Basha’s ‘war’ cry taken out of context, deputy says

Basha’s ‘war’ cry taken out of context, deputy says

TIRANA, Feb. 27 – Harsh language used during an ongoing protest by Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was not a call to violence in what has been a peaceful protest, but rather taken out of contest to delegitimize the protest

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Cannabis trafficking from Albania to Italy tripled last year, Italian prosecutor says

Cannabis trafficking from Albania to Italy tripled last year, Italian prosecutor says

TIRANA, Feb. 25 – Italy’s nationwide anti-mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, who visited Albania last week, said that cannabis traffic from Albania to Italy tripled last year. In a press conference after a meeting with Albania’s chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, Roberti

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Calling for caretaker gov’t to protect free elections, opposition continues protest

Calling for caretaker gov’t to protect free elections, opposition continues protest

TIRANA, Feb. 23 – Albania’s opposition is continuing its indefinite protest in front of the prime minister’s office and opposition leaders said the Democratic Party will not return to parliament until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and

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Vetting must not be used to influence prosecutors’ work, Llalla says

Vetting must not be used to influence prosecutors’ work, Llalla says

SHKODER, Feb. 20 – Prosecutor-General Adriatik Llalla said this week the evaluation process for the judges and prosecutors, also known as the vetting process, must not be used as a tool to influence judiciary officials into not doing their jobs

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Editorial: Caretaker governments are needed to protect all elections

Editorial: Caretaker governments are needed to protect all elections

In its 12 years in print, this newspaper has supported without any hesitation every effort and action that ensures that Albanian elections are free, fair and democratic. The ongoing protest Albania’s opposition is holding is such an effort, Tirana Times

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A tent without the pole

A tent without the pole

By Alba Çela Last Saturday, the opposition political parties called their supporters and other citizens to protest against the current government and governance. At the end of the protest they built up a tent-like umbrella which allegedly shall stay open

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News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU’s credibility among Albanians, opposition warns

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania’s opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of

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Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze

TIRANA, Feb. 21 – Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region’s lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing

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Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation

Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The favourable hydro-situation and the launch of several new private and concession hydropower plants, including the Banja HPP by Norway’s Statkraft in late 2016, gave a boost to domestic electricity production last year, according to data

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Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports

Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports

TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The rapid development of the country’s oil industry in the past decade has turned Albania into one of Europe’s top three least dependent countries on imports of fossil fuels, according to a report published by Eurostat,

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 27 – Harsh language used during an ongoing protest by Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was not a call to violence in what has been a peaceful protest, but rather taken out of contest to delegitimize the protest by media outlets that support the government, said Basha's deputy, Edmond Spaho.

“Mr. Basha has not called for violence, it was taken out of context. Albanian citizens who have joined the protest have been peaceful, because violence is not in DP's nature, and that's the way it si going to continue to be moving forward,” Spaho said. 

Basha, who is often taunted by opponents as being too mild mannered for Albania's rough politics, raised eye brows when he appeared to call for violence in a speech in front of protesters. 

“This system is criminal. This criminal republic must be overthrown. We have to bury it and make way for justice, democracy, free and fair elections," Basha said. “Whoever attacks citizens and our protest will be dragged to the square. You want war, you will have war! Slash their ties, break the car windows of those who punish you frightfully.”

Basha was reacting specifically to information that a family member of one of the protesters had been fired from a job at the public television station to punish participation in the protest, and made the comments of people not having to put up with injustice, his party said.   

The opposition boycotted parliament Thursday despite appeals from international community and continued with street protests demanding a caretaker government that would guarantee free and fair elections.

The parliamentary boycott puts the justice reform at risk as Democrats have warned they would vote on the vetting bodies only if its laws are amended.

The vetting bodies should be set up next week. These institutions will check the professional and personal integrity of at least 800 judges and prosecutors in the country.

The Democrats have blocked Tirana’s main boulevard since Saturday. They have set up a tent in front of the prime minister’s building demanding a caretaker government which can guarantee that the parliamentary elections of June 18 are free and fair.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 25 - Italy's nationwide anti-mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, who visited Albania last week, said that cannabis traffic from Albania to Italy tripled last year.

In a press conference after a meeting with Albania’s chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, Roberti said  that Italy and Albania must work together to understand the factors of the increase of the traffic and find ways to fight it.

“It is in our interest to understand what led to the increased cannabis traffic from Albania and how we can collaborate and fight cannabis traffic,” he said.

According to Roberti, one of the reasons that might have led to the increase in cannabis cultivation is the high demand from Italy’s organized crime. He explained that cannabis import is far easier than cultivation, which makes Albania the easiest source for drug traffickers to Italy, a country which applies strict anti-cultivation laws.

According to Roberti, Albania and Italy pledged to intensify efforts and strategies to fight drug trafficking.

“Our joint interest is to fight organized crime and corruption which appear to be increasingly connected. Corruption is a preferred instrument by organized crime to legitimize illicit revenues and to infiltrate the public administration and legitimate economy,” he added.

Meanwhile, in a televised interview, Roberti added that criminal organizations in Italy have made an economic assessment and find it more convenient to collaborate with Albania’s drug traffickers who have presented some lucrative offers.

“To them, is more convenient in economic terms to get shipments from Albania rather than cultivate marijuana in Italy or in other cultivating countries such as North Africa,” Roberti said in an interview with Top Channel.

Roberti's statement were a low blow to Albania’s officials who repeatedly claimed that Albania is a success story in terms of fighting marijuana cultivation.

Minister of Interior Affairs, Saimir Tahiri said in a press statement that the Socialist-led ruling majority inherited the problem of drugs and that the situation was far more worse when the country was ruled by the Democrats.

“We are fully aware about figures involving cannabis plantations and trafficking, because we have been working with Guardia di Finanza. But cannabis is a problem we inherited from the time of Democrats,” Tahiri said recalling that last year alone Albania destroyed a record level of 2.5 million marijuana plants, four times more than in 2015.

Critics of the government point to data that cannabis cultivation has increased several fold since the Socialists took power, reaching an industrial scale never seen before. Albania's main opposition Democratic Party has said the traffickers have the tacit support of government officials who want to use the ill-gained funds to buy the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Following some concerning comments from international representatives last week, including the head of the OSCE office in Albania, the State Police deployed about 3,100 officers nationwide who inspected greenhouses, warehouses, abandoned homes and tunnels that are randomly used by cannabis growers to hide seeds and plants. Officials believe that large quantities of marijuana plants are being stored ready to be smuggled abroad.

Neighboring countries, such as Italy and Greece, have increasingly reported cases of confiscating dozens of metric tons of cannabis at the border crossing points or boats.

Last week, police in Greece confiscated about a ton of marijuana hidden in truck waiting to cross the border.  Both countries are also on high alert and intensified control measures in border points and inside their territories.

Figures from the State Police show that in 2013, officers destroyed about 90,000 plants while in 2015,  about 780,000 marijuana plants were seized and destroyed.

Last year alone, the State Police spent about 5.7 million euros in their numerous operations against marijuana cultivation, officials said.

The drugs problem continues to worsen inexorably from year to year and has been a highly contentious issue in the past three years.

Last week, the head of OSCE Presence to Albania, Bernd Borchardt warned that massive amounts of money from drug trafficking and cultivation could be used to influence elections.

“There are more than 2 billion euros in dirty money in the market. There is a high risk that this money can be used to buy off MPs,” Ambassador Borchardt said in a television interview broadcast by Ora News.

However, following a meeting with Minister of Interior, Saimir Tahiri, the OSCE diplomat said that needed top clarify that  OSCE presence welcomes the strong stand of both the government and opposition against cannabis.

“In 2013, 1,000 tonnes of cannabis had a street EU value of about 2 billion euros. In 2016, 2.5 million cannabis plants were destroyed. This is a good success,” he said.

Borchardt said that OSCE encourages all parties “to work on means to keep 2013’s 2 billion euros and fresh cannabis money out of elections and campaign.”

 
                    [post_title] => Cannabis trafficking from Albania to Italy tripled last year, Italian prosecutor says
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131254" align="alignright" width="300"]Opposition leader Lulzim Basha at a protest rally. (Photo: DP handout) Opposition leader Lulzim Basha at a protest rally. (Photo: DP handout)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 23 – Albania’s opposition is continuing its indefinite protest in front of the prime minister’s office and opposition leaders said the Democratic Party will not return to parliament until a caretaker government takes over to guarantee free and fair elections.

The announcement of a parliamentary boycott followed the largest anti-government rally in years and the setting up of a large tent in front of the prime minister’s office, where hundreds of people have stood nonstop since the anti-government rally on Saturday.

The Democratic Party has dubbed the protest venue, a major intersection in Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard as “Freedom Square.”

“Until they agree with our demands, our parliamentary activity will move right here, on Freedom Square, venue of direct democracy,” said Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha.

Caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections

Basha and other opposition leaders at the protest said the current Socialist-led government cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections because it has a record of using “criminals and drug money” in previous elections.

There is little trust in the government’s will to hold free and fair elections, not only among the opposition but also large parts of the population that might not be supporting the Democratic Party directly, analysts say, pointing to the case of the local elections in Dibra showed how a central government can win an election through a mixture of vote-buying and voter intimidation through criminal elements.

Opposition and other anti-government activists also point out that avoiding the influence of money from crime and drugs in the electoral process stands at the foundation of stability and security in the country.

Albania has recently seen a massive growth in marijuana plantations, which the opposition says have the tacit support of government officials. In addition, several elected representatives – both members of parliament and mayors – have had to give up office or are under investigation as part of a decriminalization process that started after the Socialist-led government chose people with criminal pasts to run for office.

Channeling growing popular discontent

Protesters weathered rain and colder than usual weather to hold uninterrupted overnight protests, where leaders of the Democratic Party and smaller allies held speeches.

Protesters speaking at the rally said they had come because they feel neglected by “an arrogant government” that is not performing well enough, causing a difficult economic situation, increased unemployment as well as an increase in crime. Protesters also say corruption is widespread at every level of administration.

At Saturday’s rally, Democratic Party leaders spoke only after people who had suffered directly under government oppression expressed their experiences, with which thousands of Albanians can identify.

One woman said she had been quickly fired from a public sector job because of being a Democratic Party member. Another woman, holding a baby, said she had been forced to shut down her small tailor shop due to repression from tax authorities and higher electricity bills.

The Democratic Party is trying to channel growing public discontent against the government’s reforms, which increasingly are facing a perception of being tough on the weakest members of the society while helping powerful economic interests become even stronger.

But ultimately the opposition believes that it can only win polls on a level playing field and that only a caretaker government can guarantee free and fair elections.

“There is no going back from the way we have chosen without winning on the promised demand: There will be free elections only with a government that doesn’t have Edi Rama as a prime minister,” Basha said.

Protesters remember dictator’s monument toppling

Opposition leaders have been showing the protest nonstop live on Facebook, and have accused mainstream media of not giving it enough attention due the fact that the media outlets “have been bought by the government.”

Monday, the third day of the indefinite protest, was also the anniversary of another popular rally that led to the toppling of the statue of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist-era dictator, and signifies to this day the fall of communism in Albania.

The Democrats see Rama’s government has a direct descendant of the country’s communist rulers, not only because Hoxha’s Labor Party became the Socialist Party in 1991, but also because it is using the same methods of intimidation to hamper free and fair elections, said Arben Imami, a long-time opposition leader.

Many opposition supporter who come from families that were politically persecuted under Hoxha’s regime also point out that many high government officials have direct family ties to the former communist ruling class.

Reacting to the protest on Facebook, Prime Minister Rama said the opposition was protesting to protect itself from the justice reform.

“Citizens have as part of their rights to protest against the government and to call of its resignation, but if this tent birthed by the protest was set up to protect those who have hijacked the justice system then the protesters themselves will be betrayed by the protest leaders,” Rama said.

The Democratic Party voted in favor of the justice reform, but has expressed concerns over the constitutionality of some of its elements.

The protest has been largely peaceful, and police said they would not interfere with the siting as long as there are no acts of vandalism, although the rally permit expired on Saturday.


                    [post_title] => Calling for caretaker gov’t to protect free elections, opposition continues protest 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131348" align="alignright" width="300"]Adriatik-Lllalla Prosecutor-General Adriatik Llalla (Photo: Archives)[/caption]

SHKODER, Feb. 20 – Prosecutor-General Adriatik Llalla said this week the evaluation process for the judges and prosecutors, also known as the vetting process, must not be used as a tool to influence judiciary officials into not doing their jobs properly. 

“All of us should be independent and our decision-making should be based on law and evidence,” Llalla said at a meeting held in the northwestern city of Shkodra with prosecutors from Albania’s northern districts.

Prosecutor-General Llalla said the judiciary reform represents a very important momentum for the functioning of the prosecution process in Albania. 

He said prosecutors will soon be vetted in a process aimed to cleanse the institution from people with criminal records and who have ties to corruption.

“This reform has many novelties about judiciary institutions. The vetting process will be implemented soon and will kick off with the establishment of a special unit,” Llalla said. 

Llalla’s statement followed disagreements between his office and the Central Elections Commission in regards to the implementation of the Decriminalization Law.

Last week, the Prosecutor-General’s Office filed penal proceedings against the Central Election Commission, arguing that the electoral watchdog accepted the submission of a second self declaration form from a member of parliament and two mayors regardless of the expiration of the legal deadline for the delivery of documents required by the Decriminalization Law.

A spokesperson of the Central Election Commission issued an official response to the claims of the Prosecutor-General’s Office saying that the “decriminalization law aims to ensure trust of the public opinion and not deliver a meaningless incrimination.”

The institutional clash escalated after officers of the Judicial Police entered the premises of the Central Election Commission and demanded files and documents for the members of parliament and mayors that are under investigation for violating the Decriminalization Law.

Furthermore, the prosecutor's office has also requested fingerprints for six members of parliament and three mayors in the framework of the investigation of their alleged criminal records registered abroad.

 
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                    [post_content] => In its 12 years in print, this newspaper has supported without any hesitation every effort and action that ensures that Albanian elections are free, fair and democratic. The ongoing protest Albania's opposition is holding is such an effort, Tirana Times believes, and this newspaper supports its aim for a caretaker government to run the elections.

Failure to hold elections that are free and fair has been a key factor that has hurt the stable and democratic development of this country. Albania has seen several bad elections in the past, and their rigging has led the country to the edge of the abyss. Long term political conflict in Albania has always been about elections, the legitimacy of which has been continuously problematic, leading to serious consequences for the country.

Political parties in Albania have seen conflict based on elections and their outcome, and in very few cases the loser has accepted defeat as unmarred by rigging. Failure to achieve democratic elections based on international standards has kept and continues to keep Albania in transition. As such, rigging election results and vote theft must end once and for all.

Albania's opposition and ruling parties are now on two sides of a deep and insurmountable rift of mistrust. And that's because the conditions are now in place for the manipulation of elections and vote theft on a massive scale like never seen before. The opposition says this. But international observers do too.

The risk comes from the growing power of the underworld and drug money in politics. This week alone, OSCE's ambassador to Albania, warned publicly about the risk the drug money in circulation, calculated at about 2 billion euros, could be used to influence the elections through buying votes, candidates and influence.

Four years ago, the Socialist Party, which was then in opposition, decided to run as MP candidates a long roster of large business owners, most of which have now been kicked out of parliament due to criminal pasts or criminal ties.

The rich and the powerful – the tough guys with muscles too – have been part of Albanian politics for 25 years, but the Socialists were the first to bring convicted criminals into parliament as MPs. The situation got so bad, a Decriminalization Law had to be passed by parliament to clean itself up. The law passed, but its implementation is facing resistance and party leaders are reluctant to completely sever ties with the criminal underworld they see as a potential ally to win the upcoming elections.

While it will be difficult for people with shady backgrounds to enter parliament again, it is entirely possible – the sign is on the wall – that the Socialist-led government will use assistance from the same type of shady crowd to get elected to a second term. It needs to do so, because its performance so far has been dim, and the numbers of distrust in government in polls show it.

Perhaps the most flagrant case of how how dirty money and criminal muscles can be used to win elections was how the Socialists won the 2016 municipal byelection in Dibra, a Democratic Party stronghold until 2015. International observers found no violations of voting procedures and the day was quiet, but the results were fixed, and according to local observers, several million euros exchanged hands to bring in a result in which Socialists won ten times more votes than they did in the 2015 elections, when a narrow victory of 300 votes became possible only through the disunity in the local Democratic Party branch, where an independent candidate split the vote. Dibra's Socialist mayor was fired over a sexual scandal, and yet his party won again. What happened in Dibra was a shameful example of how dirty money and criminal ties can buy and intimidate voters to make an election look fair when it is everything but.

The Democrats now believe the June 18 elections will be Dibra brought to a national scale. The program has already started: 1 billion dollars of for private-public investments and amnesties are already rolling for huge tax dodgers, electricity thieves, illegal constructions – and even convicted criminals in prison. This from a government who has been preaching rule of law for three years, punishing the weakest in society while coddling the powerful.

If one needs to look for proof in state power in rigging elections, let international observers from the OSCE-ODIHR send a mission to see how prisoners vote in any election. More than likely, 100 percent of the Albanian prisoners votes go to whatever party holds Ministry of Justice, in charge of prisons.

Today, Democratic Party and Socialist Party governments, in association with the Socialist Movement for Integration, are all responsible for the destruction of past electoral processes. Which is why something must be done to prevent the political establishment from rigging the upcoming elections.

Supporting the creation of a caretaker government staffed by technocrats to run the elections might seem at first glance like support for the opposition alone. That is not the case. A caretaker government is in the interest of Albanian democracy and a democratic future, of the stability and security of the country.

A caretaker government can not deprive Edi Rama from winning a second – or even a third – term, if Albanians chose to elect him free of the assistance of people with criminal ties in parliament and outside it.

Tirana Times supports the idea that a caretaker government be allowed to run all elections, as it does in some other democracies, and such move must be enshrined in the constitution to make sure state power is not used by those in power to manipulate elections and so that the votes – and the dignity – of Albanians can not be bought and sold.

Changes should also be made to the current legislation to severely punish individuals who are engaged in vote-buying.

No other reform is more important than having free and fair elections. Saving free and fair elections is a call that must also be heard by the international community representatives, in whom the Albanian people have not lost faith. Deadlines are not important. It is important to have a legitimate election. Albania's constitution has been amended in the past to expand the power of political leaders. It can now be amended to ensure ensure a free voting process.
                    [post_title] => Editorial: Caretaker governments are needed to protect all elections
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                    [ID] => 131324
                    [post_author] => 29
                    [post_date] => 2017-02-24 06:37:53
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-24 05:37:53
                    [post_content] => By Alba Çela

Last Saturday, the opposition political parties called their supporters and other citizens to protest against the current government and governance. At the end of the protest they built up a tent-like umbrella which allegedly shall stay open for months and host the people who want to voice their discontent. So far it has been a nonviolent congregation where people hear speeches, chant slogans, play cards and have coffee. A civic peaceful umbrella, where people who are unhappy with e government and worried about the next elections is a good thing. It is an indicator of health and vibrancy in democracies. However here I think where the positive claims end and the difficult questions remain.

What is the pole that holds the canvass of this umbrella which sometimes is ironically dubbed as the ‘freedom umbrella’? First it was a protest against bad governance and corruption (arguably the best cause so far), then it evolved into concern upon the next elections, whether they can be free and fair and finally assumed the form of a request for a technical government!

To make matters worse, the most frequent cry out of this umbrella seems to be recently the invitation for the junior coalition partner in government to switch sides. 

This puts the umbrella protest in the worst light possible. More than anything it makes this initiative look like a last desperate step to thwart a democratic process which the DP seems to have calculated that it will lose. 

Handing hopes on the next movement of the opposing side is neither legitimate nor efficient. It shows the primary interest of getting into power and once it delays, as LSI head Meta has shown no signs, it cannot be expected to motivate supporters for long.

The protest is compounded by an official boycott of the parliament by the opposition. This puts in danger the approval of important structures for the vetting process and the justice reform. The European Union was quick to invite the opposition to rethink the boycott part and rejoin the Parliament, revoking any chance for the much-awaited international support. In return old figures of the DP resumed their favorite sport of accusing and denigrating selected international politicians with their usual “pleasantries”.

This resistance to the reform and the incendiary language towards international community are tested moves and they have failed before. They are harming the opposition chances to appeal to grey voters who might otherwise harbor grievances on the current governance.

Therefore, the poles competing for relevance, focus and meaning in the umbrella are multiplying and canceling each other at quite some speed. This risks to shatter the fragile balance holding up this oppositionist action. What started out as an impressive umbrella, without a solid and legitimate pole, will soon become a small camping tent held up by sticks.

 
                    [post_title] => A tent without the pole
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-22 13:29:57
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-22 12:29:57
                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131280" align="alignright" width="300"]rovla2 Based in Tirana, Ambassador Romana Vlahutin heads the EU Delegation to Albania. (Photo: pdp)[/caption]

TIRANA, Feb. 22 – When Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Albania, met with Lulzim Basha, Albania's opposition leader, this week, there was one person the opposition did not want in the room: Ambassador Romana Vlahutin, head of EU's delegation to Albania.

Basha had asked that Ambassador Vlahutin be left out of the meeting, a departure from protocol for meetings of this type. The leader of Albania's opposition had wanted to make a public show of the fact that the EU ambassador no longer enjoys the trust of the opposition, a source familiar with the situation said.


The opposition's stance comes at a critical moment for Albania's democracy, as the opposition has started to hold an indefinite protest in front of the prime minister's office, seeking Prime Minister Edi Rama's resignation and a caretaker government to oversee the upcoming June general elections. 


In addition, Sali Berisha, the country's former prime minister and a dominant figure in the main opposition Democratic Party said in a television interview this week that not only does the opposition no longer trusts Vlahutin to be impartial, but she is now seen as an active government supporter.


It is the first time an Albanian opposition representative says the Tirana-based EU ambassador is not trusted, and it is clear that as far the Democratic Party is concerned, Vlahutin has crossed a red line.


In recent news, Albania's chief prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, said in television interviews that the EU ambassador had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to arrest of senior politicians, and one diplomatic source tells Tirana Times, that Berisha himself was at the top of the list. 


Llalla informed President Bujar Nishani, his direct superior on the Council of Justice, of the request. Nishani, a former high official in the Democratic Party, then appears to have called in Vlahutin to explain her request and its basis.


A senior official in the Democratic Party said Vlahutin has undermined the credibility of the European Union in Albania by “being an emotional supporter of the government and the prime minister,” adding this opinion is shared by the wider public, not just the opposition. 


Berisha has also made public that known Socialist activists and supporters of the prime minister have been employed in Vlahutin's staff in Tirana. 


Vlahutin's background is unusual for an EU ambassador. A Croatian national, she had previously worked for her country's president before being sent to Albania as an EU representative following Croatia's 2013 accession to the European Union. 


She first raised eyebrows in Albania when she said that the justice reform could be approved without the opposition participation if needed, when both international and domestic leaders saw that consensus was the only way forward. 


Vlahutin also stayed silent when the prime minister said that when it came to the justice reform, the opposition stood against the European Union, the United States and the ruling Socialist-led majority.


This week's public gesture by the opposition to show its distrust of the head of the EU delegation to Tirana also comes at a time when Albania's progress toward EU integration seems to be a standstill.


Independent observers have concluded that the EU delegation to Albania, which Ambassador Vlahutin leads, as well as Prime Minister Rama had created great public expectations for opening of the official membership negotiations between Albania and the European Union. 


The question of opening negotiations was reduced the approval of the justice reform in parliament, which happened with a unanimous vote, even-though both Vlahutin and Rama said that the opposition was the main obstacle.

However, that approach was wrong. The opening of the membership negotiations has now been pushed beyond any realistic prediction.

The Tirana-based EU representatives neglected a key factor of importance in the country's progress: free and fair elections and preparations for a such a process.

Another key issue that has caused great damage of trust has been the issue of marijuana cultivation, now spread across the country at an industrial scale, a fact which the opposition says has the tacit support of the government. 


Prime Minister Rama has had a curious answer to such accusations: Go ask the internationals. 


The EU representatives in Tirana have been curiously silent on the matter, even-though the problem is self evident through the tens of tons of marijuana seized by international and domestic authorities on a regular basis. 


Albanians have had a great trust in the European Union. Support for EU integration remains at near-unanimous levels, research by the Albanian Institute for International Studies shows. 


However, as the country seems to head into another political crisis, the lack of trust the opposition has in EU's delegation to Tirana could undermine EU's credibility and power of influence to resolve future crisis.
                    [post_title] => News analysis: Head of delegation bias hurting EU's credibility among Albanians, opposition warns
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-21 17:29:40
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-21 16:29:40
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 21 – Albania is mulling a hike in the minimum wage, currently the region’s lowest at €157, amid debates by unionists demanding a high increase after a three-year freeze and private sector employers worried over increased costs reducing the country’s competitiveness in some key sectors, such as the garment and footwear industry, Albania’s top exporter relying on low labour costs.

Trade union representatives have demanded a 4,000 lek (€29) to 26,000 lek (€190) increase in the minimum wage after repeated demands for a hike were not taken into account in the past three years. Meanwhile, business representatives seem willing for a 2,000 lek (€15) hike to 24,000 lek (€176) and a lower 1,000 lek (€7.3) wage increase for some 100,000 garment and footwear workers, most of whom are paid at minimum wages.

The debate comes ahead of the upcoming June general elections at a time when the Socialist Party-led government has announced a 7 to 36 percent hike for some 164,000 public sector employees, accounting for 18 percent of total employees, following a three-year freeze.

The minimum wage for some 6,900 public sector workers is set to increase by 36 percent to 30,000 lek (€220) starting next March, ahead of the June 18 elections. The hike is part of the government’s plans to spend about $100 million on wage and pension increases in 2017, when police forces will benefit a 17 percent hike and the public administration is expected to get a 10 percent increase in monthly wages.

“Taking into account the past four years, the increase that business representatives are proposing is lower than adjusting it to inflation rate and economic growth. That is why we oppose it. Our initial demand was for a 30 percent hike, while the final compromise is at 26,000 lek (€190),” said Kol Nikolla, the head of Albania’s Confederate of Trade Unions, at a meeting last weekend with the National Labour Council, a consultative body with government, employer and employee representatives.

Luan Bregasi, the head of the Business Albania association, said the 24,000 lek (€176) minimum wage is accepted by all industries, except for the garment and footwear industry.

“All industries accept a 2,000 lek (€15) increase in the minimum wage. Our proposal for garment and footwear producers is a 1,000 lek (€7.3) increase for this year and adjusting the hike to inflation rate in the coming years,” said Bregasi.

Other business representatives say the hike could have negative impacts on exporting businesses relying on low labour costs.

“It is likely that the products’ cost will artificially increase and the effects that low profit businesses will suffer will be either cutting exports or cutting staff,” says Alban Zusi, the head of Albanian Exports’ Center.

Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj said next March’s government decision on the minimum wage would be a traditional increase that will not damage the country’s competitiveness, hinting a 5 percent increase to 23,000 lek (€168).

Social Welfare Minister Blendi Klosi said the “increase will be made by taking into account interests of both employees and employers without damaging the labour market compared to the regional one.”

Albania’s current minimum wage of €157 is lower compared to all regional EU aspirant countries, including Kosovo which applies a €130 minimum wage for people aged up to 35 and €170 for elder employees.

Minimum wages in the other Western Balkans EU aspirants range from €206 in Bosnia and Herzegovina to €213 in Macedonia, €235 in Serbia and €288 in Montenegro.

While Albania offers the cheapest labour skills in the region, the tax burden is one of Western Balkan’s highest, being a barrier to attract foreign direct investment in sectors other than oil and mining despite the country’s favourable geographic position and Mediterranean climate.

Employment in Albania’s private sector is led by self-employment in the agriculture sector, which provides about half of the country’s jobs, but only 20 percent of the GDP, unveiling the poor efficiency of the sector which suffers underfinancing and poor investment and technology.

Employment in the private non-agricultural sector, led by the garment and footwear industry with some 100,000 workers, accounts for 37 percent of the total 972,000 employees in the country where the official unemployment rate is at 15.2 percent and youth unemployment at 30 percent. The real jobless figure is estimated to be far higher as jobless people in rural areas are almost all counted as self-employed in the agriculture sector due to possessing farmland.

 
                    [post_title] =>  Albania mulls minimum wage hike after three-year freeze
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-20 17:31:21
                    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-20 16:31:21
                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The favourable hydro-situation and the launch of several new private and concession hydropower plants, including the Banja HPP by Norway’s Statkraft in late 2016, gave a boost to domestic electricity production last year, according to data published energy regulator, ERE.

The wholly hydro-dependent domestic electricity generation rose by 21 percent to 7,136 GWh in 2016, meeting the overwhelming majority of the country’s needs.

State-run KESH power utility, which manages the country’s three biggest hydropower plants situated in the northern Drin River cascade and produces about three-quarters of domestic electricity, saw its energy production increase by 14 percent to about 5,100 GWh compared to 2015.

Meanwhile, private and concession hydropower plants increased their share in the domestic hydropower production by 4 percent to 28 percent with a production of 2,000 GWH in 2016.

The 73 MW Banja HPP that delivered its first electricity in Sept. 2016, being the first of two major HPPs Norway’s Statkraft is building as part of its Devoll hydropower project, produced only about 70 GWh during its first three months of operation in 2016.

The Ashta HPP, a €200 million by Austria’s Verbund and EVN, operational since early 2013, increased its production to 276 GWH in 2016, accounting for 13 percent of electricity produced by about 100 private and concession hydropower plants.

The Vlora thermal power plant, a new 97 MW $112 million low-sulphur distillate oil fuelled power plant, available for use since 2010, but which has not been made operational yet because of high fuel costs, was not involved in electricity production. The power plant has not been taken over by Albanian power utility, KESH, yet as it faces an arbitration trial with an Italian company that built it due to financial disputes and problems in the plant’s cooling system. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline, already in its construction stage and scheduled to bring the first Caspian gas flows to Europe by 2020 is the only hope to make the plant operational due to its cheaper operation on natural gas.

Earlier this month, the Albanian Parliament approved a new renewables law following a deal with small HPP investors who had raised concerns and warned of a legal battle over the initial draft law on promotion of energy use from renewable sources.

The Albanian Renewable Energy Association (AREA), representing some 60 small and medium-sized HPPs with a capacity of up to 15 MW with a total investment of €650 million, had warned the proposed transfer of the HPP contracts from state-run power utility KESH to the other state OSHEE distribution operator did not guarantee the sale of the electricity they produce and was a high-risk move that could take investors to bankruptcy. The dispute was settled last December following months of disputes with mediation by Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat which will be involved in the setting of a methodology for the calculation of a support scheme applicable to existing producers.

Albania is liberalizing its energy market by disconnecting big electricity consumers from the state-run OSHEE distribution operator, but the reform has faced difficulties due to few private sector operators.

Most recently, some 73 companies linked to the 35 kV grid have had their deadline to disconnect from the public operator and find other alternatives by June 30, 2017.

The nationalization of the country’s electricity distribution operator in 2013 following a failed three and a half years period of privatization and the launch of a nationwide campaign to collect hundreds of millions of euros in accumulated unpaid debts and cut off illegal connections has considerably improved the country’s electricity situation with grid losses estimated to have dropped to 28 percent, compared to a record 43.4 percent in late 2013.

With domestic energy production relying on rainfall dependent hydroelectricity, Albania has also diversified its electricity resources by building a new interconnection line to Kosovo but its operation is being held back by Serbia over a transmission grid dispute with Kosovo, in a conflict that continues nine years after majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

The new German-funded interconnection line and the expected joint power exchange will help Kosovo’s lignite-fired power plants and Albania’s hydro-dependent electricity system exchange electricity during their peak production levels, reducing dependency on costly imports.

 
                    [post_title] => Rainfall, new HPPs increase domestic electricity generation
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                    [post_date] => 2017-02-20 14:41:29
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 20 – The rapid development of the country’s oil industry in the past decade has turned Albania into one of Europe’s top three least dependent countries on imports of fossil fuels, according to a report published by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.

With an import dependency rate on fossil fuels at 11 percent in 2015, Albania lagged behind only Norway and Denmark, two of Europe’s largest oil producers. A decade earlier, just before the first concession oil exploration and production contracts were signed in 2005, Albania had an import dependency rate of 73 percent.

Back in 1990, just before the collapse of the country’s communist regime, Albania also ranked as Europe’s third least dependent economy on imports of fossil fuels, with a dependency rate of only 8 percent, showing the extent to which an economy relies upon imports in order to meet its energy needs.

Due to lack of investment and its outdated drilling and refining technology, Albania’s state-run oil sector almost paralyzed for more than 15 years to take a new impetus only in 2004 when a 25-year concession contract was signed with Canada-based Bankers Petroleum to develop Patos-Marinza, the largest onshore oilfield in continental Europe situated in southwestern Albania.

Huge investment turned Bankers Petroleum into the country’s largest exporter with a production that peaked at slightly more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day in 2014 ahead of the slump in commodity prices forcing the company to revise downward its drilling and investment plans until it was sold to China’s Geo Jade for €392 mln in mid-2016 following disputes with the Albanian government over taxes and the safety of its drilling operations affecting local residents.

The Eurostat report shows Albania’s energy consumption has remained unchanged at 2.2 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) in the past decade, compared to 2.6 toe in 1990 just before the collapse of the 45-year communist regime and much of its industry. The country’s resident population during the past 25 years has also dropped from an estimated 3.2 million in the early 1990s to a current 2.8 million affected by massive migration and lower birth rates.

Albania’s share of fossil fuels, involving non-renewable energy sources such as coal, natural gas, crude oil, petroleum products, dropped to 59 percent of energy consumption in 2015, down from 67 percent a decade earlier and 76 percent in 1990.

The decline is also a result of rising renewable energy production as dozens of new hydropower plants have been made operational in the past decade on concession contracts, making domestic electricity production wholly hydro-dependent.

An earlier Eurostat report showed that thanks to its huge oil and renewable hydro-electricity production, Albania is one of Europe’s least dependent countries on energy imports.

Due its poor quality and heavy-refining needs, much of Albania’s crude oil is exported, making the country almost totally reliant on oil imports for its consumption needs, with fuel prices being one of Europe’s highest due to their huge tax burden, despite the country having one of the continent’s lowest GDP per capita.

The gradual pickup in international oil prices following the mid-2014 slump is expected to give a new boost to the country’s oil industry where Dutch giant Shell is also involved in some major explorations.

Meanwhile, domestic electricity production is currently wholly dependent on the hydro-situation making it vulnerable to weather conditions, but meeting the overwhelming majority of the country’s needs.

A World Economic Forum report has also ranked Albania as one of the top 20 performers globally on its ability to deliver secure, affordable and sustainable energy because of the country’s wholly hydro-dependent electricity production and huge oil production.

In addition to hydropower, Albania is estimated to have large untapped wind and solar energy potential that can be cost-competitive.

 
                    [post_title] => Eurostat: Albania, one of Europe’s least dependents on fossil fuel imports 
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            [post_date] => 2017-03-01 14:01:24
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 27 – Harsh language used during an ongoing protest by Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was not a call to violence in what has been a peaceful protest, but rather taken out of contest to delegitimize the protest by media outlets that support the government, said Basha's deputy, Edmond Spaho.

“Mr. Basha has not called for violence, it was taken out of context. Albanian citizens who have joined the protest have been peaceful, because violence is not in DP's nature, and that's the way it si going to continue to be moving forward,” Spaho said. 

Basha, who is often taunted by opponents as being too mild mannered for Albania's rough politics, raised eye brows when he appeared to call for violence in a speech in front of protesters. 

“This system is criminal. This criminal republic must be overthrown. We have to bury it and make way for justice, democracy, free and fair elections," Basha said. “Whoever attacks citizens and our protest will be dragged to the square. You want war, you will have war! Slash their ties, break the car windows of those who punish you frightfully.”

Basha was reacting specifically to information that a family member of one of the protesters had been fired from a job at the public television station to punish participation in the protest, and made the comments of people not having to put up with injustice, his party said.   

The opposition boycotted parliament Thursday despite appeals from international community and continued with street protests demanding a caretaker government that would guarantee free and fair elections.

The parliamentary boycott puts the justice reform at risk as Democrats have warned they would vote on the vetting bodies only if its laws are amended.

The vetting bodies should be set up next week. These institutions will check the professional and personal integrity of at least 800 judges and prosecutors in the country.

The Democrats have blocked Tirana’s main boulevard since Saturday. They have set up a tent in front of the prime minister’s building demanding a caretaker government which can guarantee that the parliamentary elections of June 18 are free and fair.

 
            [post_title] => Basha's 'war' cry taken out of context, deputy says
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