Albania launches crackdown on illegal gambling following nationwide ban

Albania launches crackdown on illegal gambling following nationwide ban

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Jan. 8 – With a nationwide ban on gambling in force since Jan. 1, thousands of gambling businesses have officially closed down, bringing to an end what had become a booming industry, but a small number

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Albania oil workers redundant again as failed ARMO privatization saga continues

Albania oil workers redundant again as failed ARMO privatization saga continues

TIRANA, Jan. 7 – Hundreds of workers at Albania’s sole major oil refiner have temporarily remained jobless in a repeated scenario in the past decade following a failed privatization of the Armo oil refiner, where the Albanian government still holds

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BoA emergency purchases of €170 mln not enough to stop euro’s free fall

BoA emergency purchases of €170 mln not enough to stop euro’s free fall

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Jan. 7 – Albania’s central bank says it purchased around €170 million from the local currency exchange market in the second half of 2018, but its temporary emergency operations in the county’s free floating regime were

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Outgoing Albanian minister initiates new €59 mln concession after tax haven scandal

Outgoing Albanian minister initiates new €59 mln concession after tax haven scandal

TIRANA, Jan. 3 – Albania’s outgoing energy minister has initiated tender procedures for another big concession only few weeks after a scandal with an offshore tax haven that had €30 million in Albania public projects cancelled over cheating authorities with

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Albania expels Iranian Ambassador under terrorism concerns

Albania expels Iranian Ambassador under terrorism concerns

TIRANA, Dec. 20 – On Wednesday evening, local media reported Albania declared the Ambassador of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and one more diplomat as persona non-gratae, under suspicion they are involved in activities that jeopardize the

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Scanderbeg of the Albanians

Scanderbeg of the Albanians

The following text is an abstract from the prepared remarks of Altin Zaloshnja, a scholar and community leader, during the January 2018 symposium, in Michigan, commemorating the 550th anniversary of Scanderbeg’s death.   Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, The reason

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Albania 2019: local elections, European expectations and flag bearing planes in the sky

Albania 2019: local elections, European expectations and flag bearing planes in the sky

The first days of the New Year in Albania will most likely be ushered in by the continuation of the students’ protest that have set the tone for the last days of 2018. Students are determined to shun away the

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Intl media rights groups denounce Albanian PM’s attack on media freedom

Intl media rights groups denounce Albanian PM’s attack on media freedom

TIRANA, Dec. 27 – Four international organizations dealing with freedom of speech called on the country’s Prime Minister Edi Rama on Wednesday to drop amendment of two draft laws that foresee registration, surveillance, fining and banning internet media portals, introduced

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Switzerland about to overtake Greece as Albania’s largest foreign investor

Switzerland about to overtake Greece as Albania’s largest foreign investor

TIRANA, Dec. 25 – The departure of several major Greek investors from Albania this year has considerably weakened the leading position that Albania’s southern neighbor has had in the country’s foreign direct investment during the past quarter of century and

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Albania’s central bank considers key rate hike after a decade of easy policy

Albania’s central bank considers key rate hike after a decade of easy policy

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Dec. 25 – Albania’s central bank says it could consider a hike in the key rate by mid-2019, putting an end to nearly a decade of easy monetary policy in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global

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                    [post_date] => 2019-01-08 15:22:14
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Jan. 8 - With a nationwide ban on gambling in force since Jan. 1, thousands of gambling businesses have officially closed down, bringing to an end what had become a booming industry, but a small number of illegal electronic casinos and sports betting shops continue operating secretly throughout the country.

Albanian police have identified more than a dozen cases of illegal gambling activities in Tirana and outside the Albanian capital city in the past few days and initiated legal action against ten people, including three gamblers, for organizing and participating in illegal gambling activities, in legal sanctions that could see them fined or face a prison sentence of up to six months.

Police say they have seized electronic gaming equipment and poker tables during the first eight days that the gambling ban has been in force and warned of tough nationwide inspections and penalties, inviting citizens to use their emergency phone numbers and mobile apps to report cases of illegal gambling.

In one case in Korça, southeast Albania, police said they filed criminal charges against the 48-year old owner of a coffee bar and three other Korça residents who were caught gambling during the police raid.

The police operations would sound ridiculous until late 2018 when gambling was a booming business, with electronic casinos and sports betting shops scattered throughout the country and operating even next to schools and religious institutions and gambling a popular sport even among teens who were banned to gamble. Much of the sector was informal with Prime Minister Edi Rama estimating the annual turnover at €500 million, almost four times higher than the official figures.

Outgoing finance minister Arben Ahmetaj said few days ago that only a minimum number of former gambling businesses were secretly continuing their operations online and "the battle against gambling would continue even in small coffee bars where iPads are used to gamble online."

Prime Minister Rama recently boasted at a TV comedy show that the gambling ban was saving Albanians €1 million a day.

The partial nationwide ban of gambling that the Albanian ruling Socialist Party majority approved in late October 2018, bans electronic casinos from residential areas and temporarily freezes the booming sports betting industry, including online betting, until new legislation that could turn it into a state monopoly or set new rules to discipline their operation.

Legal changes have affected thousands of betting shops that will apparently not be able to survive as mere coffee shops without the lucrative sport betting business that allowed them to pay up to €3,000 in monthly rents for downtown Tirana facilities, more than double another non-gambling business could afford paying. Hundreds of former gambling shops have already been offered for rent after closing down their businesses in an operation that is expected to cut down rental rates.

While the country’s sole real casino offering live table games and located downtown Tirana has not been affected by recent legal changes, hundreds of electronic casinos will be relocated to 5-star hotels or  tourist areas with national importance that are yet to be determined by the government. Legal changes also do not apply to TV bingos, including the National Lottery.

Gambling was a completely privately-run industry in Albania where until last year it officially generated more than €130 million in annual income, paid about €50 million in taxes and employed some 7,000 people, but much more if the informal sector was taken into account.

Experts had blamed the booming gambling industry for a series of negative economic and social effects, often associated with higher domestic violence and divorce rates.

The booming gambling businesses was often linked to gangs laundering crime and drug proceeds. There have also been cases when even senior officials and judges have justified some of their income through winnings in betting shops or casinos in their wealth declarations.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 7 – Hundreds of workers at Albania’s sole major oil refiner have temporarily remained jobless in a repeated scenario in the past decade following a failed privatization of the Armo oil refiner, where the Albanian government still holds a minority 15 percent stake.

Workers at the oil refinery in Ballsh, a small town in the southern Albanian region of Fier where the refiner is the main employer, have been staging protests in the past few days, demanding a solution to the resumption of work at the refinery that employs around 1,000 people.

Representatives of the company that has been managing the refinery for the past year say the situation is a result of inadequate crude oil supplies by Chinese-owned Bankers Petroleum, the country’s largest oil producer.  However, Bankers Petroleum officials blame the refiner’s failure to meet financial obligations for the cut in local oil supplies, but leave open an option to negotiate a new contract for 2019.

Redundant workers protested on Monday in front of the prefect’s office representing the Albanian government in the region of Fier and marched to the headquarters of Bankers Petroleum, holding placards and chanting “We want oil” calls.

Company representatives say the refinery needs some 50,000 metric tons of crude oil a month in order to efficiently operate, but Bankers Petroleum has not been offering more than 20,000 to 22,000 metric tons a month despite claims of being offered the same price it charges on exports.

Reacting to the protest, Bankers Petroleum said the redundant workers were being used to put pressure by a company that has failed to meet contract obligations with its payments, forcing the company to increase oil exports.

Bankers Petroleum produces about 90 percent of oil in Albania, but sells the majority of oil abroad in low value-added exports where the Albanian government directly benefits a 10 percent royalty tax.

The January 2019 protests signal a similar situation compared to early 2018 when the refinery was paralysed for about four months until a new company took over.

In late December 2017, hundreds of oil workers marched for about 140 km from the Ballsh oil refiner to Tirana and were able to get their unpaid November wages only after several days of protests and meetings with the economy and energy ministers.

The Ballsh refinery was reactivated in April 2018 following a four-month halt in domestic oil refining by Tirana-based Byllis Energji, a subsidiary of Switzerland-based PGFS Pilotage & Gestion SA under a lease deal with a commercial bank owning it.

ARMO, whose 15 percent stake is still held by the Albanian government following its failed 2008 privatization, had accumulated 18.2 billion lek (€147 mln) in debts to tax authorities in 2016, ranking the country’s largest debtor company in a list dominated by energy, construction and gambling companies, according to a report by the Supreme State Audit institution.

ARMO's assets now include only the Ballsh refinery built in the 1970s under communism following the sale of a smaller Fier refiner involved in bitumen production to a group of local oil companies in early 2018.

Albania’s Serious Crimes Prosecutor’s Office has launched a probe into the company's failed 2008 privatization and the companies that have managed it in the past decade, according to Reporter.al news agency, BIRN Albania’s online Albanian language publication.

The refiner was privatized in 2008 when a consortium led-by Albanian businessman Rezart Taçi’s Anika Enterprises bought an 85 percent stake in ARMO oil refiner for €128 million. The deal was financed by the Azerbaijani state bank.

Back in 2013, Azerbaijani-based Heaney Assets Corporation took over 80 percent of ARMO shares from Albanian businessman Rezart Taçi for an undisclosed amount, committing to pay off the company’s huge debts, but left the country in one year as accumulated debts increased.

The company was also managed for 14 months until late 2017 by Ionian Refining and Trading Company, IRTC, an offshore company owned by the brother of Albanian businessman Besnik Sulaj, whom the opposition Democrats accuse of close ties to the ruling Socialists.

ARMO's Ballsh refiner is still owned by Albanian-owned Credins Banks, a former creditor of the ARMO refiner which acquired the company’s key assets in a late 2016 auction following a loan default.
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                    [post_date] => 2019-01-07 12:24:29
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Jan. 7 – Albania’s central bank says it purchased around €170 million from the local currency exchange market in the second half of 2018, but its temporary emergency operations in the county’s free floating regime were unable to stop the free fall of Europe’s single currency against the Albanian lek.

The euro has lost 7 percent against the Albanian lek during the past year and currently trades 10 lek (€0.08) below its early January 2018 of around 133 lek, with a series of negative effects for Albania’s highly euroized economy, primarily affecting exporters to the Eurozone, but also sizable Euro-denominated savings and remittances.

Effects for the Albanian government have been mixed due to revenue miss from cheaper imports, but also lower costs in repaying external debt. Businesses and households who have borrowed in Europe’s single currency, but have their income in the national currency have also been benefiting with lower loan instalments.

The euro slightly recovered to 123.55 lek on Monday (Jan. 7) after hitting a 10-year low of 122.69 lek on Dec. 26 in the face of lack of intervention by Albania's central bank and traditional year-end effects that see the national currency gain ground due to higher euro inflows from the arrival of migrants to spend their holidays at home.

 

Emergency operations

Albania’s central bank initiated emergency intervention in the country’s free floating exchange rate regime in early June 2018 when it purchased an initial €14 million in excess euros from the local market in a bid to stop the negative effects as the euro hit a 10-year low of around 124 lek, losing a considerable 6.5 percent in the course of six months.

June 2018 interventions to stabilize the euro-lek exchange rate continued with the purchase of another €51.4 million from commercial banks, with the euro slightly gaining ground and trading at an average of 126 lek against the euro, the currency that accounts for nearly half of savings and credit in the Albanian banking system.

Emergency operations were more frequent in the third quarter of the year, a period when euro inflows sharply increase due to the peak tourist season and the massive arrival of migrants to spend their summer vacations at home.

The central bank says it purchased another €114.5 million in the third quarter of the year, in operations that took place in July and August to curb the further strengthening of the Albanian lek against the euro which remained stable trading at around 126 lek during the July-Sept. 2018.

In addition to purchases related to the euro-lek exchange rate, Albania’s central bank purchased another €59 million in the second and third quarters of 2018 as part of its strategy to increase the foreign exchange reserves, currently at a comfortable rate of covering more than six months of imports, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Albania’s central bank ceased its foreign currency emergency operations in September 2018, citing balanced demand and supply rates following the end of the tourist season.

 

No intervention period

With no intervention in the final quarter of 2018, the euro continued losing ground and traded at an average of 123.45 lek in December 2018, compared to an average of 126 lek in the third quarter of the year when the central bank purchased considerable amounts of euros from the local market.

Decision-making at the central bank was paralysed for almost two months until late 2018 when six new members of the supervisory council were voted for seven-year terms by the ruling Socialist majority, unblocking the highest decision-making body of the Bank of Albania.

In his year-end conference, governor Gent Sejko said the central bank could consider new emergency intervention to buy excess euros from the country’s currency exchange market only in case its inflation target is put at risk and in case of market disruption, in two elements that it says don’t currently pose a risk as they did last June.

Inflation rate in 2018 was at around 2 percent, the same to 2017 when it hit a five-year high of 2 percent following a 16-year low of 1.3 percent in 2016.

Albania's central bank says it could consider a hike in the key rate by mid-2019, putting an end to nearly a decade of easy monetary policy in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis as it tried to stimulate economic growth through lower interest rates despite its effectiveness being hampered by the country’s high levels of euroisation.

The key rate has been at a historic low of 1 percent since June 2018, in a bid to stimulate slowly recovering credit and consumption.

 

Top exporters in difficulty

Albania’s exports rose by around 15 percent last year, seeming defying the euro free fall effect, but the double-digit growth was mainly related to rainfall-fed electricity exports and a hike in commodity prices, reinvigorating oil and mineral exports.

The garment and footwear sector producing Albania’s top exports has recently warned thousands of jobs in one of the country’s top private sector employers are at risk due to a sharp cut in profits from euro’s free fall against the Albanian national currency and delays in value added tax refunds.

Relying on cheap labor costs, the industry imports raw material from Italy, Albania’s main trading partner, where the overwhelming majority of 90 percent of such exports end up.

One of the country’s top private sector employers with around 70,000 people, mainly women from suburban areas, the sector is mostly involved in cut-make-trim production but there are also a few emerging ‘Made in Albania’ brands.

The European Commission has also warned the euro's free fall against the Albanian lek is also expected to have delayed negative effects on new investment decisions and contracts and negatively affect the competitiveness of Albania’s exports in 2019 when new decisions are made.

The Euro has lost about 11 percent compared to mid-2015 level when its five-year reign of about 140 lek came to an end, but the downward trend sharply accelerated last year with a series of question marks over what caused it.

While the government and the central bank attribute the strengthening of the national currency to higher euro inflows from foreign investment and tourism and constantly recovering economy, the main opposition Democrats and some local experts have blamed illegal euro inflows from drug and crime proceeds for the euro’s free fall in Albania.

London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also recently noted some ‘unrecorded cross-border activities’ may also be contributing to the appreciation pressures on the Albanian lek which it says reflects the ongoing de-euroisation policy initiative of the central bank in the financial sector, as well as the capital conversion of some banks.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 3 – Albania’s outgoing energy minister has initiated tender procedures for another big concession only few weeks after a scandal with an offshore tax haven that had €30 million in Albania public projects cancelled over cheating authorities with false documents.

The new tender involves rehabilitating a costly thermal power plant in Vlora, southern Albania, that has already cost Albanian taxpayers $130 million, but has yet to become operational almost a decade after its completion due to problems with its cooling system and high costs of operating on fuel.

The Albanian government is now seeking private investors for a 20-year concession to convert the Vlora TPP into a natural gas-fired plant and link it to the Albanian section of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in order to make it operational on lower costs and diversify Albania’s domestic electricity generation, currently wholly hydro-dependant and putting public finances in trouble in case of prolonged droughts due to costly imports.

Private investors have been asked to invest around €59 million for a 20-year ‘rehabilitate-own-operate-transfer’ contract that also involves the construction of a 40-km pipeline to link the thermal power plant to Fier, southwest Albania, where the Albania pipeline onshore section ends, before it links with southern Italy through an offshore 105- km section.  In return for its investment and operation, the concessionaire will pay Albania's state-run power utility, KESH, a concession fee equal to 2 percent of the plant’s annual electricity generation for the whole concession period.

Bids are expected until Feb. 28, 2019, following a mandatory Jan. 15 on-site visit making participants eligible to receive access to an electronic data room, says the energy ministry.

The new concession comes two and a half years after the Albanian government first unveiled plans for a public-private partnership to make the Vlora thermal power plant operational ahead of the first gas flows from the Trans Adriatic Pipeline by 2020.

"We target finding a private operator through a public-private partnership that will undertake to make operational, repair and convert the plant to natural gas,” outgoing Energy Minister Damian Gjiknuri said in mid-2016.

Scheduled to bring Caspian gas to Europe through Albania, Greece and Italy, TAP is the only hope for the costly Vlora thermal power plant, a 97 MW low-sulphur distillate oil fuelled power plant, available for use since 2010, but which has not been put to use because of high fuel costs and problems with its cooling system. The majority World Bank-funded thermal power plant which the Albanian government is still paying back in annual instalments cost an estimated $130 million compared to initial projected costs of $112 million.

The power plant has not been taken over by Albanian power utility, KESH, yet as the state-run company faces an arbitration trial with an Italian company that built it due to financial disputes and problems in the plant’s cooling system.

The thermal power plant in the coastal city of Vlora could produce electricity at a lower cost of up to 40 percent if operated on liquefied natural gas instead of D2 diesel, according to a study carried out by the Albanian energy regulator.

Unlike the controversial taxpayer funded public-private partnerships under the government’s €1 billion PPP program to rehabilitate road, health, waste management infrastructure, the Vlora thermal power plant will be a private investment, with apparently no financial government commitment, but once again unveiling the huge costs of an ill-designed project from the beginning , with huge costs for Albanian taxpayers.

Possible government commitments remain to be seen only when contract negotiations with the winning bidder are concluded.

 

Gjiknuri’s rise and fall 

One of the key figures of the ruling Socialists since they assumed power in 2013,  Damian Gjiknuri led the country’s energy, industry and infrastructure ministry for more than five years until late December 2018 when he was sacked along with seven other ministers in the midst of a student protest over lower tuition fees and better higher education standards.

His career went quite smooth until few weeks ago when a ghost company claimed two public tenders for road and electricity projects worth €30 million by falsifying links to a US-based company, leading to the cancellation of the contracts.

Similarly to other sacked ministers, Prime Minister Edi Rama’s official excuse was that the ministers had fulfilled their duties by spending more than five years in office and now had to play a key role for the upcoming June 30 local elections where the ruling Socialists target keeping the big municipalities under their rule.

Gjiknuri will be replaced by Belinda Balluku, a former senior aide of Prime Minister Edi Rama when he was Tirana Mayor for around a decade until 2011. Balluku recently led Albcontrol, the state-run air navigation service provider.

On duty until the new minister takes over following the presidential decree, Gjiknuri adds to the list of ministers who have awarded concessions in their last days of duty or during the transition period to a new government.

 

DH Albania scandal

The ease at which a newly established company claimed in late 2018 two major public contracts, worth a total of €30 million, by falsifying links to a US-based parent company unveiled the fragility of Albania’s public procurement system and non-transparent use of taxpayer money, leading to allegations of large-scale corruption which the ruling Socialists have downplayed with lack of security checks on the winning company.

DH Albania, a subsidiary of US-based Dunwell Haberman, easily won public tenders to build a section of Tirana’s outer ring road for €18 million and an electricity transmission line north of Albania worth around €12 million in the past few months, in public tenders with virtually no competition at all. The Albanian unit falsely claimed it was part of a major US company with 20 years of experience allegedly registered in the state of Delaware in 1998, but later proved to have registered only in mid-2018.

In both tenders, the Albanian unit of the US-registered company legally represented by a 26-year old Albanian with no major business background, claimed both tenders by beating sole rivals that were disqualified for lacking documentation or financial security, after bidding almost exactly the same to the amount that the government expected the contracts to be carried out.

Local media have unveiled Albanian businessman Bashkim Ulaj, locally dubbed an oligarch, as allegedly behind the scandal.

Reacting to the Dunwell Haberman scandal, Energy Minister Damian Gjiknuri said he had proposed legal changes making it compulsory to screen documentation submitted by winning bidders before a contract is signed in order to avoid similar future situations.

Public procurement has traditionally been one of the key concerns for local and foreign investors complaining of corruption and tailor-made criteria favoring specific companies with alleged links to ruling majorities.

PPP winners in the past few years have mostly emerged out of unsolicited proposals favoring Albanian-owned companies that proposed the projects through bonuses that made them eventual winners in tenders with little competition.

 

Opposition worried

Opposition Democratic Party MP Agron Shehaj who also slammed the DH Albania scandal before the public tenders were cancelled after further media investigations, says the new concession that Prime Minister Edi Rama and Energy Minister Gjiknuri are trying to award lacks transparency.

According to him, tailor-made criteria such as a mandatory on-site visit in mid-January to participate in the tender exclude foreign companies from the race.

"With zero transparency, Rama and Gjiknuri have decided to switch to private ownership for 20 years the Vlora TPP which has cost Albanian taxpayers €120 million to build and maintain," says Shehaj, a Vlora constituency MP.

"What is already known is that the government wants all the interested bidders to take part in a mandatory on-site visit to the Vlora TPP on January 15 and only Rama and Gjiknuri know which foreign company can get informed, evaluate and decide within two weeks and in holidays’ time to sent their representatives in Albania's Vlora," the opposition MP writes on social media.

Shehaj says the new concession is an “old story of the country's wealth, public property and public money being awarded to government clients allegedly under concessions, increasing investment costs by several times and on Jan. 15 it will become clear who of the Rama clients will get the next concession.”

 

Gov’t blames Democrats for ‘energy corpse’

Reacting to the opposition Democratic Party's allegations, the energy ministry described its accusations as malicious speculations, arguing the opposition should apologize to taxpayers for what it called an 'energy corpse' built when the Democrats were in power during 2005-2013.

According to the ministry, the concession procedures come after a feasibility study prepared by German consultant Ronald Berger and recommendations by the World Bank which funded the plant’s construction.

The energy ministry says the concession will have no costs for the state budget as it will be a private investment with no commitments to purchase electricity at regulated prices as it has decided in several other works, including a recent major solar power plant.

"Pompously built under the [former Prime Minister] Berisha government, this work has never been operational while the Albanian government spends millions of euros each year to conserve it and prevent its degradation... because of a breakdown it suffered just before its completion. Even if it was operational, the thermal power plant was built to operate on diesel, which makes the electricity cost too high and beyond economic logic," the energy ministry said in a statement.

"Studies have shown that awarding a concession, including its repair, its conversion into a natural gas- fired thermal power plant and its connection to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline are the sole alternative,” the ministry adds.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 20 - On Wednesday evening, local media reported Albania declared the Ambassador of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and one more diplomat as persona non-gratae, under suspicion they are involved in activities that jeopardize the country’s security.

The news that Albania, maybe the only country to do so, expelled the Iranian diplomats was confirmed by the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. 

Further on, it was reported the decision was made in consultation with allied countries, due to their activity in Albania, which stood in violation with their diplomatic status.

Following Albania’s decision, US President Donald Trump addressed Prime Minister Edi Rama with a letter which was published by the country’s MEFA.

In the letter, Trump thanked Rama and expressed anticipation in growing the partnership between the two traditionally allied countries.

“The leadership you have shown by expelling Iran’s Ambassador to your country exemplifies our joint efforts to show the Iranian government that its terrorist activities in Europe and around the world will have severe consequences,” Trump wrote.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton also reacted on Twitter on the government’s decision.

“Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania just expelled the Iranian ambassador, signaling to Iran’s leaders that their support for terrorism will not be tolerated. We stand with PM Rama and the Albanian people as they stand up to Iran’s reckless behavior in Europe and across the globe,” Bolton wrote on Twitter. 

The decision to announce the two Iranian diplomats as persona non-grata is thought to be related with alarming violations of their diplomatic status and suspicious activity related to violent extremism.

Another reaction also came from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who emphasized in his tweet the sanctions placed on Iran. 

“I comment PM Edi Rama’s expulsion of two Iranian agents who plotted terrorist attacks in Albania. European nations have thwarted three Iranian plots this year alone. The world must stand together to sanction Iran’s regime until it changes its destructive behavior,” Pompeo wrote.

It is worth noting that Albania under Rama’s governance became host of almost all 3,000 members of an Iranian opposition group known as Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK) as part of United States efforts to find them new homes outside of Iran. 

Relations between Albania and Iran in the past few years have been strained by Albania’s willingness to accept providing shelter to MEK, which had been on the list of terrorist organizations for several years in the United States as well.

Meanwhile, independent experts have raised serious question marks on MEK members presence in Albania, even more than the concerns already raised by their presence here as an ex-terrorist group that is still considered terrorist in many parts of the world.

According to earlier statements by MEK members, their stay in Albania will stretch until the end of Iran’s dictatorship, however experts have not excluded the possibility that MEK members may be building a base against Iran, during their stay in Albania.  

 

Reaction from Teheran 

 

A swift reaction came from Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi, who described Tirana’s move as “unacceptable.”

'Such a measure and scenario run under pressure of the US government and the Zionist intelligence service and in cooperation with certain anti-Iranian terrorist groups under the vain and wrong claims of compilation, aiming to sever and influence Iran-Europe ties,' said Qasemi.

Qasemi further called Albania, “which has always had good ties with Iran,” “a victim” of anti-Iranian agents’ “dirty plans.”

“We consider such an unwise move, imposed on the country, being aimed at harming and disrupting Iran's diplomatic relations, especially with Europe, while aiming to annoy Iran and cause Iranophobia – This line has always been followed by Americans and Zionists.'”

 
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                    [post_content] => The following text is an abstract from the prepared remarks of Altin Zaloshnja, a scholar and community leader, during the January 2018 symposium, in Michigan, commemorating the 550th anniversary of Scanderbeg’s death.

 

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The reason for being gathered here today goes beyond the obvious. It surpasses the concept of remembering a hero – brave as he was – fighting against the dreaded superpower of the time. To us, Albanians, the silhouette of this man mounted on his horse with the sword drawn, his distinguished and sharp-cut facial features, the long beard meandering down on his armor, that whole image memorized since our early childhood years; symbolizes one of the most recognizable features of our national identity.

Scanderbeg was the product of his century, but he outran the fourteen hundreds. By that perspective, he cannot be confined merely within the timeframe of the late medieval era. His legacy has lived on, as well as the ideals he valiantly fought for. In Scanderbeg more distinctly than almost everyone else we find both an archetype and a forerunner of the Western civilization, someone who through his life story laid a foundation for things to come. And Europe substantially owes this primordial vision to men such as Scanderbeg.

George Castrioti brilliantly fought against the most fearsome antagonist, the house of Osman, at the peak of its power. This gun-powder empire starting from the beginning of the 14th century was methodically taking over the old dominions of the Byzantine Empire, and making headways into Europe. Scanderbeg had to face the 6th and the 7th sultan, respectively Murad the 2nd and Mehmed the 2nd, both known for their military prowess.

Specifically the later, Mehmed Fatih, “the Conqueror”, who took Constantinople and ultimately ended the Roman Empire of the East, for all his bloodthirsty character and deprived morality, was in fact a very capable and formidable opponent. The list of rulers defeated with their territories routed by Mehmed is expansive and includes Durad Brankovic of Serbia, the despot Palaiologos brothers of Morea, Euboea, Genovese Crimea, emperor David Comnenus of Trebizond, Vlad the III-rd of Wallachia (the future Count Dracula of literature), Stepjan Tomasevic of Bosnia, bey Pir Ahmet of Karaman, khan Uzun Hasan of Ak Koyunlu, Stephen the Great of Moldovia (a mixed result) to name a few.

Considering this appetite for conquest and its usual atrocious outcome, it is easy to fathom how Mehmed’s frightful reputation would precede him and mentally weaken the opposition during his campaigns. To be perfectly clear, Fatih is not the only savage of this era and could possibly be considered an understudy in the department of cruelty, when compared with Vlad the Impaler-Dracula, for instance. But by all means, the adversary Scanderbeg was facing was sinister, cunning, and possessed with a complete sense of ruthlessness. To even entertain the idea of resisting the onslaught of unforgiving Army of the Ottoman was bravery in itself. Let alone standing against it on the battlefield, and extracting victories, while outnumbered tenfold.

Faced with such a stark reality, Scanderbeg manifested what we can really call today “a profile in courage”. The man-Scanderbeg was determined to protect his land and his countrymen and showed his military brilliance by choosing the type of resistance visibly displayed when the enemy surrounded Croia (Kruje). It is a textbook guerrilla warfare that was most effective under the circumstances. During those trying times in Scanderbeg we see a leader who is not fighting for grandstanding, but one who manifests a keen understanding of his own means and capabilities.

The experience gained during the years fighting for the Sultan and his wars served George Castrioti immensely. He was well-versed in the ways the Ottoman army conducted battle and had come to the conclusion, that under the circumstances it would be next to impossible to upstage a frontal resistance. The decision to leave inside the castle walls a brave garrison of fighters, while attacking behind the enemy lines with the rest of his soldiers, proved to be masterful. He basically used the same warfare tactic in both initial sieges of Croia, while in the third he faced the enemy to protect the population from getting massacred and then speedily retreated toward the coast, while the enemy surrendered Croia for the third time. Ultimately, he came through victorious in all three sieges.

Certainly, Scanderbeg was more than just a military leader. He was a statesman, a diplomat, and we might say a politician when he needed to be. The very idea of calling the League of Lezha, in itself, comprises the initial attempt in forging a national coherence that goes above and beyond tribal lines. It’s a watershed moment because from this time on, and regardless how successful the League proved to be, it gave the Albanians the sense they could call and potentially (potentially) count on each-other, in spite of their broad differences. Unfortunately, 500 years and many decades later, we still need to figure how that works out. Scanderbeg understood the importance of this coming-together, and you cannot blame him for trying to use it, in his principality’s benefit. After all, he was the clear leader of the anti-Ottoman movement in the Albanian inhabited lands and needed help the most in view of the certain, upcoming revenge.

In the foreign affairs’ dealings, one can see Scanderbeg exhibit not only the acute skills of a diplomat for maneuvering, but also the quality of a man who follows and respects the tenets of a treaty. The case with the kingdom of Naples shows Castrioti being a keeper of promises across the generational line (from Alfonso V to Ferdinand I/from father to son), even when the circumstances were difficult for both sides. On the contrary, when he experienced betrayal in the past or sensed the other party was not dealing in good faith as we see in the case of the despot of Serbia who prevented Janos Hunyadi forces to join with those of Scanderbeg, or his complicated relationship with the Republic of Venice, he would act accordingly. However, a conclusion could be drawn that his style of interaction in the international affairs was built around a foundation of trust and merits. To the parties who had proved themselves trustworthy, trust was paid back. For others who were shady in their conduct, the strict attitude of reciprocity was applied in turn.

Scanderbeg passed away in Lezha, on January 1468. After his death (and expressing accolades) Fatih was able to finally realize his all-consuming dream of capturing Croia, on his fourth attempt (June 1478), 10 years after Scanderbeg’s passing. Yet, the memory of his armies forfeited by the Albanian warrior should have been a source of constant mental annoyance for Mehmed, since he barbarically killed the surrendered defenders, inspite of promising free passage beforehand. Once the Croia’s fate was sealed, the sultan ventured on towards the citadel of Shkodra (July 1478), one the last fortresses he personally laid siege upon. At the end, the city of Rozafa was given to him on a golden plate by the Venetians, in the treaty of Constantinople (January 1479), which effectively placed one of the last bastions of the Albanian resistance, under the Ottoman’s control.

The timeframe from Scanderbeg’s return to Croia from the battle of Nish (November 1443), until January of 1968, approximately a century’s quarter in total (24 years and 2 months to be precise), is a crucial time in Albanian history. These are years that initiated the conceiving of a national coherence, and were venerably remembered by the later generations, regardless of the fact that by that time the Ottomans had been successful in their attempt to bring the country under their rule. And even that the memory of the hero fighting against the invader, would be heavily suppressed by the upcoming invaders, it actually waited for its ripe moment to be displayed again strongly among Albanians.

It is obvious; Scanderbeg and his lifework will undoubtedly be assaulted by all kinds of naysayers. Recently, quite a few number of pseudo theories have spread and circulated around by individuals yearning for a name in a world attracted to conspiracy and confusion. Prone to imported and misused ideas, for them this has become a pastime exercise and a way to keep relevant, so to speak.

The aforementioned diminish Scanderbeg’s formative importance on our national identity, dispute his origins, rebuke the wars he fought against the Ottoman Empire, and outright reject his legacy. The common denominator of all these attacks is the intention to discredit Scanderbeg’s fundamental position in the Albanian history, by portraying him as a vague, non-consequential, and peripheral figure in it.

As with any challenge that calls into question established conclusions the best way to deal with it, is comparing with the facts. Those clearly show that Scanderbeg enjoys the status of a prominent figure in the history of the European continent and should in Albania as well, by default. The logical deduction is an individual cannot be a major figure in the history of a continent, by being a minor figure in the history of the nation -part of that very continent- he spends his life protecting. That would violate the physical/geographical/astronomical notions of spatial inclusion. To use an eighties song as an analogy, if you are big in Japan, you’ll certainly be big in Tokyo as well.

Moreover, there is a massive body of works (in the high hundreds, by a conservative count) written about Scanderbeg or referring to him in more than 20 languages of the world. Many of the world’s noted historians, poets, philosophers, writers, composers, painters etc. who lived on or after Castrioti’s earthly years, dedicated works and recognized him as a personality of substantial historical consequence. These works include biographies by Moore, Duponcet, and Paganel operas by Vivaldi and Francoeur, tragedies by Havard, Lillo, and Whincop, poems by Ronsard, Sarrochi, and Longfellow, dramas by Marlowe and De la Vega, opinions by Voltaire, Holberg, and W. Temple, paintings by Bellini, Vitalibus, and Caussin and the list goes on. All those offer ample evidence that Scanderbeg, at the very least, was a noteworthy figure for advanced European and Western thinkers. To reach such wide-spread recognition you might be anything, but peripheral and non-consequential you are not.

Another disclaimer heard about Scanderbeg is his position within the Albanian history and that his myth was mostly invented by the ideologues of the Albanian National Renaissance. This argument further goes to say that in the Albanian national memory prior to its Renaissance, Scanderbeg was neither important nor a significant figure. This whole misconception is construed by purposely forgetting the reality of the times in question. During their four and half centuries rule of the Albanian territories, the High Porte did its outmost to eradicate any connection between Albanians and their pre-occupation past. Ironically enough, the biggest form of warfare the Ottomans ever committed against the Albanians was not militaristic but cultural.

The Ottoman’s strategy as the occupying power in Albania heavily consisted in suffocating and/or preventing the most important factor of the Albanians’ identity, their language, from being freely used and having the chance to develop further. Their end purpose once the occupation completed, was the turfikication (with all it entailed) of the population and as consequence of it, the pacification of the Albanian inhabited lands would follow. The very existence of the Albanian language posed a considerable threat in achieving those goals and as a result, it had to be banned. In this concerted effort as times go by, we witness the formation of the unholy alliance (under and over the ground) of the Ottoman state apparatus with men of robe under the tutelage of the Greek Patriarchate. It’s a well-developed scheme of a cultural genocide in action.

Albanians themselves are not faultless in all this and need to look deep inside and announce their mea culpa, since by the time they met the Ottomans on the battlefields, they had not developed a clear standard and a unifying alphabet for their language as the other nations around them had. This unpreparedness cost them immensely, but it’s should not have served as a carte blanche for the Ottomans, to justify the harm they inflicted upon Albanians and their culture.

This brings us to the next logical point, which is what could be the probability of Scanderbeg’s story being culturally promoted under the Ottoman mastership when that empire was profoundly interested in eradicating any memory of him? Way, way less than Villefort’s letting Edmond Dantes go free after learning he was carrying a letter for his father that could bury the prosecutor, an avid reader of French literature might say. For the Truth that shakes certain unworthy human’s equilibrium (read empire) it always risks ending up inside the walls of the Chateau D’If. It was in the existential interest of the Ottomans in regards to the Albanian lands, to hear less and not more of Scanderbeg because his remembrance could inherently serve as a call to arms for the populace to overthrow their occupation. Therefore, they were less interested in any way, shape or form to promote him, freely.

The fallacy of those declaring Scanderbeg’s figure was created by the Albanian National Awakening becomes clear, when compared with the evidence showing his memory strongly existed in the Albanian folklore before the beginning of the National Renaissance (prior to 1830-s). His persona was mightily featured and present in songs, recitals, anecdotes, narratives, legends, pretty much in everything that could be transmitted by the word of mouth, from one generation to another. There was also a Scanderbeg’s canon law in existence, somewhat contemporaneous with that of Leke Dukagjini. It predates the Albanian Renaissance by far. And as much as the limited form of transmitting culture from one generation to another without the luxury of a codified written language and alphabet allowed, Scanderbeg was always a main topic in it. No one applying some form of intellectual honesty can eventually deny that.

Continuing further, Scanderbeg and his aura was very vivid in the Albanian areas where Ottomans where not able to rule, such as Himara or Malesia. It’s evidently clear that in the territories Ottomans had control they would suppress the memory of his name and deeds, while in places free from their rule, they were not able to do so.

Finally, the Arberesh population provides us with the noblest example of Albanians who were not living under the terms of the Ottoman invading system and were free to express their national feelings. For them Scanderbeg became a cornerstone of their cultural identity. After 550 years George Castrioti still remains, in earthly terms, the most important historical figure of their community. And the last time I checked, the Arberesh living in Italy, were doing so centuries before the Albanian Renaissance.

All these aspects of the matter are conducive and self-explanatory. In conclusion, the theory that the Albanian national hero was a creation of the Albanian National Awakening is patently false. Furthermore, Scanderbeg is not a product of the beautiful verse of Naim bey Frasheri but on contrary an inspiration to the poet himself.

Another topic artificially inflated lately is Scanderbeg’s maternal ancestry. The two most obvious, near-in-time historians who have kind of discussed Voisava’s origin are Marin Barleti and Gjon Muzaka. Both offer some discrepancies when the matter is attested. Barleti describes her father as a noble from “Triballda”, Muzaka seems to confirm, but using different letters “Tripalda”. Barleti, in a later chapter of his book, is not clear about the inhabitants of the Upper Diber who were protecting Sfetigrad, stating they are “Bulgarians or Triballdi”. Muzaka also makes another allegation about a “Marquis of Tripalda” who was related to him on his mother’s side (Muzaka was Albanian).

To say the entire matter has the potential to confuse is a huge understatement. Yet, there is nothing to fear when it comes to Scanderbeg’s mother origin. The custom for families of royal or nobility stock was to marry on par. For all the applicable reasons this was a way to form alliances and extremely common, hence the so-called-problem of Scanderbeg’s belonging is non-existent and there is nothing out of ordinary on this matter.

What really makes it disingenuous is the attempt by some to use it as a weapon of division, by casting a shadow over Scanderbeg’s persona, indicating he was not fully or Albanian at all, as their “erudition” might suggest. It’s futile and laughable, but for the sake of the argument let’s bring an example similar to the topic. Almost every single sultan who has ever reigned had a non-Turkish mother (Valide Sultan) and the Turkishness of the sultan would get diluted from one to another, going from 50%, to 25%, to 12.5%, to 6.25%, to 3.125%, to 1.5625%, and so on continuing in the downtrend. At the end of the counting, 623 years and 36 sultans later, we would have somebody that was way less than 0.00000001% Turkish, sitting on the Ottoman throne.

To a similar or lesser extent this can ring true for many dynasties. I don’t personally believe in framing the story upon this pattern, but brought it as a reminder for those who are willing to create a storm in a teapot for all the wrongs reasons. To them in the words of the Man that surpassed the ages we can simply say: “Don’t look at the speck in the other’s eye but fail to notice the log in your own”.

Ultimately, the most important thing on this matter is what Scanderbeg said and felt he was. Sadly, in the ancient peninsula where Albanians live under the sun, from the very beginning exists this tendency of willingly misappropriating distinguished men and women of one ethnicity, to another group who claims them, whether their name is Alexander (the Great), Pyrrhus, or Gonxhe. In the case of Mother Teresa for instance, who has specifically lived later than the rest and has declared verbatim that “by blood, I am Albanian”, we still see other nationalities trying to paternalize her, as a figure of their own. If this happens with someone who was living almost 20 years ago, what could happen to someone who was born six centuries ago? And, what about another one, who died 24 centuries ago?

Coming back to Scanderbeg, the majority of the correspondence conducted by him was signed with the description Dominus Albaniae (lord of Albania). Since this correspondence was conducted in a known language of the era (in a lingua franca) one could think, it could be beneficial for him, to go global and add something else (other titles he possessed), spicing it up as a trendy prince, once in a while. But Scanderbeg kept and continued signing in the same way, almost all the time. This alone would provide an irrefutable proof to the extent of what he thought of himself. Alas, if we want to dig further, we’ll find that Gjon Castrioti (father) was lord of Mati, while Pal Castrioti (grandfather) was signor of Sinja (in Diber). In short, we have three generations of Albanians in a row and that’s more than enough to substantiate Scanderbeg’s lineage. And he’s still today, for all possible purposes, Scanderbeg of the Albanians.

 

Epilogue

Scanderbeg is one of the most impressive figures of the late medieval times. What is special and striking about him transpires from his willingness to fight for what he believed was right. Scanderbeg could have led a somewhat comfortable life, suitable for his rank, had he decided to continue serving the sultan. Yet, he chose the hard path and the road less traveled. By all descriptions, Scanderbeg was a real and unpretentious man. When he visited Rome in 1466, to an eye witness, the ambassador of Mantua to the Holy See, he gave the impression of “a poor man, coming in with a few horses”.

But more than any titles, domains, or possessions he left behind himself a bright legacy. He left to a nation, in its cradling stages, his symbols to use. The most recognizable one, the double-headed black eagle flag, personifies very strongly the Albanian unum. Second only to the Albanian language, in the importance row, that banner is a focal point and a rallying force for Albanians all around the globe.

For a man who fought to protect and not to occupy, for a human who was a warrior and not a saint, George Castrioti is as good of a national hero, as they can ever come. By his example he offers to his compatriots, a blueprint for unifying around something meaningful and bigger than themselves. In a greater sense Scanderbeg has the capacity of being an Abrahamic figure to all Albanians willing to embrace him, from every walk of life and confessional background. And I hope someday, his descendants will be open-minded enough to leave behind their childish bickerings and recognize the vision he laid out for them, in the land he so valiantly fought to preserve. Want to close here with a stanza from a poem, I wrote a few years ago. I modified it to speak directly to Scanderbeg’s legacy, so we can remind ourselves what he can still teach us, in this day and age. It’s in Albanian and goes like this:

Dhe kur rruga e shqiptareve, prape ne udhekryq te kete mberritur
E nga Lart kerkojne nje shenje: vizionare, qarte-skalitur,
Kur Asqeret e gjithe sulltaneve, nxijne ne cep te horizontit
Drejtim jep –permes epokash- testament’i Kastriotit.

I thank you.
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                    [post_content] => The first days of the New Year in Albania will most likely be ushered in by the continuation of the students’ protest that have set the tone for the last days of 2018. Students are determined to shun away the political dialogue desired by the administration and seek the fulfillment of their 8 demands, mostly lowering tuition fees and improving their access to decision making process in the university.

However major developments are also expected to happen especially in the first half of 2019. Tiran Times breaks down some of the key political events and various scenarios on the eve of 2019:

-Municipal elections: more than just a local struggle

In the last day of next June, Albanians will head to the polls to choose the mayors and council members for 61 local government entities. As always the main focus will be on the large and important key municipality of Tirana. The incumbent mayor Erion Veliaj will run again on behalf of the ruling Socialist Party whereas the opposition has not come up with a candidate yet. Veliaj comes with formidable resources and popularity which will make the race very difficult for the opponent. However the dynamics is not conclusive as the DP and SMI have declared a coalition. If the numbers of displeased SP supporters, which are well grouped into one neighborhood in Tirana and have loyalties of former Interior Minister Tahiri, are factored in then the race is up for grabs.

An interesting race will also unveil the key municipalities of Durres and Elbasan where incumbent mayors running on their third term already have been under intense media pressure for alleged corruption and ties with organized crime. The overall quality of the electoral process will also matter a lot in a year when the perspective of negotiations is to be decided.

-European integration process: are we going to have a date for the negotiations?

The European Union will have a lot on its plate next year. The painful and complex process of Brexit is expected to be finalized in March however the developments in UK politics have put everything into question. Furthermore there will be elections for the new European Parliament in May of next year that will alter the configuration of most EU institutions.  In this framework decisions about enlargement no matter how small and symbolic they might be are very difficult. Both Albania and Macedonia have been left waiting for next June when the Council will reconsider the previous decision and might open the process of negotiations for accession. However the skeptical countries of last year are likely to remain skeptical. Albania might benefit given the positive accolades it has received for the justice reform, the satisfactory results of the vetting. Being coupled with Macedonia for this specific milestone is also beneficial as the latter has a showpiece of an agreement with Greece to offer in the bargain.

The outcome of this Council meeting will decide not just a procedural step but the future of the European perspective for these two countries. It will heavily influence public opinion which has already some levels of fatigue combined with specific expectations given the brunt of domestic reforms.

-Inauguration of grand Namazgjah Mosque in Tirana and potential visit of president Erdogan  

The project of the grand Namazgjah mosque in the center of Tirana is almost complete and final touches are being made. The building in a distinct late Ottoman architectural style, reminiscent of traditional mosques all over Turkey is quite impressive as far as size and decoration is concerned. The considerable funds for this project have been allocated by DIYANET, the state institution in Turkey which regulates relations with religion and manages religious institutions. The inauguration of the mosque is expected to be next year and the plan is for the Turkish president Erdogan to attend the first prayers. However there are tensions with the Albanian Muslim Community leadership which is perceived by Turkey as composed by people under the influence of the Gulen movement.  Allegedly Turkey will not send official representation to the inauguration if the leadership does not change. The AMC will have changes in its structure due to internal elections in the spring so the dynamics is to be followed closely.

-Air Albania: flying or stillborn?

The re-launch of the Albanian carrier Air Albania was done with the maximum fanfare by the Prime Minister himself after the company was allegedly mentored by Turkish Airlines, one of the most influential companies in the world. Edi Rama went as far as to name each plane himself with the names of famous and beloved Albanian writers and then hosted various groups on promotional trips to Turkey: journalists, excellent students and pensioners. However scandals marred even the beginning of this enterprise with media exposing one single individual shareholder with dubious business profile as having as much as 40 percent of the stock. The talk about Air Albania has waned recently however the public declarations have been that flights are to commence in 2019 first to Istanbul and then all over Europe.

If this project does not succeed it will be a huge blow to both the reputation of this administration and to the expectations of the consumers which are already fed up by the exorbitant prices of the air travel in Albania.
                    [post_title] => Albania 2019: local elections, European expectations and flag bearing planes in the sky 
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                    [post_date] => 2018-12-27 11:40:07
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 27 - Four international organizations dealing with freedom of speech called on the country’s Prime Minister Edi Rama on Wednesday to drop amendment of two draft laws that foresee registration, surveillance, fining and banning internet media portals, introduced by Rama under his “anti-slander” package. 

In an open letter to Rama and Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj, the European Federation of Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Reporters Without Borders and PEN International asked the government “to immediately drop the initiative to amend the two draft laws in question and to involve journalists, civil society organisations, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the European Union and Council of Europe in any initiative concerning the right to freedom of expression of media and journalists."

Specifically, the organizations claim the initiative claims the law is “against best practices and goes against the recommendations of the OSCE, which raises our deepest concern.”

Moreover, they add that if parliament passes the current draft laws, “they will seriously impair free flow of information and will have chilling effect in online media and restrict the Albanian citizens' right to access information.”

In early December Rama, responding to the opposition’s ongoing allegations for corruption and ties with criminality, proposed two draft laws foreseeing the registration of internet portals and the overseeing of the news content for a variety of reasons, starting from “biased news”, “news that damage the public morale” and “news that can incite penal offenses.” 

Moreover, the government’s plan was that failure to uphold these criteria can result in fines that mount up to 8,000 euros and website bans.

This comes after an earlier initiative back in October to legalize all online news portals. Rama called Albania’s online news portals which are not registered in the National Businesses Centre “ghosts with no name and address.”

In this context,  the Authority of Electronic-Post Communication (AKEP) published a list of all unregistered portals in the country and gave a 72 hour deadline to publish their Tax ID number online or otherwise their activity will be terminated.

Rama has repeatedly complained that the government is a victim of “defamation” and has attacked critical media using a variety of epithets, calling some of them charlatans, garbage bins, poison or public enemies. 

“Slander is punished with prison in 25 EU countries! Our half-roosters with fattened pockets and brains, who’ve achieved political and media careers by slandering and accusing without evidence, don’t deserve even one plate of prison soup. They will simply pay the pollution fine for every filth coming out of their mouth,” Rama wrote on his Facebook back in October.

In this context, the government aims now through the first draft law to make AKEP an institution which will maintain  a “register of online media,” thus ensuring that “entrepreneurs respect their obligations toward national security, public safety ... and other laws.”

The second draft law amendments will aim to make the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) a surveillance body authored to judge news content and quality and their influence on the public morale. Under the proposal, the publishers should have to “respect the ethical and moral rules of the public and should not allow publication … that can incite penal offences”. 

The proposal also foresees that all fines and ban orders to be implemented immediately and without the option to appeal them. 

 
                    [post_title] => Intl media rights groups denounce Albanian PM’s attack on media freedom 
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                    [post_date] => 2018-12-25 16:00:38
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 25 – The departure of several major Greek investors from Albania this year has considerably weakened the leading position that Albania’s southern neighbor has had in the country’s foreign direct investment during the past quarter of century and new destinations such as Switzerland or Netherlands from where major energy-related investment has been channeled through during the past few years are on track to overcome Greece by next year.

The stock of Greek foreign direct investment in Albania during this year has almost stood at a standstill as two Greek-owns banks, a private hospital and university sold their Albania units, reducing Greek FDI inflows to Albania to a mere €2 million in the first three quarters of this year, according to Albania’s central bank.

However, FDI originating from Greece continue to lead the stock of FDI in Albania with around €1.25 billion at the end of September 2018, to account for 17 percent of Albania’s total FDI stock of around €7.35 billion at the end of the third quarter of 2018.

Greece’s slowdown in Albania investment since 2016 when the neighboring country overcame its 8-year recession has been compensated by a sharp increase in investment originating from Switzerland and Netherlands, where major investment for the Albania section of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and the Devoll Hydropower have been channeled through in the past four years.

Greek-owned enterprises are present in almost every sector of the Albanian economy, including telecommunications, banking and construction, with their number estimated at more than 500.

The host of some 500,000 Albanian migrants, Greece has been Albania’s traditional top investor and second largest trading partner. Its 8-year recession that saw the Greek economy contract by around a quarter had a series of negative effects even for Albania mainly through trade and remittance links and led to dozens of thousands of Albanians leaving Greece to resettle in Albania or other EU countries.

Greek-owned Tirana Bank, a unit of Piraeus Bank, Greece’s largest lender, and NBG Albania, the Albanian unit of the National Bank of Greece, sold their Albania units this year, reducing the number of Greek-owned banks in Albania to 1 compared to four until the 2008-09 global crisis when Greek banks held around a quarter of assets in the Albanian banking system.

Greece-based Hygeia Group also sold its loss-making Albania unit to its key rival, the American Hospital of Albania, the country's largest private hospital, after almost a decade of accumulated debts.

Last summer, Turkey’s government-owned Maarif Foundation also acquired the University of New York Tirana, Albania’s first private run higher education institution set up in 2002, where a Greek businessman held a majority 65 percent stake.

 

Swiss, Dutch FDI 

Switzerland is on track to overtake Greece as the country of origin for the largest stock of foreign direct investment by the end of this year or early 2019 thanks to huge investment for the major Trans Adriatic Pipeline, whose Albania section has fuelled more than a billion euros in investment since 2015.

The stock of Swiss FDI in Albania was at a mere €100 million in early 2015 just before construction works for the Albanian section of TAP began. Almost four years on, the stock of Swiss FDI in Albania has increased 12-fold to €1.23 billion, making Switzerland the second largest investor in Albania, with an FDI stock that is only €17 million lower compared to traditional top foreign investor Greece.

The surge in Swiss FDI is almost entirely dedicated to investment by Switzerland-based multinational TAG AG consortium, jointly owned by the UK’s BP (20 percent), Azerbaijan’s SOCAR (20 percent), Italy’s Snam (20 percent), Belgium’s Fluxys (19 percent), Spain’s Enagás (16 percent) and Switzerland’s Axpo (5 percent).

Dutch investment to Albania has also sharply increased in the past couple of years, making the Netherlands the third largest foreign investor in Albania.

Bank of Albania data shows Dutch FDI stock to Albania rose to €995 million at the end of the third quarter of this year, more than double compared to 2014 when a major hydropower plant launched its construction works.

The sharp increase in Dutch FDI in the past four years is mostly related to the Devoll Hydropower plants that are being built by Norway’s Statkraft through its wholly-owned Netherlands-based Statkraft Markets B.V.

A wholly state-owned Norwegian company, Norway’s Statkraft has already made operational its first Banja HPP as part of its Devoll HPP project, one of the country largest foreign investment projects and is set to complete its second and final Moglice HPP by mid-2019.

The Banja and Moglice HPPs, part of the €535 million Devoll Hydropower project, are being built on the Devoll River, about 70 km southeast of Tirana.

Dutch companies in Albania also operate in the oil, banking, health, mail delivery and agriculture.

Both TAP and the Devoll Hydropower projects complete their investment stage by mid-2019 leaving a huge gap in Albania’s FDI inflows unless other major projects replace them.

 

Italian, Canadian FDI

Foreign direct investment from Canada, where major Albania oil investment flows from increased by €56 million to a total stock of €940 million for the first three quarters of 2018, ranking Canada the third largest foreign investor in Albania, according to Albania’s central bank.

Canada emerged as Albania’s second largest investor in 2011 thanks to huge investment by Bankers Petroleum, the country’s largest oil producer which in mid-2016 was taken over by Chinese-owned Geo Jade.

Investment in Albania’s oil industry surged for nearly a decade until the mid-2014 slump in global oil prices, but almost stood a standstill for three years until recovering this year as commodity prices picked up.

Albania’s top trading partner, Italy, ranks fourth when it comes to foreign direct investment with a stock of €650 million at the end of September 2018.

The host of some half a million Albanian migrants, Italy accounts for more than a third of Albania’s trade exchanges and developments in the neighboring country across the Adriatic have a key impact on the small Albanian economy which has close trade and remittance links with Italy, the Eurozone’s third largest economy.

Turkish foreign investment to Albania also rose by around €70 million during the first three quarters of this year despite the economy in Turkey ailing due to the Turkish lira losing around 40 percent against the US dollar and economic prospects severely deteriorating for 2018-19 in one of world’s fastest growing emerging economies until last year.

The stock of Turkish foreign direct investment rose to €570 million this year to rank Turkey, the fifth largest foreign investor in Albania.

Chinese companies have also invested more than €400 million in Albania since 2016 when they acquired key assets such as the country’s largest oil producer and Albania’s sole international airport from previous North American and EU concessionaires.

FDI in the first three quarters of this year grew by a significant 15 percent to around €758 million, driven by TAP and the Devoll Hydropower projects and a hike in oil and mining investment as commodity prices picked up, revitalizing investment that had almost paralyzed following the mid-2014 slump in international oil and mineral prices.

However, Albania’s FDI was largely reliant on the energy sector with investment in the low value-added oil, mining, natural gas and electricity sector accounting for about 70 percent of FDI inflows for this year.

Meanwhile, the FDI stock in sectors with great potential such as the key agriculture and tourism sectors remain quite modest, negatively affected by the long-standing issue of unclear property titles, high levels of corruption, an inefficient judiciary as well as high taxes compared to other regional countries.
                    [post_title] => Switzerland about to overtake Greece as Albania’s largest foreign investor
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                    [post_date] => 2018-12-25 12:31:33
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Dec. 25 - Albania's central bank says it could consider a hike in the key rate by mid-2019, putting an end to nearly a decade of easy monetary policy in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis as it tried to stimulate economic growth through lower interest rates despite its effectiveness being hampered by the country’s high levels of euroisation.

The confirmation came this week by central bank governor Gent Sejko as a two-month deadlock in the Bank of Albania decision-making was unblocked after six new members of the supervisory council were recently voted for seven-year terms by the ruling Socialist majority.

Albania’s key rate currently stands at a historic low of 1 percent, with the last cut made in early June 2018 when the central bank initiated emergency intervention to stop negative effects from Euro’s free fall against the Albanian lek.

The last time Albania’s central bank raised key rates was in March 2011 when the benchmark rate was temporarily hiked by 0.25 percent to 5.25 percent following several consecutive cuts since early 2009 when the key rate was slashed by 0.5 percent to 5.75 percent as the first global crisis effects started appearing on the Albanian economy, mainly in spillover effects from strong trade, investment and remittance ties with Italy and Greece, Albania's main two trading partners that suffered years of recession.

The easier monetary policy that Albania’s central bank has been following during the past decade has targeted reducing loan rates in a bid to stimulate credit growth and investment by also discouraging savings through lower deposit rates, but results have been mixed due to tight lending standards fuelled by high levels of non-performing loans and almost half of credit and savings denominated in Europe’s single currency, curbing the effectiveness of the central bank’s policies.

The decision on a possible key interest comes at a time when the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, has already undertaken several key rate hikes during 2018 and the European Central Bank has recently stopped its quantitative easing programme but said its key rates will remain unchanged at least through the summer of 2019 before considering a possible hike.

Albania’s central bank decision will also largely depend on inflation pressure and the performance of Albania’s national currency against Europe’s single currency.

Albania's average inflation rate during the first eleven months of this year was at around 2 percent, the same to 2017 when it hit a five-year high of 2 percent following a 16-year low of 1.3 percent in 2016.

Yet, at 2 percent inflation rate remains 1 percent below the central bank's 3 percent target estimated to have a positive effect on the country’s developing economy where growth rates have recovered to around 4 percent in the past couple of years, but yet remain below the 6 percent estimated to have tangible effects on the country's households.

Europe’s single currency trading at 10-year low of 123 lek and having lost 7 percent against the Albanian lek during this year, has curbed inflation pressure in the past few months, making imports much cheaper and the central bank now expects the economy to return to equilibrium by mid-2019 and inflation to meet its 3 percent target by 2020.

When Albania’s central bank decided to initiate emergency intervention in the country’s free floating currency exchange regime last June by buying excess euros, it also cut the key rate by 0.25 percent in a coordinated move to curb negative effects from euro’s free fall on the Albanian economy, primarily hitting Eurozone-destined exports.

 

Emergency intervention on hold

Albania’s central bank says it could consider new emergency intervention to buy excess euros from the country’s currency exchange market only in case its inflation target is put at risk and in case of market disruption, in two elements that it says don’t currently pose a risk as they did last June.

"The Bank of Albania intervenes when the inflation target is put at risk and when there are market disruptions. Last June, we had both those elements and that's why we made that decision," says governor Sejko.

"Currently, currency exchange rates display no disruptions and the market functions normally in currency exchange rates that are a result of market demand and supply, in a normal behavior," Sejko told reporters.

Albania's central bank says it has purchased some €400 million during this year from the local market in operations aimed at stopping the euro's sharp depreciation and increasing the country's foreign exchange reserves, estimated at a comfortable six months of import coverage.

The Bank of Albania says commercial banks' capital conversion following some mergers and acquisitions and a de-euroisation strategy as well as a Euro-denominated loan awarded to Albania's state-run power utility, both worth a total of €300 million, put strong pressure on the local currency exchange market last summer when the euro stabilized at around 125 lek following purchases by the Bank of Albania.

Governor Sejko says currency exchange fluctuations affect almost equally both businesses and households in case of stronger or weaker national currency due to high euroisation levels of around 50 percent.

"The Bank of Albania does not intervene to protect the interest of special groups that win or lose as it makes no sense. As long as exposure to Europe's single currency is at 50 percent, a stronger lek negatively affects businesses or households who have income in euro, and the other way round [a weaker lek], affects those who have income in lek," says Sejko.

Albania's central bank attributes a new strengthening of lek to traditional seasonal effects related to migrants returning home and increasing euro inflows, and euro's sharper downward trend this year to higher foreign investment, tourism income and migrant remittances.

The Euro currently trades at a 10-year low of 122.76 lek, having lost about 7 percent compared late 2017 and standing 11 percent below the mid-2015 level when its five-year reign of about 140 lek came to an end.

The main opposition Democrats and some local experts have blamed illegal euro inflows from drug and crime proceeds for the euro’s free fall in Albania.

London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also recently noted some ‘unrecorded cross-border activities’ may also be contributing to the appreciation pressures on the Albanian lek which it says reflects the ongoing de-euroisation policy initiative of the central bank in the financial sector, as well as the capital conversion of some banks.

 
                    [post_title] => Albania’s central bank considers key rate hike after a decade of easy policy
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            [post_date] => 2019-01-08 15:22:14
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            [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Jan. 8 - With a nationwide ban on gambling in force since Jan. 1, thousands of gambling businesses have officially closed down, bringing to an end what had become a booming industry, but a small number of illegal electronic casinos and sports betting shops continue operating secretly throughout the country.

Albanian police have identified more than a dozen cases of illegal gambling activities in Tirana and outside the Albanian capital city in the past few days and initiated legal action against ten people, including three gamblers, for organizing and participating in illegal gambling activities, in legal sanctions that could see them fined or face a prison sentence of up to six months.

Police say they have seized electronic gaming equipment and poker tables during the first eight days that the gambling ban has been in force and warned of tough nationwide inspections and penalties, inviting citizens to use their emergency phone numbers and mobile apps to report cases of illegal gambling.

In one case in Korça, southeast Albania, police said they filed criminal charges against the 48-year old owner of a coffee bar and three other Korça residents who were caught gambling during the police raid.

The police operations would sound ridiculous until late 2018 when gambling was a booming business, with electronic casinos and sports betting shops scattered throughout the country and operating even next to schools and religious institutions and gambling a popular sport even among teens who were banned to gamble. Much of the sector was informal with Prime Minister Edi Rama estimating the annual turnover at €500 million, almost four times higher than the official figures.

Outgoing finance minister Arben Ahmetaj said few days ago that only a minimum number of former gambling businesses were secretly continuing their operations online and "the battle against gambling would continue even in small coffee bars where iPads are used to gamble online."

Prime Minister Rama recently boasted at a TV comedy show that the gambling ban was saving Albanians €1 million a day.

The partial nationwide ban of gambling that the Albanian ruling Socialist Party majority approved in late October 2018, bans electronic casinos from residential areas and temporarily freezes the booming sports betting industry, including online betting, until new legislation that could turn it into a state monopoly or set new rules to discipline their operation.

Legal changes have affected thousands of betting shops that will apparently not be able to survive as mere coffee shops without the lucrative sport betting business that allowed them to pay up to €3,000 in monthly rents for downtown Tirana facilities, more than double another non-gambling business could afford paying. Hundreds of former gambling shops have already been offered for rent after closing down their businesses in an operation that is expected to cut down rental rates.

While the country’s sole real casino offering live table games and located downtown Tirana has not been affected by recent legal changes, hundreds of electronic casinos will be relocated to 5-star hotels or  tourist areas with national importance that are yet to be determined by the government. Legal changes also do not apply to TV bingos, including the National Lottery.

Gambling was a completely privately-run industry in Albania where until last year it officially generated more than €130 million in annual income, paid about €50 million in taxes and employed some 7,000 people, but much more if the informal sector was taken into account.

Experts had blamed the booming gambling industry for a series of negative economic and social effects, often associated with higher domestic violence and divorce rates.

The booming gambling businesses was often linked to gangs laundering crime and drug proceeds. There have also been cases when even senior officials and judges have justified some of their income through winnings in betting shops or casinos in their wealth declarations.
            [post_title] => Albania launches crackdown on illegal gambling following nationwide ban
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