Editorial: Avoiding divisive policies in the diaspora

Editorial: Avoiding divisive policies in the diaspora

This week, a major summit on Albania’s large diaspora was held with much fanfare in Tirana, discussing a series of issues on the topic. While positive in spirit, beyond the facade of the summit, there is a need for a

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Engaging the Albanian diaspora: The necessary start-up summit

Engaging the Albanian diaspora: The necessary start-up summit

By Alba Çela The Albanian diaspora is quite impressive in terms of numbers (relative to the population naturally), achievements, geographical distribution and strong links to the homeland. It has several strata that vary according to chronology of migration movements, reasons

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New Albanian-owned investment fund breaks Raiffeisen’s monopoly

New Albanian-owned investment fund breaks Raiffeisen’s monopoly

TIRANA, Nov. 21 – The launch of a new investment fund is expected to give a new boost to this emerging market which has considerably slowed down in the past couple of years due to a sharp decline in government

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EU warns of fiscal risks ahead of next year’s elections

EU warns of fiscal risks ahead of next year’s elections

TIRANA, Nov. 15 – The European Commission has warned the upcoming mid-2017 general elections and the end of a 3-year IMF supported programme could put at risk the country’s fiscal consolidation path. In its latest Autumn report, the EU’s executive

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Manufacturers face barriers in upgrading to designing, branding stages

Manufacturers face barriers in upgrading to designing, branding stages

TIRANA, Nov. 9 – Weak collaboration with vocational training schools and universities lacking industry-oriented curricula, lack of research and development activities, the need for quality certification, poor links and lack of government support are some the barriers that prevent Albania’s

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Key rate kept at historic low as consumer prices struggle to recover

Key rate kept at historic low as consumer prices struggle to recover

TIRANA, Nov. 10 – Albania’s central bank has decided to keep the key interest rate unchanged at a historic low of 1.25 percent as average inflation rate in the first ten months of the year hit a record low of

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From illegal migrant to one of Italy’s most successful software developers

From illegal migrant to one of Italy’s most successful software developers

TIRANA, July 4 – Eight years ago Uljan Sharka was only a minor illegal  Albanian immigrant who had reached Italy through a speedboat in search of a better life and risked deportation by the authorities in the neighboring country across

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Justice reform supporters seek to clear remaining hurdles

Justice reform supporters seek to clear remaining hurdles

TIRANA, Dec. 24 – Proponents of a major reform of the justice system in Albania are working to bring about consensus on a proposed legislative package, including constitutional amendments, following a reply by an international expert commission on three drafts

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In blunt speech, Albania urged to deal with graft in the judiciary

In blunt speech, Albania urged to deal with graft in the judiciary

TIRANA, Dec. 15 – Taking a blunt approach trying to convince Albanians of the need for justice system reform to address widespread graft concerns, U.S. Ambassador Lu told a judges’ a conference this week that the corrupt among them should

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Anger over economy, governance yield violent opposition protest ➦

Anger over economy, governance yield violent opposition protest ➦

TIRANA, Dec. 9 – Aiming to capitalize on the public’s growing unease with the Socialist-led government over the state of the economy and mounting accusations of corruption and mismanagement, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party held Tuesday a large protest rally

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                    [post_content] => This week, a major summit on Albania's large diaspora was held with much fanfare in Tirana, discussing a series of issues on the topic. While positive in spirit, beyond the facade of the summit, there is a need for a comprehensive strategic approach that is inclusive and properly engages and utilizes the Albanian diaspora.

The modern history of Albanian diaspora is a complex one. At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, the Albanian diaspora especially in the west and more specifically in the United States played a historic role in guaranteeing the future of the independent Albanian state. For all means and purposes this diaspora was de facto the government of Albania in the most difficult days of recognizing the new Albanian state.

During and after the Second World War, the communist regime followed a strategy of sowing disagreements, and then persecuting its political opponents who in most cases chose to leave the country and established themselves in the west. Throughout the cold war years and until its last days the communist regime applied a cruel strategy of pitting Albanians abroad against each other often with dramatic and even fatal consequences.

The consequences and bitter memory of this enmity is still pervasive in many circles and discussions and much remains to be done to dissipate it.

In the quarter of the century of democratic transition, the Albanian diaspora has swelled to many more thousands of people, bringing the figure so almost 40 percent of the population living outside Albania. In first ten years of the transition the phenomenon of brain drain reached its apex with about half of the Albanian intelligentsia (academics, professors and high level experts) choosing to start a new life abroad.

In general the governments of these last 25 years have failed to produce serious ideas, strategies and collaborative platforms to engage and involve the diaspora in the country’s political life, economic and social development and presence abroad.

Furthermore even in the provisions of basic consular services, many problems, gaps and inadequate performances have been making the lives of Albanians abroad very difficult. While the two neighboring countries of Italy and Greece host hundreds of thousands of Albanians, the consular offices of Rome and Athens to the present day have insufficient personnel to service their needs. While Albanians at home and abroad pay their taxes and fees to afford these services they have not been served fairly and unfortunately this is not just the case in these two countries.

In the economic field no serious mechanism of encouraging the diaspora to invest in Albania have been generated. Those that have been tried from time to time have been inefficient.

As for the use of knowledge, education, training and experience of Albanians abroad except from some ad hoc brain gain programs, there has not been any comprehensive strategy to make good use of this human assets in several fields where their expertise would be beneficial.

Finally, despite the recurring rhetoric, nothing has been done yet to give the opportunity to Albanian abroad to participate on their country’s political life. Their voting has not been guaranteed and this raises several questions whether the reason for this failure is the fear on the part of domestic elites over the impact of such a vote on democracy and governance.

Therefore the need of a comprehensive strategic approach for including, engaging and utilizing the diaspora persist beyond activities no matter their implied or advertised success. This strategy should be the product of a really inclusive process and its objectives should be spelled out in clear terms. Until then these reflections remain as valid today as they were was in the days before the summit.

 
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Çela

The Albanian diaspora is quite impressive in terms of numbers (relative to the population naturally), achievements, geographical distribution and strong links to the homeland. It has several strata that vary according to chronology of migration movements, reasons for the move and other factors. The diaspora has been decisive in key moments of Albania’s history rescuing the country from economic deprivation, pushing forward important political upheavals and gradually imbuing its social and cultural fabric with new colorful threads. Curiously when it comes to the official efforts to benefit from its economic, human capacity and diplomatic clout in the post-communist times, the diaspora has been minimally engaged.

An attempt to change this reality took place in the form of a large and slightly pompous Summit of the Diaspora organized under the meaningful slogan ‘Undivided for Albania’, which took place last weekend. Several events in the form of discussions, receptions and recognition of achievements occupied more than 1500 participants from about 40 countries.  The event informed and reminded all Albanians at home about the extent to which their fellow citizens, family members, friends, former colleagues and others have been successful abroad as well as shed some light on the ones that have organized with their communities to preserve their origin and pride.

The Summit as an idea is laudable. Albania can and should use the immense potential of Albanians abroad to improve its image, increase investments and build a rich, mutually beneficial relationship based on respect and intense positive interaction. The summit through some specific events also succeeded in bringing the voices of the diaspora through the right platforms.

Some key glitches however should not be missed. The Summit showed unity across borders having incorporated the Kosovo diaspora through president Thaci’s presence but not across political lines, as evidenced by the lack of President Nishani and opposition leader Basha in the related activities. Whether the latter have refused on personal/ political grounds or were not properly invited and given the floor to address the participants remains unclear. Whatever the case it influenced the perception of the Summit.

Additionally several critical voices qualified the event as one more PR exercise of the executive. It was not necessarily so since several concrete ideas have been discussed such as the establishment of the National Council of Albania Diaspora within 2017 and some key jointly-agreed objectives written down in the final declaration. However the elements of fanfare were present throughout and one is left to hope that they were there to celebrate the fact that this event was the first of its kind rather than some empty embellishments.

Most importantly the key measure to institutionalize the role of Albanian migrants so deeply connected to their country is to enable their political say through voting. This difficult yet completely feasible project has been promised several times by this majority before and the fact that it will be not possible even in the forthcoming 2017 is quite telling. Let’s hope that there will be a follow up Summit and that it will address this and other deficiencies.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 21 - The launch of a new investment fund is expected to give a new boost to this emerging market which has considerably slowed down in the past couple of years due to a sharp decline in government security yields waning investor interest. The launch in August 2016 of Credins Premium, a new investment fund whose majority stake is held by Albanian-owned Credins bank, currently the country's third largest lender, is also expected to break the monopoly held in this market by Raiffeisen Bank, the country's traditional largest lender. Raiffeisen which has recently been overtaken by Turkish-owned BKT Bank as the largest lender, has been holding a monopoly position in the emerging market since early 2012 when it established two investment funds.

A quarterly report by Albania's Financial Supervisory Authority shows the two Raiffeisen investment funds managed to preserve their positive growth rates the first three quarters of this year when they the number of investors suffered a considerable decline.

Net assets in the three investment funds for the first three quarters of 2016 grew by an annual 3 percent to about 70 billion lek (€504 million) when the number of investors dropped by more than 2,100 (6.5 percent) to 30,961.

The market continues being dominated by investments in government bonds, accounting for 65 percent of total funds, with a 6 percent decline compared to the first three quarters of 2015.

Investments in government bonds and T-bills, whose yields have considerably dropped in the past couple of years, account for 90 percent of total investments.

Market prospects appear optimistic as yields on government securities have embarked on rising trend in the past few months after hitting a historic low last June just before the country’s central bank cut its key rate to a new all-time low of 1.25 percent.

Yields on 12-month T-bills, the government’s key instrument for internal borrowing, rose to 2.05 percent in the latest Oct. 25 auction, in a gradual rising trend after hitting a historic low of 1.24 percent last June.

Meanwhile, yields on two-year notes, the government’s key instrument for long-term debt in the domestic market, also rose to 2.7 percent in the latest Oct. 24 auction when the government borrowed 2.8 billion lek (€21 million). Yields on two-year notes rose from 2.03 percent last September, and a record low of 1.5 percent last June.

Yet, investments in government securities remain more profitable compared to traditional bank deposits whose interest rates have dropped to below 1 percent, keeping their growth rate close to zero.

The rapid growth of the emerging investment funds has forced the Albanian government to undertake legal changes strengthening the funds’ risk administration and increasing investor protection.

The International Monetary Fund has also warned that “while these funds have helped diversify the ownership of government securities, they are inadequately supervised and regulated, invest mostly in longer-dated securities and their clients appear to consider these funds as substitutes for bank accounts.”

Until July 2016, only two investment funds, Raiffeisen Prestigj and Raiffeisen Invest Euro operated in Albania, making it a pure monopoly market. The funds were established in early 2012 by Raiffeisen Bank Albania, the leading commercial bank operating in Albania until a year ago. The timing coincided with Raiffeisen’s decision to scale back its participation in the public debt market to limit its exposure to the Albanian sovereign debt.

Investments funds represented the second biggest financial market at the end of 2015 with assets estimated at 4.6 percent of the GDP.

The country’s highest financial authorities have recently warned Albanians to be careful with online trading in international stock exchanges, describing such investments as highly risky, especially if offered by unlicensed operators and used by investors lacking appropriate knowledge.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 15 - The European Commission has warned the upcoming mid-2017 general elections and the end of a 3-year IMF supported programme could put at risk the country's fiscal consolidation path.

In its latest Autumn report, the EU’s executive arm kept unchanged Albania's growth forecast for 2016 at 3.2 percent and expects the country's growth to accelerate to 3.5 percent in the next couple of years. The projections are considerably lower compared to the Albania government's much more optimistic targets of 3.4 percent for 2016, 3.9 percent in 2017 and 4.2 percent in 2018.

"Economic activity is accelerating mainly because of rising household spending and private investment. Private consumption and investment are projected to go on increasing on the back of solid gains in employment and strong growth in FDI-inflows. Public debt as a share of GDP is projected to fall, but the upcoming election period might test the authorities’ commitment to the path of fiscal consolidation," says the report.

The Albanian government has announced it will revise relations with the International Monetary Fund to an advisory role in early 2017 when a three-year deal supported by a Euro 331 million soft loan supporting fiscal consolidation concludes.

"In the run-up to next year’s election there is a risk that the government relaxes its fiscal consolidation plans, which will lose an important anchor following the end of the country’s IMF-supported programme in February 2017," says the Commission.

The run-up to 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.

The Commission also warns ailing credit recovery and weather-induced risks related to hydro-dependent domestic electricity generation could also pose risk to the Albanian economy which has grown between 1 to 3 percent in the past seven crisis years compared to a pre-crisis decade of 6 percent annually.

"Increased political uncertainty related to next year’s parliamentary election might dampen consumption and investment. Credit recovery might take longer than expected in the context of persistently high NPLs. Electricity production remains subject to weather-induced volatility. On the other hand, implementing structural reforms, such as the recently started comprehensive overhaul of the justice system, could improve the business environment and the economy’s growth potential," it adds.

The Commission also expects Albania's public debt to only slightly drop to 72.2 percent in 2016 before falling to 68.1 percent of the GDP in 2018 compared to the Albanian government's 64 percent target by 2018.

The Commission projects Albania's top trading partners Italy and Greece to considerably recover over the next couple of years after their recession periods.

Italy, the country’s top trading partner accounting for 50 percent of total exports and 30 percent of imports, is expected to grow between 0.9 percent to 1 percent over 2017-2018 following a 0.7 growth rate in the past couple of years and a three-year recession ending in 2013.

Neighboring Greece, the country’s traditional second largest trading partner and top foreign investor, is expected to return to moderate growth rates of 2.7 percent to 3.1 percent over the next couple of years following a six-year recession ending in 2013 that shrank the neighboring country’s economy by about a quarter.

Albania's growth in the European Commission’s report is in line with other EU aspirant Western Balkans countries who are expected to grow 3 to 3.3 percent over the next couple of years.

In its latest 2016 progress report on Albania when the European Commission recommended the opening of accession talks with the Balkan country which has been an official candidate country since mid-2014, the Commission says Albania is moderately prepared in developing a functioning market economy despite progress in improving the budget balance fighting informality and reforming the electricity sector.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 9 - Weak collaboration with vocational training schools and universities lacking industry-oriented curricula, lack of research and development activities, the need for quality certification, poor links and lack of government support are some the barriers that prevent Albania's top exporting garment and footwear industry to upgrade to the designing and branding stages from its cut-make-trim production, according to study supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Albania.

The study unveils that Albania's textile and footwear industries are not currently ready to upgrade to the mature stages of designing and branding whose skills among Albanian manufacturing firms generally take a decade to acquire.

“Producing for global markets requires a know-how that we didn’t have at the beginning of the 1990s. In this regard, our Italian buyers have helped us a lot. They would come to us with ready-made projects, so that there was no need for us to conduct research on our own and they would even send their qualified staff to train ours. Obviously, it was also our ability to be fast learners,” a local entrepreneur is quoted as saying in the study conducted by Albanian researcher Elena Pici.

The study also unveils that working for companies in Italy, the destination of the overwhelming 90 percent of Albania's garment and footwear products, also poses obstacles and challenges since the Italians are considered 'masters of this trade' and are often little interested in Albanian firms carrying out the full production style.

In cases when upgrading to original equipment manufacturing has taken place, it has been due to establishing direct relations with the main buyer not engaged in production activities and willing to outsource more responsibilities or diversifying the range of global buyers with British, German, Dutch, Danish buyers not specialized in these industries, says the study.

The 'investment mind-set,' is a crucial factor that local manufacturers highlight for the upgrade to original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

"I should be the first one to invest in new machinery and labour force training so that my firm’s production performance becomes more effective and efficient," says a local manufacturer.

Albanian garment and footwear manufacturers, who rely on cheap labour costs, complain tax hikes and the continuous change in the taxation policies remain major hindering factors for upgrading and plan future strategies.

The global crisis triggering cheaper machinery prices has also helped some Albanian producer close their production cycle at home.

“I managed to close the production cycle because I was able to buy very good technology with ridiculously low prices, which without the crises, I wouldn’t have been able to buy.’ Nevertheless, such external factors are subject to the local manufacturers’ ability to utilize them in their favour," said another entrepreneur.

Yet, most of the Albanian companies in the stage of original design/brand manufacturing continue producing for global buyers and also have a separate production line for their brand.

Manufacturers argue that without having a well-established brand that is able to penetrate the European markets, they cannot give up performing original equipment manufacturing (OEM) for global buyers because that is their ‘daily bread’ providing secure revenues.

The study recommends local manufacturers should consider diversifying the range of global buyers.

"Working for buyers specialized in textile and footwear industries themselves such as the Italians is favourable only at the first stage of upgrading. Afterwards, they become reluctant to share the added-value activities. Albanian manufacturers should instead aim to collaborate with other high price retailers in the Western Europe," notes the study.

The study also suggests local Albanian manufacturers should start by creating their brands locally through an approach that enables them to learn about opportunities on how to manage a brand and create a solid network of suppliers both in terms of raw material and support services such as marketing before upgrading to the global value chain and original design manufacturing.

Local manufacturers should also make use of online sales for their own brands in a process that reduces their dependency from global buyers, provides direct contacts and accurate feedback from customers, notes the study.

“Policy makers should also guarantee stable and favourable taxation for the garment and footwear industries to increase their competitiveness with regional countries and boost investment plans without fearing a change in tax rates in the short run,” experts say. The study also recommends policy makers should be actively engaged in promoting the "Made in Albania" brand, support the establishment of a quality check lab and the development of local raw material industries.

The garment and footwear industry, locally known as façon, is leading Albania’s exports this year with an annual 20 percent hike to 80.3 billion lek (€588 mln) in the first three quarters of this year, compensating for the sharp contraction in commodity-related exports.

More than 900 companies operate in the garment and footwear sector, whose annual turnover is estimated at €500 million, accounting for 40 percent of the country’s total exports.

The sector is mostly involved in cut-make-trim production but there are also a few emerging Made in Albania brands.

However, workers in Albania’s thriving garment and footwear factories face poor working conditions, overload and don’t even manage to get the minimum wage of €160, which is the region’s lowest, another study has found.

A survey conducted by the Gender Alliance for Development Center has shown half of the garment and footwear employees don’t manage to get the minimum wage of 22,000 lek (€160) at the end of the month because of penalties and the high quota of work they face despite having to work even Saturdays as a normal working day with no bonuses for 48 hours a week in violation of the country’s Labour Code.
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                    [post_date] => 2016-11-11 10:06:51
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 10 - Albania's central bank has decided to keep the key interest rate unchanged at a historic low of 1.25 percent as average inflation rate in the first ten months of the year hit a record low of 1.13 percent, almost 2 percentage points below the Bank of Albania's target of 3 percent, estimated to have a positive impact stimulating economic growth and consumption.

Governor Gent Sejko said the central bank expects consumption and private investments to bring the Albanian economy to normality in 2017 when the GDP is expected to accelerate to about 4 percent, compared to sluggish growth rates of 1 to 3 percent in the past eight years and a pre-crisis decade of 6 percent.

"The return of the economy to an equilibrium and the stabilization of the external environment will set the conditions for a progressive increase in the inflation rate in the mid-term. Annual inflation is expected to register 2.3 percent after four quarters and achieve its target in 2018," said Sejko.

Speaking of lending prospects, the governor blamed the banks' ongoing tight policy for the sluggish performance of credit which is struggling to return to positive growth rates since more than a year.

"The low interest rate and a liquid, well-capitalized banking system are positive prospects for the credit growth and the financing of the country's economic growth. However, the banks' lending standards remain conservative as a result of the tightening of supervisory and regulatory standards at a European level, but even because of high credit risk perception in the country," said Sejko, adding that the tackling of non-performing loans, currently at 21 percent, will help ease lending standards.

The central bank decided to keep unchanged the inter-bank market rates at 2.5 percent and the one-day deposit rate at 0.25 percent and the one-day loan rate at 2.25 percent.

Since late 2011 when the key rate was at 5.25 percent, the central bank’s easier monetary policy has been mostly reflected on deposit rates and T-bill yields on government’s internal borrowing, rather than lower loan interest rates.
                    [post_title] => Key rate kept at historic low as consumer prices struggle to recover
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_128371" align="alignright" width="223"]Uljan Sharka Uljan Sharka[/caption]

TIRANA, July 4 - Eight years ago Uljan Sharka was only a minor illegal  Albanian immigrant who had reached Italy through a speedboat in search of a better life and risked deportation by the authorities in the neighboring country across the Adriatic.

Now at 24, he has turned into one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in Italy, running an IT and programming company worth about Euro 25 million.

The self-taught Albanian programmer has come up with a discovery that could revolutionize digital marketing.

“The software reads all big data on social networks in real time, processes them and offers advice on how to improve marketing in personal platforms by using technology as a lever," Sharka told Italy's Corriere Della Sera.

His ‘crystal’ software is scheduled to launch next September in San Francisco, at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the world’s leading authorities in debuting revolutionary startups, introducing game-changing technologies.

A quick search through the software can show the most emotional posts, most popular hashtags or colours.

"You can improve your online marketing in only one click. Consultancy with others will be needless because with this software you can do it on your own based on the data produced by the software," says Sharka.

"We have been strongly supported by Google and it's thanks to them that we created the first 'crystal' version in only four months," he adds.

Sharka's inventions have already drawn Euro 1.5 million in investment by two businessmen who liked his ideas.

"We believe in Uljan. We are professional investors but also have a lot of experience from working in private enterprises. His ‎iGenius project and other ideas by this young man are extraordinary," says Carlo Cartasegna, a financial market manager who has contributed to Sharka's project.

Uljan Sharka, who eight months ago was working alone in his Milan-based ‎iGenius ICT, now employs 25 young men and women and the company is further expanding.

His IT and programming passion was cultivated when he started working in an IT shop after initially working as a barman following his arrival in Italy in 2008 when he was only 16.

Life in Albania was tough, says Sharka, who abandoned his high school studies in Albania to follow his dream in Italy.

"I wanted to create something big, something mine, but in Albania I didn't have this opportunity," he says.

Gregorio Cutelle, his main supporter who compares the Albanian developer to Facebook's Zuckerberg, says the company is planning to open branches in London and San Francisco and targets becoming Italy's first start-up with a value of $1 billion in the next four years.

"I will give my platform for free to mid-sized enterprises so that they grow with digital publicity at no extra costs," he says.

Uljan has turned into one of the most successful Albanians in Italy, where about half a million Albanians live and work since the early 1990s following the collapse of the communist regime.

One out of 16 Albanians residing in Italy has started their own business, mainly as self-employed in the construction industry, according to Italy’s Unioncamere chamber of commerce.

Data shows some 30,700 companies, mainly small businesses, in Italy were owned by Albanians at the end of 2014 when some 502,000 Albanians were reported holding a residence permit in the neighboring Adriatic country, making it the key host of Albanian migrants since the early 1990s, soon after the first exodus following the collapse of the communist regime.
                    [post_title] => From illegal migrant to one of Italy’s most successful software developers
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                    [post_date] => 2015-12-25 01:27:15
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 24 – Proponents of a major reform of the justice system in Albania are working to bring about consensus on a proposed legislative package, including constitutional amendments, following a reply by an international expert commission on three drafts sent to it by Albania's ruling coalition and opposition parties.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission issued its interim opinion on Dec. 19, expressing support for the effort of the Albanian authorities aimed at the comprehensive reform of the Albanian judicial system and agreed that the reform is needed urgently due to a critical situation that justifies radical solutions.

“The draft amendments represent a solid basis for further work in this direction; that being said, the proposals contained in the draft amendments need to be simplified and, at places, clarified; certain elements are to be regulated by an organic law or by ordinary legislation,” the legal opinion noted. “The whole institutional arrangements should be revisited and simplified.”

Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party and his chief ally, Parliament Speaker Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration, have been strong proponents of the reform.

Opposition leader Lulzim Basha has expressed concerns, but he said this week his Democratic Party is ready to fully implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission and called on the ruling coalition leaders to follow the Commission's recommendations.

"This is the road map for political parties, parliamentary parties should follow to successfully complete the judicial reform, Basha said, adding there should be consensus on “a comprehensive reform of the justice to fight corruption and to same time to prevent the political capture of justice system.”

Basha's comments came after he met with U.S. Ambassador Donal Lu, one of the international actors working to bring political consensus on the proposed changes.

Supporters of a consensus legislative package say it would give the changes more legitimacy as well as clear the 94-vote mark required in parliament to make changes to the constitution.

The opposition Democratic Party has said it is in favor of the reform but not the draft which has been prepared by the governing majority.

Prosecutor General Adriatik Llalla has also criticized certain aspects of the draft changes, and added the draft had not received the full opinion of all the interested parties, including prosecutors. He also expressed concern that local and international actors are painting all those involved with a broad brush of corruption allegations.

Experts believe that a draft that gets the green light from the Venice Commission experts is more likely to pass with consensus.

Albania's justice system is plagued by allegations of corruption at all levels and enjoys low public trust.

Changing the image of the judiciary is seen as a key step in Albania’s road toward joining the European Union.

 

 
                    [post_title] => Justice reform supporters seek to clear remaining hurdles
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_125398" align="alignright" width="300"]U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu’s comments at the judicial system conference were the latest in a series he and his EU counterpart, Romana Vlahutin, have made urging a fight on corruption in the justice system. (Photo: U.S. Embassy/Facebook) U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu’s comments at the judicial system conference were the latest in a series he and his EU counterpart, Romana Vlahutin, have made urging a fight on corruption in the justice system. (Photo: U.S. Embassy/Facebook)[/caption]

TIRANA, Dec. 15 - Taking a blunt approach trying to convince Albanians of the need for justice system reform to address widespread graft concerns, U.S. Ambassador Lu told a judges’ a conference this week that the corrupt among them should “leave this profession immediately” and they could “also be put in jail soon.”

“My test for corruption is a simple one: If you have ever taken money or favors in exchange for a court decision, you are a corrupt judge. Even if you have only done this once, you have broken the law and are not fit to serve as a judge,” Lu said.

Lu’s comments were the latest in a series he and his EU counterpart, Romana Vlahutin, have made urging Albanians to address corruption in the justice system.

The ambassadors have called on the ruling and opposition parties to back the judicial reform in parliament. The reform, in the form of a draft legislation prepared with the help of American and German lawyers, is currently being reviewed by the expert Venice Commission. It will then be discussed for approval in the Albanian parliament.

“Please know that the United States and the European Union have been active drafters of every part of the reform and we endorse fully the current package of reforms,” Lu said at the conference.

Albania’s judicial system is widely seen as corrupt by common citizens and members of the judiciary themselves, according to polls.

A reform of the system is a condition for Albania’s bid to join the EU. The country is expecting to launch full membership negotiations with the block, but that is unlikely to happen unless the Albanian parliament approves the reform bill.

"If I were a judge in Albania ... I would be the first to demand the reform, including the vetting, because I would want to protect the respect and appreciation of my own work and my profession," Vlahutin, the EU ambassador, said at the conference.

The diplomats’ blunt language did not go entirely well with the audience of judges and prosecutors who are facing huge pressure to accept the reform.

Judge Xhezair Zaganjori, the head of the Supreme Court, said it was unfair to paint the entire system as corrupt. He added the reform would have met with less resistance if judges had been allowed to have more of a say in its drafting.

However, Zaganjori said he acknowledged the high level of public distrust in the courts due to perceptions of pervasive corruption and a lack of transparency.

Prosecutor General Adriatik Llalla added he was concerned about the justice system reform discussion being accompanied by negative public rhetoric against judges and prosecutors from many public actors, including local and foreign experts.

He added there were already cases of judges and prosecutors facing charges of corruption and as long as politics stayed out of the system, there would be improvements.

“In every public event where the justice reform is discussed there is a perception that the justice system and corruption are one and the same thing,” Llalla said. “The justice system, like any other state body in Albania is not immune to graft. But the generalization of these cases is completely irrelevant.”

The backlash from the justice system actors has included the creation of a new association which aims to protect honest practitioners from being painted with the same brush as the corrupt ones.

The reform will need a two-thirds parliamentary majority to become law and may also demand amendments to the constitution.

The Socialist-led governing parties are in favor of the reform. The opposition has expressed some concern but, under international pressure, it has not said it will veto the reform, demanding some changes to the draft instead.

For Lu, the calculation is simple. The corrupt must go and the honest must be rewarded.

“To the honest judges: Have faith, change is coming,” he said. “I believe that the majority of judges and prosecutors in this country are honest, hard-working professionals who want to be proud of their profession.”

He added he knows it’s difficult to be an honest judge in Albania.

“You don’t work for much money, and there are pressures from every direction to make important decisions for all the wrong reasons,” the U.S. ambassador said. “Honest judges, like you, deserve to work in a system that rewards integrity.  You deserve to be promoted based on merit and experience.  And you should become the new symbol of the system, in place of the image today of corrupt judges wearing Cartier watches.
                    [post_title] => In blunt speech, Albania urged to deal with graft in the judiciary
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_125300" align="alignright" width="300"]bunker protest tirana Protesters set fire to a monument featuring a replica bunker, which was to serve as part of the museum dealing with the country’s communist past.[/caption]

TIRANA, Dec. 9 – Aiming to capitalize on the public's growing unease with the Socialist-led government over the state of the economy and mounting accusations of corruption and mismanagement, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party held Tuesday a large protest rally accompanied by egg and paint attacks on the prime minister's offices and the burning of a controversial memorial featuring a replica bunker.

The Democrats’ leader, Lulzim Basha, said the large attendance at the rally was “a referendum against the government,” which should resign as soon as possible and make way for a custodian government.

But the Democrats face an uphill battle as the Socialist-led coalition of Prime Minister Edi Rama, which includes Ilir Meta's Socialist Movement for Integration, came to power two and a half years ago with a solid win and handily defeated the Democrats this summer in the municipal elections.

However, the Socialist government has undertaken very painful reforms that have hit the poorest Albanians hardest, increasing anger among many Albanians, analysts say. And recent opinion poll numbers show the Socialists have lost the support of about 250,000 out of the 1 million of those who voted for them in the last elections.

Basha says, however, that the government of Socialist Prime Minister Rama had ran out of time, accusing it of corruption, mismanagement of the economy and allowing people with criminal ties to take seats in parliament and be elected become mayors.

The center-right opposition had chosen Dec. 8 for the rally, as a national holiday, Youth Day, set to commemorate student protests in 1990 that started the toppling of the then-communist regime in Albania, forcing it to accept political pluralism.

Basha said the protest 25 years after fall of communism was aimed “against crime, corruption and glorification of the past by [the] Rama government.”

Protesters hit symbols of PM power

The protest was accompanied with some violent incidents, as activists threw eggs, paint, hard objects and fireworks toward the Prime Minister’s Office, in front of which the opposition rally was being held.

A modern art installation, a recent addition to the building, was partially damaged. At least two people were arrested by police.

A former political dissident imprisoned during Albania’s communist era then urged protesters to attack a monument under construction on the grounds of the Interior Ministry. The monument was later set on fire. It features a replica bunker, which was to serve as part of the museum dealing with the country’s communist past.

But some thos

[caption id="attachment_125301" align="alignright" width="300"]Democratic Party protesters rally in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo: DP handout/Facebook) Democratic Party protesters rally in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo: DP handout/Facebook)[/caption]

e who suffered under the regime say it glorifies communism instead, and they accuse the ruling Socialist Party of having ties to the former communist regime.

Rocks were also thrown at windows of nearby ministries. Two Democratic Party PMs could be seen putting themselves between the rock throwers and the ministries, telling the protesters to stop attacking the buildings.

Socialists focus on 'miserable vandalism'

The Socialists said the accusations are baseless, and chose to largely focus their response on the violence, calling protesters “vandals” in their media communications. Albanian media close to the government largely covered the protest through the same lenses.

The Socialists said the Democrats should wait for the next elections to see who has more popular support.

“Weren't the elections of 2013 free and democratic? Those were organized by the Democratic Party. Why can't Basha wait for the elections of 2017,” Rama's chief spokesman, Endri Fuga, wrote on Twitter.

Prime Minister Rama expressed anger at what he called “miserable vandalism” on the day that Albania remembers the student movement that helped bring down communism 25 years ago. It was the same movement that led to the creation of the Democratic Party.

“The Democratic Party is but a shadow of its former self, trying to get back the lost trust of Albanian through stones and petrol bottles thrown on public investment,” Rama wrote on Facebook. “The European will of the Albanians is not embodied by those who destroy two urban art installations — with the same primitive savagery that in fact, and unfortunately, they would have been destroyed by the communist regime too.”

Tirana’s Socialist mayor, Erion Veliaj, sent a bill of damages of about $163,000 done to public property to the Democratic Party and told them to pay up in 10 days or the party’s bank account’s would be frozen.

“Tirana city hall fines violent political party … vandalism of public property” Veliaj said on Twitter, showing pictures of the fine. “There's no bravery in destroying a city for politics, cowards do that! Brave is to clean, fix and protect,” he added.

Many Democratic Party supporters and independent observers pointed out that Socialist Party protests in the past had been far more violent that the Democrats' protest this week.

Int’l representatives: Protests are fine, violence isn't

Representatives of Albania’s top international partners, the European Union and the United States, have issued statements condemning the violence in Tuesday’s opposition rally.

The Delegation of the European Union to Albania said the right of the citizens to express concerns and discontent through peaceful protest is a core feature of modern European democracy and as such shall be preserved. But it also noted that a number of acts of violence and vandalism were reported.

“Resort to violence is unacceptable,” the EU delegation’s statement said.

The EU statement added Albania should focus on a demanding reform agenda in view of its European integration process.

“We call on all parties and public officials including not least the opposition to condemn the violence, and engage in a constructive political dialogue,” the EU statement noted.

The U.S. Embassy’s statement stuck to a similar tone, saying it “condemns the violence that took place during the protests in Tirana.

“The right of citizens to peacefully assemble, petition the government, and protest is a hallmark of a free and healthy society. However, acts such as throwing stones, lighting structures on fire, and damaging public property is inconsistent with democratic values,” the U.S. Embassy said. “We call on the Democratic Party of Albania and all other parties to renounce these acts and to take all necessary steps to ensure that any future demonstrations remain peaceful and constructive.”
                    [post_title] => Anger over economy, governance yield violent opposition protest ➦
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            [post_content] => This week, a major summit on Albania's large diaspora was held with much fanfare in Tirana, discussing a series of issues on the topic. While positive in spirit, beyond the facade of the summit, there is a need for a comprehensive strategic approach that is inclusive and properly engages and utilizes the Albanian diaspora.

The modern history of Albanian diaspora is a complex one. At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, the Albanian diaspora especially in the west and more specifically in the United States played a historic role in guaranteeing the future of the independent Albanian state. For all means and purposes this diaspora was de facto the government of Albania in the most difficult days of recognizing the new Albanian state.

During and after the Second World War, the communist regime followed a strategy of sowing disagreements, and then persecuting its political opponents who in most cases chose to leave the country and established themselves in the west. Throughout the cold war years and until its last days the communist regime applied a cruel strategy of pitting Albanians abroad against each other often with dramatic and even fatal consequences.

The consequences and bitter memory of this enmity is still pervasive in many circles and discussions and much remains to be done to dissipate it.

In the quarter of the century of democratic transition, the Albanian diaspora has swelled to many more thousands of people, bringing the figure so almost 40 percent of the population living outside Albania. In first ten years of the transition the phenomenon of brain drain reached its apex with about half of the Albanian intelligentsia (academics, professors and high level experts) choosing to start a new life abroad.

In general the governments of these last 25 years have failed to produce serious ideas, strategies and collaborative platforms to engage and involve the diaspora in the country’s political life, economic and social development and presence abroad.

Furthermore even in the provisions of basic consular services, many problems, gaps and inadequate performances have been making the lives of Albanians abroad very difficult. While the two neighboring countries of Italy and Greece host hundreds of thousands of Albanians, the consular offices of Rome and Athens to the present day have insufficient personnel to service their needs. While Albanians at home and abroad pay their taxes and fees to afford these services they have not been served fairly and unfortunately this is not just the case in these two countries.

In the economic field no serious mechanism of encouraging the diaspora to invest in Albania have been generated. Those that have been tried from time to time have been inefficient.

As for the use of knowledge, education, training and experience of Albanians abroad except from some ad hoc brain gain programs, there has not been any comprehensive strategy to make good use of this human assets in several fields where their expertise would be beneficial.

Finally, despite the recurring rhetoric, nothing has been done yet to give the opportunity to Albanian abroad to participate on their country’s political life. Their voting has not been guaranteed and this raises several questions whether the reason for this failure is the fear on the part of domestic elites over the impact of such a vote on democracy and governance.

Therefore the need of a comprehensive strategic approach for including, engaging and utilizing the diaspora persist beyond activities no matter their implied or advertised success. This strategy should be the product of a really inclusive process and its objectives should be spelled out in clear terms. Until then these reflections remain as valid today as they were was in the days before the summit.

 
            [post_title] => Editorial: Avoiding divisive policies in the diaspora
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