The Guest Blog

Summer holidays in the country expecting the green light to start EU accession negotiations

When you think about going on vacation to Albania, what first comes to your mind is the natural beauty, people’s hospitality and good food. But once you are in Albania, things may appear in a different light. And totally different to an Albanian returning on holidays to the homeland: The aircraft lands at Rinas, the national airport, which was robbed on 30th of June this year. During the passport control, I met two Albanians, who were back from a conference in Vienna and told me about this spectacular robbery: » 9 days ago, 3 masked men armed with guns robbed around 3 million euros from this airport at 2.45 pm! The money can not be found, because it ended up in the pocket of some big fish.The robbers arrested by the police are being held in prison and then they will probably be released soon after as usually happens in Albania » says Agron, an important actor in Albania’s Civil Society. « Such a robbery has never happened at the national airport, not even in 1997, when Albania came close to a civil war. And when you add to this the 7 million dollar robbery of the National Bank in 2014, you just think that this state is a joke !»says Arben, a student at the Faculty of History and Philology in Tirana. « Please, do not translate this to your foreign friends. They are here on vacation to see our amazing nature, while we face huge problems every day. » murmures Arben to me. This moment marks the exit from the airport and the entrance in the Albanian Wonderland. During my entire stay in Albania from 9th of July till 29th of August, three other important banks were robbed; one in Vlora in south of Albania and two in Tirana, one of which was right in the middle of the capital, the trendy part of the city, known as «ex Bllok », where you can visit the residence of former dictator Enver Hoxha.

The state still does not provide basic needs

It’s 3pm in Tirana, it’s very hot and my friends want to take a shower. We are in the center of Tirana and there is no water at this time as it is still rationed to a few hours a day . “No water? We are in 2016 and a EU candidate country still does not provide a basic need for citizens? And you are pretending to develop tourism destinations in this country ? »my Belgian friends ask. We have to turn the water pump on, that same bad noise that I have been hearing since 1996, which makes it hard to sleep ! There are plenty of them throughout the whole country. We go to eat, as Albanian food brings the smile back. A part from the unknown ancient history and surprising nature, one of undeniable values in Albania is indeed the quality of food and at low prices. After the delicious lunch, we want a coffee. “Sorry, but we can’t serve you hot drinks, because right now there is power cut!,” says the waiter. “Welcome to Albania! “he smiles to us. I think of going to the South of Albania with my friends for the weekend. I found the same situation there. « Limited access to water and several power cuts per day have caused a considerable damage to the tourism » explains Ardian, a hotel owner on Rradhima coast, near the city of Vlora in the South of Albania. « And if you don’t pay the bills, they will cut off the energy for good and there are other consequences. » he explains. Fortunately my friends really enjoyed the boat trip to the most beautiful beaches of the South and were impressed by Butrinti, Berat and Gjirokastra, three Unesco World Heritage sites.

Some days after, we went to Mat to explore the Northern part of Albania. There I met some farmers. « Have you seen our vegetables and fruits ? They are dry. How can we work our land if we do not have water? We pay a monthly amount to the state to provide us water and we don’t get it » says Muharrem, who has created a reservoir for bad days and is empty as we speak. The same complaint comes from foreign investors when we are back in Tirana. Giorgio, an Italian investor points out that SMEs in Albania pay taxes but get no services in return. « The fire department wants me to pay 11.000 euros to instal the fire protection system, while there is no water provided » he points out. Ilda, the manager of a Greek company underlines another paradox: « If you go to the Court with your documents in Albania, you have little chances of winning the trial. But if you don’t have documents, you can easily bribe a judge and win the trial » explains Ilda. At least, when we go to Theth (North of Albania), you forget about problems, because time has stopped in 16th century. You are simply in another world. Theth and Valbona are definitely two must-see attractions in Albania.

An economy based increasingly on drug revenues

« Albania has become a land of Cannabis. You can find Cannabis plantations in the South and the North of the country. Everybody here knows that elections can be easily won by those who control the drug money » explains Dritan, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Interior, who really fears that a clash between drug gangs will occur ahead of the general elections in 2017. And he is not the only one. Dritan speaks about an unimaginable regress of the country in last four years. He refers to the example of a teacher in the North, who had to work in a Cannabis plantation during the summer to earn enough money to raise her children. Journalists like me are not allowed to approach plantation areas. I always wondered what happened with all the Cannabis that has been seized during those years by police? When the police invite journalists to assist in an anti-cannabis operation like it has been the case in Vlora, Shkodra, Memaliaj, Dukagjin,Pukë, it is perceived by almost all colleagues as a show rather than a real operation. An important source tells me that in some areas, the police inform the Cannabis cultivators ahead of any operation, reassuring them that half of the quantity seized will be returned back to them the day after. According to the report of Italian and German Secret service published by the newspaper« Shekulli » on 17th of August, there are 363 zones of Cannabis cultivation in Albania. Simon, my colleague of ABCnews.al has interviewed a worker in the Cannabis plantation in Dukagjin, North of Albania. With a modulated voice and no face, the worker explains that people work in a Cannabis plantation with guns pointed at their face. « When I have informed the police, I have been threatened with arrest » says the worker in the interview broadcasted on 23h of August by ABCnews.al. I read the headlines on my Iphone: 22h if August: Guardia di Finanzia have captured 1 ton of Cannabis that arrived from Albania ! Tones of Cannabis being seized in Italy is almost daily news. On 29th of August, the Albanian Information Service presented to the General Prosecutor a report on cultivation of Cannabis Sativa in Albania, according to which several plantations in the North and the South of the country are protected by armed man and there are allegations that in some cases police inspectors and chief of police cooperate with Cannabis cultivators.

Surface change only, as corruption and nepotism undermine the progress

Every time that I call a taxi, It takes me 5 minutes to explain where the driver can pick me up, because there is no name on my street. When the taxi driver comes, he blames the lack of an administrative address system in Albania. We pass in front of the Prime minister’s building. The taxi drivers points his finger at it. For him, only lip-service in paid to the idea of change in Albania. « Our Prime minister is too busy giving beautiful speeches, opening exhibitions for his own drawings in Berlin and Hong-Kong, fighting to impress Angela Merkel with his jokes and paying 80.000 dollars for a picture with Obama ». smiles Elton, the taxi-driver. He speaks about three important pillars of a country « The security situation is explosive, the health system is a disaster and the education system has incredibly worsened » he says. A phone call from a friend interrupts our conversation. He is a translator and is accompanying a group of Turkish investors on a tour of Albanian mines. « From 30 million euros which is the total cost of the investments, the Albanian counterparts ask them for 5 million euro Bakshish. Turkish investors don’t want to pay that» Bledi tells me. Meanwhile Albania badly needs foreign investments. In the Albanian press of the last couple of years you can find a considerable number of allegations about corruptive tenders and clientelistic concessions of hundreds of million of euros. According to EC 2015 report on Albania, corruption is widespread and more efforts are needed to make progress with a view to establishing a solid track record of investigations, prosecutions and convictions at all levels.

During a discussion that I had after in a bar with Adi, an Albanian expert on EU affairs, he has given me his view on Albania’s EU integration process. During 2001-2013, the European Commission did insist for three important laws to be approved before Albania could get candidate status: The law on Civil servants, the law on the High Court and the law on Parliament procedure. « Look what they have done to the Civil Servant law. They have replaced all Civil Servants and experts with militants » he tells me. « As far as the Parliament is concerned, we never experienced such a situation with a large number of MPs with criminal records » Adi says. According to Genti, a politician whom I will be talking to immediately after, the European Parliament and the European Commission have played an important role in the approval of the decriminalization law in the political life in Albania, which is a key condition in preventing candidates with criminal records to run again for local or general elections. When the Judiciary reform is raised, everybody has something to say, as is considered by EU and Albanian citizens as pre-condition for effective fight against corruption, organized crime and real transformation of the country. A former Albanian ambassador to an EU country tells me with disappointment, that the EU and US ambassadors in Tirana were so busy finding a culprit for not reaching consensus on Judiciary reform that they did not realize that it wasn’t the best compromise for the country. « At the end of the day, this important reform would have not been approved without the contribution of Johannes Hahn, commissioner responsible for Neighbourhood policy and Enlargement negotiations and Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs » he explaines to me. The Judiciary reform, which is actually the main condition for Albania to open the EU accession negotiations was finally approved by consensus on July 22th of July. But this consensus is challenged again by the non-consensual vote of the Parliament on the vetting process related to the control of professionalism of judges and prosecutors. There are doubts that this could lead to more control on the Judiciary system by the government. « The Vetting process as approved by the Parliament would give additional power to the Prime minister Rama to control the Judiciary system, so it’s about more pressure on his friends and ennemies». writes Artur, a well-known journalist on 360grade.al.

Lots of Albanians think of emigrating in EU countries

Almost every 500 meters in Tirana, there is a neighborhood carwash. As I see new faces there, I ask where are the boys that I saw last year and those of the previous year . « None of them can earn a living here. They have all emigrated » answers Landi, one of the workers. « There is no work in Albania. And please do not even think about coming back! » adds Beni, the other worker, who wishes to leave the country as soon as possible. « The government have promised us new jobs, free medical service, less taxes, better services yet at the end of the day, it did not even keep one single promise » says Beni, who is also preparing to leave the country in September. And when I explained to them, that Albanians have no chance of being accepted as asylum seekers in any EU country, given the agreements signed with EU and as also because is considered a safe country, his answer is: « We will try. Wherever we end up, will be better than in Albania ». According to Eurostat database, around 85.000 Albanians applied for asylum in EU countries in 2014 and 2015. For the first semester of 2016, Eurostat statistics show 16.000 Albanian applications. But these are only legal statistics. An official source tells me that only in UK there are some 100.000 Albanian illegal migrants.

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