% 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: 080 - (01/01/04)
The Albanians are doing reasonably well. They no longer attract the obloquy of being cast as the poorest nation in Europe. That unenviable sobriquet is now the possession of Moldova.
The war in Kosovo in 1999 was the turning point. They have the Serbs 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
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. in the opinion of Richard Holbrooke, the US negotiator of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia, and Bernard Kouchner, head of Medicins sans Frontieres, 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 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.
On October 14th talks began in Vienna between the Kosovo Albanians 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 which could damage its new status as 'good guy' in the West.
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, mostly westwards into the EU.
Albanian gangs are prominent in rackets across the EU. They are adept at exploiting porous borders. They traffic in human beings and drugs, while they are linked to the vice industry in the UK and to the Turkish heroin trade.
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 newfound 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.
Bella 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?"
Greece to open consulate, encourage investments in northern Albania
Greece's ambassador to Tirana, Dhimitrios Iliopulos, declared on 2nd December during a meeting with heads of Chamber of Commerce that "Greek investments will extend also in northern part of Albania," ATA News Agency has reported.
Further he said: "We are working to open a consulate in your city which will encourage in the future Greek investments in north Albania as well as influence in increasing of commercial relationships between the two countries."
According to him, businessmen of Shkoder will be informed about products of Greek business through the economic office. "Your region has a lot of unexploited resources. Thus, we will help your businessmen by granting them credits to open new businesses." He promised the businessmen of Shkoder to back their participation in the fairs that will be organized next year in Greece. Iliopulos has also promised to the heads of Chamber of Commerce to help businessmen by providing them with annual visas.
Shkoder Chamber of Commerce Chairman, Anton Leka, has informed the Greek ambassador about the great resources Shkoder possesses, especially in the fields of tourism, energy, construction materials where Greek businessmen could extend their investments.
Albanian premier, Russian envoy discuss cooperation, friendship treaty
Albanian Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, during talks held on 27th November with the Russian ambassador in Tirana, V. N. Tonkin, assessed the Cooperation and Friendship Treaty between Albania and Russia, associated with 10 important agreements in the areas of education, agriculture, customs, small and middle business, culture, science and others, ATA News Agency has reported.
Council of Ministers (CoM) Information Department told ATA that, during the talks, the interlocutors identified the good level of political relations between both countries, emphasizing the need for the promotion of cooperation in the field of economy and financial exchanges.
Russian Ambassador Tonkin, in his address, stated that the further boost of bilateral cooperation on basis of mutual interest, responds to the interests of both people, as well as the restoration of peace and stability in Balkans.
The Russian Ambassador in Tirana invited Prime Minister Nano to pay a visit to Moscow, on the occasion of signing of the treaty. Prime Minister Nano was happy to accept the relevant invitation.
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