% of GDP
In 1990 Albania ended 44 years of xenophobic communist rule and established a multiparty democracy. The transition has proven difficult, as corrupt governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated infrastructure, widespread gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents.
Albania has long been thought of as a freak country. Actually it is one of the most beautiful in Europe, with a magnificent climate, warm but never getting too hot, given its mountainous and hilly topography. It is merely a matter of time before it becomes a great tourist attraction.
That has been prevented of late by its well-deserved reputation for gangsterism and kidnapping. It is worth giving a historical survey to see why things may shortly change.
The country was ruled in the interwar period by highland chieftains with resonant names like King Zog and his son, Leka. The last reigned as an infant for a few months in 1939 before Italy under Mussolini invaded and occupied the country. He is still alive and attempted a comeback in an election in 1997. But he made the mistake of standing as a prospective premier, clearly wanting to be a king. Despite his pedigree and majestic height of 6ft 9ins, he failed to impress his subjects-to-be with his hereditary right to rule. He came nowhere in the election.
In the interim between the infant Leka and the events of 1989, the Albanians were ruled for fifty years by the communists. This meant in effect the personal dictatorship
of Enver Hoxha, an extraordinary character, perhaps the most extraordinary the communist world threw up. He kept his country in virtually complete isolation. It became the poorest in Europe.
Albania had a severe crisis in the 1990s, with a financial crash in mid-decade. The population took a while to understand the rules of the capitalist market-place. Thousands lost their savings in pyramid investment schemes. But from the turn of the millennium it has done well, compared with its bleak past. GDP has been rising by 7-8% per year, albeit from a very low base. The Albanians are no longer the poorest people in Europe. That dubious distinction now belongs to the Moldovans. The Socialist Party is benefiting, in power since 1997, and was re-elected comfortably in 2001. Tirana is 100% behind the US anti-terrorist campaign, having no truck with ethnic Albanian secessionists next door in Macedonia and Kosovo. The last thing the Albanians want is a war of any sort. With Milosevic gone there is no reason to quarrel with the Serbs.
The Albanians blotted their copybook, however, with the French and the EU by supporting the US over Iraq. Indeed they have even agreed with the US not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court.
The two leading premiers of the PS government have been Pandeli Majco (now defence minister) and Fatos Nano, the current holder of the post. Both are very highly regarded in Washington, which sees Albania as its closest ally in the region, now that the Turks have refused cooperation over Iraq. The grimness of the Hoxha years have made the Albanians no friends of dictators.
Update No: 079 - (01/12/03)
The Albanians are doing rather well, all things being considered. They no longer have the obloquy of being cast as the poorest nation in Europe. That unenviable sobriquet is now the property of Moldova.
The turning point came in 1999 with the war in Kosovo. They have Milosevic to thank for their opportunity to shine, which they assuredly did in the receipt of aid and credit to look after the refugees, some 260,000 of them at its peak.
Talks over Kosovo
On October 14th talks began in Vienna between the Albanians in Kosovo and the Serbs. They are being conducted under UN auspices and cover only four technical areas. But at least after a delay of a year they are taking place. Tirana has the support of its people in wanting to keep out of any controversy, particularly any that could damage its new status as good guy in the West.
Kosovo Albanians want independence from Serbia, which in all but name is what they already have, thanks to 20,000 NATO troops on the ground there. If they left there would be an immediate risk of reverse ethnic cleansing taking place, with the Serbs being the victims this time. The underground Albanian National Army (AKsh) claimed responsibility for an attack on a Serbian patrol in southern Serbia in early October, in which a Serb soldier was killed. The attack was conducted by AKsh's special unit 'Cobra'.
The security situation in southern Serbia remains fragile. AKsh has rejected a peace deal sponsored two years ago and calls for a unification of all Albanian-dominated areas in a Greater Albania, the last thing Tirana wants.
Opposition does well in municipal elections
Early results of Albania's local election showed that the opposition has made gains in many municipalities, both the ruling Socialist Party and main opposition Democratic Party officials confirmed. The opposition candidates had won in some of the country's towns and southern regions which had been controlled by the socialists until the election.
"We are very pleased with our results, particularly in the southern parts of the country, which have been so far under the domain of the Socialists," Democratic Party leader, Sali Berisha, told a news conference. Berisha was the premier in the previous government before the Socialists in 1997. He is obviously hoping for a comeback in the next general elections in two years time.
The socialists claimed victory in Tirana and in Durres city. But the opposition has accused them of rigging the voter lists and has said it will not accept the results in both cities. Socialist Party Secretary General, Gramoz Ruci, told a news conference that his party has won in 36 out of 65 municipalities. However, the opposition has disputed his claims and has already declared its victory in most regions
The Central Election Commission has said that it will try to produce the final results "as soon as possible." About 2,000 local observers and 230 from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored the elections at about 4,700 polling stations.
In the last municipal elections three years ago, the Socialists won 67 per cent of the local government posts compared to 31 per cent of the Democratic Party.
Early reports by some local observers have confirmed the opposition's claims of irregularities in the voter lists. But they added that the vote was in general peaceful and regular.
Economy with rough edges
Growth of GDP has been spectacular at 7% on average for the 2000s. The provisional figure for 2003, indeed, is 7%.
The problem is that one half or so of economic activity is black that is linked to crime. The authorities can do little about it because corruption is widespread and reaches to the top of the state bureaucracy. The foreign minister, Ilir Meta, accused the premier, Fatos Nano, last summer of becoming "someone who represents only his own interests and those of the dangerous clans behind him." No proof was offered and no charges brought.
Albania was a bandit-infested country before the war and fifty years of communism left it with an abiding sense of the indelible association of capitalism and crime. The gangs have bounced back and dominate the countryside outside Tirana. Smuggling and trafficking in humans are rife.
Even the director of the government's own statistical institute, Milva Ikonomi, is caustic about the situation. He says that the high proportion of black money means that investments are made in visible ventures like restaurants rather then in infrastructure or industry. So the process of reform "is growing more slowly here than in other countries."
Says another analyst, Sokol Bella, on a weekly magazine published in Tirana, "this is a society of two speeds. You have some people here who go and do weekly shopping in Greece and Italy, and then you have thousands of young people heading to Tirana to look for work." Says a pensioner on the outskirts of Tirana, Mymvera Cecollari, speaking of the new-found wealth - half of it controlled by one fifth of the 3 million population - "If you don't have any of that in your area, who cares about those things in the city centre."
The dynamic mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, has refurbished the capital. The notoriously unsafe roads outside Tirana, which date from the wartime occupation by Italy, have been partly replaced by new highways, funded largely by the EU. But there are water shortages and power cuts. The Third World character of the society remains.
Balla sums up the predicament of this backwater of a country thus; " What scares me is not how fast we are growing - the question is, in which direction?"
Albanian, Polish presidents agree to boost cooperation
The president of the Republic of Albania, Alfred Moisiu, and the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski confirmed during a news conference held at the Palace of Brigades, a mutual desire to boost cooperation between the two countries in all areas of mutual interest, ATA News Agency reported.
President Moisiu said that Poland "is a successful and very active country in the process of enlargement and consolidation in NATO and the European Union structures." He stated that, during the bilateral talks "he received the support of his Polish counterpart in Albania's efforts for the Euro-Atlantic integration and received assurances of readiness for help and assistance from the necessary Polish experience in this direction."
Both Presidents shared the same commitment to encourage the level of cooperation in the areas of energy, in naval and overland transport, mining industry, tourism and others.
FREE TRADE ZONE
Bulgarian president, Albanian premier support a Balkan free trade zone
At his meeting with Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov, Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano expressed support for the idea of the Bulgarian head of state to set up a common free trade zone in the Balkans, the President's Press Secretariat said after the meeting, BTA web site has reported.
The Albanian prime minister arrived in Bulgaria on a two-day official visit starting on 17th November.
Purvanov and Nano agreed that Bulgaria and Albania should encourage and take an active part in all forms and initiatives for cooperation in Southeastern Europe.
The two sides stressed that there is an upward trend in the development of bilateral relations but that trade and economic ties are far below their potential. The two countries' common strategic goals of European and Euro-Atlantic cooperation are also instrumental to the development of bilateral relations, Purvanov and Nano concluded. Purvanov reiterated Bulgaria's readiness to share its experience and to help Albania in its preparations for EU and NATO membership.
Purvanov and Nano noted the great importance which the two countries attach to the implementation of infrastructure projects along Corridor 8 which should be viewed not only as a transport corridor but also as a corridor for exchanging energy sources, information and culture.
The two sides pointed to the excellent opportunities for bilateral cooperation in defence, security, justice, transport, power engineering and tourism.
Macedonian, Albanian transport ministers praise plan for road linking countries
Under the organization of the Diber [Debar] Hearth Citizens' Association and in cooperation with the Diber Initiative Citizens' Association and the Diber Community Citizens' Association in Tirana, the inauguration of the works on the Arber Road was held on 9th November at the premises of the gypsum factory, Knauf Radika, in Diber, 'Fakti' has reported. The participants at this meeting pledged to contribute to the construction of this road, which is so important to Albanians on both sides of the border and beyond. The meeting was also attended by Albanian Transport Minister Spartak Poci with his associates, Macedonian Transport and Communications Minister Agron Buxhaku, Diber Mayor Gezim Haxhihalili, Tetove [Tetovo] Mayor Murtezan Ismaili, Gostivar Mayor Xhemail Rexhepi, Peshkopi Prefect Hamdije Beqiri.
Spartak Poci said, "Meetings like this one are very important because they give us an opportunity to see things first-hand. In Albania, we have inherited a very poor road infrastructure. Now, Albania is not an isolated country and the construction of roads is seen in a new light because Albania has become a transit country. The construction of Corridor 8, the Tirana-Durres-Kukes-Prishtina [Pristina] road, the road to Shkoder and the Arber Road must not be seen as roads to nowhere, but as Balkan and pan-European roads. All of them will have Durres as their starting point and will spread across the region."
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