vote went up to 50 euros in the 2013 elections. Sometimes, in rural areas, the votes of an entire extended family are bought in this manner. 

It is no wonder then that the OSCE Ambassador in Tirana raised the alarm publicly that the billions in profit from cannabis can be used to distort the elections. 

The canary in the mine were the local elections in Diber, a stronghold of the opposition, where the Socialists increased their votes tenfold without any irregularities witnessed by international observers.

Is the opposition anti-reform and anti-integration?

But, notwithstanding all these warning signs, the European Commission, at least as it appears from the statements of Mogherini, feels that the elections are not under threat. She clearly sees the opposition boycott of parliament as a sign they are trying to block the creation of committees of the vetting process, and de facto blocking Albania's progress toward the EU.

“Boycott of the parliament means blocking the establishment of the (judicial) vetting commissions and de facto stops Albania’s progress towards the European Union,” Mogherini said. “I have been very clear in saying that those who seek to delay and dilute key reforms are putting the European Union integration agenda at risk.”

Albania's Socialist-led government fully agrees. And it seems that the European Commission, through Mogherini's statement, sees the actions of the Albanian opposition in the exact same way as the Socialist-led government sees them. In essence that view is that the opposition has boycotted parliament and is seeking a caretaker government in order to slow down and sabotage the justice reform. 

Mogherini in 2016 to the Albanian parliament: European path  lies in your hands  and is a shared responsibility

No reform cannot be successful without local ownership and without shared responsibility of all local actors – that's what Mogherini told Albanian MPs a year ago, reminding them that European integration requires local ownership, even quoting Albania's prime minister to make the point. 

European integration “truly lies in your hands in particular. It is a shared responsibility that we must honor. As your Prime Minister - Edi [Rama], if you allow me - recently said: 'The European path it is not about ready-made formulas that can or should be imposed on you or on any country, a top-down approach.'"

As one high-ranking opposition Democratic Party official puts it this week, what has changed in the period of one year that Albania’s European project can be seen as solely a Socialist enterprise, or as a “renaissance project,” as the Socialist-led government likes to call itself?
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Is the EU neglecting the political crisis in Albania?
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-09 16:13:31
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 9 – Albania’s emerging fish processing industry has been suffering in the past few years as its rapid growth has led to companies meeting the EU duty free export quotas in only seven months, paralyzing work and investment in an industry that employs about 4,000 to 5,000 people and produces the country’s top agricultural exports.

As the number of fish processing companies has increased to 10, the annual quota of 1,600 metric tons of duty free exports of processed fish set by the EU was met for the first eight months of the year in 2016 and is expected to be fulfilled in only seven months this year, paralyzing work for the rest of the year due to having to pay a 25 percent customs duty for extra exports to the EU.

Helidon Rruga, the owner of one of the country's biggest fish plants engaged in processing fresh and frozen seafood mainly for Italy and Greece, says he has invested about Euro 6 million in his Durres-based factory, but for reasons not depending on him such as the export quotas, he has to close it down from July to December.

"The 10 companies currently operating in the country meet the current export quotas until July and then we have to close down," says the businessman, adding that the situation has paralyzed investment.

"Currently this industry employs at least 5,000 people. If the quota is not enough, it is impossible to carry out new investments or create more jobs," he adds.

Mark Babani, the administrator of another fish processing plant in Shkoder, northern Albania, says plans to build a new plant have been dropped and he is now thinking of opening a new factory in one of the neighbouring countries, considering neighboring Macedonia and Montenegro as potential destinations.

"Seeing no solution to the situation in Albania, I have no other opportunity but to move to the region," Babani has told reporters, adding that subsidies and infrastructure he has been offered in neighbouring Macedonia are really attractive to conclude his plans.

Calling on government to take immediate measures and lobby to overcome this situation, industry representatives say the fish products need to be divided into two categories, imported fish which is processed at home and domestically produced fish.

“The current quotas are old and not coherent with our demands while the government has not taken the necessary measures. Our industry has requested that the product is divided into two categories, packaged fish and domestically produced fish," says another fish processing plant manager.

Most Albanian companies import fish, mainly from Croatia and Italy, processing and conserving it at home to later re-export it to EU markets.

While the Albanian government has been lobbying the EU to increase the country's fish export quota, negotiations will be tough as the EU is tightening catch limits to prevent overfishing in the Mediterranean and the EU countries where Albania imports raw fish could use their veto to protect their domestic industries.

Agriculture Minister Edmond Panariti says the Albanian government will ask the European Commission to revise its 2004 quota on Albania and lobby Croatia and Italy, as the two main EU countries where Albania imports fish to process it at home.

"The quota negotiated in 2004 is met in four months by this industry. We need at least a 2-fold increase. I will start working with neighbouring countries so that they don't contest the European Commission's request for the quota increase," says Panariti.

Albania's exports of fish and seafood increased by 36 percent to a record €27.5 million in 2016 when the country's sales abroad reached 4,630 metric tons.

Lack of a modern fishing fleet remains a huge barrier for the country's fishing industry which imports fish mainly from Croatia and even raw material such as olive oil, salt and metallic cans. The fishing fleet includes more than 500 vessels and is concentrated in the four fishing ports of Durres, Vlora, Saranda and Shengjin.

Albania’s fuel prices, one of Europe's highest, and lack of proper refunds, are also an issue for local fishermen who often sail to neighbouring countries to buy cheaper fuel.

Albania is also known for its massive mussel production in Lake Butrint close to the UNESCO-listed Butrint archeological park, southernmost Albania, but has been banned to export mussels to EU on safety concerns for more than two decades since 1994.

As a result, domestic mussel production has dropped to less than 2,000 tons, from a record high of about 5,000 metric tons in the late 1980s.

Denmark-based Eurofish international organization describes Albania's fisheries sector as relatively small, but important from a socio-economic point of view because of being a significant source of jobs. The local fish processing companies are specialized in anchovy and sardine production but also in frozen fish products.
                    [post_title] => EU export quota hold back growth for emerging fish industry 
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-08 09:23:04
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-08 08:23:04
                    [post_content] => By Genc Pollo*

[caption id="attachment_128731" align="alignright" width="300"]Opposition Democratic Party MP Genc Pollo Opposition Democratic Party MP Genc Pollo[/caption]

The matryoshkas are a set of egg-shaped, empty, wooden dolls painted as a mature woman and they fit into one another from the smaller to the biggest one. They can be found in Russia and its neighborhood where they based on a Japanese inspiration (the shichi-fuku-jin dolls), gained much popularity in the 19th century. Matryoshkas beside being a matriarchal symbol are also a metaphor for the ongoing surprise or the lack of certainty in what you hold in your hand.

I am not quite sure why I was reminded of these folklore artefacts as I followed these days the renewed debate over the conditions which Albania must fulfill in order to open EU accession negotiations.

From October to December last year, I kept saying  in parliamentary sessions that if the EU did not open immediately the accession negotiations with Albania (this would have been admittedly a game changer), most helpful for the country would be a string of conditions, and successive pressure,  to deal with severe problems of the last few years such as former  criminals in public office/politicians in bed with current (organized) criminals and the cannabis planting and trade which spiked overwhelmingly in 2016 affecting also labour, business and spurring home consumption. And the obvious consequence of this two: the political-criminal alliance aiming to get the June elections for the ruling party.

I also stressed that those in the EU who under these circumstances reduced the negotiations conditionality in the  first steps of the implementation of the justice reform could be friends of Edi Rama  (not necessarily negatively meant). While those in the EU, who insist on the five priorities with an emphasis on the three problems mentioned above certainly are friends of Albania (not necessarily just Basha's friends). I say this because with such a high level collusion of government and bandits  having them influence the justice reform, whatever the safeguards,   could make things from bad to worse.

Whatever I or any other colleague did say, this issue then was up to the EU. The  European Commission which on November 10 through the  “2015 Albania Report” (the former progress report) proposed the opening of accession negotiations with the key condition of implementing the justice reform and the other  concerns detailed in the report. The EU member countries, which along the European Parliament approve the proposals, represented by their foreign ministers convened on December 13 and decided that Albania must fulfil in a sustained, comprehensive and inclusive way the five priorities including decriminalisation, narcotics and the general elections, before being reconsidered, probably in May 2018,  for the opening of negotiations (I recently posted on social networks again the link to this Council conclusions in the EU website hoping to help tell apart reality from spin).

Since October, I have been hearing the Prime Minister, promising,  well, predicting the opening of negotiations within 2016 only to say later say that justice reform or even only vetting is the sole condition and the five priorities will be gradually implemented throughout the negotiation years. In other words, it can take him months or years to dismiss Roshi as mayor of Kavaja and that the cannabis cultivation will in 2017 successfully be reduced by 10 percent compared to the previous year. Considering that Mr. Rama’s  prime mastery is  selling an icebox to an Eskimo and that he has messed up in far worse dealings than making fancy forecasting on  EU affairs,  is not worth it wasting the readers’  time on this.

But I would add, that when European central or local representatives for  foggy reasons misrepresent the EU position when talking to the Albanian public mentioning only one of them the others hiding within the wooden dolls, they not only do not help Albania, but maybe they damage the credibility of what they represent.

*Genc Pollo is an opposition Democratic Party MP.
                    [post_title] => Matryoshkas and friends
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-07 17:45:17
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131487" align="alignright" width="300"]Atelier 2 Pedestrian zone in winning design project[/caption]

TIRANA, March 7 – Architects, academics and culture heritage specialists have come together to strongly oppose government plans to build a bypass in Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Albania, warning that the concrete modern structure ruins the town’s late Middle Ages architecture and poses a threat to the local landmark castle, already damaged by a late 2016 quake. The government insists the project will further boost tourism in town by easing traffic and creating pedestrian zones.

"The project on the construction of a new road, the so-called bypass, destroys part of the museum city of Gjirokastra and endangers the surrounding area," says a petition to the country’s highest authorities initiated by some 30 public figures.

Inscribed on UNESCO as a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period, Gjirokastra, situated in the Drinos river valley in southern Albania, features a series of outstanding two-story houses which were developed in the 17th century. The town also retains a bazaar, an 18th-century mosque and two churches of the same period. The 13th-century citadel provides the focal point of the town with its typical tower houses.

Experts say they have identified flaws such as “procedural and administrative violations, legal violations, severe technical and professional issues, non-compliance with the priorities on the historic center and the protected area and the negative impact on the extraordinary universal values” in the winning design project. In their appeal to save Gjirokastra, they call on local and international authorities “to exercise their legal and administrative powers to cancel and stop the bypass project in order to save this ensemble of world heritage both spectacular and fragile from the alienation it would undergo from the project's implementation.”

Citing findings from eleven studies carried out during the past 35 years by national and international experts on the geological condition of the hill where the Gjirokastra castle lies, experts say the area where the bypass is expected to be built displays high geological danger because of its layers and a deep tectonic crack.

A 2015 study conducted by the Albanian unit of Sweden-based Cultural Heritage without Borders showed that at least 169 first and second category culture monuments were in critical condition of being completely destroyed.

Petitioners say UNESCO's Europe and North America unit has told the Albanian Institute of Monuments of Culture to “reevaluate the planned capacity of the bypass and if the proposed level is necessary."

Archaeologist Moikom Zeqo

[caption id="attachment_131488" align="alignright" width="300"]Archaeologist Moikom Zeqo Archaeologist Moikom Zeqo[/caption]

Archaeologist and writer Moikom Zeqo says the bypass project has been undertaken without public hearings and consultations with Gjirokastra heritage experts.

"We studied the bypass project, how it was organized, the studio that designed it and the Euro 4 million amount needed for the project. This project is based on a seemingly natural principle to increase tourist numbers in Gjirokastra, but does not take into account the city's characteristics. Firstly, tourists who come to Gjirokastra walk throughout the city, because of the specific construction, structure and maze of cobbled streets and buildings in this city,” Zeqo is quoted as saying in an interview with local media.

Academic Zeqo suggests a cable car solution instead of the bypass project.

“There could be another solution not through a giant concrete road whose height can reach 12 metres, but transporting tourists through cable car, without ruining the image and without intervening with concrete in a big structure in the Gjirokastra historic centre,” says Zeqo.

The bypass petition has also been signed by Ismail Kadare, Albania's internationally renowned writer and perennial Nobel Prize for Literature candidate, also a native of Gjirokastra.

Archaeologist Zeqo says the bypass project also endangers the 13th century local landmark castle, already damaged by a late 2016 earthquake in Ioannina, neighbouring Greece, some 90 km off Gjirokastra.

"The castle is endangered. The 2016 Ioannina based earthquake severely damaged the cattle’s main tower and its reinforcements. There was deviation from the vertical line of the castle's structure, there were architectonic cracks in the castle and in town, warning of a future catastrophe of the whole of Gjirokastra by seismic waves,” says Zeqo.

“If the castle collapses, Gjirokastra also collapses. This is an emergency problem for Gjirokastra, its protection from seismic destruction and collapse that would also destroy other monuments,” he adds.

Commenting on the bypass project, Zeqo said it is categorically prohibited to intervene in the city's historic centre with modern time elements because of destroying the unity of the historic centre.

"This is also determined by law. We cannot intervene because of ruining what is known as the address of the city's memory. This must not be allowed. It's wrong," says Zeqo, adding that the concrete work and its weight pose a severe threat to the already weak geological structure of the foundations where the castle and the city itself lie.

Another reason is that if the bypass project is built, a considerable number of first and second category monuments of culture could be destroyed.

The academic says the intervention also risks destroying the habitat of some 3,500 bats, the second largest colony of bats in Albania.

“The bypass ruins the whole image of Gjirokastra's historic centre. The construction of this snake-like concrete building changes the whole of Gjirokastra's historical memory,” he says, describing Gjirokastra as a late Middle Ages town, not designed for big roads, known for its cobbled streets and stone roofs.

"Gjirokastra is not a modern city spanning in dozens of kilometers that does not allow you to walk. Gjirokastra is a compact historic city, almost a unity of many monumental elements making up the entirety. It is a monumental complex called a town. The bypass not only destroys the image of the historic centre, but its weight endangers the safety of environment and all fragile terrain endangered by seismic waves,” says Zeqo.

Cultural heritage experts say the culture ministry has recently removed some 236 second category monuments from the list of Gjirokastra protected monuments for unknown reasons and that 20 first category monuments are in danger of collapse.

Gov't stance

Government officials claim the introduction of a bypass road will have a direct impact on the traffic in the historic centre of the UNESCO heritage city, which set to turn into a car-free zone.

"This project aims at improving vehicle circulation and returning the historic centre back to its identity. Once completed, the bypass will serve all citizens and visitors of Gjirokastra and keep the historical centre activities undisturbed by the traffic," the government says.

The culture ministry says "the Gjirokastra bypass, well-integrated to the city's road system will tackle the traffic problem in the Bazaar Pass, turning into a pedestrian zone, and that its  construction is being carried out in parallel with the restoration and revitalization of the Gjirokastra bazaar.

Gjirokastra is the hometown of internationally renowned writer Ismail Kadare whose home turned into a museum house in early 2016 on the writer's 80th birthday. Late dictator Enver Hoxha also grew up in Gjirokastra with his home housing the local ethnographic museum.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, Gjirokastra attracts one of the biggest number of foreign tourists in Albania.

 
                    [post_title] => Experts petition against gov't bypass project in UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra
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                    [post_date] => 2017-03-04 08:57:14
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 5 - Albania's political leaders showed signs of compromise on Friday as the opposition staged their 14th days of protest over free and fair elections and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited the country as part of a Western Balkans tour.

The signals come as the main opposition Democratic Party and their allies have been staging an indefinite protest over a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections on June 18 also boycotting Parliament, and at a time when the country is about to approve several key laws to implement its long-awaited justice reform, a key condition in opening EU accession negotiations.

It was the ruling coalition which first extended an invitation of dialogue to the opposition over the justice reform and the implementation of a vetting law that will scan of judges and prosecutors and the necessity of having a reliable and transparent electoral process on June 18 when the country heads to the polls to elect a new government.

“The ruling coalition is ready to dialogue with the opposition over the necessity of taking forward these reforms with national and public interest, welcoming every concrete and realistic proposal by the opposition over the electoral process. The coalition leaders express their readiness to dialogue with the opposition representatives either in Parliament, or every round table of dialogue wanted by the opposition," said the ruling coalition in a statement.

Headed by Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party, the ruling coalition and its allies the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) and Party for Justice Integration and Unity, currently dominating about 3/5 of the 140-seat Parliament will apparently be seeking a second consecutive term together although the junior allies, the SMI, have not made public their decision yet.

Responding to the majority's invitation, the opposition Democratic Party-led coalition said it was willing to sit down at a real round table to establish a government with broad political support that will guarantee free and fair elections.

"The opposition coalition, considering the critical moment for Albania and Albanians because of free and fair elections being threatened by crime and drugs linked to the government, expresses its willingness for a real and not facade round table of dialogue with ruling coalition representatives in order to establish conditions for free and fair elections, through a government of broad political support," said the opposition coalition which has set four conditions to take part in the general elections.

The opposition wants the full implementation of the decriminalization law banning people with criminal records from holding public office, an efficient fight against narco-trafficking, tackling organized crime and drug proceeds, the preparation of free and fair elections and implementing the justice reform under the consensual constitutional provisions of July 22, 2016.

The opposition says there has been a boom in cannabis cultivation and trafficking while the ruling majority is trying to capture the justice system through unilateral approval of seven implementation laws to the consensual reform approved in July 2016.

Later on Friday, opposition leader Lulzim Basha emphasized the caretaker government condition was a non-negotiable condition.

"The caretaker government is a non-negotiable condition to guarantee free and fair elections and pave the way for the implementation of a real justice reform under the constitutional provisions," said Basha.

The opposition claims next June's general election are at serious threat by drugs money and people with criminal records, claiming vote rigging in the 2015 local elections and the Korça and Dibra mayoral by-elections in 2014 and 2016.

However, the ruling Socialist seem hesitant to give in to the opposition's caretaker government condition.

"The government and the opposition should always dialogue on big reforms and every issue of interest to the country and the citizens. It is only the people through their votes that decide who remains in power and opposition," said Gramoz Ruçi, the Socialist Party parliamentary group head.

In her Albania visit on Friday, EU foreign policy chief Mogherini stressed the need to implement the justice reform approved in consensus in mid-2016 to accelerate Albania’s path toward the EU.

"I believe that it is not because the European Union asked for it but because the Albanians ask for it: a more independent justice system, that there is a responsibility now for the institutions of this country to implement that reform with the same unity that they managed to find when they voted the reform in Parliament last July," she told Tirana University students.

"A more independent justice system will help Albania fight organised crime, corruption, all sorts of illegal trafficking. It will give more confidence to young entrepreneurs; it will make the country more attractive for investors that are coming from the outside; it will boost economic growth and also something - which is not irrelevant - it would give the justice system of this country a credibility that would entrust it in the eyes of the citizens, a system that is equal and fair for all," added Mogherini.

In her Albania visit, Mogherini met the country's president and key political leaders as part of visit to six regional Western Balkans countries aspiring to join the EU.

 
                    [post_title] => Signs of compromise to overcome political deadlock emerge as Mogherini visits Albania
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_1299" align="alignright" width="300"]Central bank governor Gent Sejko Central bank governor Gent Sejko[/caption]

TIRANA, March 14 - Albania's central bank says it is undertaking measures to implement a de-eurisation strategy that would accelerate the reduction of the current high levels of foreign currency in the country's banking system, considered a key barrier for the transmission of its easier monetary policy and giving a boost to sluggish credit and consumption.

Governor Gent Sejko says the country's highest financial authorities have already identified some measures, including charging higher fees on transactions in foreign currency to curb high levels of foreign currency in the banking system, estimated at 60 percent for credit and almost 50 percent for deposits, with the overwhelming majority being euro-denominated.

"As a banking monetary and supervisory authority, the Bank of Albania is working to identify some measures that target increasing the cost of using foreign currency in banking transactions, strengthen the resistance of the banking system against foreign currency liquidity stress and further improve requirements on raising awareness among foreign currency borrowers toward the accompanying risk of currency exchange. When we have reached a final conclusion on these measures, the Bank of Albania will be careful that their implementation stage in banks is gradual," says Sejko in an interview published on the central bank's website.

With the key interest rate at a historic low of 1.25 percent, credit has shown poor signs of recovery affected by non-performing at about 20 percent keeping lending standards tight and poor demand by both businesses and households despite loan rates having considerably dropped in the past few years.

Since late 2011 when the key rate was at 5.25 percent, the central bank’s easier monetary policy has been mostly reflected on deposit rates and T-bill yields on government’s internal borrowing, rather than lower interest rates for lek-denominated loans which at an average of 7.5 percent in January 2017 were at almost half of the pre-global crisis rates, but yet about seven times higher compared to deposits in the national currency just slightly above zero.

The governor says the de-euroisation strategy, which is being consulted with the Financial Supervisory Authority and the finance ministry, is intended to be implemented in the mid to long-run.

“There are several studies by Albanian and foreign authors classifying Albania as a country with a high euroisation rate. In this respect, Albania is still similar to some regional countries and reflects among others the exposure toward foreign currency influxes because of important economic links to some EU and Eurozone countries. Without going into details for the reasons of the euroisation level, I would like to stress that this is a complex and challenging phenomenon to tackle and the impact of various measures can be tangible only gradually and in the mid and long run,” says the governor.

Albania conducts about two-thirds of its trade with Eurozone countries, mainly Italy and Greece and also attracts huge foreign direct investment and migrant remittances from the Eurozone countries.

The central bank says that high levels of euroisation or dollarisation, mainly attributed to periods of high inflation rate, considerable depreciation of the national currency, macroeconomic-related imbalances and financial crises, have the ability to lead to unwanted structural changes, with prices in general starting to be indexed to the foreign currency if no measures are taken.

Albania’s inflation rate has picked up in the first couple of months of this year after hitting a 16-year low of 1.3 percent in 2016, 1.7 below the central bank's 3 percent target, reflecting the slump in global oil and food prices, but also sluggish domestic consumption as the economy is estimated to have grown by slightly above 3 percent, mainly thanks to major energy-related investment, at almost half of the 6 percent growth rate estimated to bring welfare to one of Europe's poorest economies.

"From the point of view of economic and financial policies, a high level of euroisation in the banking sector can be accompanied by a reduction in the central bank's monetary policy efficiency and increased financial stability risks with negative implications on lending in the domestic currency and exposure to currency exchange risks,” says Sejko.

The Albanian economy is highly euroized with euro-denominated deposits and loans accounting for half of the total. The euro is also the main currency used in the real estate industry. U.S. dollar-denominated loans also hold about 10 percent of loans while their weight in deposits is quite negligible.

“Despite the difficulties I believe that it is necessary to react with determination toward the euroisation phenomenon. This would help increase the Albanian economy's resistance, mainly by reducing its exposure toward risks and improving the efficiency of the required economic and financial policies to tackle these risks,” says governor Sejko.

In its latest country report on Albania, the International Monetary Fund, also warns measures to encourage de-euroization should be implemented in a gradual manner with due consideration of disintermediation risks in case of interest rates rising sharply.

"The Bank of Albania lowered its main policy rate by 175 basis points over 2014–16, to a historical low of 1.25 percent. However, high bank risk aversion, weak credit demand, and pervasive euroization have limited the transmission to lending rates," says the IMF in a report after the Albanian government concluded a 3-year binding deal supported by a €331 million loan earlier this year.

Informing the IMF about its de-euroisation plans, the central bank says it is envisaging a set of measures on the banks’ liabilities side, including "the establishment of different reserve remunerations for euro and lek deposits and higher requirements for highly liquid assets to be held against foreign currency deposits."

"A schedule of foreign exchange auction purchases for 2017 has been duly and transparently communicated to the market. This operation may also contribute to counteract any possible upward pressure on exchange rate coming from the success of the de-euroization strategy, while maintaining a fully market determined exchange rate," says the central bank.

During the past year, Albania’s national currency has considerably strengthened against Europe's single currency which stands at an almost six-year low of about 135 lek with a negative impact on the country’s ailing exports, already suffering due to a slump in commodity prices, negatively affecting the key oil and mineral exports.

While the central bank governor attributes the appreciation to the market economy considering the country's free-floating currency exchange regime, he cites factors such as higher levels of foreign direct investment, higher tourism income and efforts to reduce tax evasion leading to a stronger national currency.

Other experts have also linked the national currency appreciation with an influx of euro stemming from increased cannabis cultivation in the country during the past couple of years.

Lending in the national currency lek has gained around 13 percentage points in the past few years and now accounts for about 40 percent of the total credit portfolio compared to only slightly more than a quarter just before the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. Deposits in the national currency stand at about half of total savings.

 
            [post_title] => Albania announces de-euroisation strategy
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