Capital Tirana
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 355
Mobile Codes 66,67,68,69
ccTLD .al
Currency Lek (1EUR = 138ALL)
Land Area 28,748 sq km
Population 2.98 million
Language Albanian
Major Religion Sunni and Bektashi Islam, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

The Iranian MEK in Albania: Implications and Possible Future Sectarian Divisions editor’s note: in 2013, the Obama Administration convinced Albanian authorities to take in the MEK, a former Marxist terrorist group that had been in open combat with the Islamic Republic for years. In 2016, under cover of the migration crisis and with help from the UNHCR, several hundred more of these Iranian dissidents were brought into Albania from Iraq. What could possibly go wrong? In this exclusive new analysis of a little-discussed security subject, Albanian counter-terrorism expert Ebi Spahiu analyzes the potential for future sectarian divisions and domestic and international orientations towards Albania’s newest population.

By Ebi Spahiu

In 2013, the Obama Administration struck a deal with the government of Albania to offer asylum to about 250 members of Mohajedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian “dissident group” exiled from Iran to Iraq during the early years of Khomeini’s regime. The group was once labeled a terrorist organization by the international community due to its track record of orchestrating bombing campaigns in Iran – often targeting American offices, businesses and citizens – as well as other military operations in an attempt to oust the newly established Iranian Islamic regime in the 1970s.

Since 2013, the Obama Administration and Albanian government have extended the agreement, consequently increasing the number of asylum seekers to somewhere in the range of 500-2,000 MEK members. During the summer of 2016, Tirana received the largest contingent of about 1,900 people- an operation managed by the UNHCR.

Although most local media portray the operation and Albania’s willingness to offer assistance to the dissident group as a humanitarian mission, little discussion has been made regarding the potential implications that MEK’s presence may have for Albania in the long run, and for religious balances that have already been thrown off by Wahabbi and Salafi presence among moderate Muslim communities in recent years.

Sectarian Identities and Divides in the Context of Wahhabi Activism and Syria

Sunni-based Islamist supporters and organizations have a history of operating in Albania and throughout the Western Balkans via funding that often streams from Gulf countries which have exported Wahabbi and Salafi Islamic values and traditions, ones that were previously foreign to Albania’s majority Muslim population which still follows the Hanafi-based teachings inherited by the Ottoman Empire.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis on Albania’s Muslim population, this religious composition is reflective of centuries of religious influences, including Sufi and Shi’a traditions, attested in practices and rituals to this day. It is mainly from this long history that six in ten Muslims do not distinguish their religious affiliation in a sectarian form, such as Shi’a or Sunni, rather simply identify as “just Muslim,” according to findings by Pew.

Despite these historical legacies that have strengthened relations between religious communities, the presence of Wahhabi and Salafi groups over the years has implanted a sectarian identity regarding which most Albanian Muslim practitioners were oblivious in the past. Since the outset of the conflict in Syria, about 150 Albanian citizens and over 500 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia have joined terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, alongside then-Jabhat Al-Nusra and later IS.

Even though the number of foreign fighters has drastically decreased since 2015, threats persist from non-violent agitations and divisive narratives that continue to dominate some religious landscapes, including negative portrayal of local Bektashi communities and sectarian rifts which are becoming more pronounced among popular religious leaders.

The MEK in Albania and Sectarian Divides

Since its inception in the 1960s, the MEK has embraced Marxist ideologies and Shiite-centric Islamic values; this has distinguished the group from other Islamist terrorist organizations which have remained more focused on their sectarian identity.

Most people in Albania know little about the MEK, nor the list of other names the group has used to identify itself as a resistance group against Khomeini’s theocratic rule, not to mention their activities following the Iranian revolution and their exile to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein offered his support in exchange for their capacities to threaten the Iranian regime.

Over the years, the MEK has renounced all violence and developed closer relationships with officials from the American government, which later removed the group from its official list of terrorist organizations. Despite their engagement with the West, however, the group’s history of violence remains an important question often raised by Iran observers and policy-makers, who cast doubt on the group’s pledge to have renounced all forms of violence while achieving political objectives.

In 2013 this was apparent when many countries that were approached by the US government to host MEK members refused to do so, out of concern for security implications. Romania is believed to have been the US’ preferred host for the MEK, but the Romanian authorities immediately refused. Albania was therefore not the first choice for MEK relocation, but accepted due to its close relations with the US.

The type of security implications their presence may bring is yet to be assessed by Albanian policy-makers, with some speculating that the MEK will establish a base in the country’s capital, similar to that of Camp Liberty and Ashraf in Iraq, where they can access weapons and restart their political activities to bring down Iran’s regime.

Even though most MEK asylum-seekers seem to lead a quiet life in their new homes, recent events and discussion regarding the potential death of the exiled MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, suggest that the MEK seeks to regain its political standing in opposition to Iran, and sees its members’ relocation to Albania as an opportunity to reengage as a resistance movement against Khameini’s regime, but this time away from the direct threat that Iranian proxy groups posed for them in Iraq.

The Paris Event, Albania and Possible Foreign Interests in the New Arrangement

Since their arrival in Albania, the group appears to have ramped up support in the midst of Albania’s political elite, which was highly celebrated during a congress organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, held in Paris this past July.

Pandeli Majko, a current Socialist MP and former Prime Minister of Albania during the war in Kosovo, accompanied by over 20 political representatives from Albania, gave an impassioned speech at the Free Iran gathering in Paris where he pledged his support for the refugees currently staying in Albania, as well as the group’s struggle to succeed in changing the regime in Iran. This has certainly angered Iranian officials who insist that the MEK seeks to exploit Albania’s geographical position in order to form a new camp there.

While Iran’s traditional rivalry with Israel might seem to indicate further activity in Albania involving the MEK, available information does not suggest any significant Israeli activity. However, a potential greater concern involves another traditional Iranian adversary – Saudi Arabia – which has been reported as giving help to the MEK. During the event in Paris, several important international figures attended and (as was reported in some anti-Western media) a Saudi government representative made a speech that pledged commitment to help out the movement in bringing down Iran’s regime.

Possible Repercussions for Albania: Sectarian Divides and Local Controversy More Likely than Larger Threats

These developments may have serious repercussions for Albania and Albanian policy-makers who may not foresee the long-term consequences of being involved in the issue, and in expanding their role on foreign policy issues beyond the small Balkan nation’s traditional reach.

Since the MEK has renounced all violence, the group does not represent an immediate threat to national security in Albania. However, it does remain an existential threat to the Iranian regime, which over the years has supported significant raids via Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq to destroy the organization and kill key MEK leaders. It should be remembered that the MEK was brought to Albania under agreement with the Obama Administration directly from Iraq, not from any third country.

Considering these factors, more involvement should be expected from Albanian authorities, even though there are no clear signs that Iran’s presence is increasing. It would be significantly harder for Iran to hit MEK in Albania than in its neighboring country of Iraq, though it is still possible.

Of more concern is that the MEK presence poses a risk of inflaming sectarian divides in smaller communities, a phenomenon still in its latent state among Albanian Muslims.

Several online sermons from Sunni-based religious leaders warn their followers of a Shiite presence under NGO programs that aim at recruiting young men and women to follow Quranic teachings and study programs in Iran, but there is never a mention of MEK’s presence in Albania and the role they may play.

While a serious sectarian war is farfetched at this point, there is a sectarian narrative to the issue which could be a matter of concern for the future, depending on how strong existing Islamist factions become. These include not just ISIS supporters, but also Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

One test will be how well the government manages the MEK, their needs and political objectives. Many Albanians are worried about whether the MEK poses any immediate risk, but nobody is actually talking about Iran’s historic and cross-borders feud with the MEK, and how threatened Iran still feels by the group.

Whether Albania is prepared enough to inherit a long-standing struggle between a major regional Middle Eastern power and a cult-like former terrorist organization is yet to be seen, but given Albania’s continued struggles with endemic corruption and organized crime, and the slow emergence of religious radicalization as a regional security threat, sectarian rifts may add to the list of challenges facing Albania’s political standing. One point of controversy that has already occurred domestically is that the agreement itself is very vague; there has thus been plenty of criticism domestically over a perceived lack of transparency on the terms agreed between Albania and the US.


With the Paris Summit, the EU’s Balkan Connectivity Agenda Takes Shape

By Blerina Mecule

The Western Balkans Summit 2016, which occurred on 4 July in Paris, saw several historic decisions. Given that in 2014 then-incoming EU Commissioner Juncker stated that there would be no EU enlargement until at least 2020, the Paris event was the latest in a series (following the Berlin and Vienna summits) meant to keep up regional EU momentum, in the absence of actual enlargement. The next such event will occur in Rome in 2017.

In Paris, the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all met and agreed several initiatives that will lead towards greater regional integration. These included the creation of a Western Balkans Union, and a single market within the framework of future Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO)- a New EU-Backed Initiative Based in Albania

At the Paris event, regional leaders agreed to establish a new Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Leaders consider this an important step to healing past wounds, and hope it will match the success of the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO), which brought French and German youth together after WWII. The framework for the new Balkan version of this initiative had already been created during the summit in Vienna, as part of the Berlin Process.

According to Balkan Insight, the new Regional Youth Cooperation Office is the first case in which all regional governments have jointly cooperated in one institution that they also jointly fund. In fact, the Western Balkan countries will contribute 58% of the budget.

The office’s annual budget will be 2 million euros (from the five countries, as well as from external donors). RYCO will be based in Tirana, as leaders and the EU consider Albania a country which has played a moderate and constructive role in regional cooperation initiatives.

After the Paris signing ceremony, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told media that “we agreed that the office will be located in Tirana.” Meanwhile, Serbian youth minister Vanja Udovičić told Tanjug that “this office will be one of the key pillars of the stability in the region and this is just the start. Through dialogue, youth will overcome the problems we are now facing.”

Also, a few days before the recent Paris Summit, Albanian Minister of Youth and Social Welfare Blendi Klosi declared from Brussels that along with the bilateral energy and economy cooperation, youth connectivity and regional cooperation is a key process for mutual reconciliation.

The memorandum of cooperation between Albania and Serbia was thus converted into a common agenda of different activities for Albanian and Serbian youth, to be extended to all Western Balkan youth as well.

Hence the establishment of the RYCO in Tirana is of regional strategic importance, as it will focus on projects that foster cooperation, enhance mobility, support reconciliation, building peace and stability, and ensuring prosperity for young people from across the Balkans.

How It Started: the Berlin Process

The road to Paris 2016 started in Berlin, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel. She has strongly promoted and continually supported the EU prospect of all Western Balkan states, and searched for ways to bring a new dynamism to regional cooperation, by promoting the spirit of collaboration and reconciliation among regional countries.

More tangibly, Merkel and EU leaders see improving, building and connecting transport and energy infrastructure within the Western Balkans and with the European Union as drivers for growth and jobs. They envision that such developments will bring clear benefits for the region’s economies and citizens.

The Berlin Process owes its name to the place where it began: the German Federal Foreign Office Guest House, Villa Borsig in Berlin. Situated on the banks of Lake Tegel, the Villa was host to meetings where the process began on 28 August 2014.  This was symbolic timing, as it was the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of WWI.

On that day, the heads of government, foreign ministers and economics ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as European Commission representatives, met for the first time. It was officially known as the Western Balkans Conference in Berlin: Commitment to the European perspective.

United in the aim of enhancing regional economic cooperation and laying the foundations for sustainable growth, they agreed to provide a framework for 2014-2018: it was meant to include real progress in reforms, in resolving outstanding bilateral and internal issues, and in achieving reconciliation within and between the societies in the region.

The prevailing ideology of the EU’s approach to common initiatives in the Balkan reflects previous statements, like that of ex-Commissioner José Manuel Barroso. When accepting the EU’s collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, he stated that “the genius of the founding fathers was precisely in understanding that to guarantee peace in the 20th century, nations needed to think beyond the nation-state.” The recent initiatives in the Balkans (not to mention some approaches to the migration crisis) reflect this view.

Energy, Infrastructure and Serbia-Albania Relations

Indeed, projects that tend towards fostering common regional economic initiatives, regional business development and energy routes, connecting transport and energy infrastructures have proven fundamental for the Western Balkans Euro-Atlantic path- and their attractiveness to foreign investments, by functioning as a unified market.

For example, strategic infrastructure projects connecting Southeastern Europe with the European Union (within The European Energy Security Strategy) created opportunities for developing Serbian-Albanian bilateral relations development and dialogue. Together, both countries constitute a strategic corridor in transport and energy infrastructure, connecting a part of the Western Balkans to the European Union.

Security: NATO, The Paris Summit, Albania and the New Centre on Foreign Fighters

Regarding security challenges, Paris participants expressed their concern regarding terrorism and radicalization, especially among young people, recalling the importance of closer cooperation between EU member states and the Western Balkans. In order to better address the threat of terrorism and radicalization, they also agreed to reinforce the role of the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre in the fight against these phenomena, including through strengthening the cooperation with Europol.

The Final Declaration of the Paris Summit underlines that the European continent is exposed to unprecedented security challenges, such as large-scale terrorist attacks. The Western Balkans is encouraged to strengthen regional cooperation, which remains a key element for the stability of the region and Europe.

Albania is also a member of NATO and together with Croatia has long backed NATO expansion in the Balkans, to secure a sustainable peace in the region. Albania will also host the NATO Centre on Foreign Fighters, which is the first NATO center of its kind, and will study the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. It is expected be activated this year. had predicted this outcome since last year, as a recommendation of the Obama Administration in the US. Albania was chosen to host the center due to its geostrategic importance to the US and NATO.

According to the President of the NATO Assembly, Michael Turner, the Alliance and the EU have brought security and stability to the Balkans, and have helped it to overcome the conflicts brought about by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. According to him, further improving regional security depends on continued Euro-Atlantic integration.

Therefore, NATO supporters believe it is possible to harmonize the unique nation-state identities of different Balkan countries within a neighborhood umbrella of a common Balkan identity. This in turn is considered part of a European identity, within Euro-Atlantic structures (the European Union and NATO).

The Paris Summit and Future EU Membership for Serbia and Albania

During the Berlin Process meeting in 2014, Barroso also highlighted the importance of a clear EU perspective for Western Balkan countries: “our common goal is clear,” said the former commissioner.We want to see the Western Balkan countries ultimately join the European Union. This is in our joint political, economic and geo-strategic interest. This is the right way to defend the long-term prosperity of all the citizens in our European family and also to defend the European stability.”

That was the spirit of Berlin, but Paris 2016 was quite different, happening as it did in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. There was great concern that the historic Brexit event, combined with the internal problems and enlargement fatigue gripping Europe, would dominate the Paris Summit.

However, the event turned out to be a platform for relaunching the EU initiative. In fact, Federica Mogherini, while underlining the importance of the Paris Summit, stated that the EU clearly reiterated its enlargement policy for the Balkan countries: “the message is loud and clear: we are going to continue.”

On the other hand, according to europeanwesternbalkans, Chancellor Merkel – the initiator of the Berlin Process – stated that she perceives Balkan states’ accession as happening at “different speeds.”

During the Paris summit, The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, announced that Serbia had been given the green light to start accession talks, and that Croatia would no longer block the opening of Serbia’s chapters 23 and 24, which deal with the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

Serbia and Albania are expected to join the EU in 2020, depending on their reform pace. Albania was expected to open accession talks late this year, but it looks like the perceived lack of internal political dialogue on judiciary reforms will delay this.

Focus on Regional Interconnectivity: Energy Goals and EU Funding

The process of globalization has shifted national priorities towards internationally interconnected economic and trade interests, which in the case of the Western Balkans provides a valid alternative to ethnic and national divisions, which have historically had both positive and negative consequences, even leading to wars at various times. One example recently examined by was Chinese investment potential.

Sustainable economic growth constitutes the basis of a prosperous future for the region. In order to achieve this goal, the Paris summit focused its efforts on increasing connectivity and opportunities for mutually beneficial trade in the region.

The Paris Package’s Connectivity Agenda, the co-financing of Investment Projects in the Western Balkans 2016, constitutes a wide-ranging effort to modernize and integrate the region’s economic and transportation infrastructure.

According to statements made by Commission Hahn, connectivity is not merely about expensive infrastructure projects. New highways only make sense if existing networks are properly maintained, and there is little point in investing in expensive energy inter-connectors without a willingness to pursue energy trade within the region.

The EU has set aside up to €1bn for connectivity investment projects and technical assistance for 2014-2020. The EU provided the first €200mn at the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna in August 2015, for 10 priority projects.

As regards connectivity, the Paris summit was an opportunity for the participants to agree upon a list of three new railway projects, which will receive EU co-financing of almost €100mn in addition to financing, from international financial institutions and the national budgets of the Western Balkan participants.

The parties welcomed the launch of an initiative to ramp up investment in energy efficiency in residential buildings and sustainable development through additional EU funding of €50mn. The latter includes a program to examine the best ways to develop the region’s hydropower potential.

In addition, the EU has commissioned a regional hydropower master plan for the Western Balkans, which will help define how to develop the region’s hydropower potential in a way that balances energy generation with environmental concerns.

On energy, participants agreed on a road map for a regional market for electricity in the Western Balkans in order to facilitate the exchange of resources, to ensure better use of existing power systems, integrating renewable energy production and, eventually, connecting the regional market to that of the EU.

The European Commission will also follow up on this initiative, with support from the Energy Community secretariat. Progress on the implementation of the road-map will be reflected in future EU funding decisions.

Connectivity: Specific Infrastructure by Country and EU Participation

This “connectivity agenda” includes an investment and co-financing package to improve the links within the Western Balkans and with the EU in the strategic infrastructure areas such as the Trans-European Transport network (TEN-T).

This includes core network, core network corridors and pre-identified priority projects for infrastructure investment and has been defined. Extending the TEN-T core network corridors to the Western Balkans ensures closer integration with the EU as well as the basis for leveraging investment in infrastructure.

The Regional Core Transport Network – 2016 Investment Projects co-financed through Instrument for Pre-accession (IPA) funds assistance is outlined below.

These projects are being planned through the Western Balkans Investment Framework. The following statistical data and descriptions are based on official information.


Orient/East-Med Corridor: Serbia-Bulgaria CXc Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, Serbia/JSC Serbian Railways Infrastructure (Železnice Srbije Akcionarsko Društvo)

Estimated cost: €84.4 million

EU contribution: €40.7 million (works and supplies) €2.9 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €36.7 million

Expected Results: 80km of CXc railway track will be upgraded to TEN-T standards, including preparatory works for electrification and signaling and telecommunication systems.

Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 30 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight capacity to 22.9 tonnes axle load, throughout the CXc Sicevo to Dimitrovgrad section.

Benefits: Approximately 550 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 340,000 people living along the rail route proposed for rehabilitation. Decrease in current pollution levels caused by diesel operations. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators. Better opportunities for socio- economic growth for one of the poorest regions in Serbia. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Serbia.

Estimated start date: Mid-2017

Estimated end date: End of 2019

Estimated loan repayment period: 15 years


Orient/East-Med Corridor: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia-Kosovo-Serbia R10 Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Kosovo Railways JSC (InfraKos Sh. A.) / Ministry of Finance, Kosovo

Estimated cost: €42.3 million

EU contribution: €17.2 million (works and supplies)

  • €1.0 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD contribution: €8.6 million loan/ €0.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €9.2 million

Beneficiary contribution: €5.8 million

Expected Results: 35 km of railway tracks and 5 railway stations upgraded to modern, TEN-T standards, on the Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje to Mitrovicë/Mitrovica R10 route. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 20 km/h to 100 km/h as well as freight axle load to 22.5 tonnes

Benefits: Secure and efficient rail transport for approximately 50% of the population of Kosovo. More than 160 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Passenger and cargo rail capacity improved by more than 1.2 million people and 1.2 million tones, respectively. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Kosovo.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 20 years


Mediterranean Corridor: Montenegro-Albania-Greece Rail Interconnection

Partners: Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, Albania/Albanian Railways S.A. (Hekurudha Shqiptare/HSH)

Estimated cost: €81.5 million

EU contribution: €32.9 million (works and supplies) / €2.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD loan: €32.9 million

Beneficiary contribution: €13.2 million

Expected Results: 34.5 km of railway track, from Tirana to Durrës, partly rehabilitated to modern, TEN-T standards, including signaling and telecommunication (but excluding electrification). Involves 7.4 km of new railway track built between Tirana and Rinas international airport. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 60 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight axle load to 22.9 tonnes, throughout the Tirana-Durrës section.

Benefits: More than 1,375 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 1 million people living along the Tirana-Durrës rail route. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators active in Albania, estimated at more than €60 million. Savings in cost of travel time, estimated at more than €55 million. Improved environmental conditions by reducing freight and passenger transport by road. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Albania.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 15 years

Additional Chinese Investment- Albania and the New Silk Road

On April 26, 2016, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport SHPK, which operates the Albanian capital’s major airport. The group will take over the airport until 2025, with a two-year extension to 2027 after approval from the Albanian government.

More recently, on June 6, the government announced that it was ready to work with China State Construction (CSC) on the 16-mile Arber Road project leading east to Macedonia. The project value is 200 million euros).

Further, as we have already reported on, China has a growing interest in investing in energy projects and infrastructure in the Balkans, as it is working to connect Europe and Asia through the New Silk Road project. This has significant ramifications, economic and political, for the whole Balkan region.

China and Greece

While the Paris summit gathered heads of states and ministers from the Western Balkan countries and from the EU, Beijing reserved an impressive reception for Alexis Tsipras. A few hours before the Greek prime minister started his first official visit to China, with a large delegation made up of officials and businessmen, Greek lawmakers ratified with an overwhelming majority the landmark concession agreement with China’s COSCO Shipping for the acquisition of a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (PPA or OLP in Greek).

During his visit, Tsipras met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. According to, the issues they talked and agreed about were the six Greek investment proposals relating to China’s participation in the competitions for Thriassio Field and Kastelli airport, Chinese shipbuilding activity in Greece, Chinese investments in the Greek banking sector, expansion of agricultural exports and food from Greece to China, the creation of a Research and Development center in Greece, investments in tourist properties, and the increase of Chinese tourism with direct flights from Beijing to Athens, as well as cooperation in the cultural and education sectors. The two delegations signed nine agreements in the respective sectors.

“Our relationship with China is like a bicycle. One wheel is economic cooperation and the other cooperation in culture and education…we are the cyclists who will develop our two countries,” stated Tsipras.

Balkan Connectivity- Ancient and Modern

From the Paris summit to the recent Greek-Chinese discussions, it is clear that the investment package of trans-European strategic corridors, which include rail, road, air and sea transport networks and energy infrastructures is a key driver, not just for further integration between EU member states and their peoples, and also for increasing economic competitiveness.

One might note too that the connectivity agenda of trans-national transport and energy corridors is based on the ancient achievements in this part of Europe. In the 2nd century BC, the Balkans was an intersection of the commercial routes and exchanges between West and East; the Roman Empire decided to invest money in building the Via Egnatia. It was designed and built by Roman engineers.

This strategic road (a follow-up of the Via Apia) connected parts of today’s Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, right up to the Bosporus. Thus, the Appia-Egnatia corridor also represented a kind of European ‘soft diplomacy.’ The ancient Connectivity Agenda created communication and dialogue between the main empires of the day. Hence, similar connectivity in the 21st century can generate and further strengthen dialogue and communication between Europe and Asia.

Based on further extension and development of the integrated energy and transport infrastructures at a European level, the EU Connectivity Agenda can further strengthen neighborhood relations and further develop the cohesion between different European macro-regions, within the EU and between the EU and its neighboring countries.

Therefore, if it turns out to match its backers’ expectations, the 21st century connectivity project will be a smart, sustainable and inclusive bridge connecting East and West. After the Paris summit, the next similar event will be held in Rome in 2017. Until then, it is expected that substantial progress will be made by regional countries regarding the agreed investments packages of connectivity.

Chinese Investment Developments in the Balkans 2016: Focus on Albania editor’s note: this analysis, by Albanian expert Blerina Mecule, constitutes the first part of our occasional series on Chinese investment in the Balkans in 2016.

By Blerina Mecule

Huntington was right when he predicted that economic regionalism was going to increase in the 21st century. Culture and religion also form the basis of economic cooperation. The most significant dividing line goes through the Balkans, and coincides with the historic boundary between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.

Therefore, the process of international business development and expansion has to be considered also in this framework.

The Balkans: New Signs of Chinese Engagement

In May 2016, Sarajevo hosted the Regional Business Forum, during which the Balkan governments urged to boost business cooperation in order to increase foreign investments. Promoting the benefits of a united regional economy was one of the main goals of the forum, which involved participants from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. The forum attracted more than 1,500 international delegates including Qatar, Kuwait and China.

In recent years, China has showed a growing interest in investing in energy projects and infrastructure in the Balkans. China is working to connect Europe and Asia through the New Silk Road project- which has significant ramifications, economic and political, for the whole Balkan region.

In the first day of the forum, representatives of Elektroprivreda Bosnia and Herzegovina and China’s Gezhouba Group signed an agreement for the construction of part of a lignite power plant in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, a deal which has a total value of over 700 million euros.

“This agreement represents one of the biggest post-war energy investments in Bosnia after the war,” said Saimi Zeidan, a journalist from Al Jazeera and conference moderator, reported Balkan Insight. It added that China “created the 16+1 group in 2012, an initiative aiming to improve trading and economic ties between Beijing and countries from Central and Eastern Europe.”

The mutually-perceived importance of Chinese investment in the Balkans was also highlighted by Chinese leader Li Xinping’s state visit to Serbia. According to XinhuaNet, the lavish visit – accompanied by Serbian fighter jets – was the first such visit in 32 years and came seven years after Serbia became the first regional country to sign a strategic partnership deal with Beijing. In April, Serbia’s sole steel mill (in Smederevo) was bought by China’s HeSteel Group (HBIS) for 46 million euros.

The Chinese master plan in which the Balkan and Central European countries play a role is officially called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. According to XinhuaNet, it “is aimed at building a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient trade routes.”

Focus on Albania: Chinese Investment in 2016

While Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary are directly on the line of this proposed path, other Balkan countries are trying to reap the benefits of Chinese investment.

Regarding Albania, it is well-know that the country’s political orientation makes it one of the most pro-Euro-Atlantic countries in the Western Balkans. In the author’s September 2015 interview with Arian Spasse, director of the Albanian ministry of foreign affair’s special department for relations with the European Union, it was noted that even though nearby countries like Italy and Greece are natural partners, the recent economic crisis in both countries have forced Albanian companies to adapt and look for new markets.

Indeed, during the first four months of 2016, business ties between Albania and China rose notably as Chinese companies acquired players in strategic sectors of the Albanian economy. In addition, China emerged as the second-largest trading partner for Albania during March 2016, accounting for 7.7 per cent of the country’s total international trade.

Energy Sector Developments

The latest moves seem to show a growing Chinese ambition to control strategic sectors of Southeast Europe’s economy. In March 2016, Canada’s Banker’s Petroleum announced the sale of oil exploration and production rights to affiliates of China’s Geo-Jade Petroleum for a price of 384.6 million euros. It is an interesting development, as in 2012 had discussed Banker’s Petroleum activities at the time, in the context of a detailed study of the Albanian energy sector. Now the Chinese will hold those drilling rights.

Infrastructure News: an Airport Acquisition and Road and Port Development

On April 26, 2016, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport SHPK, which operates the Albanian capital’s major airport. The group will take over the airport until 2025, with a two-year extension to 2027 after approval from the Albanian government.

More recently on June 6, the government said announced it was ready to work with China State Construction (CSC) on the 16-mile Arber Road project leading east to Macedonia. The project value is 200 million euros.

Most recently, on June 11, Albania’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure signed an agreement for a yacht section of the port in Shengjin. This $7 million investment will come after an agreement was signed between the Transport Ministry and the “Adriatic” company, which won the tender. This northern Albanian port has been developed by the Chinese for several years.

Albanian Transport and Infrastructure Minister Edmond Haxhinasto said that this port will have a capacity of 200 yachts, brining tourism and employment. “The minister said that the port is designed with the most modern technology of cruise ships anchoring and it should be operational within one year,” reported

The Eastern Adriatic has seen renewed interest in ports for yachts and super-yachts, the most famous case being Porto Montenegro, developed by international investors and recently purchased by a UAE interest, Investment Corporation of Dubai.

Some Concerns

However, according to Zef Preci, director of the Albanian Center for Economic Research, Chinese investment will not lead to more prosperity for the Albanian economy. “The possible geostrategic implications are not taken into consideration by the Albanian government at all,” reported Balkan Insight in early May.

Preci believes the Albanian government is simply enjoying the fact that investments are coming, regardless of the source. “I don’t think that the Euro-Atlantic spirit proclaimed in the country in the last 25 years is going to be saved with a continuous growth of Chinese companies’ presence,” he says.

A recent article in Forbes also expressed some reservations. “There is concern among some leading Albanian politicians that when China invests, it does so to export its own labor into the foreign market. This is particularly worrisome in the case of Albania that has a 17.1% unemployment rate, and where jobs are badly needed.” But at the same time, the article concedes, this month “China’s government cranked up the volume on its soft power by giving Albanian farmers a 1.3 million euro grant to buy new equipment.”


As is becoming increasingly clear, the Balkans is at the crossroad between East and West. The process of globalization has shifted national priorities into the internationally interconnected economic and trade interests, which in the case of the Western Balkans provides a valid counter-alternative on issues related to ethnicity and national identity, which have historically had both positive and negative consequences, even leading to wars at various times.

Hence, common regional economic initiatives, within the common path towards Euro-Atlantic structures, have proven fundamental for the Western Balkans to obtain the Western (Euro-Atlantic) “identity card” they have sought for over two decades. Their inability to do so has often been caused by factors outside of their control; now, the historic Brexit vote will have yet-to-seen implications for Balkan countries, and the EU itself.

Thus, with internal problems and enlargement fatigue gripping Europe, and the steady rise of China, the big question for the future will be if the Western Balkans in future develops on its proclaimed Euro-Atlantic path, or takes a more Euro-Asiatic one. Because of its historic relationships and positive views of the West, however, Albania is not likely to change its political orientation- even if it seeks to develop its economy with assistance from the East.

With Closure of Balkan Route, Italy Focuses on Potential for a Renewed Adriatic Migrant Route

By Elisa Sguaitamatti editor’s note: the closure of the Balkan route to migrants, and Greece’s ensuing placement of large numbers along its northern borders, indicate a likely increase of illegal border crossings towards the Adriatic Route- overland into Albania and across the sea into Italy, as we predicted in The Adriatic Chessboard back on February 22.

The Adriatic Route: Italian Public and Official Perception

The ongoing refugee and migrant crisis is currently receiving much media coverage in Italy. The country fears that the old smugglers’ routes from Albania to Southern Apulia are going to be reactivated in the near future, especially after the closure of the Balkan route used by migrants to reach Northern Europe via Macedonia and Serbia.

This Adriatic route, which goes from the Albanian mountains all across the Adriatic Sea to Italy is very well known to the Italian authorities and general public. They still have a vivid memory of the millions of Albanians who left their home country via boat and reached the Apulian shores in the 1990s.

“There is the danger of a route from Albania,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently said, indicating that Italian officials are constantly monitoring the situation. Other officials have echoed this comment but express cautious assessments, like Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

“We are used to making provisions as well as observing reality,” Alfano said. “So far we have no evidence of any huge flow from the Balkans. It doesn’t seem appropriate to create alarmism on this since it’s not a fact today.”

Although it may not be a reality yet, nonetheless the Italian government is already starting to consider the eventuality of this event in the short term. Hence, it is working to identify all the necessary measures that need to be taken to cope with potential major influxes of migrants, such as the creation of hot spots, reception and identification facilities.

The Mediterranean and Balkan Route

Italy received more than 10,000 migrants coming from North Africa via the Mediterranean route between 1 January and 10 March of this year. Overall, Italy and Greece together had to deal with more than 150,000 asylum-seekers over the same period, according to official data released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The Mediterranean route appears to have been the preferred choice made by Sub-Saharan and North African migrants so far, mainly leaving Libya or Egypt to get to the little island of Lampedusa or Sicily.

On the other hand, the Balkan route, which became popular last summer and autumn for millions of Syrians and Iraqis, is no longer an option. As Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announced border closures, more and more arrivals are likely to happen thanks to improving weather conditions. At present, 12,000 migrants are living in makeshift houses and shelters near Idomeni still wait to cross the frontier between EU Member State Greece and Macedonia, though a recent violent attempt supported by international activists failed (around 2,000 participants were returned to Greece unharmed by the Macedonian Army, though three migrants died while trying to cross a river).

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk officially confirmed this closure of frontiers recently in a statement: “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkan route have come to an end,” he said. Now, after the shutdown of a major migrant route, new alternatives to get to the heart of Europe are emerging. It is likely that migrants will be forced towards Albania and then to Italy. Not only is this route more convenient, but a Macedonian initiative for joint border cooperation was accepted by Bulgarian officials, who are also fortifying their border with Greece. Macedonian military and police are continually repairing stretches of fence with Greece that migrants continually attempt to break, despite the presence of Greek police and Frontex officials.

Over the past six months, the Italian authorities have been holding talks with their Tirana and Montenegro counterparts to work in a joint effort to prevent the re-emerging of people smugglers’ routes.

The EU Response: the Deal with Turkey and Possible Route Diversification towards the Adriatic

The EU’s controversial agreement with Turkey is designed to stop the flow of migrants to Greece, and to return those trying to enter via boat. But it remains to be seen whether a deal with Turkey’s will make a difference. Despite claims that police have been having more success, arrivals to the Greek islands continue with a daily average of some 2,000. And the long and complex sea border between the two countries will make it difficult for the coast guard, Frontex and eventual NATO ships to stop all the smugglers.

However, the perception that the Balkan Route (through Macedonia) is now sealed will spread among the migrant communities, and not only Italian officials are concerned about what this will mean for Albania and Italy. The spokesperson of Frontex recently underlined that “old routes could get reactivated.” This means that refugees are increasingly going to use the routes from Greece to Italy and from Turkey to Italy.

Mogherini’s Visit to Tirana

As for the European institutions, last month Federica Mogherini, the EU Foreign Policy Commissioner, traveled to Tirana to meet the Albanian authorities and discuss in detail all the problems related to the migration crisis.

Further, Italian Interior Minister Alfano raised the issue at several international summits constantly making clear that “this is not only an Italian problem, but a European one.” In the past six months, Europe has struggled to come up with effective solutions regarding the refugee crisis, mainly due to a lack of consensus among Members States on the equal distribution of quotas of migrants.

Italy’s Handling of the Crisis: Downplaying the Risks while Making Rapid Intervention Plans with Albania and Montenegro

Italy has seen many more migrant arrivals this winter compared to both 2014 and 2015, and therefore is trying to downplay the risks accompanying this influx.

Indeed, when asked about refugee flows from the Balkans, Mario Morcone, the head of the Migration Department at the Italian Interior Ministry, commented that “there is no sign yet to say that it’s happening.”

However, according to Frontex, there are rising concerns for Southern Italy. Irregular migrants picked up in Apulia are most often now travelers who had first entered Greece, whereas those detected in Calabria normally come from Egypt or Turkey. Most such people are Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans.

Moreover, at the end of February at the regional security and public order meeting in Bari in the Apulia region, the Italian Interior Minister made some important remarks on current developments: “the work we are doing is very hard and serious. The same holds true for our liaison officers in the Balkan region. Here I’m referring to the intervention planning with Montenegro and Albania in collaboration with Frontex. We are working to prevent this route from reopening. However, should it ever happen, we are ready to tackle the flows of migrants.”

Minister Alfano also added that Albania represents a strategic partner for Europe to face “the Balkan question,” and that Italian officials are doing everything within their power to keep Greece from being left alone in addressing the emergency and humanitarian crisis.

The January Meeting in Amsterdam, Official and Unofficial Talks with Albania, and the Policy of a ‘European Solution’

In addition, during a previous informal meeting of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs in Amsterdam last January, which was predominantly dedicated to the migration crisis, Italy specifically demanded more cooperation and coordination on this theme.

The country has been involved in both official and unofficial track-two diplomacy talks with the Albanian counterparts, but Minister Alfano remarked once again that “it cannot be only a bilateral relation with Tirana; it must be a European issue too. We are doing our job but it is crucial that each of the European Member States does its own part as well.”

The Italian government is already working to take all necessary measures to address a potential emergency as well as offering humanitarian and relief efforts. In Alfano’s words, “we should not put the cart before the horse. Now what we are doing is putting a lot of effort into adopting a prevention policy at the international level, and at the same time trying to reduce the likelihood of a refugee crisis in the Adriatic Sea.”

Finally, on a visit to a Sicilian reception facility on 14 March government officials reiterated that the solution to tackle the migration crisis can only be European. “Italy’s job is to protect the external southern frontier of Europe, in order to make movements of people within Europe not only free but also safe. The only solution is a European solution” Alfano stated.

The Adriatic Chessboard: Migration Policies and Regional Security

By Matteo Albertini

The threat of another surge in refugees and migrants from North Africa and, peripherally, from the Balkan Route has alarmed Italian security planners. Their assessments, discussed below, provide some indication into how they intend to manage the flow, in the case of route diversification, backlog, or other events (such as terrorism) that would cause a strong anti-migrant reaction among Europeans.

The Two Routes- and the Macedonian Solution that Alarms Greece

Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi – the former guarantor of a mostly migrant-free Mediterranean – Italy began to receive more and more migrants by sea, often landing at its southern island of Lampedusa.

The strain from this influx eventually resulted in the most sophisticated EU military engagement in the history of the overall migrant crisis. Operation SOPHIA, which was led by the Italian navy, was recently disclosed in a document published by Wikileaks. The document (an internal review of actions taken in the period May 2015 to January 2016) cited a secret plan to enforce a stable government in Libya- that would then ‘invite’ the EU to start a military operation against traffickers in its territorial waters.

This document and its significance for EU actions elsewhere cannot be discussed in detail here. It will be assessed by in a separate article.

A second unprecedented flow starting last summer brought the so-called Balkan route into the media, and eventually policy spotlight. In 2015, nearly 880,000 people took the route from Turkey to Greece, heading on to Central Europe by traveling through Macedonia and Serbia. Although this massive influx of people received huge attention, it did not result in any EEAS mission similar to Operation SOPHIA, despite Greece (like Italy) being an EU state.

The EU’s failure to slow migration on the Balkan Route has led Balkan countries to seek other solutions. Most importantly, Macedonia (with the backing of Austria and the Visegrad countries) on February 18th won support for a plan it offered to streamline migrant entries. Now, all those wishing to enter at the non-official part of the southern border of Gevgelija must have a special registration card from the Macedonian authorities: anyone who does not have it, further north, will be sent back to Greece.

Greece, which is very alarmed by the EU’s acceptance of this plan, threatened to block a Brexit deal if countries close borders with it. But Macedonia has not closed its legal borders- ironically, it is the protesting Greek farmers who have been blockading their own borders elsewhere along the Macedonian, Bulgarian and Turkish lines. Their motives have nothing to do with the migrant crisis, but are causing serious economic impact, for the neighboring countries as well as their own.

The EU-agreed plan to streamline the migrant flow through Macedonia allows some compromise between rival EU powers. However, our assessment still remains that absent some unexpected pressure, Macedonia will eventually seal its border to all migrants and refugees.

In this case, they will seek other points of entry from Greece, such as Bulgaria and Albania. However, Bulgaria has just dispatched soldiers to the Greek border, and there are indications that Albania is preparing for migrant inflows.

The latter prospect is the most worrying for Italy, considering its history of receiving illegal aliens by the thousands from Albania in the 1990s, in a very lucrative trade run by organized crime and also involving cigarette and drugs trafficking.

Italy’s Concern: Route Diversification and the Trans-Adriatic Corridor

From the Italian point of view, the current situation is extremely serious: the Adriatic Sea represents, after the Greek islands, the longest European border towards the Middle East. The risk that a sudden closure of some Balkan countries’ borders would change the routes covered by migrant smugglers, possibly moving towards the sea and Italy, is the most feared, especially while Italy is already managing a contemporaneous flow coming from Northern Africa through the Sicilian Channel.

This concern was reinforced by the recent declarations of the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, each of them underlining that without a bigger effort from the European Union, the closure of borders could become a necessity. Just a few days before the Macedonian solution was accepted, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić called on the EU to come up with a common approach to the refugee crisis, stressing that if Austria and other countries on the Balkan Route shut their borders, Serbia would have to reconsider its policies.

As Dačić said in an interview with Radio Deutsche Welle, “in 2015, we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia and what is cause for us to worry further is the absence of a unified approach from the European Union. And these individual measures and steps that are taken by certain countries are something that puts us in a very difficult situation.”

A ‘Very Peculiar Phenomenon’

Interesting enough, Dačić also added that it was a very peculiar phenomenon that the migrants had never opted to change the route set in the beginning. The Foreign Minister said that “they never opted to go maybe through Kosovo, and one of the reasons was because Serbia was always a helping hand to them.” This was probably a politically-motivated comment, considering the fact that traveling through Serbia and Croatia is faster and easier than to go, for instance, Kosovo or Bosnia.

Concerns about a New ‘Albanian Adriatic Route’: Noted by the EU in October 2015

Returning to Italy, it is important to underline that in the October meeting chaired by EC President Juncker concerns were raised about the possibility of migrant smugglers opening a new route from Albania to Italy, in case of border closures by neighboring countries.

Even if the concerns voiced then about a possible exploitation of this route during the current winter season now seem to have been exaggerated, it is noteworthy that it was even considered at that point. This shows Italian analysis of the ‘Adriatic Chessboard’ was well advanced at a time when Austrians and Germans were still waving their ‘migrants welcome’ signs. With Germany’s interior minister now calling Austrian policy ‘unacceptable,’ the predictable divisions in European migration policy are worsening.

A Return to the Past?

The possibility that the Adriatic route could be used in the future remains. That would be a veritable return to the past, almost twenty years after the biggest exodus across the Adriatic Sea, after the collapse of the pyramid schemes in Albania, in 1997. Albanians used the sea crossing heavily when the country was swept by civil unrest caused by the scandal. In March 1997, 84 people, mostly women and children, drowned after their boat sank in the Straits.

Despite its perils, the route has also been used by drug smugglers and human traffickers. During the 2000s, it was mainly used to transport illegal narcotics to Italy. In 2006, overwhelmed by the large number of speedboats shipping drugs from Albania, the Tirana government decided not to allow any private small boats to sail in the country’s territorial waters for a time.

For this reason, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama – even though his country wasn’t touched by the recent migrant inflows – was also present at the October meeting, and signed a new agreement with the Greek government to enforce land border controls between Greece and Albania.

Italian Actions on Hotspots and Reception Centers, in Light of the ‘Nightmare Scenario’

Since then, Italy has still not completed building all of the mandated hotspots and reception centers on its own territory. Those already established are located in Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle/Villa Sikania, Trapani, Augusta and Taranto.

However, only the first two are fully operative, while the third is in the final refurbishment phase. All these three active hotspots are located in Sicily (as also is the fourth one in Porto Empedocle). Nevertheless, only the fifth, in Taranto, would deal with hypothetical new migrant flows coming from the Adriatic Sea.

After the decision of six countries (Austria, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) to ask for a two-year suspension of the Schengen Treaty, and the ensuing statement by the members of the Visegrad Group to opt for the closure of borders, it seems that the agreement of free circulation in European Union is near to an end, fifteen years after its introduction.

For Italy, this means the nightmare scenario could come true: to be bordered by foreign walls and transformed into a dead end for migrant routes. In this, the Italian government has reacted in the same way that Greece is now doing. As Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said for CNN, “the Dublin rules create a risk for Schengen […]. We need to share the migrants’ weight, because if we just continue to criticize Greece and first-arrival countries, the only result would be the final conclusion of the agreement.”

Italy is indeed one of the countries of arrival, receiving more than 150,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Most continued their travel towards France and Northern Europe, but this situation will not last if the Alps resumes its historic role as a natural border that Italy shares, with countries which have suspended Schengen.

This is why Italy is now preparing to create new reception centers in Northern Italy: there were announcements about the choice of Brennero and Tarvisio, located at the borders with Austria, a clear sign of the concern about a possible new exodus from the northern and the eastern neighboring countries.

Unclear Prospects

Much of the future dynamics of the Adriatic region depend on the continuing endurance of the European project and on the future of the Schengen agreement. Italian interior minister Alfano stated two weeks ago that in order to maintain Schengen, “there’s still time until May, for technical and political reasons.” But a three-month deadline is a very brief span of time, especially when the upcoming spring weather will likely bring new waves of refugees to European shores.

There is also the long-term risk that migrants could decide to cross the sea, coming from Croatia, Albania and Greece to Italian shores. As Alfano recalled in the same press conference, it is still early to advance any possible forecast: “there are too many variables at play. To all those who think that the best solution for Italy would be to close Schengen, I say that they don’t realize that we can’t lay barbed wire in the Mediterranean, nor in the Adriatic, and that they are not taking into account the economic backlash of this decision”.

Unfortunately for Minister Alfano, the decision will probably not be in the Italian government’s hands. Thus the primary goal would be to reinforce Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, to make it able to guarantee a proper answer to the potential arrival of thousands of asylum seekers from the sea.

Moreover, there is another major concern about the consequences of mass migration to Italy. Threatening mass expulsions of migrants who have no right for asylum is something different from effectively expelling them. As underlined by the deputy interior minister Bubbico, “a proper repatriation demands that the starting country has a working embassy, willing to cooperate with our identification request.”

Obviously, this would also assume that said country even wants to take back a citizen who had illegally arrived in Italy. “Otherwise, what should we do [but keep them]?” said the deputy minister. “Should we throw them in the sea?”

No Power for Sovereign Decision-making

Unlike non-EU members in the Balkans that have sovereignty over their own affairs, or like fellow EU members that have stood up strongly for their rights (like the V4 countries), Italy has followed the Greek political behavior of dependency on Brussels: the so-called desire for ‘European solidarity’ on the migrant issue. This means the government has limited its options and (as elsewhere in Europe) opened up political opportunities for its rivals.

While opposition parties thus spread fear of what they call an “invasion by migrants,” the Italian government has little power to influence the German-led EU’s decision-making on big-picture issues that underpin the entire issue: these include the ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the future of unstable countries like Egypt and Nigeria, and the tenor of EU-Balkan relations. All of these are either states that are sources for new waves of migrants or ones that will affect their movements.

The Impact of Macedonia Border Closure on a new Albania-Adriatic Route

It has become clear that Turkey is both unable and unwilling to stop the flow of refugees passing through it to the Greek islands. As the EU is placing its bets on Macedonia to guard the European borders, Albania (and also Montenegro) are watching the developing events with a worried eye.

If tighter border controls along the Balkan route create problems for Greece, with migrants having a harder time moving north, most will look for alternate routes. Since Bulgaria is beefing up its defenses (and anyway is further east), Albania could then become the main option.

Migrants could either try to cross into Albania to reach Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia, or to use the Adriatic Sea crossing to reach Italy. According to Albanian authorities, the former military base in Bilisht, close to a Greek border point, is already ready to accommodate some 500 refugees. Other abandoned military bases are also being prepared for a possible influx of refugees coming from Greece. But it is still early to conclude if these decisions are part of a long-time plan.

Italy is also concerned that a bottleneck in the Western Balkan migrant routes could also boost the central Mediterranean route, which connects North Africa to southern Italy. Migrant smugglers could opt to open new routes from Egypt and Libya as the expected Western raids against ISIS intensify in the latter country, as predicted almost one year ago.

Terrorism Fears

In the background indeed lies the second main subject of the recent international meeting, which is the fight against international terrorism. As reported by many past reports, migration and terrorism are two issues that frequently intertwine in the Balkans, mostly because both connected with the presence of solid and enduring criminal organization (which not by chance are growing stronger on both shores of the Adriatic Sea).

In this regard, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently proposed the creation of a common database of stolen passports from Syria and Iraq, and Europol presented its last conclusions, stating that the ISIS terrorist threat is still high in Europe, especially in France. According to the Italian Interior Minister, at the present time “there are not specific or concrete menaces for Italy.”

In the current scenario, recent police operations in Northern Italy showed at least three different terrorist cells active in the country: one connected with Kurdistan (amongst them, the members of the Rawti Shax network, dismantled last October), one linked to Kosovo and Albania (four people were arrested last December upon the charge of being member of the terrorist group led by the notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri), and one headed by Bosnian citizen Bilal Bosnić, the informal leader of the Salafi movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

All these groups were located in little towns of the most productive area of the Italian north (Pordenone, Merano, Chiari). This choice should not surprise us, since the persons involved were mostly focused on propaganda and recruitment, and in these towns they enjoyed fast and easy connections throughout Europe, and good technology and facilities. Also, they found there a growing presence of foreign workers, mostly Muslim from Northern Africa, employed in the factories of these regions.

That is why the concerns about possible attacks in Italy are still low: Italy grants a lot of logistical advantages to jihadist networks, which are more interested in using this country as a bridgehead for penetrating further on in European borders.

However, the subtle presence of these jihadist groups, still lacking common goals, guidance and interests, does not guarantee a safe future. The security services will certainly remain on high alert for the foreseeable future, as ISIS has pledged to take its war all the way to the Vatican.

Possible Geopolitical Impact of a Developing Trans-Adriatic Migrant Route

It is also possible that migrants will become used as a tool to exercise political leverage on neighboring countries. Greece is angry with Macedonia over the border deal breakthrough with the EU, and is now making plans for handling the backlog. Athens thus could use Albania to exercise pressure on Macedonia, for closing the border, worsening conditions in a country still weighed down by a chronic political crisis.

This pressure would be exerted obliquely, through challenges to ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia. This is one way of understanding Edi Rama’s recent comments when, in the presence of visiting US Secretary of State Kerry, the Albanian leader said that Macedonia should finish implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. It is well-known that this agreement (which ended the war of 2001) has been implemented long ago, so when the topic is occasionally raised, it is inevitably with an implicit desire to raise ethnic issues.

The second point of possible future geopolitical intrigue is that the migrant crisis is becoming an opportunity for some entities. NATO is heavily involved in both the West’s military operations in North Africa and the Middle East, and in liaising with anti-trafficking measures. The military alliance’s mandate was expanded to the Greek-Turkish maritime border and, even when it is not directly involved, tends to share facilities with EU-run operations (such as Operation SOPHIA)

According to the BBC on February 11, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the Greece-Turkey mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats” but to provide “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”

Looking at things in the bigger picture, the migrant crisis has allowed NATO to increase its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is also operating in Syria.

On the Eastern Adriatic coast, only the absence of Montenegro is preventing this sea from becoming a ‘NATO lake.’ Russia of course opposes Montenegro’s invitation (and likely membership) into the alliance this summer.

Perhaps, a sudden and large influx of migrants operating along a new trans-Adriatic corridor could be regarded by pro-NATO activists as another reason for the tiny country to enter the alliance. In that case, NATO will fill in the last ‘missing square’ of this strategic chessboard- something that would have more symbolic than practical value, given the small size of Montenegro’s fighting force.

In whatever case, any NATO deployment up and down the Adriatic coast to counter migration would also be beneficial to the overall Western policy goals for the region we have discussed in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans (available also in Italian here).

Five Ways ISIS Can Destabilize the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

ISIS-linked radicals in the Balkans are currently seeking to pull off one or more terrorist attacks in the region, which marks a strategic shift from past perceptions of the Balkans’ role in regard to the overall European jihad. If successful, this strategy could affect everything from regional stability and inter-ethnic relations to local economies and even the cohesion of the Western deterrence campaign against Russia.


The European Commission is currently mulling over the details of its next multi-year strategy for countering terrorism, radicalization, organized crime and cybercrime. Predictable partisan divisions are slowing the formalization of a policy which, realistically speaking, will prove insufficient to guarantee security for the Union and its citizens – as recent attacks continue to show – not to mention for the neighboring, non-EU countries, which are being largely excluded from consideration.

The following article, based on years of field observation and the latest intelligence on the ground, explores some of the security risks ahead, isolating the main five operational tactics ISIS or its followers will use to destabilize the Balkans, and facilitate its wider strategic goals in Europe.

Sitrep July 2-10

Balkan security services are currently on high alert over fears of one or more terrorist attacks directed by ISIS supporters, some of whom have battle experience in Syria and Iraq. Such attacks would attempt to exploit existing ethnic and religious divides, and possibly target Western interests and public events, with the ultimate goal of creating free zones of training and operation for further attacks in the heart of Europe.

This represents a shift in strategic thinking; whereas the Balkans until relatively recently was considered a rear base of logistics and safe haven by jihadists, the Islamic State’s bold advances in the MENA have created a more militant aspiration among extremists who now see the Balkans as an actual theater of operations. The core ISIS supporters here have experience in close-quarters urban combat, which would be very difficult for local police to handle without significant collateral damage.

While the Macedonian special police’s May 9-10 Kumanovo operation represents the gold standard in this regard, with no civilian casualties, that was against a ‘known’ enemy (ethnic Albanian nationalists), not suicide bombers or other unconventional threats. The operation also benefited from a strong component of situational awareness and intelligence, even if international cooperation was non-existent which had and will have further repercussions for EU influence regarding the country’s security architecture.

The latest intelligence has identified three cells; two are ethnic Albanian in composition, while one is Bosniak. The leadership of each (two to four men) have fought for Al Nusra Front or ISIS in Syria or Iraq; however, while security services are aware of their presence, some of the key individuals returned from the Middle East prior to the passage of the so-called ‘foreign fighters laws’ by various Balkan countries, meaning they can only be monitored for now.

Of course, with the incessant wave of illegal migrants coming across the Turkish and thereafter Greek border into Macedonia, it is impossible to tell how many more ISIS fighters have entered the Balkans since. On that front, the continuing deterioration of Greece means that we can expect many more, stretching the capacities of Macedonian civil services and humanitarian organizations. This will be worsened if Serbia (under Hungarian and Austrian pressure) blocks these migrants at the border, creating a sort of ‘migrant bottleneck’ in Macedonia. In any case, Hungary’s strong anti-migrant stance means that a migrant bottleneck will be created somewhere in the Balkans, becoming most acute at border areas that are traditionally affected by organized crime to begin with.

If the next ten days or so passes peacefully, the most acute threat will have been averted, but the general high alert level will remain. The present threat includes possible attacks on US installations or personnel during the July 4th holiday, as well as the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Srebrenica killings later in the week, which is creating a supercharged atmosphere that could be exploited for religious and ethnic purposes. This atmosphere has already been unhelpfully affected, and great controversy aroused, because of the wording of British- and Russian-backed drafts and counter-drafts at the UN over the word ‘genocide’ and so on.

It is further expected that Muslim leaders (particularly the Turkish ones) will use Srebrenica to take their rhetorical revenge on those Western leaders, including Pope Francis, who supported the concept of an Armenian Genocide in April’s centennial commemoration of that event. The mood among the different sides will be particularly tense and prone to political manipulation in the days ahead.

This current climate of ethnic and religious discord would thus present a perfect opportunity for supporters of ISIS to strike. However, even if they don’t, the problem runs much deeper, as they involve long-term security and social trends, as well as the developing EU security architecture, which does not incorporate the Balkans in any meaningful way. And, on top of everything, we have Greece’s financial disaster and an unprecedented migration wave; the EU has basically told Balkan countries that they are on their own in handling this phenomenon.

An Unprecedented Range of Simultaneous Threats and Unhelpful Interference

Indeed, while the Commission’s proposal calls for the formation of a European Counterterrorism Center, the document we have seen does not envision anything significant regarding cooperation with candidate (and other) countries in the Balkans. With Greece now in default, illegal migrant numbers surging, and hostilities with Russia growing, Europe is divided as never before.

Thus, while the Continent faces a range of simultaneous security challenges unprecedented since the Second World War, the year 2015 so far is revealing both a lack of political agreement within the Union, and some incredibly irresponsible political and intelligence activities from certain EU countries who either deliberately or out of ignorance have failed to realize how their actions in the Balkans endanger regional and EU domestic security.

In some cases, this naughty behavior also indicates that the political and diplomatic classes are unaware that their own domestic security and intelligence agencies’ reach, even in far corners of the globe, relies on established intelligence cooperation with Balkan states. This makes Western political interference even more irritating for Balkan security services, as it complicates their own work in helping their colleagues do their jobs.

Around the Corner: ISIS

Amidst this perfect storm of competing interests, ambitions and incompetence, the European periphery is dominated by an ever-expanding presence of the Islamic State and its freelance terrorists in the MENA and beyond. The EU’s lack of cooperation with Balkan states, and the latter’s lack of capacity and mutual trust, is leading to a situation ideal for destabilizing activities from ISIS or its independent followers. It is true that a number of arrests in the last few years in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Austria and Italy have damaged the ISIS infrastructure; however, most of these actions targeted recruiters tasked with sending local fighters to the Middle East- not disrupting local plots, which until now have not been taken seriously anyway.

Law enforcement continues to lag behind the operational capacities and ambitions of Islamic terrorists such as ISIS. Regionally, aside from the above-mentioned restrictions, each country has strategic vulnerabilities that would make terrorist attacks easier, and magnify their effects. Unless the EU and regional states manage to create a realistic and coordinated mechanism for preparing for such threats, negative outcomes such as those mentioned below become more likely.

The following five examples are just a few of many possible scenarios that security services should be focusing on. Most of the stated acts of violence could be executed with only a small handful of personnel, and a budget of a few hundred euros or less. On the other hand, creating totally secure conditions against these threats would cost billions, and be socially and politically unacceptable anyway.

Furthermore, the repercussions for regional instability and thus collective European security would be magnified considerably in the case of attacks like some of those discussed below, as such events would increase internal political debate within EU electorates over the feasibility of the Balkan integration process in general.

All that considered, we present now the five most dangerous tactics ISIS could choose to use in the Balkans.

  1. Attack a Major Tourism Destination in Greece

The two ISIS-inspired attacks in Tunisia in 2015, on a museum and beach resort, have done tremendous damage to the country’s vital tourism industry, presenting a huge setback to what one foreign consultant recently called a political ‘success story’ (relative to its neighbors, at least). Since for ISIS attacks on Westerners abroad are just as desirable as attacks on actual locations in the West, soft targets like tourist resorts are ideal.

Everyone knows how vital tourism is to Greece and, with the country in uncharted waters following its IMF default on July 1st, the country really needs a strong summer season to preserve some semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, the news of mass cancellations from foreign tour operators only a day later is limiting this potential.

Therefore, a well-conducted terrorist attack, especially on a high-end island like Mykonos or Santorini that are less affected by package tourism cancellations, would deal a significant blow to this vital industry. Anyone familiar with this industry and all of its minute details can easily understand the myriad ways a serious terrorist attack could be executed quickly, effectively and with minimal operational budget.

Indeed, due to geographic and other local realities, the situation today remains the same as in 2013, when a former CIA officer and consultant stated for that “the large majority of the sites, be they the historical ones or the hotels, are not secured and cannot be, including the large and expensive resorts.” This remains an accurate assessment and, despite the vigilance of security groups such as the Hellenic Coast Guard, there is no way that the country could protect its industry from a dedicated adversary- especially one prepared to die for the cause, as was the case recently in Tunisia. Really, the only reason such an attack has not yet happened in Greece is because international terrorist outfits have not found it in their strategic interest. That may rapidly change if civil order disintegrates in the country due to the economic uncertainty.

Here it should also be noted that any deterioration of Greece’s economy, whether due to a terrorist attack or simple financial reasons, would have adverse effects on the stability of nearby Albania, which has historically benefited significantly from remittances from Albanians living in Greece, and from Greek investments. In the short term, a terrorist attack would also cause diversions in air, land and sea traffic that would create traveler chaos affecting a wide variety of people.

In one scenario, economic deterioration and/or a terrorist attack would lead to a security vacuum in which urban vigilante squads, perhaps supported by the far-right Golden Dawn, clash with anarchists and possibly criminal gangs that are associated with specific migrant backgrounds. Widespread looting and breakdown of social order that could expedite organized crime and decrease police capacity to deal with migration cannot be excluded in such a case.

  1. Conduct an Attack of Deception to Inflame Religious and Ethnic Tensions

The recent ISIS massacre of over 100 returned residents of Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town that had already been destroyed by the Islamic State, occurred because ISIS gunmen had managed to obtain official-looking Kurdish uniforms, and thus avoided suspicion at checkpoints entering the town. Balkan police and military uniforms are not the most urgent inventory item to protect, and can easily be stolen for similar purposes. Or, accurate counterfeits can simply be created.

An attack by terrorists dressed as police or soldiers against the ‘other’ ethnicity or religion in a Balkan state would become an instant YouTube sensation and ignite street violence, protests and possibly worse destabilization. In an environment of chronic media irresponsibility (not to mention social media), disinformation can only inflame such situations. For anyone who remembers the events of March 2004, when a false media report by Kosovo media led to a 50,000-strong Albanian riot targeting the Serbian minority, this possibility represents a tangible concern with clear precedents.

In general, even without recourse to clever deception leading to an inter-ethnic attack, ISIS supporters can easily cause instability by anything from provocations to acts of violence involving mixed communities.

The latest intelligence we have obtained indicates that Balkan security services are now particularly concerned about the potential for attacks that would cause inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife in the following places: Skopje, Macedonia; Novi Pazar, in the Serbian Sandzak; Mitrovica, Kosovo; and Ulcinj, on Montenegro’s southern coast. Smaller places with more limited damage levels but similar destabilization potential would include ethnic enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo and smaller towns with ethnically-mixed populations throughout the region.

Another area of interest to terrorists is perhaps southern Albania, where organized crime has long included a paramilitary component and where a mix of Orthodox, Bektashi and Hanafi Muslims live. The Bektashi represent a possible target for two reasons. One, they are numerous, peaceful and despised as apostates by Sunni radicals like ISIS; indeed, as one Salafist in Gostivar, Macedonia memorably told us a few years ago, the Bektashi “will burn in hell” as they are “worse than the Jews.” If that was the rhetoric pre-Islamic State, one can only imagine how the opinion is now, when ISIS has expanded the rules of jihad to include the torture and murder of every differing sectarian and ethnic group it encounters.

A second reason for targeting Bektashi populations in Albania or Macedonia is because they represent the key bridge population in the Obama Administration’s deradicalization program. Over the past couple years, Bektashi leaders have built close connections with the administration, lobbying in Washington for the lead role in the (soft power) war against Albanian radicalization. Of course, such a role would be welcomed by the Albanian political leadership as a mark of prestige in itself.

So, for better or for worse, the US administration chose to throw in its chips with Edi Rama, the socialist prime minister who has presented Albania as a sort of wonderland of multi-religious tolerance in speeches and staged events with luminaries like the pope. Through its embassy in Tirana, the US has since 2014 been running its regional operations, with liaison officials in the Skopje and Sarajevo embassies. However, much of the assistance has been of the legalese variety (in drafting foreign-fighters laws), and there is a lack of political will for the sort of serious anti-terrorism operations the US performed here in the 1990s.

A further problem is that partisan differences between Rama and the conservative-elected president, Bujar Nishani, have resulted in power struggles, manifesting in competition through attempted modifications of the intelligence, military and financial investigations structures. This behind-the-scenes infighting represents a tactical vulnerability in the Albanian state’s intelligence capacities that can be exploited by would-be terrorists or others. Worse for American interests in Albania, new intelligence indicates that Russia’s SVR has embarked on a long-term seeding program through mixed marriages and businesses in the country, which will create new challenges for future US-Albanian security cooperation.

Further compounding the intrigue here is the long-standing interest in Albania of Greece, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, the Arab states and more recently, Israel. In addition to foreign interests, Albania’s indigenous Catholic and Orthodox communities (the other key components in the ‘national harmony’ plan) also represent attractive targets for ISIS, since disrupting this harmony could have serious long-term consequences in a country already plagued by emigration and high levels of organized crime.

  1. Bring Back the Fighters through Increased Migrant Streams

The main question that Western intelligence services have been modeling since the situation in Syria started to go south was what effect returning jihadists would have on their European countries of origin. While the EU and Western governments were slow to act, and particularly to share intelligence with Turkey, the major jihadist route, they have started to work better in identifying returning fighters. However, this only applies to those who are recognized or identified. Many more are unknown and can easily blend in with the general stream of migrants. This is most acute in the Turkey-Greece-Macedonia route and the Libya-Italy route. The latter theater of operations is where many Syria fighters have been sent by sea to join the burgeoning war for ISIS expansion in North Africa.

Two specific vulnerabilities are compounding the difficulty in identifying returning Balkan fighters. One is that, following a new tradition, these fighters began to ritually burn their home passports (sometimes for the cameras, as propaganda elements) as an expression of their determination to follow the caliphate’s cause and to show that their personal sense of identity was no longer with the home country. The second issue owes specifically to a former Bulgarian foreign policy goal of creating ‘new Bulgarians’ by giving passports to locals of countries (everywhere from Moldova to Macedonia to Albania and Montenegro), who were willing to claim Bulgarian heritage.

Of course, Brussels has frowned on this practice, which has been used by Balkan residents eager to find work in the EU by having member state (Bulgarian) papers. But the aspect of it that caused security alarms and kept Bulgaria out of the Schengen Zone is that a number of ISIS or Al Nusra terrorists in the Middle East have been known to travel with Bulgarian passports obtained through the ‘national outreach’ program of recent years.

Identifying persons who may be known by home authorities in their original country is made more complicated because the transliteration process from Latin to Cyrillic letters does not always match up, meaning that ‘one person can become two’ rather easily. And this is not even mentioning the ease of obtaining false Balkan passports from counterfeit shops as far away as Bangladesh.

In general, the ever-increasing migrant flood will continue as Greece looks after its first priorities – its own citizens – and reduces policing on its borders with its northern neighbors. The EU is thus in a novel situation of illegal migrants entering non-EU Balkan states from an EU member state. This ground reality is rather the opposite of everything the EU has based its migration policies on, and it has no answer for the problem it is creating for aspiring candidates Macedonia and Albania.

The hastily-agreed internal EU migrant resettlement program that will not involve Bulgaria (on account of poverty) and Hungary (on account of fierce domestic opposition) does not consider non-member states, or the damage that member states can inflict on them- damage that will eventually continue further north, in the heart of the EU. Countries like Macedonia, Albania and Serbia are thus being left to their own devices, while the risible successes of Frontex on the Greek-Turkish border continue to bring ever more migrants to European shores, instead of dismantling the main trafficking networks.

Similarly, the lack of political will for a North African coastal blockade is already having its inevitable effect; increasing numbers of migrants, and increasing right-wing populism among European parties that play to anti-immigration fears, leaving the EU ever more divided on a policy-making level. All of this will have negative results for the kind of multi-national security cooperation required in order to separate potential terrorists from legitimate asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Since everywhere ISIS goes yet another indigenous population is forced to flee, we can only expect migration to Europe to increase, as the so-called international coalition continues to demonstrate no interest in eradicating ISIS once and for all- though the policy folks are doubtless working hard on crafting ‘counter-narratives to radicalism’ from the safety of their own desks.

  1. Assassinate Diplomats/Politicians and Target Westerners in the Region

Another avenue of destabilization that ISIS could conceivably take would be the path of assassinations or attacks on Western interests in the Balkans. This kind of terrorist act would in fact be so easy to accomplish that it is a mystery why it has not happened so far. Most Western embassies and cultural centers in the region barely have a solid fence, and even fortified compounds (like the ones the US is fond of building) have vulnerabilities.

Beyond the ramparts, there are more than enough moving targets for terrorists. Official diplomatic appearances including seminars at hotels, speeches at rural spots, parties at bars and so on are frequent and well advertised in advance through media and social media. For a committed terrorist, attacks on such events or personnel would be simple. Kosovo media has reported today that security fears are so high, in fact, that the annual July 4th celebrations in the ostensibly most pro-American country on earth may be cancelled.

Yet possibly even more destabilizing than this ‘Sarajevo scenario’ (referring to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914) would be the assassination of local politicians. In modern Balkan history, attempted and successful assassinations have ultimately been linked to organized crime or rogue elements within governments aligned with it. But the relative frequency of official public appearances by Balkan leaders, especially in an already tense atmosphere of internal infighting and mistrust, multiplies the potential damage from any such attack. And ISIS supporters, were they to carry out such a crime, would not even need to take the credit in order to cause massive civic unrest.

At present, Bosnia – still, an international protectorate with a visible foreign presence and well-known radical Islamic communities – would be the most likely place for an assassination attempt or other attack on Western interests. With the tension over Srebrenica and its commemoration feeding latent mistrusts, now would be an ideal moment for terrorists to exploit maximal benefit from such an attack.

Kosovo, another semi-protectorate where international officials have taken a very strong stance about the need for a domestic war crimes tribunal, is another spot where an attack on ‘the internationals’ could be carried out by ISIS, who if necessary would have plausible deniability, since the focus of a war crimes tribunal is on the country’s secular nationalist, not its Islamic figures. It is frankly mystifying why Western leaders are so adamant about alienating their former paramilitary protégés at the exact moment when the Islamic terrorism threat is becoming more acute.

  1. Target US/NATO Facilities on the ‘Eastern Front’

A less likely but similarly possible plot that would have disproportionate geo-political effects would be an attack on a recently enlarged target: US and other NATO troops dispatched to the ‘Eastern Front’ in the Russian near-abroad. This line of deterrence against perceived ‘Russian aggression’ will encompass the entire periphery from the Baltics and Poland down through Romania, Bulgaria and even Georgia. While this is perceived by its planners as a solid line of deterrence, it also represents a new enlarged target for terrorists.

While there have previously been US troops in Romania and Bulgaria, the number will increase significantly. Defense News reported earlier this year that “the addition of Romania and Bulgaria brings the number of soldiers conducting Atlantic Resolve training and exercises to about 1,900, up from about 900 now, officials from U.S. Army Europe said.”

The difference here, compared to long-established bases in countries like Germany or Italy is that construction, expansion and logistics are still ongoing and there are obvious situations wherein hostile actors could infiltrate the supply chain. Similarly, beyond the base, US servicemen out for a drink in friendly and open towns like Sliven or Constanta would be defenseless targets for committed terrorists.

With the focus of NATO’s mission squarely on Russia to the east, not enough attention is being paid to the south and west, where returning jihadists or their local sympathizers could attack the ever-increasing number of so-called ‘Western crusaders’ in the Balkans. An attack from ISIS or its sympathizers against newly-arrived US or other NATO soldiers would also damage the fragile cohesion of a coalition and general cause, the validity of which many European leaders already do not share with the US.

An Islamic terrorist attack on Western soldiers on the ‘Eastern Front’ would thus further increase dissent among politicians and populations who remain dubious about the reality of an actual Russian threat, something that would leave NATO and the EU internally more divided still.


A truly effective anti-terrorism strategy regarding the Balkans (and Europe in general) must accept that the operative conditions on the ground have changed fundamentally in the last year. It must also accept that there was a general failure to predict and prepare preventative measures for a radicalization trend that has been obvious for the last 10 years and more. This is not due to a lack of intelligence; indeed, as a CIA official mentioned to the present author last year, the agency had predicted the eventual radicalization of some Balkan Muslims as far back as 1999.

This indicates, yet again, that the real problem is on the political and policy-making side, which remains fundamentally allergic to the wise old adage that states, “it’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Along with the problem of egoism, the lack of trust and clear cooperation between countries, and the ambivalent role of international security and political organizations continue to reduce the effectiveness of fighting terrorism. In order to address the vulnerabilities of each country, institution and multilateral relationship in time to defeat potential terrorist attacks, Western actors will have to engage much more substantially with regional countries. This will require the European Union and its national governments to put aside their political differences and undertake a radical rethink of security cooperation with countries beyond the bloc.

Pope Francis To Visit Albania, with Future Vatican Balkan Events in Preparation

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

Visit’s dedicated Vatican coverage page

Buy The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans: Bolstering the Catholic Church in 2015 and Beyond on Amazon Kindle

On September 21, just eighteen months after his election, Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Albania, populated by Catholics, Orthodox and Muslim believers. It will be the second Papal visit to Tirana; the first, by Pope John Paul II, occurred in 1993, a few years after democracy came to the former Communist atheist country.

Preliminary Comments from the Pope

In fact, the Pope himself mentioned, in a far-ranging interview conducted on his private plane while returning from South Korea in August, several factors that made Albania an attractive choice: history, current political and social dynamics and, of course, proximity.

“I’m going to Albania for two important reasons,” said Pope Francis. “First, because they were able to make a government – and let’s think of the Balkans, eh – a government of national unity among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious council that has helped a lot and is balanced.”

The Pope also mentioned the distance – that a trip to Albania would be doable in a day – as well as the historical element, oddly classifying Albania, which apparently “of all the nations in the former Yugoslavia, was the only one that in its constitution had the practical atheism.” Despite the geographical error, the Pope seemed to be very well-informed on the number of churches that were destroyed or reused during Communist times.

This combination of crafted perception and detailed facts is significant in that it indicates information management strategies and methodology that are revealing concerning the Vatican’s diplomatic goals in the region, and those who wish to influence it (for a detailed study of this subject, see below for details on the upcoming Special Publication on the Vatican’s role in the Balkans, which will be available on Amazon Kindle at the end of September).

Organizational Considerations of the Papal Visit

Pope Francis’ visit to Albania is being coordinated by Albert Nikolla, head of the Albania branch of Caritas. Founded in 1993, this has become one of the most significant Catholic charities, with a global reach. Nikolla is working closely with local Catholic leaders, such as Archbishop of Tirana Rrok Mirdita. He will also coordinate with Vatican officials such as Papal Nuncio to Tirana Archbishop Ramiro Moliner Inglés, and the powerful Domenico Giani head of the Vatican’s Gendarmerie Corps. In 2008, in response to threats from Islamic militants, the security body created two counter-terrorism sub-units, and the Pope’s recent conditional support for countering ISIS in Iraq has raised speculation that he may be a target of the terrorist group internationally.

Albanian state security agencies are coordinating efforts with the Vatican’s Gendarmerie and Italian counterparts. “Oh, the Albanian officials are terrified that something could go wrong,” one informed individual with knowledge of the event tells us. “This is why they have taken measures, quietly, to guarantee security.”

If the common goal is reached and Albania can organize a seamless and safe visit, it will bolster the incumbent government and improve Albania’s reputation in the Catholic and wider world. Whether or not it actually increases turnout at Sunday Mass in the future, of course, remains to be seen. Recent discussions with local people in the (admittedly, Orthodox-majority) southern parts of the country indicated relatively low interest in the Pope’s visit.

Practical Itinerary of the Papal Visit, September 21

The Pope’s official itinerary, released on July 31, provides for an 11-hour visit with multiple meetings and a mass in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana (the city’s international airport is also named for the famous but controversial Catholic nun, who was born in neighboring Skopje, Macedonia). As reported by the Catholic Herald, the itinerary includes a 9:30am welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, and meeting with Albanian President Bujar Nishani. At the same location, the Pope will see officials from the Edi Rama socialist government.

The outdoor mass – which probably represents the biggest potential security concern of the day – will follow at 11am. It will be followed at 1:30pm by a Papal lunch with the bishops of Albania in the apostolic nunciature. Later, at 4pm, the Pope will meet with “leaders of other religions and other Christian denominations” at the Catholic University of Our Lady of Good Counsel, where he will also give a speech.

Following a 5pm celebration of vespers with clergy and laymen at Tirana Cathedral, Pope Francis will meet local children at another charity, by the Bethany Centre, another charity. It is expected that other Catholic charity representatives present in the country will also attend. Then it is off to the airport for a farewell ceremony. If all goes according to plan, the Pope will be home in Italy by 9:30pm.

Optimism for the Future

Albanian Catholic leaders have voiced their enthusiasm over Pope Francis’ visit, and there are already tangible signs that the community will try to build on the momentum generated by the visit to plan future events that will increase Albania’s stature in the Balkan Catholic world. This could also have diplomatic ramifications in the future.

In a July 31st interview with Vatican Radio, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Tirana, Rrok Mirdita said the country’s Catholic Church was very “grateful and happy” for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit. Archbishop Mirdita added two talking points- about Catholic “martyrdom” during the Enver Hoxha regime, and that Albania should be perceived as “an exemplary model of peaceful co-existence” between different religions, citing the country’s Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations.

Over the past five or six years, the concept of ‘inter-religious dialogue’ has become quite the fashion in the Balkans, drawing support from politicians as well as outside actors like Tony Blair and the Qatar Foundation. In the post-9/11 world, it is a diplomatically useful and often quite lucrative business to be in, meaning that it is rarely executed in good faith.

To his credit, Archbishop Mirdita balanced out the perceived positives when he specified ‘corruption, poverty, unemployment and organized crime’ as persistent problems in Albania, which need to be overcome. He also specified that the country has Europe’s youngest population, and this fact alone makes it attractive for the Vatican, which is fighting a losing battle across much of post-Christian Europe. As such, the archbishop’s optimism that the Pope’s visit will help “anchor the faith” of Albanians points to a longer-term strategic plan.

The Papal visit is thus expected to generate some further activities in future. High representatives of the Community of Sant Egidio, another prominent Catholic NGO that has been active for many years in Albania, appeared in Tirana on the 25 and 26 of August for promoting a future event, one which will focus on the entire Balkans, and be held in the Albanian capital. can confirm that this event will be held jointly with Vatican, local Catholic and government officials on September 5-6, 2015.


Albania Oil Industry Enjoys Revival, but Investor-Government Relations Remain a Question Editor’s Note: recent tales of tattooed and muscle-bound Western oil workers laboring in coastal oil fields, while expressionless men in dark suits and sunglasses stand watch for trespassers, only piques existing interest in Albania’s revitalized energy sector and goings-on there. In the following special report – which discusses the major players involved, legal issues and technical data  –  readers get an inside view into an important emerging trend with regional implications for economy and possibly political life.

By Vlad Popovici and Chris Deliso

With additional contribution from Ioannis Michaletos in Athens and Stavros Markos in Tirana

The last few years has seen considerable foreign investment in Albania’s oil sector, a trend that is increasing and that involves not only onshore, but also offshore and refinery investment. Much of what is happening in this lucrative industry remains opaque, however, and issues such as privatization practices have been politicized.

The fossil fuels industry has a long history in Albania, where bitumen was mined in Roman times. Modern oil extraction started in the 1930s and, despite that Albania never became a global oil producer, reached production levels by the 1970s that made the country one of the main Balkan oil producers for a time.

However, plagued by inefficient management and obsolete technologies, Albania’s oil production declined and was on the brink of extinction in the post-independence 1990s transition period. However, in the last seven or eight years, the Albanian oil sector has been revived by foreign oil and gas companies looking to invest. While the major deals are involving onshore oil, other foreign investors have recently entered the game for offshore finds, though decisions are being delayed as the players consider proposed EU regulations which would have an impact on offshore drilling.

Albania is thus now looking at the prospect of becoming once again self-sufficient over the next 3-5 years, by eliminating the need for oil imports. And it could even find a new vocation as a small regional oil exporter, though this is not yet a done deal. Further, international watchdogs and investors are on the lookout for any signs of corruption or problematic dealings with governmental authorities, something that in the Balkans is a chronic issue.

From Boom to Bust

During Roman times, the region near Vlore in southern Albania was the center of significant bitumen extraction activity. Modern oil exploration and extraction started during World War I and, in 1928-1929, significant oil fields were discovered. These were the Kuçova field and part of what is now known as the Patos-Marinza field; today this is one of the largest onshore oilfields in Europe.

Mussolini was tempted by Albania’s oil resources and the refinery in Cerrik, near Elbasan in the south, was built during the Italian occupation in WWII. After the war, the Soviet Union also became interested in Albania’s oil resources, and developed a dominant role in the country’s oil sector.

Following the severance of diplomatic and commercial ties with the Soviet Union by dictator Enver Hoxha, China took the lead in the country’s oil sector and supported Albanian efforts- achieving a peak production of almost 43,000 barrels per day (bpd) or 2.2 million tonnes per year. This production level was enough to cover domestic consumption needs, and freed up some crude volumes for export.

However, in 1978 Albania broke off diplomatic relations with China too, and local oil production entered into a seemingly terminal decline. In the 1980s, the petroleum and bitumen sector was still employing 10% of the Albanian workforce, but its share of the national industrial production declined from 8.1% in 1980 to 5% in 1985, and even less than that at the end of the decade.

Oil sector growth was restricted by factors like obsolete technology that reduced oil field production yields, a lack of exploration to replace produced reserves, a lack of investment in extraction equipment and a very limited and aging transportation and refining infrastructure.

By 1990, oil production was down to 23,500 bpd (or 1.2 million tonnes/year).The breaking down of the Communist regime and its ‘central-planning’ economic system at the beginning of the 1990s worsened the oil sector’s problems. It was being run on autopilot by the national oil company (known as the DPNG until 1992 and Albpetrol after that), and oil production from the existing and aging low-recovery yield wells reached less than 9,500 bpd (or 475,000 tonnes/year) in 1994 [PDF]. No bottom was in sight and the entire Albanian oil sector seemed on the brink of extinction.

Factors: Known Reserves, Unknown Reserves, and the Difference for Investment

So far, Albania has not seen any investment from the oil majors. Rather, the players involved are small companies, some appearing to have been set up specifically for operations there.

To some extent, this is how the oil and gas industry works. Oil and gas supermajors, such as ExxonMobile, Royal Dutch Shell and BP tend to be on the lookout for those smaller companies that have already found oil and gas reserves, to renew their own oil and gas reserves.

For their own exploration activities, the supermajors usually focus on established production regions, where, even if they drill a new well, discovery chances are higher than in an unknown region where proven reserves are limited or non-existent. Thus regions like West Africa, the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico take precedent over newcomers like Albania, Greenland, Suriname/French Guyana and the Falklands.

These unexplored new regions thus become niche markets for small players. Since the risks are huge, they have to focus their efforts, and usually on only one region. In fact, many small players disappear because they drill three or four wells, that turn out to be dry. Of course, if they hit pay dirt, the result is different.

The strategy of many of these companies, not unlike that of internet start-ups, is actually thus to find oil and gas and then be acquired by a major. This is the next step once a new production region is opened; the oil majors and supermajors will arrive in a second wave. In a recent example from the Balkans, in Romania’s Black Sea, Sterling Resources and other “small fish” spent almost two decades doing the groundwork, and now ExxonMobil is currently drilling offshore, with Petrom (OMV).

In the case of Albania, it is not yet clear whether the majors will arrive, which is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as those who participate abide by the law and pay their dues to the state.

Auspicious Developments: the Petroleum Law and PSC Definitions

On the legislative side, however, things have started to change for the better. They process actually began in the mid-1990s; in 1993, a Petroleum Law was adopted and amended in 1994 (and yet again in 2008) to create a legal framework for the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons in Albania.

According to the Petroleum Law, the Albanian state, which owns all the oil and gas reserves in the country and is represented by the National Agency of Natural Resources (AKBN) can enter into Production Sharing Contracts (PSC) with state or private companies. These PSCs give exclusive rights to the state’s partner to explore and produce oil and gas in a defined perimeter for 25 years (five additional years can be added to the PSC if the partnership is successful).

According to the law, the first five years (or up to seven, in specific cases) of the PSC can be dedicated only to exploration, and minimum exploration and production investment requirements can be included in a PSC. After the operating partner deducts its exploration and production costs from the oil revenue, the remaining revenue is split between the partner and the Albanian state. The law states that the revenue split should be separately negotiated for each PSC and the state’s part can be paid either as a monetary royalty or in crude oil. The operating partner also pays corporate income tax, but does not pay any custom duties for the equipment imported for exploration and production.

Several licensing rounds were held for both onshore and offshore perimeters during the 1990s and many companies, from small independents to oil and gas majors got involved and performed a lot of preliminary survey work. An Albanian study from 1995 concluded that the approaches that had the largest potential of increasing the oil and gas production in Albania were existing field rehabilitation, enhanced oil recovery and more onshore and offshore exploration. Although the stage was set from the legislative point of view and many companies have shown initial interest, Albania was still waiting for a first mover to start production in the country beside the state-owned Albpetrol.

Bankers Petroleum: Leading the Onshore Revival

After this legal framework had been set to enable foreign corporations to explore, the breakout came in 2004. In that year, Bankers Petroleum, a small Canadian independent oil and gas company, signed a PSC with AKBN for the Patos-Marinza and Kuçova fields in central Albania. These fields are close to the Adriatic coast and to the city of Fier.

Bankers moved quickly to start production in Albania. This was mainly done by taking over existing production, shutting down wells and rehabilitating them to re-start or increase production. The company’s commitment here was rewarded by the rapid and large-scale increase of its Albanian average oil production, from around 600 bpd in 2004 to more than 13,000 bpd (equaling 665,000 tonnes/year) in 2011.

The company invested more than $450 million between 2007 and 2011 for the Patos-Marinza production development alone; in addition, it started re-developing the Kuçova field in 2011, while also improving the processing, storage and transportation infrastructure. This includes new treatment facilities, a new pipeline from Fier to Vlora and other necessary infrastructure.

Impressive Results and Ambitious Expansion Plans for Bankers

The most impressive result to date of the company’s foray into Albania is probably the exploration campaign that exponentially increased the Patos-Marinza reserve size. Here, the original oil in place increased from 2 billion barrels (bbl) in 2006 to 7.5 billion barrels in 2010, turning the field into one of the biggest, if not the biggest onshore oil fields in Europe. The proven reserves, along with the probable (those most likely to be extracted) ones have also increased, from 100 million bbl in 2006 to 227 million bbl by the end of 2010.

For 2012, the company announced in December 2011 [PDF] a capital investment budget of $215 million, expected to be fully financed with funds generated from the existing production. In March 2011, Bankers took over Albpetrol’s remaining interest in the Patos-Marinza field and plans to increase production here by 30%  in 2012, to an average of around 17,000 bpd. It will also start a ramp-up in production at the Kuçova field through enhanced oil recovery; here, it has set a production target of 2,250 bpd for 2015. Bankers Petroleum also plans to continue exploration in these fields, as well as in the Block F, a 750 square km block contiguous to the Patos-Marinza field, and a prospective site for natural gas and oil.

The long-term development strategy of Bankers Petroleum follows the conclusions of the above-mentioned Albanian report: reactivation of existing wells, enhanced oil recovery (through waterflood and modern thermal techniques) and increasing reserves through modern exploration techniques (especially horizontal well drilling).

Another Foreign Producer: Stream Oil and Gas

Bankers Petroleum is not, however, the only new producer in Albania. Stream Oil and Gas, another small Canadian oil and gas company, has signed a PSC with AKBN for three other aging producing fields: Cakran-Mollaj, Gorisht-Kocul and Ballsh-Hekal. These lie south of the Patos-Marinza field, near the city of Ballsh. The PSC also cover the small producing Delvina gas field. The company has increased its production during 2011 from under 2,000 bpd to 4,000 bpd, and plans to reach an average of about 15,000 bpd (more than 765,000 tonnes/year) in 2015.

Albanian oil production has more than doubled since 2004 and – thanks to Bankers Petroleum, Stream Oil and Gas and Albpetrol as main producers – had returned to the 1990 levels of 21-22,000 bpd (1-1.2 million tonnes/year) by the end of 2011. And this seems to be just the beginning. Domestic oil production already covers an increasing share of total Albanian consumption- estimated at around 30-35,000 bpd (1.5-1.8 million tonnes/year).

Despite Legislation Uncertainties, San Leon Energy, Beach Energy and Emanuelle Adriatic Look into Offshore Development

The companies investing in Albania thus far have been focused mostly onshore, but there are signs that offshore developers are on their way- as with the former, they tend to be small entities. The already high-risk gamble of energy research in Europe is complicated further there by proposed EU regulations on offshore oil and gas exploration and production. These regulations and the rationale behind them have been proposed but not yet approved, and are discussed in more detail in the e-book, 2011 Balkan Year in Review.

If the regulation is approved, it would mean a stricter offshore regime and increased compliance costs for companies. All of the players are currently in wait-and-see mode. This is another factor that drives up the risk for investors and that therefore might account for the lack of development in Albania’s offshore oil resources thus far.

However, two foreign companies have now gotten into the act. The first, Dublin-based San Leon Energy PLC, made news recently by announcing that it has identified “several large oil and gas prospects” on its 4,208 sq km offshore license near Durres. It has isolated “several large structural oil and gas prospects and is revealing large stratigraphic potential,” Oil and Gas Journal reported on January 17, 2012.

“The possibility of using seismic amplitudes to greatly reduce exploratory risk further demonstrates the high potential of offshore Albania,” the report added, noting that San Leon “is interviewing potential partners and plans to drill the first of two exploratory wells in late 2012 or 2013.” Unlike the onshore investors, San Leon has a larger portfolio, working in seven countries including the US and the Netherlands.

According to company data, the license it received from the Albanian government in February 2011 gives it a 75% share. The remaining 25% interest is held by another company, Beach Energy Limited of Australia. The latter “has agreed to pay 50% of the costs, rather than their 25% working interest requirement, for the upcoming 3D seismic programme,” states San Leon’s website. This is to be “in exchange for an option which, if exercised, will allow [Beach Energy] to hold a 50% working interest in the licence going forward.”

The second offshore player in Albania today, Cyprus-registered Emanuelle Adriatic Energy Ltd is actually a subsidiary of a large and diversified Israeli holding company, Israel Land Development Company. It was awarded the PSC for offshore blocks in 5,070 square kilometers of Albanian waters, an area that has not seen much activity yet. The companies that have offshore blocks will wait to assess the impact of the EU’s new proposed offshore oil and gas EU regulations for their costs and operations.

The agreement with the Israeli company was signed on January 15, 2012 and, according to Globe’s, “will state that Emanuelle Adriatic Energy’s rights to operate in the offshore blocks, and to carry out the work plan that will be agreed for seven years, and will include milestones that the company will have to meet after three and a half years, and after a further two and a half years.”

The capital investment by the Israeli company for this project reportedly amounts to $730 million. The company’s stock rose slightly after the deal was announced, and there have been rumors that Turkey is unhappy about it and the spreading of Israeli interests here. Thus it is not impossible that we will see further conflict over the contract on an internal political level.

It will be interesting to see whether Albanian offshore activity can catch up in the future with onshore activity. The main difference, however, is that investors know there is oil onshore, and any new entrant can thus start either by enhancing production at existing Albpetrol wells, or by rehabilitating closed wells. This makes onshore Albania a more mature production region, whereas offshore Albania has never experienced oil or gas extraction. Thus at present the offshore sector is in the much earlier discovery stage, which anywhere in the world is characterized by high risk and high stakes.

Refinery and Technical Issues

ARMO, the former state-owned refining company, was privatized in 2008 (the Albanian state still owns 15% of the company). ARMO has a refinery in Ballsh (1 million tonnes/year capacity) and another in Fier (0.5 million tonnes/year capacity).

In 2011, ARMO signed agreements with both Bankers Petroleum and Stream Oil and Gas for crude oil supply. Although the third Albanian refinery in Cerrik near Elbasan has been shut down for at least 10 years, the government in 2011 announced that it intends to privatize it as well. However, this dilapidated refinery was built during World War II, and investors do not seem keen to invest in refining capacities in Europe.

Technically speaking, Albanian oil is heavy, requiring more processing than light oil, and it is therefore being sold at a discount compared to lighter oils in Europe; its pricing is based on the Brent oil price, and the 2011 price levels were 60-75% of the Brent price [PDF]. However, Albanian crude can be refined, and in addition to the Albanian refineries, this is being done by Spanish, Italian and Greek refineries along the Mediterranean coast. Albanian heavy oil is currently being exported by small tankers to these countries.

The government’s goal of refurbishing ARMO’s capacity was indicated again on January 31, 2012. Switzerland-based Foster Wheeler AG, a global engineering and construction contractor and power equipment supplier, announced then that it has been awarded a contract for a feasibility study, according to Business Wire.

A subsidiary of its Global Engineering and Construction Group will undertake the study for the modernization of ARMO’s Ballst and Fier refineries. The study is being done in line with ARMO’s goal of restoring production “to the original design capacity and produce transportation fuels in line with current European Union regulations. The press release announced that the study is expected to be completed by mid-2012.

New Outside Interest: Outlooks for Future Investment

The success of Bankers Petroleum and Stream Oil and Gas in reviving Albania’s moribund oil sector have attracted other small and medium-sized oil and gas companies that hope to become producers in the country in the near future.

The most probable near-term new producer is Petromanas Energy. Petromanas holds three PSCs with the Albanian government. Under the terms of the PSCs, Petromanas has a 100% working interest in six onshore blocks (Blocks A, B, D, plus E 2 and 3) that comprise more than 5,600 square km across Albania’s Berati thrust belt, and that also include the 2001 Shpiragu-1 light oil discovery in Block 2.

An independent study from 2009 estimated the undiscovered reserves of these blocks at 3 billion bbl of oil, and 84 billion cubic meters of gas (Albania’s current gas production is marginal, and is being used for power generation). Petromanas is now finalizing discussions with potential joint ventures partners before launching the development of its concessions in Albania. A drilling rig has already been leased for work in the country during 2012.

An Albanian Broadcasting Company report of September 28, 2011 mentioned the deal. In a bilateral meeting, Besjan Pesha, Executive Director of the National Agency of Natural Resources, praised Petromanas, and noted that its work could “revolutionize” the industry in Albania. The company’s representative, Malfor Nuri in turn praised Pesha and the Agency for their cooperation.

A Controversial Privatization: The Case of Albpetrol

The 100% privatization of Albpetrol, approved on December 16, 2011 by parliament, could further increase Albanian oil production, if successfully finalized with a strategic partner that has the resources and know-how for oilfield rehabilitation, enhanced oil recovery and exploration of new areas.

In 2010, Albpetrol’s assets were valued by a company executive at almost $500 million. This figure included not only production assets, but also pipelines, storage tanks, buildings, and so on. However, a recent media report put the annual oil production of Albpetrol at 135,000 tonnes/year (about 2,600 bpd).

This privatization by the Berisha government was criticized by the opposition. The government noted that payment for Albpetrol would be made in cash. While it raised some eyebrows it is not that unusual (clearly, any government in the world would prefer to get cash rather than future investment promises). This news added to the controversy over the privatization in local media, though.

Further, concerns linger concerning the company’s real value. While Albpetrol was valued by its manager in 2010 at $500 million, as mentioned above, we believe it unlikely that an investor would pay more than half of that amount for the company. It will be interesting to follow the unfolding of the proposed privatization during 2012 and see which investor(s) might be interested.

Sky Petroleum’s PSC Cancellation

It has not all been smooth sailing for foreign investors in Albania’s oil sector, however. In June 2010 a small Texas-based outfit, Sky Petroleum, became the fourth foreign oil and gas company to sign a PSC with the Albanian government. However, Sky’s PSC was unilaterally cancelled by AKBN in November 2011. The company believes that the PSC should be reinstated, and in December 2011 it thus proceeded with arbitration against the Albanian Ministry of Economy, Trade and Energy and AKBN. Sky Petroleum is seeking monetary damages of $1 billion from the Albanian government if the PSC is not reinstated. Yet since the blocks lost by the Texans are onshore, where the EU has no involvement, the Albanian government can do whatever it pleases.

By any standard, this was a significant PSC cancellation. The license affected covered 17% of Albania’s total area. It would have given the Texas company exclusive rights to three exploration blocks totaling approximately 5,000 square km: blocks 4 and 5 in the south at the Greek border and the Dumre block close to the Patos-Marinza field. Previous work on the blocks had identified 10 prospects or exploration leads covering approximately 435 sq km, believed to contain up to 900 million barrels of oil equivalent of recoverable hydrocarbons.

Although AKBN stated that Sky Petroleum did not comply with some of the PSC requirements and missed a deadline for presenting a bank loan guarantee, the company believes it is in compliance, and that the deadline was missed because of the multiple top management changes at AKBN during 2010-11, which made it impossible for the company to obtain a meeting with AKBN in order to present the required bank documents. Some industry analysts have speculated that political preferences, outside competition, or even corruption could be the cause of the PSC unilateral cancellation.

Seeking to get further clarification on the matter, contacted Sky Petroleum. In an e-mail response, Corporate VP Michael D. Noonan stated that “unfortunately due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the arbitration process we are unable to comment about the current situation in Albania.”

However, Mr Noonan did note that Sky Petroleum has “prepared and filed several United States of America – Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC’) filings on SEC Form–8K regarding this and other matters.” For further information on current news releases, SEC filings, analyst reports, and other corporate materials he refers the public to data on the Sky Petroleum website.

In the end, whatever may be lurking behind the case, Sky Petroleum’s experience shows that frictions can still occur between authorities and foreign investors in Albania, notwithstanding the relatively stable oil industry legal framework.

Public Perception and Criticism of Government and Investors- Justified or Not?

Aspects of the oil rush, including research, investors and the way that successive governments have handled both, have for years been discussed and debated in Albania. Criticisms have been made sometimes according to political motives, as well as on technical and scientific grounds in some cases.

An example of the latter was Albanian geologist Dr Telo Velaj’s recent interview for Gazeta Telegaf on January 5, 2012. He stated that past governments did not hold foreign exploration processes to a high enough scientific level, leading to incorrect estimations that in turn led investors to pull out, thinking that the country was not profitable. He added that the Albanian state bore “a great deal of responsibility… by not exercising proper control.”

From the scientific point of view, Velaj compared the Albanian Adriatic geology to that of Italy, where relatively large hydrocarbon deposits have been found. For this reason, Velaj suggested Italy’s ENI as an experienced prospective partner with the right knowledge for the Albanian situation.

Such views show that parts of the Albanian public is not satisfied with the way the country’s resources are managed and that the government could better communicate the details and rationale of PSCs signed with foreign investors, as well as their long-term energy sector strategy. The tax and royalty structure should be explained to the public and the benefits for the Albanian Treasury should be better quantified.

However, public suspicions over perceived disparities in profit splits (one is given in the Gazeta Telegraf interview) are often not warranted, or are based on misunderstandings. Companies – foreign or local – that have PSCs signed with the Albanian government pay a 10% royalty from their total revenues to AKBN. In cases where they took over previously producing wells from Albpetrol, those companies pay an additional pre-existing production royalty to Albpetrol.

In the case of Bankers Petroleum, according to the January 2012 investor presentation (.PDF) on the company’s website, the total royalty expected to be paid in 2012 is close to 17%, and will be between 14.8% and 16.2% for every year from 2013 to 2016. Beside the royalty, all oil and gas companies pay a 50% tax on their profits. It has to be understood that Albania is competing with numerous other countries, many of them with a much more developed oil and gas sector, in attracting capital to explore and produce its hydrocarbon resources.

Therefore, the tradeoff is between a prohibitive government take (royalty plus tax in this case) that will discourage any oil and gas company from investing in Albania (thus leaving it with terminally declining production), and a government take that allows foreign and local companies to make money by investing in the Albanian oil and gas sector, thus increasing local production and tax revenues.

Finally, the predominant presence of small oil and gas companies is normal in the early stages of the development of a new production region, and should not be a major concern if their activity is properly monitored by the government, and if their agreements with the government (PSCs) are transparent and well managed.

One reason for public criticism and fears, here as elsewhere in the Balkans, might have to do with mentality- a conviction that business agreements are done behind closed doors, and rife with hidden clauses. Although this might be well the case in some cases, from what can be seen in Albania’s case, corruption might occur rather as consulting fees paid to get a PSC or so. Once it is in place, the PSCs seem to be very transparent in practice.

In addition, public concerns about small investors having little oil and gas experience are also often misplaced. The fact that a company is brand new, and only seems to invest in Albania (for example), does not necessarily mean anything bad. Canada, Australia, the US and other countries have provided many examples of serial mining and energy entrepreneurs who, after having created a company and selling it for billions to a major mining or oil company, create another one focused on a specific emerging producer, with the same goal.

Thus, the people behind the companies are very important. Albania (and all Balkan countries) should not discourage small and medium-sized companies from investing- indeed, it is also much easier to negotiate a favorable agreement with a smaller company than with one of the supermajors.

A Short Delay Likely for Aspiring New Producers

At this moment, does not foresee any other significant oil or gas producer in Albania before 2015. Although several offshore blocks have been awarded, as has been discussed, no significant exploration activity has taken place yet.

In October 2011, the European Union proposed a new Regulation for offshore oil and gas exploration and production activities. Initial feedback from the offshore operators indicates that the proposed regulation would create additional compliance costs. The regulation would apply to Albania as well, as a Contracting Party of the Energy Community. These additional costs, as well as the absence of any offshore oil and gas infrastructure and industry experience in Albania, will probably block any significant oil and gas offshore activities for the next several years.

Adding Up the Numbers: Oil Production and Future Scenarios

Overall, a positive assessment can be reached even from a conservative estimate, excluding any other potential players still to be named. In a likely scenario, increased oil production from Bankers Petroleum, Stream Oil and Gas, plus initial production from Petromanas and constant production from Albpetrol (or, the company that will buy Albpetrol), sees Albanian oil production reaching around 45-50,000 bpd in 2015 (2.3-2.5 million tonnes/year).

This figure amounts to more production than at anytime since 1974- when Albania reached peak production, allowing the country to cover all its domestic consumption and export the balance (5-10,000 bpd or 255-510,000 tonnes/year).

By comparison, no other country in the Balkans currently has any relevant oil production other than Romania and Turkey. According to EIA, Romania still produces around 90,000 bpd (4.6 million tonnes/year), but its production has fallen into steep decline, while Turkey still produces only around 45,000 bpd (2.3 million tonnes/year).

Therefore, becoming an oil exporter – even a small one – will give Albania some political leverage in the Balkans as well, further to some other energy transit projects that would involve Albania, especially the natural gas pipelines such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline or South Stream.

During 2011, oil production alone probably added $400-450 million to the Albanian economy, representing almost 4% of the country’s GDP. If the Brent oil prices stay around 90 USD/barrel for the next 3-5 years, this increased oil production in Albania will contribute about $1 billion – or between 7 and 8% of GDP – to the country’s economy by 2015.

If the domestic oil refining activities and all the construction activities linked to the oil sector (such as new pipelines, expanded export terminals and roads) are factored in, the cumulative contribution to the GDP can be pegged even higher. Increasing oil production in Albania might impact the country’s standing, the regional power structure, economic development and possibly the success or failure of proposed energy projects elsewhere.

Oil export from Albania to Italy could reduce the need for the long-promised AMBO pipeline. Greece might become more interested in having a small but stable supply of oil from Albania, now that the Burgas-Alexandroupoli oil pipeline is defunct and the country has to divert its oil import sources away from Iran for the foreseeable future, due to the international embargo against that country.

The alternative for Greece would be to turn to other plans, such as increased domestic exploration, which unfortunately requires money not available now, or else, participation in Cyprus/Israel offshore endeavors (which has tense political implications with Turkey). The prospect of having its northwestern neighbor become dominant in energy affairs does not sit well with Athens. At the same time, as stated above, the Turkish State Oil Company (TPAO) is reportedly unhappy about the Israeli offshore investment, and could try to make a case for itself behind the scenes.

Conclusions: Beneficial Development Possible, if Reforms Continue

A clean and smooth development of the hydrocarbon extraction and processing sector in Albania presents both a challenge and a huge opportunity for the country. The oil and gas regulatory framework must remain stable and free from any political interference- though the latter in particular is always challenging, given traditional Balkan power and patronage structures.

A successful privatization of Albpetrol – if this is indeed launched and finalized – will be an important test for the authorities. The government’s strong and continuous commitment to the development of the oil and gas sector is critical, as is transparency.

In 2009, Albania became a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global initiative that works towards increasing the transparency and accountability of the extractive industries, including oil and gas. EITI’s reports from 2009 and 2011 show that the Albanian oil and gas industry relations with the government are generally considered to be open and transparent.

Howevcr, the possibility of fuzzy financial reporting is also suggested, specifically in the case of the cooperation of foreign investors and the government during today’s oil industry revival. Reported oil production royalties are provided in the first report on Albania (.PDF) published by EITI, in 2009. This report was crafted soon after the country became a member of EITI.

One of the things that the report looks at is whether the royalties and other amounts declared by oil and gas companies as having been paid to Albpetrol or the Albanian government in fact match the amounts reported by the Albanian government. The numbers given in the report (referring to the year 2009) reveal that a generous $600,000 was missing from the government’s reporting. In the oil industry, this is not a huge amount and could be a reporting error. On the other hand, one cannot exclude the possibility of corruption in the involved government agencies. It will be interesting to follow the future EITI country reports to see if such discrepancies persist.

Appendix: Companies, Entities and Notable Figures

The following information is based on, and refers to, official data and the official websites of some of the entities mentioned in the current article. The references are provided in order of their appearance in the text. This information accurately represents the data listed on the websites in question at the time of this article’s publication; please note that this will not be updated to take note of any changes that may occur in future.

National Agency of Natural Resources (AKBN)

Based in/location: Albania

Executive Director: Besjan Pesha

Activities: Governmental oversight of the renewable energy, hydrocarbons, mining and hydroenergy sectors

Ministry of Economy, Trade and Energy

Based in/location: Albania

Minister: Nasip Naço

Activities: Governmental ministry overseeing the economic sphere, including energy sector

Bankers Petroleum

Based in/location: Canada

Other Major Projects: None

Board of Directors: Robert Cross (Chairman); Abdel F. Badwi; Ian McMurtrie;

Gen Wesley Clark (ret.); John Zaozirny; Eric Brown; Phillip R. Knoll; Jonathan Harris


Based in/location: Albania

Activities: State oil company

General Manager: Ferdinand Murati (as of August 2011)

Stream Oil and Gas

Based in/location: Canada

Other Major Projects: None

Board of Directors: Sotiris Kapotas (Chairman); Marlowe Allison; Ian Barron; Leslie Goodman; James Hodgson; George Mortakis-Martakis

San Leon Energy PLC

Based in/location: Ireland

Other Major Projects: Oil and Gas activities in the USA, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Morocco and Holland

Board of Directors: Oisín Fanning (Chairman); Philip Thompson; Paul Sullivan;  John Buggenhagen; Raymond King; Jeremy Boak; (Thomas) Daniel Martin Jr

Beach Energy Limited

Based in/location: Australia

Other Major Projects: Drilling and Production in Australia, Egypt and the US

Board of Directors: Robert Michael Kennedy (Chairman); Reginald George Nelson; Franco Giacomo Moretti; Glenn Stuart Davis; Neville Foster Alley; Belinda Robinson

Israel Land Development Energy (ILDC)

Based in/location: Israel

Other Major Projects: Holding Company for Real Estate, Media, Outdoor Advertising, Hotels and Utilities and Energy

Controlling Shareholders/Board of Directors: Jackob Nimrodi (Honorary President); Ofer Nimrodi (CEO); Shlomo Maoz (Chairman of the Board); Eliyahu Cohen; Ron Weissberg; David Schwartz; Smadar Nimrodi-Rinot; Ravit Nimrodi; Menashe Arnon; Chen Lavon

Note: ILDC Controls Emanuelle Adriatic Energy Ltd (incorporated in Cyprus). This subsidiary runs ILDC’s Albania operations, and in fact all of its energy projects.

Albanian Refining & Marketing of Oil (ARMO)

Based in/location: Albania

Activities: National Refining Company (Privatized)

Director: Rezart Taci

Petromanas Energy

Based in/location: Canada

Other Major Projects: None

Board of Directors: Verne Johnson (Chairman); Heinz Juergen Klaus Scholz; Jeffrey Scott; Gerard Protti; H. Werner Ladwein; Peter-Mark Vogel; Gordon Keep; Glenn McNamara (Director and CEO)

Sky Petroleum

Based in/location: Texas, USA

Other Major Projects: Mubarek Field (UAE offshore)

Board of Directors: Karim Jobanputra (Chairman): Robert P. Curt: Michael D. Noonan; Oliver J. Whittle

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Spy Book Reveals Operational Details of 1998 CIA Balkan Counter-Terrorism Operation

A Special Report by Director Chris Deliso in Skopje

Buried deep within a comprehensive history of the CIA’s technical wizardry from the Cold War through to today’s war on terrorism are some intriguing, but overlooked disclosures: previously unknown details regarding a sensitive CIA clandestine operation against Islamic terrorists in the Balkans.

Although the country’s name is not specified in the book, an analysis of available data within the larger historical context indicates beyond doubt that the operation occurred in Tirana, Albania in October 1998, in a joint effort with a CIA station in Western Europe, and probably the one in Rome.

The story becomes even more pertinent today considering the ongoing upheaval in Egypt against the longtime government of President Mubarak, and mass escapes of Islamists imprisoned by him. The prominent CIA role in some of those detainments could conceivably provide a motivating factor for future terrorism against American interests. In any case, the implosion of the Mubarak regime means that decades of sensitive intelligence cooperation could be undone, should the country’s security services be infiltrated by hostile parties.

During the 1990s, Albania became a safe-haven for members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Their members – some of them fugitives wanted by the Mubarak regime – were drawn to Albania for its proximity to Europe, weak institutions, and the existing presence of a large Islamic charity network which could provide them with “legitimate cover.” Albania thus represented a place of perceived escape; however, the CIA also came to have concerns that American interests in the country were about to be targeted as well- hence the need for an urgent operation.

This CIA Balkan operation is recounted in a fascinating and highly-recommended recent book, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al Qaeda (Plume, 2009). It details for the first time how the obscure but effective Office of Technical Services evolved, becoming a vital part of the US intelligence apparatus, with its ever-expanding array of unorthodox spy gear, technology and reconnaissance teams. For the authors, former OTS director Robert Wallace and noted intelligence historian H. Keith Melton, it took several years and much administrative wrangling in order to get permission from the agency to publish this insider’s account of what went on behind the scenes.

While the vast majority of Spycraft is devoted to other matters, the anecdotes concerning Albania make fascinating supplementary reading for those interested in the Balkans, counter-terrorism and understanding the covert tactics of terrorist organizations. The following analysis discusses the revelations that come from the book in both historical context and in terms of the value that can be derived, for pure intelligence understanding, from the episode. Finally, a chronology of key events happening before and after the CIA operation is provided.

Setting the Stage: Key Context for the Operation

The CIA anti-terrorism operation chronicled in Spycraft was just one among many others conducted in Albania since 1995, when several foreign terrorist suspects were arrested and secretly rendered out of the country. These actions had ultimately been necessitated by the reckless and opportunistic policy of the Albanian government in the early 1990s, when then-President Sali Berisha allowed foreign Islamic radicals to establish a foothold in the country, under the tacit support of the then-intelligence chief Bashkim Gazidede. (Following the March 1997 riots and the toppling of Berisha’s government, Gazidede fled to Syria and then Turkey; he returned to Albania several years later and died of natural causes in 2008).

The first round of joint operations occurred in 1995, however, when the Berisha administration was still in power. At the time, the CIA cooperation with a special branch of the SHIK that had been set up to deal with Islamic terrorists infiltrated into the country. A SHIK officer involved at the time, Astrit Nasufi, would years later tell the Chicago Tribune that the unit was essentially run by a US intelligence officer they knew simply as “Mike.”

Among several important developments was the detainment and (temporary) recruitment of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian living in Tirana. Commonly known as Abu Omar, this man would in 2003 be kidnapped off a street in Milan by a CIA team- an audacious abduction caused an outcry among the Italian public, legal threats and, possibly, ruined a surveillance operation that was being conducted by the Italians.

Before apparently leaving Albania and discontinuing his cooperation with the SHIK, Abu Omar provided a few precious bits of intelligence. These included information on Egyptian Islamic Jihad figures in Tirana, and terrorist branches in the UK, Germany, and Italy; in the latter, most significant was Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute, at the time a base for mujahedin operations in Bosnia. (Soon after these revelations, Italian police raided the premises).

The second major round of CIA-SHIK operations occurred in 1998, a year after the country had descended into anarchy following the collapse of crooked pyramid schemes. The Berisha government was toppled and the rival Socialists took power in July 1997. At the same time, tensions between ethnic Albanians and the government in neighboring Yugoslavia were being felt, as a new militant group – the “Kosovo Liberation Army” – stepped up its operations. The Albanian diaspora in America and elsewhere intensified lobbying efforts, eventually winning the support of diplomatic figures such as Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, and diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

However, the intelligence community was more skeptical. For example, an October 1998 report from the Office of the DCI Interagency Balkan Task Force noted that “…US mass media propaganda vociferously attacked Milosevic and Serbs… [is] so blatant that it evoked letters to the editor from uninvolved readers for the obviously slanted coverage”.

For the CIA, politics was secondary to the business of providing security. In June and July 1998, several months before the operation documented in Spycraft, two raids on foreign extremists were conducted with the help of the SHIK and Albanian police. According to a subsequent Washington Post investigation of August 12, 1998, these raids netted “…a bag of faked documents and official Albanian government stamps needed to get past customs and police checkpoints [and] certify legal documents” at the home of a foreign “religious scholar,” Maged Mostafa. For the CIA, a prime security danger in Albania had always involved forgery and misappropriation of official identity documents, and these developments only reinforced this understanding.

The Post article noted that several suspects arrested in June and July 1998 were employed by Islamic charities associated under an umbrella network, bankrolled by the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee. Funded by private Kuwaiti citizens and interests through a Kuwaiti bank, the KJRC managed several charities including the Islamic Revival Foundation, which ostensibly aided “poor Muslim families and orphans in Albania.”

Headquartered in Tirana, it had established a strong presence in 1994. Since that year it had been led by Muhamed Hasan, one of the men arrested in the July 1998 operations. In late 1998, then-intelligence chief Fatos Klosi would attest for media that Osama bin Laden himself had visited Albania to organize his charity network in 1994.

Following the arrests, Muhammed Abdul-Kereem, director of the IRF’s orphan assistance program, stated for the media that “we are not taking advantage of the humanitarian assistance to make some other things.” After Hasan was detained, he was replaced at the IRF by Sudanese national Ibrahim Meki, who had “directed the [charity’s] educational institute for several years.” This institute was described in the August report as comprising four buildings “…surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire, [with] a sign on its guardhouse stating that only five cars are allowed to pass the gate, including four listed as holding Kuwaiti diplomatic license plates.”

In 2008, Meki (in his same job capacity) would be expelled from Albania, along with Egyptian national Abdulaziz Muhamed, director of a charity called Goodness of Kuwait, and Mamun Awad, director of the Islamic Vakf Society. Taken together, this would seem clear proof that together with bin Laden, Kuwaiti groups during the 1990s and at least until 2008 have directly sponsored extremist activities in Albania.

Further, for the Post report in August 1998, the institute’s general secretary, Sulejman Kurani, attested that its teaching staff hailed from Sudan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, adding that $80,000 had been donated by the charity to help “refugees” in the northern town of Tropoje- “a town that also is a key locus of arms stockpiling and smuggling by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group fighting to win Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic,” according to the newspaper. This mountainous region was (and is) the stronghold of Sali Berisha, then leader of the opposition Democratic Party.

However, when in July “euphoric” SHIK agents told the local press that the CIA had been involved in the terrorist round-up, al-Qaeda and its supporters were enraged. Several of the men had been rendered to Egypt, where they were reportedly tortured by the authorities. On August 5, a statement co-signed by al-Qaeda promised retaliation for the Albania raids. Two days later, terrorists attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring over 5,000.

On August 20, President Clinton launched symbolic missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. However, while those attacks had occurred in Africa and been masterminded from Azerbaijan, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s perceived desire to attack American and other embassies returned the CIA’s attention to Albania, where after the attacks embassy staff had been relocated to a compound outside Tirana.

Soon thereafter, another SHIK operation resulted in the detention of one man believed to be planning an attack on the embassy; however, another one escaped. This is when the present story begins.

Planning the Operation: Ingenuity, Assessment and a Bit of Luck

Planning for a detailed operation to find and apprehend the second plotter began in the days immediately after the bombings, when a high-level CIA team visited Tirana to liaise with the SHIK. Despite the significant results achieved in previous operations, the CIA knew that the entire terrorist network established in Albania had not yet been uprooted, and that the operative at large could pose a future threat. However, to make sure nothing went wrong, and to limit further damaging exposure, they would have to come up with a foolproof plan that would disguise Agency involvement.

The exciting account given in Spycraft (pages 343-347) regarding how the CIA team planned its October 1998 Albania operation combines a little bit of everything: deception and stratagems, technical artistry, the use of covert devices, game-planning for various scenarios and so on. Almost ironically, in planning and the unexpected result, it is bookended by the use of two very different concealment devices.

Crucially, the narrative is enlivened with the first-hand testimony of the former OTS officer who led the technical preparations, Brian Mint. The testimony he provided to the authors indicates a combination of factors. First was a situational assessment, and analysis of the psychology and motivations of the at-large suspect, believed to be “a primary al-Qaeda forger who specialized in altered travel documents.” The OTS technical team became involved when wiretapped communications indicated contacts between the suspect and known terrorist cells “in Western Europe.”

The individual (who had apparently gone underground after the capture of his comrade) was married to a local woman, who claimed no knowledge of his whereabouts when asked by police. For the CIA, this man was a valuable target, as his capture “…could produce a wealth of intelligence through the identification of the alias identities of other al-Qaeda operatives along with exemplars of their passports, driver’s licenses, and other travel documents.” Indeed, as the authors recount, “finding the other terrorist became an obsession for the handful of case officers and techs.”

Since the Tirana terrorist underground, and the charities that sustained it had been so severely damaged by police actions since 1995, the CIA officers knew that accessing cash would be a problem for the fugitive. The intercepted communications revealed that al-Qaeda was using “a female cutout” (that is, a courier or go-between). This woman was identified and, in order to find the suspect, the CIA team needed to find a way to follow her in order to locate him.

The idea of combining technology with concealment via public mail was a risky but potentially brilliant method of gaining access to the fugitive without arousing suspicion. “According to Spycraft, “…the concept involved implanting a tracking device as well as an audio transmitter in a package sent to the cutout who could reasonably be expected to deliver it to the target.”

Brian Mint, overseeing the mission, was more skeptical that it could work than was the (unnamed) case officer, who enthused, “we know [the suspect] needs money… he’s gotten funds from Western Europe before and he’s looking for more. You put money in some package with tracking and audio devices and we can get him.”

Despite the inherent challenges, the case officer’s idea prevailed, and a team of technical experts was hastily assembled. While the CIA had long experience in creating myriad unique secret devices over the years, this one required a particularly ingenious design, in that it had to be a “double concealment” object. That is, the device sent through the mail would have to appear innocent enough to pass through the mail, and have not one but two secret cavities- one for the money that they hoped the terrorist would find, and the other for the electronic tracking equipment that they hoped he wouldn’t.

Acquiring and Modifying the Device

The next step, according to the book account, came when a technical officer “was dispatched to look for suitable concealment hosts.” The CIA team believed that “European tourist trinkets” would offer the best option, “since an inexpensive ‘gift’ would not be alerting to customs officials or others handling the item during transit.” Further, the intended recipient “would likely assume the gift was more than it appeared based on its point of origin.”

Thus, although it is not stated in the book, it seems clear that this phase of the operation involved dispatching the technical officer to the Western European city from where the item would need to be mailed- and to find something appropriately touristy to match that place.

The account given in Spycraft does not indicate how much time elapsed between the brain-storming sessions that planned the operation and this subsequent field research. It should not have required more than a few days however. The point of origin where the object was acquired can be deduced both by the 1995 revelations of Abu Omar, about the existence of affiliated terrorist cells in Italy, Germany and the UK, and by the description given of it in Spycraft: a wooden wall plaque with a metallic plate, engraved in outline with the image of an Italian cathedral and words reading ‘Saint Susanna.’ Considering that the ancient Church of Santa Susanna is one of the most famous in Rome, it is highly likely that this plaque was acquired and mailed from that city to Tirana.

However, before this souvenir could be sent, it had to be modified by the techs. After carefully removing the metal faceplate, they carved out a cavity in the center of the plaque “large enough to hold small-denomination bills worth several thousand dollars.” A special note scrawled in Arabic was added, telling the intended recipient “brother we are with you. Hopefully this will get you by until we’re able to contact you again.” Refastening the plaque with a strong adhesive, that could nevertheless be removed with some twisting, the techs then carved out the final touch- “a second compartment at the edge of the plaque large enough for electronics and batteries for two weeks of continuous transmissions.”

Sending and Receiving the Device

This two weeks of battery life was an issue of paramount importance; sent through the regular mail, the package could take as much as a week to arrive in Albania (that is, if it did not first arouse suspicion of postal workers or customs officials on either end, or simply get lost). The team would have to hope for the best- and, that the package would be almost immediately brought to the suspect’s location, otherwise the batteries could die and all their effort be for naught.

The note in Arabic had been necessary, in order to avoid arousing suspicion from the receiving party. But the team also sought to enhance the perception of legitimacy by mailing the device in a package “with labeling to give it the appearance of originating with the European terrorist cell, reads Spycraft. Since terrorist cells quite sensibly do not advertise themselves as such, it seems likely that the authors are hinting that the “labeling” referred to here pointed to an Islamic charity or other front company which would not arouse outside suspicion, but which would be known to the recipient for what it was.

This would mean that the CIA had not only identified the terrorist entity in question (again, probably based in Rome), but that they had either acquired some of its stationery or had been able to acquire an example of it to work from in order to create a reasonable forgery.

And, of course, in order for the whole mission to work at all, the team would have had to assume that the recipient in Albania would be unaware that the apparently sending organization had been compromised to such an extent. (Note that the book does not mention who personally delivered the package to the post office, or if that was an area of concern during the planning stage).

After the package had been sent, the OTS team got to work in Tirana, preparing its specially-equipped vehicles with audio tracking and surveillance equipment devices. All they could do was wait for the pieces of the plan to fall into place; as team leader Mint recalled, “all we knew was the address of the person we thought was the cutout… if that assumption was wrong, the operation ended. Further, we didn’t know if we would be able to keep our van with the audio receiver within the transmitting distance of the bug. We did what we could and hoped for the best.”

The CIA team enjoyed good luck. The package made it safely through the mails, and arrived at the address of the woman who was correctly identified as being the al-Qaeda courier. After being observed opening the package, she “read the Arabic-language note, and fifteen-minutes later, with the package tucked under her arm, began walking across town.”

The Operation Unfolds

At this point, the dual-concealment device tracking operation took on cinematic dimensions. The suspicious courier, not tipped off to anything untowards but still wary, was observed undertaking a “basic surveillance detection run,” states Spycraft. Making various stops, backtracking on certain streets, “she boarded a bus that took her into one part of town, changed buses, and headed to a different section.” However, the surveillance team – said to have been “unobtrusively” following behind – kept track of the courier with the package and “was eventually led to a neighborhood known for a militant Islamic presence.”

There, the woman disappeared into a two-story home behind a walled compound. A short while later, she came out again- this time without the package. What the authors describe as “local security” – most likely, Albanian police units – established a 360-degree perimeter “while the techs set up a listening post in a nearby house within range of the transmitter.”

This last detail is especially interested, though not explained further in Spycraft. Since an American covert surveillance team laden down with sensitive electronics cannot just walk into a private home in a foreign country (not to mention, at the exact moment it becomes operationally necessary to do so), it seems that the Albanian intelligence service must have previously selected a technical safe house in this “rough neighborhood.” It also means that they had somehow kept it from being discovered by local radicals. And thus the structure would likely have also possessed a back entrance or some similarly low-key area for the team to get in without incurring visibility and suspicion.

At the same time that the technical staff began picking up chatter from “several people” opening and discussing the package, an assault team of local police was assembled. The surveillance team then picked up scratching sounds from the plaque’s metal facing being removed; “the techs and case officers wanted to cheer as the concealment passed its first test. The target has recognized that the souvenir was more than it appeared and found the cavity concealing the money.” The team kept listening throughout the afternoon and into evening. And then something went wrong.

The Police Assault- and a Final Concealment Revealed

Stating that “the terrorist’s voice suddenly became agitated and his wife sounded emotional,” Spycraft explains that the technical officers surmised the suspect had detected surveillance on the perimeter while planning to leave the house. However this reason is not definitively claimed. There is also no mention of what happened with the “several” people – assumedly, more than two – initially described). “Then the techs heard the distinctive sound of a weapon being cleared and a round chambered.”

With this stark warning in mind, the Albanian special police prepared for an after-dark assault. After dark, and with the house gone absolutely silent, they stormed the building, concentrating on the second-floor apartment where they believed the suspect to be hiding.

However, a quarter-hour search revealed nothing, and the OTS time was stymied. “Either he managed to slip through the security around the house or he was still in there, hiding somewhere,” recalled team leader Brian Mint, who authorized a continued search. Yet after another hour, the police had found nothing, and the suspect’s wife claimed no knowledge of his whereabouts.

Believing that the operation had come to an end, the CIA officers entered the building to at least retrieve their concealment device, which “they found opened underneath the bed of the second-floor apartment.” It is not stated whether the suspect had discovered the second concealment cavity with the tracking device- if so, this would have clearly been the reason for his agitation a few hours previously, in which case the Albanian perimeter security officers would not have been the reason for the second change in the suspect’s demeanor and decision to arm himself.

Yet just as the OTS team was preparing to leave, “pistol shots and burst from automatic weapons fire came from the kitchen, followed by loud noises.” Apparently, the assault commander had returned to the apartment kitchen for a final look: “either curiosity or policeman’s instinct prompted him to move a small washing machine from against the wall. As he struggled with the surprisingly heavy appliance, a cavity between the back of the machine and the wall was exposed.”

The action then reached its final crescendo: “at that moment the armed terrorist, who had been hiding inside the washing machine, fired a single shot that hit the commander in the chest. Another nearby officer returned fire, recounts the book. “The terrorist rolled out of the machine and continued to shoot until he was killed with a burst of automatic fire from the assault team.”

The final strange irony of the account given in Spycraft concerns that the unfortunate terrorist had himself long been aware of the existence and use of concealment devices- the authors add:

“Closer inspection revealed that the working elements of the washing machine had been removed to create a hiding place just large enough for one person. Access to the concealment was obtained by removing the loosely attached tin backing and crawling through to the cavity.”

The operation was thus concluded, and was considered a success. Unlike during the disastrously publicized operations of a few months earlier, reads Spycraft, “press reports the following day made no mention of the Agency’s operational or technical role in the action, though the assault team along with the wounded commander, received deserved accolades. The OTS techs were satisfied to have played an unpublicized role in removing another terrorist from the seemingly endless war.”

The Concealment Operation: Final Assessments and Thoughts

There are several lessons that can be drawn from an assessment of this operation, relevant for both historians and intelligence practitioners. A study of both what actually did happen – and what could have happened differently – is instructive in our understanding of both disciplines.

For historians, the major conclusion that can be drawn from the account given in Spycraft is that Islamic radical networks present in Albania in the late 1990’s were highly organized, employed professional means of evading surveillance, and were well-armed. Their heightened levels of suspicion – justified after years of being hunted by police – were nevertheless not completely foolproof.

Another important point is that the Albanian police and intelligence services were enthusiastic and cooperative with the CIA in attempting to rid their country of the terrorist scourge. That they were capable of assisting with the operation, maintain secrecy, follow the courier, and execute the operation was quite an achievement, considering that the SHIK had been essentially reconstructed and retrained for barely over a year, at the time. It is also quite remarkable considering the considerable distraction presented by preparations for an imminent NATO intervention in Kosovo, and the concomitant preparations for Islamic charities to bring hundreds of new people into the country from all 1998 onwards.

For intelligence practitioners, every facet of the operation – from conception to conclusion – is relevant. First, the operational leader had to be convinced of the feasibility of sending a concealment device through the mail and it appears that it was only the enthusiasm of the case officer that won him over. Had it failed along the way, it was not likely to have been attempted again, at least not in the same theater of operations. The CIA would then have had to conceive of another way of accessing the individual- something that could have grown more difficult as further time passed.

And, had the tracking equipment been detected by the courier or suspect, not only would a covert foreign intelligence role have been assumed, but also the Islamist organization on the sending side would have been made aware of the deception- something that would certainly have caused communications with the Albanian cell to cease.

It might also be noted that the sheer physicality of the concealment device marks it as an essentially 20th-century tactic, meaning it might not even be considered today when there are many new and different means of communication and access to funds than existed at that time.

While the operation was generally successful, the fact that the suspect had been killed instead of taken alive was unfortunate. After all, one of the key goals stated in Spycraft was that the suspect could, if taken alive, “produce a wealth of intelligence through the identification of the alias identities of other al-Qaeda operatives along with exemplars of their passports, driver’s licenses, and other travel documents.” Since he was killed in the police raid, however, these secrets died with him- though certainly the police would have recovered some documents or other data of importance.

The only lingering mystery left from the account given in Spycraft lies with the use of the word “several” to describe the number of individuals heard conversing within the house by the technical officers, once the concealment device arrived. Since this adjective implies the presence of more than two individuals, it is a bit odd that the rest of the account mentions only “the terrorist” and “his wife.” It is not possible that the crucial third party could have been the female courier, since she had left before the team heard conversations.

We are then left with an enigma: either the adjective “several” was mistaken, or other individuals were present in the house and had either somehow escaped before the police raid, remained in hiding during it, or been killed as well and just not mentioned. None of these are likely. For the third to be the case would have to mean that other individuals killed were either unexpected “collateral damage” that could provoke embarrassment if revealed, or such high-value targets that they could not be revealed even in passing. This mystery remains unresolved in the book’s account.

Appendix: Chronology of Events

The following events provide a timeline within which context can be established for the specific operation analyzed above, while also illustrating in general the intriguing convergence – and sometimes divergence – of global security events and US foreign policy of the time.

January-March 1997: The collapse of massive pyramid schemes leads to widespread anarchy in Albania, leaving over 2,000 dead and toppling the government of Sali Berisha.

April 1 1997: Caretaker Prime Minister Bashkim Fino announces the immediate suspension of the SHIK (Shërbimi Informativ Kombëtar/National Intelligence Service); its director, Islamist-supporting Bashkim Gazidede and his deputy, Bujar Rama, both resign.

May 30 1997: Arben Karkini is named new director of the SHIK.

July 1997: Fatos Klosi replaces Karkini as head of SHIK, following Socialist Party victory in July 1997 parliamentary elections forces Berisha government into opposition. Numerous personnel associated with the old regime are removed.

September 22 1997: A former director of the SHIK, Shkëlqim Agolli is found stabbed to death in his Athens home. Albanian media reports that the assassination was done by a Vlorë-based group, Komiteti Shpëtimit (Commission of Salvation), created after the riots.

October 1997: CIA sends a team to Tirana to begin a three-month training course for reforming the SHIK.

February 23 1998: Osama bin Laden issues his first fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Jews and Christians throughout the world; the order sparks concern among the CIA.

February-March 1998: Albanian SHIK intercepts “chatter” between terrorist groups both within and without the country, including conversations with Egyptian Islamic Jihad members and its leader al-Zawahari.

Spring 1998: SHIK Director Fatos Klosi is called to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia for a briefing on future course of action.

June 25 1998: Egypt issues international arrest warrant for Tirana-based fugitive Shawki Salami Attiya.

Late June 1998: CIA-supported SHIK operation captures Tirana-based extremists Attiya, Ahmed Ibrahim Nagar, Mohammad Hassan Tita (Muhamed Hasan) and Mohamed Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, believed to have been sponsored by Osama bin Laden; however, another suspect is killed and two others escape. CIA recovers significant quantities of internal documents and computer equipment.

July 1998: Following the successful operation, “euphoric” SHIK agents unfortunately leak details of CIA involvement to the media, infuriating al Qaeda and its supporters

July 1998: Two weeks after the raid, another CIA-supported SHIK operation nets two more suspected terrorists.

August 5 1998: al-Qaeda publishes a statement vowing a response to the American-led Albania operation “in a language they will understand.” Statement is signed by bin Laden umbrella group International Islamic Front for Jihad.

August 7 1998: al-Qaeda terrorists attack US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring over 5,000.

August 12 1998: The Washington Post reports that senior US intelligence officials have in the previous few days visited Tirana to discuss the operations, unfortunate media leak and East African embassy bombings with SHIK officials.

August 20 1998: While vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., President Clinton announces success in that day’s ‘Operation Infinite Reach.’ This bombing of an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant is a largely symbolic act that fuels more hatred of America among jihad supporters worldwide.

October 1998: CIA-organized raid executed by Albanian strike force raids EIJ safe house, leaving one suspect dead (operation recounted in Spycraft)

November 29 1998: US embassy non-essential employees in Tirana, removed due to fears of another attack similar to the East Africa embassy bombings, were still being kept from returning to the job, a sign that the whole al-Qaeda network had not been uprooted.

March 22 1999: NATO intervention in neighboring Kosovo begins.

April-June 1999: Thousands of new personnel, and millions of dollars in cash and supplies, enter Albania under the control of Saudi, Kuwaiti, Pakistani and other foreign Islamic charity groups. Liaise with existing charities some of whom have been direct targets of CIA investigations in the past.

June 9 1999: NATO bombing ceases as peace agreement reached, leading Yugoslav forces to withdraw from Kosovo.

June-July 1999: From Tirana, Saudi and Kuwaiti Joint Commissions for Relief in Kosovo fund massive efforts to assist refugees returning to Kosovo. Subsidiary cooperators include groups that will be linked with al-Qaeda later.

July 1999: Following NATO’s victorious Kosovo campaign, a celebratory visit to Tirana by US Defense Secretary William Cohen is cancelled over fears of Islamic terrorists.

November 1999 The SHIK is given a new name, State Intelligence Service (Sherbimi Informativ Shteteror, or SHISH)

August 7 2002: SHISH Director Fatos Klosi, the man who cooperated most closely with CIA, is removed from his position by President Alfred Moisiu; the move, reportedly ordered by the man who had originally nominated Klosi in 1997, Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano, is described in media as being politically motivated.


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Albania’s Parliamentary Election 2009: Is the European Dream at Risk?

By Enza Roberta Petrillo*

The European Union emerged from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as a force that seemed capable of guaranteeing stability and peace in a part of the European continent perceived as a fracture-zone, an area of Europe known for its clashes.

Since 1991, Albania has radically changed, undergoing a complex transition period and a controversial process of institution-building. In contrast with countries like Serbia, Montenegro or Croatia, in Albania the power structures inherited from the Communist period were destroyed or swept away during the 1990s, especially during the explosion of violent conflict in 1997. These old and disintegrated structures were replaced during a long period of transition characterized by lawlessness, with a growing gap between the southern part of the country and the northern, and what the historian Ian Jeffries describes as a kind of €š”gangster land anarchy.”

Ever since the end of Communism, Albania has looked to the west. Hopeful and optimistic, the country has dreamed for almost twenty years of EU accession. At the beginning of this year, however, came the cold shower: Brussels denied the submission of EU candidature before the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 28.

Why are these elections so important for the young republic? Many analysts perceive them as a sort of watershed moment between the past and the future. These two dimensions might actually be two side of the same coin. Since 1991, the country has experienced five parliamentary electoral rounds; in 1991, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2005. Albania’s first-ever free parliamentary election witnessed a 97 per cent turn-out in the first round on 31 March. This electoral round was strongly contested because the opposition parties were disadvantaged by their recent formation and by the lack of political experience. The ruling Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) won 56 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, mainly thanks to its continuing hold on the Southern Tosk part of the country, and on the political behavior of the agriculture population, many of whom feared that the Democratic Party (DP) would help the big private landowners regain possession of most of the country’s agricultural land.

The new People’s assembly first met on 10 April. On 29 April, the parliament passed an interim constitutional law to modify the 1976 Constitution: Albania became “The Republic of Albania” in place of “The People€šÃ„ô Socialist Republic of Albania”, and the leading role of the PLA was abolished. Although this party was of leftist persuasion, the government program presented by the premier, Fatos Nano envisaged an extensive privatization and a rapid shift to a market economy. These measures were violently contested with strikes and protest movements that caused the resignation of Nano as Prime Minister, followed by the Interim “Government of National Stability” headed by Vilson Ahmeti, until March 1992.

Macro-economic measures, price liberalization, privatization of large state enterprises and the collapse of the agricultural system exemplify the larger context surrounding the Presidential Elections of March 1992. The response to this electoral round represents one of the focal element of the recent history of the country.

The election of the ex-Communist and DP leader Sali Berisha started off the post-communist new deal of the Albania. Since 1992 Berisha has been one the most controversial political representatives in Albanian political life. His political profile coincides with the recent history of his country. From Communism to radical anti-Communism, from the age of 16 Berisha has tried all political approaches, from nationalistic authoritarianism to liberalism.

At the beginning of his mandate, Berisha was charged with being authoritarian and, in November 1994, called a referendum on a new constitution which, if approved, would have granted powers to himself as president, including the right to nominate the prime minister, dismiss ministers at the suggestion of the premier, as well as to dismiss or arrest the chairman and the members of the constitutional court and the supreme court with the approval of Parliament. The referendum failed, however, and several ministers were replaced.

The hard-line view of Berisha was demonstrated by the “Law on Communist genocide,” passed in September 1995 with the aim of prohibiting to anyone who had been a member of the old PLA central committee or the Communist Parliament from participating in national or local elections and holding jobs in the media or judiciary.

The first victim of this law was Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party.

Several analysts and international organizations monitored the Parliamentary elections of May 1996. Opposition parties accused the DP of practicing intimidation and electoral manipulation. These elements were confirmed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which spoke out against the presence of armed individuals and unidentified persons inside polling stations who had an intimidating effect on voters and polling commission officials. The Democratic Party won the electoral round, however, despite the protests of the opposition and the OSCE. Behind this second waltz, several analysts saw the personal triumph of Sali Berisha.

In the first period of his mandate, Sali Berisha received strong support from Western countries, especially the USA. In 1993, Albania signed an accord on military cooperation with the USA and introduced the International Monetary Fund’s economic reforms. Foreign trade liberalization, flotation of the Lek, price liberalization and a wild expansion of the private sector contributed to creating the peculiar socio-political context of the pyramid schemes crisis and resulting popular insurgency of 1997.

The international press paid great attention to these fraudulent investment schemes, which paid out artificially high returns to early investors, using money paid in by subsequent investors. In this way, during the 1990s many Albanian companies became wholesome pyramid schemes, with no real assets. Unlike in many other countries, these schemes had direct political implications. Two-thirds of the Albanian population had invested in the pyramid schemes, through companies which were engaged in criminal activities.

At the beginning of 1997, about one-third of all Albanian family lost their savings as a result of the pyramid schemes€šÃ„ô collapse. Violent protests, strikes, and spontaneous movements upset Tirana and Vlore. Troops authorized by the Parliament guarded roads and government buildings. Berisha chose to respond with an iron hand, and the opposition answered with the Forum of Democracy, an alliance created to persuade the government to set up a technical executive and then hold elections.

The increasing of political tension caused in Albania a radical change of the political and social discourse. Violence became prominent. Larger anti-government protests shattered Vlore. Berisha accused the opposition of fomenting the anarchy and the insurgency, ordering the arrests of opposition politicians and declaring a state of emergency. This phase marked the acme of Berisha’s regime and his point of no return, in the eyes of the international community. The European Union and Italy played the fundamental role in persuading the Albanian premier to accept a government of national reconciliation representing all political parties.

The fundamental year to remember for understanding the political transition of modern Albania is 1997. In March of that year, Bashkim Fino, leader of the Socialist Party, replaced Berisha as interim Prime Minister. The inflows of Albanian refugees to Italy made clear the multi-dimensionality of the crisis and the necessity of new elections. Under the monitoring of OSCE observers and the international peacekeeping force, the elections were carried out fairly successfully. Voters voted without intimidation, but OSCE observers also pointed out problems with the vote-counting process. The DP, with only 25 per cent of the votes and twenty-four seats, lost the elections yielding the government leadership to Fatos Nano.

From 1997 to 2005, the centre-left coalition had various government leaderships. The resignation of Nano as prime minister caused by his coalition’s division was followed by the centre-left coalition government headed by Pandeli Majko, until the parliamentary elections of June and July 2001. In those the Socialist Party won, obtaining 73 of 140 seats, and the second socialist government headed by Ilir Meta started. However, his was a short-term mandate: after a six-month dispute with Fatos Nano, Meta resigned. The national reform period came to a halt and a near total dependence on international and EU aid began.

Why, then, did the centre-left coalition implode? The primary cause of that alliance’s collapse was internal divisions. From 2002 to the parliamentary elections of 2005, Nano and Majko €šÃ„ì who returned to the premiership in February 2002 €šÃ„ì had personified the factional conflict within the Socialist Party of Albania. This barren political debate gave the dimension of a cultural and political gap between the parliamentary politics and the Albanian society. Political feuding between Nano, Meta and Berisha impeded Albania’s progress in social, political and economic reforms, stopping the country’s progress in negotiations with the EU.

After the first EU openings in March 2004, the European Commission accused Albania’s leaders of stopping the political reforms, also accusing opposition leader Sali Berisha of paralyzing parliament’s activities. The EU also criticized the country’s incapability to elaborate a strategy against organized crime and political and economic corruption.

Economic crisis, institutional transition, international relations and institutional reforms were the main themes of the parliamentary elections of July and August 2005. Thanks to an election campaign based on the promise to fight poverty, stimulate business and lower taxes, Berisha won the elections, becoming premier of the centre-right government. In 2005 thus began Berisha’s “New Deal,” a different political phase grounded on a collective dream: entrance into the EU.

This objective has represented an element of cohesion by which the entire country has agreed to move forward, especially regarding the reduction of illegal migratory flows to Italy and Greece. The European dream was fomented also by the EU decision of 2006 to sign off on a Stabilization and Association Agreement between Albania and EU. The condition to obtain the Accord were clear: functioning rule of law, protection of minority rights, harmonization of Albanian rule with EU legislation, a functioning market economy and the increasing of cooperation with the other Western Balkans countries.

Two years after these EU conditions were presented, what has happened to Albania? For his part, Sali Berisha seems to have chosen the 1990s revival theme, raising the rhetoric against the opposition, rather than addressing European Reformism. During the election campaign, he has accused the opposition of being tied to the Communist past.

On December 22, the parliament passed a controversial “lustration” law, which is expected to allow for the dismissal from public office of a wide range of officials who participated in “political processes” while serving in higher-level government positions under the communist regime, including judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. The vague wording of the law gives the government free discretion in determining what “political processes” means, thereby allowing it considerable freedom in determining if an official should be dismissed from duty.

International observers, including the OSCE and COE, stridently criticized the law and expressed concern that the law would allow the government to assert undue political control over the judiciary, undermine due process, and circumvent constitutional protections provided to judges, members of parliament, and prosecutors. Furthermore, the law states that persons subject to the law cannot participate in its judicial examination. This places the court in direct conflict with the executive, as several members of the court were reported to fall within the scope of the law.

The European Union does not seem to appreciate this sort of political performance. Also, shadows enshroud these recent governmental acts. At the beginning of 2009, the US State Department declared in its 2008 Human Rights Report that €š”there were problems in some areas. During 2008 the government attempted to assert greater control over independent institutions such as the judiciary, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the media. The government interfered in the ongoing investigation into the March 15 Gerdec arms depot explosion. Security forces abused prisoners and detainees and prison and pretrial detention conditions remained poor. Police corruption and impunity continued, as did discrimination against women, children, and minorities. While some progress was made toward combating human trafficking, it remained a problem.”

More than being on the road to implementation, EU standards seem to be further and further away. The Albanian Helsinki Committee and the Albanian Human Rights Group reported that police sometimes use excessive force or inhuman treatment. As reporting in the Human Right Report, police have frequently mistreated suspects at the time of arrest or initial detention. Roma, Balkan Egyptians, and homosexuals were particularly vulnerable to police abuse. The overall performance of law enforcement remained weak. Unprofessional behavior and corruption remained major impediments to the development of an effective civilian police force.

At the same time, the Ministry of Interior has started a new recruiting system with standardized procedures. In combination with the new system of police ranks, authorities expect this to improve the overall performance of the police. However, low salaries and widespread corruption throughout society made police corruption difficult to combat. However, the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption and, despite several arrests of high-level local and central government officials, corruption remained a major obstacle to meaningful reform and a serious problem.

*Enza Roberta Petrillo is an Italian research consultant on Balkan and East European Affairs, with a focus on institutional transition and social and human rights affairs. She has worked as a policy analyst for several research centers and international organizations and has collaborated as a freelance journalist with a number of newspapers, reviews and web-sites. She holds a master’s degree in Political Science and a PhD in Developmental Geography from the University L’Orientale of Naples.