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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week sets new record in cannabis seizures

Week sets new record in cannabis seizures

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

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Opposition sets protest rally for Kavaja byelection day

Opposition sets protest rally for Kavaja byelection day

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

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

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

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

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Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken

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

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Growing strong together: 80 years of Polish-Albanian diplomatic relations

Growing strong together: 80 years of Polish-Albanian diplomatic relations

Interview with Ambassador of Poland to Albania Karol Bachura By Rudina HOXHA 7th of April 1937 – 7th of April 2017 – 80 years ago, Albania and Poland established their diplomatic relations. To remember this date,  the Ambassador of Poland

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PM’s future uncertain as chief ally calls for ‘government of trust’

PM’s future uncertain as chief ally calls for ‘government of trust’

TIRANA, April 6 – There is growing uncertainty about the future of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government as relations with his junior coalition partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration of Ilir Meta have hit a new low, after Meta called

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Albania, Russia seek to boost sanctions-hit trade, investment ties

Albania, Russia seek to boost sanctions-hit trade, investment ties

TIRANA, April 5 – Albania and Russia are making official efforts to strengthen bilateral ties with a focus on the economy, despite sanctions in place by both countries since the 2014 Crimea annexation having curbed trade exchanges, overwhelmingly dominated by

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Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider ‘Trump Boulevard’

Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider ‘Trump Boulevard’

By Bernd Fischer I was a bit amused and more than a little astonished to learn that a street in Kamza has been named after Donald Trump, the new American president.  While bestowing this honor Kamza Mayor Xhelal Mziu was

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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese investments come as part of Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative, a plan to wrap its own infrastructure and influence westward by land and sea and the "16+1" framework expanding cooperation with 11 EU member states and five Balkan countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Albania Chinese relations date back in the late 1940s when Albania was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China and tiny Balkan country helped the Asian superpower regain its seat at the UN as the PRC in the early 1970s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unequal alliance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 9 - Police have seized a record 12 tons of marijuana worth more than $7 million hidden inside an abandoned state-owned warehouse in the southern Albanian village of Pagri, near the town of Permet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

External threats

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

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

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

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

Growth prospects 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From kingmaker to peacemaker? 

By Albert Rakipi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
                    [post_title] => Ilir Meta and the Albanian game of chicken 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131922" align="alignright" width="300"]karol Poland's Ambassador to Albania Karol Bachura[/caption]

Interview with Ambassador of Poland to Albania Karol Bachura

By Rudina HOXHA

7th of April 1937 - 7th of April 2017 – 80 years ago, Albania and Poland established their diplomatic relations. To remember this date,  the Ambassador of Poland in Albania, H.E. Mr. Karol Bachura gave an exclusive interview with Tirana Times where he analyzes the depth of this relationship, what has kept and still keeps these two countries so close through years as well as his goals in this posting. 

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Albania and Poland. What does this moment signify for both countries?

Historical, but rather episodic relations between our two countries date back to the Albanian national hero Castriota Skanderbeu. According to our historians, the first direct diplomatic contacts between the Polish court and Skanderbeu occurred in spring 1446. The bilateral relations continued after the First World War. One can say that in certain periods of their history, both countries had similar fate, and by patriotism and determination of their people burst forth to independence. Albania gained independence in 1912. Poland regained its statehood in 1918. Next year we will commemorate the centenary anniversary of the restoration of the independence of Poland after 123 years of partitions. This year we celebrate 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations. 7th of April 1937 may be considered as the date of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. On that day the Envoy of the Republic of Poland in Athens Minister Wladyslaw Schwarzburg-Günther was specially accredited to Albania to attend the wedding ceremony of King Zogu I and Princess Geraldine. Short before the end of World War II, on November 6, 1944 diplomatic missions at the level of legations were established, which were raised to the level of embassies since July 1954. The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tirana is still located in the same building as it was in the 1950’s. After the fall of communism and the democratic changes in Poland and Albania, bilateral relations took on a special dimension. Both states have chosen the direction of Euro-Atlantic integration. Currently, we are allies in NATO.  Poland is already a member of the EU while Albania is on its way to EU membership. 

Throughout the history we can trace numerous examples of strictly people-to-people contacts between our countries. One of the teachers of the famous Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was Nicolaus Thameus, an Albanian from Durres. Today, this link is symbolically continued through cooperation between non-public Copernicus High School in Elbasan and its partner Copernicus High School in Warsaw. Our countries are also bound to the memory of prof. Stanisław Zuber, an outstanding Polish geologist meritorious for Albania and a honorary citizen of the city Kucova, discoverer of oil fields in this region and an author of the first geological map of Albania that is still in use. Professor Zuber worked in Albania from 1927 until 1947, when he was arrested and murdered by the communist regime. And just recently, in 2016 among the martyrs of the Catholic Church who were beatified in Shkodra was a Polish born priest, Father Alfons Tracki.  

What are some of your ultimate goals in this posting?

Poland is an unwavering staunch supporter of Albania in its EU accession drive. This is not a new position. Poland has been a strong supporter of euro-atlantic integration for all countries willing to join and meeting the requirements. The preservation of an open door policy of EU and NATO has been one of the pillars of our foreign policy.   During her visit to Albania in last December, the Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło confirmed the permanent Polish support for Albania's integration process with the EU. Prime Minister stated that Poland has supported Albanian efforts to join the EU and will do so, but there is a need on the Tirana’s side to fulfill all the conditions. Let me at this point quote a few words from this year’s expose of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Witold Waszczykowski before the Polish parliament: “Poland continues to support the EU enlargement process. We believe that Europe should keep its door open for countries that share the vision of democracies working together. We prefer to extend our hand to greet rather than to bid farewell (…) We want to keep on sharing our accession experience with the Western Balkan countries. For this year we are planning a number of initiatives addressed to the region’s six EU candidate countries: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo.” Saint John Paul II once said that Europe needs two lungs West and East to be complete. Once the Central European countries became members of the EU family, today’s Europe still needs two lungs to breathe fully, only this time the other lung is in the South of the continent, in the Western Balkans. Two lungs but one heart.

The Polish side acknowledges the efforts of the Albanian authorities regarding the fulfillment of the five key priorities of the European Commission (establishment of a professional and depoliticized administration; enhance the impartiality of judiciary; strengthen the fight against organized crime; strengthen the fight against corruption; reinforce protection of human rights). The passing by consensus of the justice reform and needed changes in the Constitution of last year serve as the backbone to those priorities and are a key to unlock the door to further advancement of Albania on the EU path. The implementation of various reforms required by the EU is for the benefit of the Albanian society as a whole. Reform of the justice system, including reliable results in the implementation of the law on vetting should give good reasons to move the process of accession negotiations forward. However on this road it is essential that you help us to help you. The implementation of the vetting process – a cornerstone in the justice reform, the so-called decriminalization law, fight with corruption, drug production and trafficking, plus free and fair elections will be only successful if you – the Albanian people as a whole make it successful. It is not enough to state pro-european views, it is high time for action and results. The Albanian politicians from all sides of the political scene showed last year that in crucial and sensitive issue as the justice reform they can reach a consensus and are able to change a large part of the Constitution. They have showed that nothing for them is impossible provided that there is a will.  The appreciation should also be given to the efforts of the Albanian authorities in the implementation of local administration reform, including the reduction of the local government units from 365 to 61. Those are tangible examples that consolidation of political forces in Albania towards a common goal is a real thing and not a fairy tale. I hope that a similar consolidation and cross party consensus will have place when it comes to the fulfillment of all five key priorities. I  sincerely hope that during my term Albania will make a substantial progress on its path towards the EU and not only start implementing the justice reform but also open the negotiations on membership and manage to close as many chapters of the acquis as possible.

I also look with a keen eye on regional cooperation. In this view we welcome all initiatives and regional projects that lead to the development of mutual cooperation. Let me remind you here of  Regional Youth Cooperation Organization, Western Balkan Fund and projects within the framework of the Berlin Process that are so important for Albania and all the region. Poland as a founding member of the Visegrad Group and the country currently holding the presidency of the V4, particularly welcomes the appointment of WBF and its secretariat in Tirana. We hope that the WBF ratification process will be terminated by all its members this year and that the fund will be able to start its statutory activities. Strong regional cooperation reduces the possibilities and levels of influence by regionally unfavorable external factors and focuses on dialogue and problem solving for all regional partners. Allow me to paraphrase the priorities of the 2016-2017 Polish V4 presidency, to show you how universal they are and how well they can fit to the WB6 region: strong voice of the Group in Europe; creating synergies through extended dialogue; security and stability of the region; Group identity and visibility; cohesion and connectivity. 

I am convinced that Albania can play a more constructive and stabilizing role in the region. It is at the moment the only NATO member country among the WB6. This is a privilege but also an obligation.  A balanced pre-election campaign and this year parliamentary free and fair elections conducted in a transparent manner, preserving the standards set out by the OSCE-ODIHR, all this factors would serve to strengthen the image of Albania in the context of further progress on the EU integration path but also to strengthen the role of Albania as a stabilizing factor in the region. As with the consensus among parties shown last year with the justice reform, I sincerely hope that all parties will show same devotion and understanding in the participation and conduct of the upcoming general election. It is also in the interest of every citizen to ensure the proper conduct of elections, the outcome of which will decide about the future of the citizens of Albania for the coming years. Because being a citizen of a democratic society is also a huge responsibility. It is the citizens that make a country. Voted by the people and for the people, the political representatives must keep in mind the expectations of the ones they represent and the ones represented will have a chance to grade those who did not live up to their expectations by casting their votes in the ballots.

In the context of my mandate, it is also essential that our bilateral cooperation expands on all possible levels and fields. 2016 was a special year in the intensification of Polish-Albanian political dialogue. Meetings took place at the highest level: June - visit in Tirana of Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski; September – meeting of both Presidents, Andrzej Duda and Bujar Nishani, in New York on the margins of the  Session of the General Assembly of the  United Nations, and – last but not least – December visit to Albania of Prime Minister Beata Szydło. During the prime ministerial visit in the presence of Head of governments of the two countries the Program of Cooperation between Polish and Albanian Ministries of Culture was signed. An economic cooperation was pushed forward as well. Both PMs attended the first Polish-Albanian Economic Forum with B2B Polish and Albanian representatives. Two new agreements on economic cooperation were signed between our countries chambers of commerce and investment agencies. In March of this year the Mayor of Tirana payed an official visit to Warsaw. The seeds have been planted, now we will have to make them grow. I am convinced that in the coming years, we will see the continuation of high-level contacts, including inter parliamentary contacts and meetings on the level of various state institutions, local authorities, municipalities, businesses and people to people contacts as well as the expansion of the number of bilateral agreements signed.

However the role of the ambassador is not closed only in strict political frames. We try to increase the presence of Polish culture, Polish music, art, Polish film and especially the Polish literature in Albania. We welcome the growing interest of Albanian readers towards Polish poetry and prose. Our Embassy in Tirana takes care about close links with the Albanian literary and publishing circles. In December of the last year the second volume of the Almanac of Polish literature in Albanian language was released, prepared by our Embassy in cooperation with the editorial house "Aleph". It includes a cross-section of best of the best translations into Albanian, which were published in recent years. An important component of the Almanac are the essays and reflections of renowned Albanian literary critics and journalists on topics related to Polish literature, often outgoing far beyond the strictly literary boundaries. Almanac also includes the anthology part, showing the selected authors through short examples of their works in current translations. I can say such interest is not the road in one direction. In the Polish universities there are active Balkan studies departments, aimed, among others, on specialization in Albanian studies as well. Polish students with keen interest learn the language, history and culture of such a beautiful and interesting country like Albania. We also preserve close contacts with the Albanian graduates of Polish universities and schools. Through the Albanian-Polish friendship society we manage to keep close contacts and the society helps us to promote Polish culture in Albania. When speaking about culture, I cannot forget to mention the Chopin society of Albania which helps to promote the music of Chopin and other famous Polish composers throughout Albania. All these people- graduates, musicians, translators and lovers of Poland who are truly devoted to their work are a great asset to the promotional work of the Embassy and they are the true ambassadors of Polish culture.    

Even with the best of people it is easier and more efficient to promote the culture of one’s country having at disposal larger financial means coming from sponsor companies that support such undertakings. As the head of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tirana I put special focus in expanding our business contacts between the two countries. In recent years, the bilateral trade turnover is slowly but steadily growing, although still in not fully satisfactory dimension for both parties. There is certainly great potential for the increase of turnover. Embassy helps in establishing contacts between economic institutions and in the B2B format. In order to expand the interest among Polish investors the Embassy has edited a special guide for Polish companies dealing with the essential information concerning doing business in Albania, as well as an additional annex on real estate questions. The publications are updated and are available on-line. 

How far and close is the image of Albania in Poland when we talk of tourism destinations?  In your view, what is missing to be done?

Extremely positive is the inflow of Polish tourists to Albania. In the last years, Albania is ranked to be among the first ten most popular tourist destination for my compatriots. The number of Polish tourists is growing every year. According to our preliminary assessments, in the last year 2016 c.a. 70 thousand Polish tourists visited your amazing country. They are encouraged by sincere hospitality of Albanians; a great climate, enchanting sea, sandy beaches, breathtaking mountains and views and many more natural and historical values of your country. It is my hope that the influx of Polish tourists, Polish companies will follow, especially that you have a huge potential to expand Albania as a tourist destination. Poles have always been fond of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. The number of Polish tourists can increase manifold but in order to achieve this aim, good infrastructure is badly needed. I do not mean only transport infrastructure on sea land and air but also tourist infrastructure including hotels, motels, hostels, camping grounds, restaurants, clean beaches, yacht and boat rentals, marinas etc. You will not achieve this modernization jump on your own.  Few countries in the world could. To reach this goal you need to open up more to foreign investments which will enrich you nationally, regionally and individually.    

I also hope that Albanians will discover more the beauty of my country – its historical monuments, mountains and ski resorts, sea, thousands of lakes, vast forests and wildlife as well as the Polish hospitality towards foreigners.  

Albania - "the code of Besa". What kind of thoughts does this bring to your mind?

With my brief knowledge of the history of Albania, I am convinced that you are in many aspects a nation that sets an example. A nation that although for centuries did not have their own state, managed to bravely preserve your distinctive culture and language, as well as survive one of the harshest communist regimes ever. According to some this national stronghold was based on the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, a collection of laws which regulated the Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society between 1400 and today. Some say that the word “besa” traces back to the Kanun. “Besa” is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of "Albanianism". If one looks up the dictionary “besa” is defined as an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as "faith", that means "to keep the promise" and "word of honor". However “besa” also means hospitality and taking care of those in need. I must admit that the second part of the definition is the one that speaks to me directly, for I encounter it every single day.

And this taking care of those in need, this “besa” was another example of specific, unprecedented and unique page in the Albanian history. During World War II, Albanians saved over 2000 Jews from Nazi persecution. At the end of the war about 2000 Jews were living in Albania, tenfold more than before the war. Albania was an exception in the sea of Holocaust. Poland on the other hand was the country where German Nazis extermination program of “Final solution” was implemented, since this was the place where majority of European Jews lived – around 3,5 mln before the II World War. Polish Jewish community suffered the most in the Holocaust. Poland was also the only occupied country where Nazis imposed formally death penalty for anybody sheltering Jews. This penalty applied not only to single persons, but to families, often neighbors and sometimes entire villages. Despite these measures, Poland has the highest number of people awarded Righteous Among Nations (about 6600 persons). The Polish government, which was forced to exile after the German Nazi invasion on 1 September 1939 and the Soviet invasion of 17 September 1939 could not protect its citizens, but was the first to reveal in 1942 the existence of German Nazi concentration camps on the territory of occupied Poland and the facts of systematic extermination of Jews. Out of 6 mln Jews who perished in the Holocaust, 3 mln were Polish citizens, and out of 6 mln Poles who died in WW II half were Polish Jews. Although having different historical experience, both countries – Albania and Poland, because of such diametrical differences in the Holocaust experience, have an obligation to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to make the new generations aware of the dangers of populism, xenophobia, antisemitism.  The world must constantly hear the warning that comes to us from the victims of the Holocaust and the testimony of the survivors and those who helped. The memory must live on and burn itself onto our soles for the humanity in us to prevail. We need a global “besa”.

Albania and Albanians do have the great vital power and all abilities for successful development of the whole country and of every one of you. Thanks to this national potential Albania has made impressive progress in various fields for the past quarter-century. Which road you will take to your future, will it be gravel, paved, highway or byway depends on you and no one else. You are the heirs of your culture of hospitality, of solidarity, values that have made you Albanians throughout the centuries … and you are responsible for your future.
                    [post_title] => Growing strong together: 80 years of Polish-Albanian diplomatic relations
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131891" align="alignright" width="300"]The opposition Democratic Party has been protesting since Feb. 18 in a tent set up in front of the PM's office,, calling for a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections The opposition Democratic Party has been protesting since Feb. 18 in a tent set up in front of the PM's office,, calling for a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections[/caption]

TIRANA, April 6 - There is growing uncertainty about the future of Prime Minister Edi Rama's government as relations with his junior coalition partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration of Ilir Meta have hit a new low, after Meta called for a “government of trust” to run the upcoming general elections, indicating he would support the opposition's request to create a caretaker government.

Albania's main opposition Democratic Party has been protesting for more than a month, seeking a caretaker government to guarantee free and fair elections. It says it won't participate in the elections otherwise.

Rama said the elections will go ahead even without the opposition, while Meta has said his party won't participate in the elections if the opposition does not participate, calling elections without the opposition as “a farce.” SMI's position was joined by another coalition partner, Party for Justice, Integration and Unity.

The Socialist Movement for Integration warned Monday that it would not be part of any electoral process that does not offer guarantees for the participation of the opposition in the elections hinting a potential exit from the coalition with the Socialist Party.

After the meeting of the party leadership, Ilir Meta said the country needs a “trustworthy government’” and as such, he said he was willing to sacrifice his mandate as parliament speaker as well as the mandates of all of his ministers to achieve a climate of trust that the opposition is desperately seeking. Such statement was perceived as warning that SMI was willing to exit the government, particularly after Meta said that it is up to the senior coalition party to show signs of political will. 

Meta accused Prime Minister Edi Rama and Democratic Party chairman, Lulzim Basha of pushing the country into a dangerous crisis.

“If the Socialist Party leadership will not show maximal will for free and fair elections and provide guarantees to the opposition, the Socialist Movement for Integration will not be part of such coalition but also of a potential electoral farce,” Meta said, indirectly blaming Rama as the sole culprit of the crisis.

The SMI chairman underlined the importance of urgent dialogue and political solution and said that “delays will push the country to the unknown direction that has unpredictable consequences.” 

“The country needs a trustworthy government to hold elections that are acknowledged by all parties,” Meta , adding that the government must meet several objectives similar to the ones demanded by the opposition in its quest for a caretaker government.

According to the assembly speaker, the “government of trust” must guarantee the exclusion of public administration and State Police from the elections and guarantee a fight with no compromise to drugs and illegal electoral financing. In addition, the new establishment must guarantee a thorough and transparent decriminalization process.”

“Electoral reform is a condition and an obligation that has not been met and that represents a guarantee for free and fair elections with equal terms for all parties,” Meta said.

During the press conference following the meeting of SMI leadership, Meta also responded to speculations on whether Rama will continue to be the country’s prime minister.

“The government of trust includes Rama as prime minister, but he must work and provide trustworthy efforts for the opposition,” Meta declared.

The Socialist Movement for Integration move is causing hardships for prime minister Rama who has refused the establishment of a caretaker government and insisted to go to elections without the opposition.

On Tuesday, Rama issued an official response saying he was ready to “sit and talk with the opposition” but insisted that any solution to the crisis must be “constitutional.” 

“If the Democratic Party wants to be part of serious discussions, I am willing to sit down and talk, even at the tent if necessary. Dialogue is and remains my first choice. I have been open to all requests and solutions that do not violate the Constitution and democratic standards.”

Rama confirmed that elections are scheduled on June 18 and therefore can not be postponed. He also dismissed the proposal for a caretaker government and underlined that the government is a matter of “the will of majority.”

The Democratic Party chairman Lulzim Basha also commented on Meta’s proposal saying that the opposition is not after “political bargains and fake alliances.”

“I call on the man that has officially been identified as the main obstacle to free and fair elections. He must reflect and pave the way to political dialogue, caretaker government with broad political support that will carry out decriminalization,” Basha said.

He highlighted two possible solutions to the crisis: a caretaker government or massive citizen protest.

“To hell with political bargains. This week is crucial to our battle,” Basha said.

Opposition parties here have been protesting in front of PM's office for more than 48 days, demanding Rama to step down and pave the way to the creation of a caretaker government, which, according the opposition, would guarantee the holding of free and fair elections.

 
                    [post_title] => PM's future uncertain as chief ally calls for 'government of trust'
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, April 5 - Albania and Russia are making official efforts to strengthen bilateral ties with a focus on the economy, despite sanctions in place by both countries since the 2014 Crimea annexation having curbed trade exchanges, overwhelmingly dominated by Albanian imports.

The move comes as an Albanian-Russian intergovernmental committee on trade and economic cooperation gathered in Tirana this week following an eight-year break, bringing together government authorities and business representatives from both countries to discuss untapped potential in trade exchanges and investment which have been hampered by Albania joining EU sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea 2014 and Russia's counter-sanctions a year later, affecting Albania's fruit and vegetable exports, but with no major impact due to the low level of exports.

“Our trade exchanges and investment ties leave to be desired. But I would like to focus on positive developments in our dialogue," Russia’s Ambassador to Albania Alexander Karpushin has said, pointing out the meeting of the Russia-Albania intergovernmental commission on trade, economic and technical and scientific cooperation that convened this week in Tirana.

"Of course we see this activity somehow as a huge leap that marks the reactivation after an almost eight-year break of this bilateral commission, which is undoubtedly the main instrument of cooperation between our two countries," Karpushin has told a TV interview.

Albanian officials are hopeful of attracting more Russian by lifting visas during the summer season again and attracting first Russian investment in energy and tourism.

Some 16,000 to 20,000 Russian tourists have visited Albania during the past few years, according to INSTAT, the Albanian state statistical institute.

Trade exchanges between the two countries slightly dropped to about €80 million in 2016, dominated by wheat and liquid gas imports. The exchanges have stagnated at this level for at least a decade, accounting for about 2 percent of Albania’s volume of trade.

Meanwhile, Albania’s exports to Russia during the past couple of years have almost been non-existent after Russia imposed counter-sanctions on Albanian meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables.

Albania's fruit and vegetable-dominated exports to Russia rose to €3.3 million in 2014 ahead of the 2015 Russian counter-sanctions which saw them drop to a mere less than €500,000 in the past couple of years.

Albania-Russia relations date back to the late 1940s when the two then communist countries developed close ties until 1961 when they broke over ideological grounds.

Two decades after the collapse of its communist regime in the early 1990s, Albania is a NATO country and an EU candidate. Russia also remains one of the key global players, being the world's biggest energy exporter.

Russia’s Ambassador to Albania Alexander Karpushin describes relations between the two countries as quite normal in their entirety but characterized by careful optimism.

"Evaluated in their entirety, I would describe the Russian-Albanian relations as quite normal and friendly. They are relations based on the rich tradition of very close ties we had in a not very distant historical period. I believe that a lot of people know that in the very difficult post-war years, Russia even though in ruins, found an opportunity to respond to the Albanian government and gave the Albanian brotherly people a huge material and technical assistance as well as moral support. These facts have not been forgotten which is certified with the operation in Albanian cities of 17 branches of the ‘Russia-Albania’ Association of Friendship," Ambassador Karpushin has said.

"Unfortunately in our relations there is still much more politics than pragmatism and practical thinking. There are different viewpoints on some sensitive international issues, such as Russia's role in different regions around the world, and our country's contribution to handling international conflicts," he said.

Last December, Albania's Culture Minister Mirela Kumbaro visited Russia to sign a three-year cooperation deal on cultural exchanges.

Describing fears of Russian threats and hackers as speculations and ridiculous, the Russian ambassador says the region's EU integration does not pose a problem for strengthening ties with Russia.

"Russia has never held back the European integration of Balkan countries because EU integration does not pose any barrier for the development of our cooperation of mutual benefit. The best examples are Croatia and Slovenia, but also Hungary and Italy, all EU and NATO member countries, which at the same time keep excellent relations with Russia in different fields based on mutual respect,” the ambassador says.

The Russian economy has been in recession over the past couple of years in a crisis triggered by tumbling oil prices and Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea.

In the past few years, Albania has also strengthened economic ties with its old ally China which has emerged as the second largest trading partner and one of its top investors. Companies from China, with which Albania had close ties under communism for about two decades the late 1970s, have taken over the country’s biggest oil producer and the sole international airport.
                    [post_title] => Albania, Russia seek to boost sanctions-hit trade, investment ties
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_126576" align="alignright" width="300"]Bernd-Fischer Bernd Fischer[/caption]

By Bernd Fischer

I was a bit amused and more than a little astonished to learn that a street in Kamza has been named after Donald Trump, the new American president.  While bestowing this honor Kamza Mayor Xhelal Mziu was quoted as saying that “Donald Trump is a revolutionary model of the new democratic order, an expert in the economy, a foreign negotiator, a communicator with a sharp mind and a leader for modern times.”

The leader of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha adding weight to the solemn occasion proclaimed that “By electing Mr. Trump, the U.S. gave the world another lesson in democracy” and that Trump’s victory was “an act of love of the champions of freedom.”

And with those two glowing endorsements Kamza joins the Russian town of Ryazan as only the second location on the planet to honor Mr. Trump. Let me me explain why I believe that this action was seriously misguided.

Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha have apparently been swept up by the endless propaganda disseminated principally by Fox News and the far more insidious Breitbart News. Mr. Basha was recently interviewed by Breitbart and declared his support for Mr. Trump. I wonder if he is aware that Breitbart sits on the extreme fringe of the far-right in the U.S. and is known for publishing falsehoods, conspiracy theories, as well as intentionally misleading stories. It defends white etho-nationalism and its slant tends to be misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. (Why an Albanian politician would identify himself with an anti-Muslim polemical publication is beyond me.) Since the election Breitbart has become the de-facto propaganda arm of Mr. Trump and would certainly agree with Mayor Mziu’s assessment of Mr. Trump and Mr. Basha assessment of the election.

Let us look first at the election itself, which Mr. Basha sees another lesson in democracy and an act of love. The 2016 election was likely the most endangered U.S. election in living memory, and aspects of it are still being reviewed by the FBI and Congress. One the biggest problems was Mr. Trump himself delegitimizing the process. At no time during the campaign did he actually agree to accept the outcome in the event of his defeat. This is really quite unprecedented - no presidential candidate in a U.S. elections has ever called into question the entire electoral process. Then, although winning the electoral college vote and thereby the election, when it became clear that Mr. Trump had lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, he invented the story that there were millions of illegal votes cast, again delegitimizing the electoral process. Mr. Trump presented no evidence to support this wild assertion - which, to be quite clear, was simply a lie - and investigators have yet to find 10 illegal votes, let alone millions.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the 2016 election is the Russian connection. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertions to the contrary, the U.S .intelligence community has determined beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Russians actively intervened in the elections, to the disadvantage of Hillary Clinton. What the FBI is investigating at this point is whether individuals from Trump’s campaign were directly and actively involved in Russian plans to undermine the election. This would be considered treason. It is clear that many in Trump’s campaign had contacts with Russian officials during the course of the campaign and two, the former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about it under oath while testifying to Congress. Mr. Flynn was forced to resign and Mr. Sessions recused himself from involvement in anything involved the ongoing investigation. As this issues speaks to the very nature of democracy in America, the FBI has made this criminal investigation a priority. Mr. Trump is doing everything he can to obstruct the investigation. In the final analysis, the 2016 election was far from the “lesson in democracy” which Mr. Basha suggests. In fact, if this is the type of democracy which Mr. Basha hopes to emulate in Albania, then I fear for Albania.

Mayor Mziu also suggested that Mr. Trump deserved the honor of having a street named after him in part because he is an economic expert. Let us examine this contention for a moment. It is clear that Mr. Trump is very wealthy - is it difficult to say how wealthy because, unlike every other major American presidential candidate in living memory, he has refused to release his tax returns. Mr. Trump maintains that he has a fortune of some 10 billion. Those who have looked into his finances suggest that it is closer to 4 billion. In any case, some economists have suggested that with the fortune he inherited from his father, had he retired in 1970 and put all of his money in any one of dozens of managed money-market funds, he would likely be worth more now than he actually is. And it is not clear how much he is actually involved in his business. His tax lawyer has made clear that it was always his wife who sought explanations for issues arising from his tax forms, Mr. Trump himself didn't understand any of it and wasn't interested. This perception is certainly borne out by some of his economic pronouncements during the campaign. As one point he told an interviewer that would be able to pay back the U.S. national debt in 8 years. The U.S. national debt stands at just over 19 trillion dollars and at the end of 8 years will likely be closer to 26 trillion. The average annual U.S. budget is currently about $1.3 trillion. It does not require an “economic expert” - indeed it probably requires no more than a 6 year old - to figure out that if the U..S government didn't spend one more dollar over the next 8 years, Mr. Trump would still be about 18 trillion dollars short.

Mr. Trump’s first budget is yet another example of both incompetence and cruelty. The budget itself, which has been described as a campaign slogan masquerading as a government document, does nothing to either reduce the deficit or pay down the national debt. It contains deep cuts in funding for medical research, education, general scientific research, public transportation, social programs which help the poor and elderly, the arts and the environment. It envisions significant tax reductions for the wealthy and for corporations, and well as an increase in defense spending. During the campaign Mr. Trump raged against the weakness of the American military which he described as “depleted” and a “disaster”, promising to make it “so powerful and so great that we will never have to use it.” He particularly signaled out the navy which he wants to expand from 272 ships to 350 ships, despite the fact that at its current level the U.S. navy is larger than the next largest 13 navies combined, and of those 11 are allies of the U.S. Mr. Trump’s budget foresees a 56 billion dollar increase in defense spending. Mr. Obama had projected a 40 billion dollar increase so Mr. Trump’s additional increase amounts to approximately 16 billion or about 2% of the average annual military budget of approximately 600 billion. It seems then that Mr. Trump believes that he can transform a “disaster” into something “great and powerful” by increasing the budget by 2%. Is this what Mayor Mziu sees as an example of economic expertise? Is this the type of budget Mr. Basha would support should be become prime minister? If so, I would encourage Albanians to vote for anyone other than Mr. Basha.

Mayor Mziu also describes Mr. Trump as a “foreign policy negotiator, a communicator with a sharp mind.” Let us look at recent examples of Mr. Trump’s negotiating skills. Within the last weeks his White House aides were forced to apologize to the British government after Mr. Trump, with no evidence, accused British intelligence of wire-tapping his campaign on behalf of Mr. Obama. During the visit of Chancellor Angela Merkel to Washington, Mr. Trump put on one of his most truculent and ignorant performances. A senior European diplomat briefed on the meeting said that Mr Trump’s preparedness was roughly that of a fourth grader. He knew nothing of the proposed European-American deal known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, little about Russian aggression in the Ukraine or the Minsk agreements, and was so scatterbrained that German officials concluded that the president’s daughter Ivanka, who had no formal reason for being there, was more prepared and helpful. Mr. Trump focused principally on his contention that Germany owed the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars for defending it through NATO, which is not, of course, how NATO works. But Mr. Trump didn't know that either.

On the domestic front Mr. Trump demonstrated his negotiating skills in last week’s ill-fated attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. During the 2016 campaign Mr. Trump labeled Obamacare a “disaster” and promised to repeal it and replace it with “something terrific” which would extend health insurance to everyone at lower costs. What he and the Republican leadership hurriedly produced was a package that would have, by 2024, removed healthcare from some 24 million people, roughly the number of people who received it under Obamacare. In addition, the bill would have at least tripled premiums for poor people over 60, while offering healthy tax reductions to the wealthy. The bill was so flawed that even moderate Republicans could not support it. Mr. Trump, without bothering with the details, announced that the health bill was “wonderful” and put the weight of his office behind it. The extent of his negotiation was to call some recalcitrant Republican Congressmen to the White House and threaten them, as he likely does with board members of his various companies. The Congressmen present were astonished at his lack of understanding of the bill as well as his lack of understanding of the legislative process. When the Congressmen, who declined to behave as Mr. Trump’s board members, refused to be intimidated, indicating that the bill would fail, Mr. Trump threw up his hands and began looking for people to blame. In this instance Mr. Trump’s incompetence was a welcome relief to the 10s of millions who would have lost their insurance or seen their insurance premiums skyrocket. All in all, a fine example of Mr. Trump’s celebrated skills as a communicator and negotiator. Do Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha hope to emulate these skills? One would hope for the sake of the people of Kamza and Albania in general, that this is not the case.

It would not be difficult to cite more examples of Mr. Trump’s limited skills as an economist, a negotiator and a communicator. But if he is none of these things then what is he? This is difficult to say because he changes his position on major issue so quickly and so often. It is clear he is no traditional conservative. In my opinion he is close to being a fascist. As a historian by profession, fascism is not a term I use lightly. I know what it means.  To be fair, in many ways Mr. Trump doesn't fit the mold.  He is not a corporatist or a populist, although he pretends to be one. It is clear from his first moves as president that he cares little for the well-being of those who elected him. Nevertheless, I am struck, and more than a little alarmed, by how many of fascism's major tenets Donald Trump seems to espouse.  There are numerous variations on the theme but most forms of fascism include some version of demagogic authoritarianism, extreme nationalism, militarism and a celebration of violence, racism, and anti-intellectualism.

Mr. Trump is at heart a bombastic authoritarian, whose commitment to participatory democracy is at least questionable. He seems to consider democracy a burden that must be circumvented or overcome.  With little in the way of a perceivable program, he wants us to just let him do it, assuring us that will be "great." His extreme nationalism and xenophobia are evident in his contention that the U.S. has been driven to the edge of the abyss by "the other" the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims - against whom Mr. Trump has now issued 2 travel bans which courts have declared to be unconstitutional. We are told that America can only be resurrected internationally through a righteous militaristic crusade based on the simple doctrine of "kicking ass and taking the oil," supplemented by the use of torture, including water-boarding and "much worse," while killing the families of terrorist suspects. The celebration or at least the acceptance of violence as a legitimate domestic political tool is evidenced through his wish to "punch people in the face" and his claim that it is acceptable for people to be "roughed up a bit."

Mr. Trump's racism is also demonstrated by his exaltation of racial purity, where we see him ridiculing the disabled and scoffing at women who don't achieve his definition of a “10.” He astonished even his supporters with his racist insistence that he cannot receive justice from a judge whose heritage is Mexican. He wears his anti-intellectualism and ignorance as if it were a badge of virtue.

I will not compare him to Hitler because I do not believe him to be genocidal.

But he bears at least some resemblance to minor fascists like Ante Pavelic, Father Tiso, or Juan Peron whose right-wing populism helped to drive their states to ruin. Mr. Trump has gained the support of Marine de la Pen, the American white supremacist David Duke and the Serbian war criminal Vojislav Sesilj;  he quotes Mussolini, and is admired by Vladimir Putin - a rogues gallery of racism and oppression and a group with whom I would think Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha would not wish to be associated.

I think we can all agree that racism, violence and bigotry are not "refreshing." They are not "telling it like it is" and they are certainly not compatible with western democracy. The western world, including Albania, spent a great deal of blood and treasure helping to defeat the scourge of fascism. I believe we owe it to those who sacrificed in this great cause to reject the fascism "lite" of Donald Trump. In consideration of the above I would encourage progressive Albanians to urge Mayor Mziu and Mr. Basha to reconsider “Trump Boulevard.”

 

 
                    [post_title] => Op-Ed/Bernd Fischer: Albanians should reconsider 'Trump Boulevard'  
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            [post_date] => 2017-04-13 15:05:38
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            [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The completion of the Arbri Road would be the second major road project in Albania in the past decade after the country completed the Highway of Nation linking it to neighboring Kosovo in 2010.
            [post_title] => Albanian company gets bonus for offering to complete Arbri Road for €245 mln
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