Balkanalysis.com

Albania

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

Challenges and Opportunities for Albania and the Balkans: Interview with Edith Harxhi

In this exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Research Coordinator in Greece Ioannis Michaletos gets the insights of Edith Harxhi on the challenges and opportunities facing Albania and its role in the region, as well as her broader views on current issues like the migrant crisis, terrorism and the pace of EU reforms.

Ms Harxhi is the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Albania, and currently is the Executive Director of Albanian Policy Center (APC) in Tirana. Founded in December 2013 in Tirana, the APC is a think-tank whose focus and mission is to formulate and promote right-wing policies that are based on individual freedom, rule of law, free entrepreneurship, a “laissez fair” free market economy, low taxes, reforms and transparency, small government, national security and securing the Albanian national interest.

Edith Harxhi- Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Edith Harxhi, the refugee crisis “has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response” capacities.

Ms. Harxhi also previously worked as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania before assisting the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (Civil Administration) in UNMIK in several positions. In this capacity, she covered topics like police, justice, minorities and social welfare. In additions, she established the Office for Public Safety and prepared the strategy for the transfer of competencies in the security sector on behalf of the Kosovo Government. On behalf of the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, she also supervised the Office of Gender Affairs at the DSRSG’s Office and drafted the Gender Equality Law.

Geopolitical and Security Challenges for the Region

Ioannis Michaletos: The Southeast Europe region and in particular its Western part face a set of challenges, some perennial ones and others of a more recent nature. What do you think constitute the main threats and challenges that local governments should be aware of, and what are the most urgent priorities they have to set their eyes on?

Edith Harxhi: The Western Balkans since the end of the last conflict in the region in 1999 still faces quite a lot of challenges. These challenges have a geopolitical nature, security nature, economic and social which are local as well as external diffused challenges and local political challenges due to hybrid democracies, malfunctioning of democratic systems, autocracies, and political oligarchies.

First, the geopolitical challenges relate mostly to the interests and influences of big powers in the region, the convergence of the political axes and the re-emergence of old history and old alliances which date back historically. The Russian influence in the region has increased dramatically since the Kosovo War, and the aftermath of the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO as well as now during the Ukrainian crisis and the possible NATO accession of Montenegro to NATO. Russia’s old alliances with certain countries in the region, economic and trade influence in Montenegro and Serbia, military influence in Serbia and its political tendency to increase its influence in other countries of the region through political or economic or energy routes and agreements demonstrates once again the geopolitical situation in the region.

Secondly, security challenges are mostly related to the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO but also nowadays the invitation of Montenegro to NATO and the aspiration for NATO and EU accession of other countries in the region. There is no doubt that Russia has not seen these developments in a positive angle and has geared up to increase its role in the region either through strengthening the military cooperation with Serbia but also through investing in different sectors such as arms production, energy routes etc… Another security challenge is also the asymmetrical threats, or threats that all Europe is faced with, such as terrorism and violent extremism.

Thirdly, economic and social challenges have to do mostly with the current economic situation that the region is facing after the European and Greek economic and financial crisis, which has badly hit the entire region. The six western Balkans countries have inherited poor economies and are currently lacking reforms and brave privatisation processes, lack incentives for [attracting] foreign direct investments, and there is lack of trust in the judiciary.

Fourth, local political challenges are more related to the political systems in the countries per se, as well as deficient democracies and ruling political oligarchies in almost all the countries in the Western Balkans region. Widespread corruption, politically and financially captured judiciaries, captured and politically dependent media, and eccentric and autocratic political classes, as well as leaders who use any means to stay in power “by hook or by crook” and accept reform as yet another word in the political vocabulary without delivering anything- leaders who are not from the people and belonging to the people!

These are all priorities where governments and societies in the region should urgently turn their eyes toward and act, since malfunctioning democracies could also easily endanger now the stability of the region and can infuse further tension within countries as well.

The Migrant Crisis and EU Policy Failures

IM: Concerning the migration/refugee crisis, how do you view the situation unfolding both in terms of the likely opening up of by-routes from Greece to Albania for example, and in terms of the wider policy of the EU regarding this topic? Is the situation critical and out of control?

EH: It is a common understanding by now that unfortunately the EU has failed in dealing with the current refugee crisis.

We should first inquire as to the reason for the refugee crisis and the explosion of the refugee waves, which has turned into the most difficult problem for Europe since the end of WWII. I believe the EU could not produce a proper foreign policy and strategic plan in dealing with neither the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor with the Arab Spring, nor with the Syrian crisis. The situation in Syria needed real strategic planning by the EU and United States on how to deal with Assad and the many groups in action on the ground.

The EU does not seem to also have a coherent strategy regarding ISIS which now unfortunately rules over half of the territory of Syria and a good part of northern Iraq, and also controls big and important parts of oil and gas production in that region.

Thus one can easily believe that the refugee crisis was not [caused by] only neglect at the beginning, but also took Europe by surprise. In such a situation we have countries such as Greece, which is lingering with its financial crisis and Macedonia, which already has a political stalemate and very little financial and political support to deal with the big amount of daily refugees from Greece, as well as Albania, which is on the brink of a refugee wave too. They have very little to do to uphold such a situation on their own, when European countries are not willing to take any more refugees and have introduced Schengen as a measure to curtail the unwanted refugee influx.

Unfortunately the refugee crisis has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response and the weaknesses of this great project of the 1950s, which has not been able to unify these countries’ foreign and internal policies.

The EU should directly deal with the cause of the crisis, as well as try to find alternative solutions such as working closely with Turkey in order to hold up the refugee wave to Europe, help Balkan countries financially and politically in overcoming this difficult situation in their borders. At the end of the day the borders of the Western Balkans are European borders too.

IM: There has been a lot of talk regarding terrorism in Europe and the role of the Balkans, as a staging ground or as a logistics base for the preparation of attacks. Are local governments ready to deal with this situation and how can international partners (i.e. NATO, EU, OECD) assist? Do you assess the possibility of new terrorist attacks either in the region or beyond?

Following the current terrorist attacks in Brussels, one believes that no place in Europe is safe right now. However saying this one cannot exclude terrorist attacks in the region too but the probability is much lower not because we have any security set up as such as to face the attacks, but because any such attack will not mean much for this type of conventional terrorism whereby the attackers would like to break the taboo of European security just in the heart of Europe and the EU rather than produce numbers of innocent victims.

A terrorist attack in our region would be much easier to accomplish than in many European capitals as the region lacks security, cannot control well the borders among the Southeastern European countries and also borders that our countries share with the EU. The [regional countries] have very little exchange of intelligence, nor well trained authorities to prevent any possible attacks, and there is a lack of trust among the countries within the region.

Unfortunately on the other side, the region has produced elements and subjects that have joined terrorist groups in the world and this has come due to many reasons starting from poverty, unemployment, an insecure future and unstable present. These subjects are an increasing problem in the region and although they do represent neither a majority nor an average number of people in the region, they have been in the public eye and international media attention during the last five years. They have unfortunately portrayed a bad image of the region and Islam in our countries.

Security Risks of the Migrant Crisis

One cannot say that we are completely immune to terrorist attacks, for as long as we are part of Europe and the European Union’s neighbourhood, and for as long as there are still people from our region joining terrorist groups around the world. Although I do not believe that the Balkans are a logistic place for terrorists and terrorist attacks, one should also be aware of the easy ground we offer to terrorist groups around the world with all the trafficking in narcotics, human beings and arms that our region is famous for. Thus we go back to the issue of security in the region and how much have we invested in this type of security set up during the last 17 years since the end of the last conflict in the region.

Albania’s EU Path and Reforms Shortcomings to Address

 IM: Albania is in the process of being accepted in the EU in the foreseeable future. What are the main obstacles for that path and what needs to be done to overcome them? Do you think that the most important problem is of economic or of a political nature?

EH: After many years of transition from the communist regime, Albania became a NATO member country in April 2009. Almost two years ago in June 2014 Albania signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the country hoped that, like the others in the region, with signing of the SSA, the Commission would also give the recommendation for the opening of negotiations for membership.

Unfortunately Albania has failed to deliver many reforms that would enable the country to move towards opening of the negotiations. During the last three years the country has stagnated, and so have the reforms that had already started. Not only we have been unable to deliver on the five criteria put forth by the European Commission, but also the much-needed reforms in the country such as justice reform, education and health have either failed or stalled.

The economy has seen some of the worst days and figures since the fall of communism, with consumer trust going down in value less than in the year 2000 and staggering unemployment rates, with the real signs of a deflation and plummeting of FDI, together with the closing of some of the most significant production plants owned by large international companies.

Also, a fluctuating progressive tax, with no stable policy on tax collection and no oversight, massive corruption in customs and other areas in administration have increased the crime rate and trafficking of narcotics. The emergence of a political oligarchy, as well as a lack of accountability from government and politicians, are some of the main reasons for Albania’s drastic economic decline in the pas three years.

Also, MPs with a criminal past who were elected to parliament three years ago have been subject of the new law that was proposed by the opposition and passed two months ago, named the Law on Decriminalisation. Certain acts of the law and other by laws need to pass in order for the decriminalisation procedure to start in the parliament and administration. However, a lack of political will and probably the captured state of law and politics have made possible the withholding of the implementation process of the decriminalisation law.

Justice Reform Issues and the EU Membership Goal

The justice reform system has been one of the main conditions set by the EU for Albania’s progress in opening negotiations, however as with the other reforms parties have failed to reach a consensus. After months of discussions by expert groups and three different draft prepared by the three main parties in the parliament, the reform with its three drafts was submitted to the Venice Commission for further advice and suggestions. Though since its final argument it has been published, still consensus is difficult.

Justice reform, as the most important political reform in Albania during the last 25 years, should be apolitical, impartial, independent, transparent and credible. The decriminalisation process, justice reform and the law on the National Bureau of Investigation (a body that will investigate corruption and crime among politicians, administration and judiciary) are the Achilles heel for Albania’s opening of negotiations with the EU.

Remaining last in the region only before Bosnia Hercegovina which already has ethnic and identity issues, as well as Kosovo, a newly founded state in the region, puts Albania in a vulnerable position and the Albanians in an unstable and uncertain situation at home. This also explains the Albanian exodus of 2014 and 2015 where more than 75,000 Albanians from Albania fled the country in search of a better life in Germany and other European Union countries. According to data from the German government, throughout 2015 citizens of Albania were the second-largest asylum seeking group in Germany after Syrians.

Under the current situation Albania will not be recommended for opening of negotiations even this year. This sets a negative trend among countries that have signed the SSA without producing enough reforms for the European vote.

Although many European sceptics blame enlargement fatigue as well as the current European turmoil with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, one cannot but show the real cause of this situation- the current Albanian current establishment’s non-delivery as well as lack of political consensus among the political class, raising doubts on Albania’s democratic deficiencies too.

(Realistic) Prospects for Regional Cooperation

 IM: Lastly, I would like to ask your opinion regarding regional cooperation, both on a political and an economic level. What are the strong points and the weak ones when talking about cooperation between Balkan countries? Can the region overcome its longstanding differences, as other parts of Europe have managed in the past?

EH: Regional cooperation has been an issue since the establishment of the Stability Pact and the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. The end of this deadly conflict opened the way to a new security infrastructure in the region and a different level of partnership and cooperation among neighbours and countries in the region.

Although not perfect, one might say that the regional cooperation policy has progressed well mostly in producing some good and safe political rhetoric and sometimes trust. Probably the soundest initiative during the last 15 years has been the Berlin Process and the Vienna Forum afterwards, with some concrete results and cooperation in some main areas of economic development for the entire region.

Due to increased political competition among states in the region, the economic cooperation, transportation lines, visa and passport regimes as well as border cooperation have seen improvement but not at the level one would expect 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 17 years after the last war.

There are still countries in the region that do not recognise each other as political, administrative entities, as states or geographical units, as there are also countries that cannot find compromise and use veto on the name issue or still have bad records on treatment of national minorities. Well, these remain issues of concern as they stop and do not allow much fruitful cooperation beyond political rhetoric and show-off scenes of so-called unity in some main European capitals.

Unfortunately, we have failed to understand that the region can be attractive to global investment and energy routes only as a unified market, which would certainly produce security and good opportunities for everyone in Southeastern Europe.

Albania’s Emerging Regional Role: Interview with Arian Spasse, Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: as Albania continues its diplomatic and reform efforts towards European Union efforts, it is placing strong emphasis on high-level cooperation. In this exclusive new interview, Balkanalysis.com correspondent Blerina Mecule gets an update on Albania’s EU reform efforts, bilateral agreements, and participation in European initiatives for the region from Arian Spasse, director of the Albanian ministry of foreign affair’s special department for relations with the European Union.

Preparing for Accession Negotiations: the Reform Process

Blerina Mecule: In June 2014, Albania was granted the status of candidate country for EU membership. This was an important achievement for the country. The EU has announced that further enlargement is expected in 2020. What are the signs of progress, in terms of reforms, that Albania is making towards the opening of the accession negotiations expected late this year, focusing particularly in the newly approved National Council for the Integration?

Interview with Arian Spasse- Balkanalysis

According to Spasse, “A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration.”

Arian Spasse: Albania views its EU perspective as closely tied to the domestic reform agenda focused on the consolidation of the rule of law. It welcomes the recent positive evaluations of the European Commission and is aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the fulfilment of the five key priorities for the opening of accession negotiations.

We consider that the opening of accession talks would provide a roadmap for progress in addressing the reform challenges. Accession negotiations are an opportunity to better focus on what is to be done, particularly in relation to the rule of law, through the benchmarks for chapters 23 and 24. A clear illustration of the role of accession talks is the reform of the judiciary: if Albania is to adopt a long-term strategy for the reform of the judiciary that is sustainable in time, it needs the screening and benchmarking for chapter 23 to feed into the strategy.

A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration. There has been an enormous advancement concerning the reforms in five priority areas, which are crucial for the next step – the opening of accession negotiations.

The reform of the judiciary is the most difficult one and is led by the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Justice System. The first analytical draft of the Justice Reform has been discussed with the stakeholders and finalised, identifying the needs for intervention (Phase I). The Ad Hoc Committee, on proposal of the Group of High Level Experts, has adopted two very important documents – the Strategy of the Justice System Reform and the Action Plan for the implementation of this strategy (Phase II). The above mentioned documents will serve as a guide for the development of Phase III of the process for reform in the justice system, the drafting of constitutional and legal amendments. The Strategy and Action Plan will remain open for comments and suggestions for improvement. The Group of High Level Experts will organize a process of public consultation and consultation with international experts (the Venice Commission) and will assess and reflect on their involvement in these documents.

Fighting Corruption and Organized Crime

Regarding the fight against corruption, there has been progress made in strengthening cooperation between law enforcement agencies, by removing obstacles to conduct proactive, efficient investigations of inexplicable wealth and corruption-related offences, including via the effective use of financial investigations. A functional network of Anti-Corruption coordinators and contact points has been set up, and an online system for the denouncement of corruption cases has been set up. We are making efforts to increase pro-active investigations substantially towards establishing a solid track record of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in corruption cases.

The fight against organised crime has shown a positive trend. A series of legal reforms, approved during 2014, aim at improving the organizational and functional aspects of State Police. Drugs trafficking in general, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis in particular have been hit by police operations. These operations, as well as the cooperation with law enforcement agencies in neighbouring countries, confirm the commitment of the Government in tackling this issue.

Positive trends in track records are reported, especially in relation to money laundering and drugs. The anti-trafficking Strategy has been approved and launched in December 2014, showing commitment to step up the fight against trafficking of human beings, money laundering and implement the Anti-Mafia law. The efforts made in this field have been rewarded with the decision of the US State Department to remove Albania in 2014 from the Tier 2 Watch List.

In order to ensure the sustainability and success of the reforms, an all-inclusive approach is necessary. The Albanian government is committed to making every effort to ensure a constructive political dialogue and to build on the existing political consensus on EU integration. The recently established National Council for European Integration (NCEI), chaired by the opposition, serves as a platform that brings together political parties, civil society, academia and other stakeholders. NCEI has a key role in ensuring all-inclusiveness and the necessary political and social support for the implementation of EU related reforms. Civil society representatives participate actively in the meetings of NCEI.

A New Investment Council and other Pro-Economic Development Policies

BM: Recently Albania has launched the Investment Council, to strengthen the business climate in the country. Could you tell us more about this initiative, as well as about other concrete steps of the government to create a friendly legal framework, in order to attract more foreign investments in Albania?

AS: The Investment Council is a project that was launched in February 2014 with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Albanian Government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Representatives of government institutions, donors, international partners and business communities are part of this high-level platform.

The purpose of the Council of Investment is to facilitate a direct dialogue and dynamic interaction between business and government, to address problems related to the business climate and investments, to report cases of unfair and abusive practices to business, to fight corruption, tax evasion and informality, and to suggest legal and procedural mechanisms to prevent, eliminate and resolve such problems.

Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) has been at the focus of the Albanian governments. Three new laws are very important in this respect – the law for strategic investments, the law on public-private partnership, and the law on tourism, as a clear indication of the importance we attach to foreign investments, which bring economic growth, increase competitiveness, and which also offer sustainability and employment.

Albania’s legal framework on FDI has been designed to create a favourable business climate for foreign investors. I would like to emphasize that no prior government authorization is needed and there are no sector restrictions to foreign investments. Also, there is no limitation on the percentage share of foreign participation in companies- 100% foreign ownership is possible. Foreign investments may not be expropriated or nationalized directly or indirectly, except in special cases, in the interest of the public, as defined by law. Foreign investors have the right to expatriate all funds and contributions in kind of their investment. In any case, foreign investments will have a treatment equal to what common international practice allows.

As a result, in the latest “Doing Business” report for 2015, Albania showed a significant improvement in the overall ranking, especially regarding the ease of doing business. In 2015, Albania’s position in “Doing Business” has improved. It ranks in the 68th place compared to 108th in 2014, and 136th in 2008.

Natural Resources and Advantages for Investors

BM: What are the advantages that Albania offers in terms of natural resources combined with its strategic position in South East Europe that might be of interest to foreign investors?

AS: Albania has a very good geographical position along Adriatic and Ionian seas. The coastline has stupendous potential and support for endless opportunities. Albania’s proximity to regional and EU markets, allows low distribution costs and “just-in-time” product delivery.

Albania benefits from extensive Free Trade Agreements and has free access to a market of 26 million customers. The country became a member of the WTO in 2000, and signed the SAA and CEFTA in 2006. In 2009, Albania signed an FTA with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), etc. Currently we have double taxation treaties with 40 countries.

Actually, Albania can offer a cost-competitive and dynamic workforce. 57% of the population is under the age of 35. More than 100,000 students enrol at university. English and Italian are widely spoken. French and German languages are included in the education system. Other regional languages are widely used, as well.

The government has approved a new fiscal package whose main objective is to maintain macroeconomic stability and continuation of structural reforms. It has been designed in close consultation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) and does not distinguish between foreign and domestic investors.

As potential investment sectors for foreign investors I would mention renewable energy (hydro, solar and wind), petroleum and gas energy, manufacturing (textile and footwear industry), agriculture, tourism, transport and logistics, etc.

Albania’s Foreign Investors Today

BM: The idea of the Europeanization of the Western Balkans is becoming even more a reality not only politically, but also in economically. The main foreign investors interested in entering South East Europe are the EU, USA, UAE, Turkey, China and Russia. What is Albania’s orientation in this regard?

AS: According to the Bank of Albania, FDI in 2013 reached €2,854 million. Of these, €785 million were invested in the sector of “Post and Telecommunication,” €780 million in the sector of “Monetary and Financial Intermediation,” and €732 million in “Extraction of energetic minerals”. Greece ranks first with 37.49% of the total. Canada is second with 27.93%, followed by Austria with 13.24%, and then the Netherland with 12.26%. Turkey is next, with 9.78% and then Germany, with 3.75%.

In comparison to 2012, Greek direct investments increased to 39.5%. Many Greek companies operate in Albanian banking, construction, services, industry, etc. Most of them are small and medium size businesses. Canadian direct investments increased by 13.4% in comparison to 2012 and are focused mainly in oil extraction. Austrian investments experienced a decrease of 2.33% in comparison to 2012. Austrian companies are focused on banking, energy and services sectors. During 2013, the Turks increased their investments in Albania by 18.72%. Their companies are active in sectors like banking, telecommunications, the food processing industry, mining, energy, education and healthcare. German companies make up 3.3% of foreign companies in Albania. Their investments increased during 2013 by 16.3%.

Regarding trade, Albania exports mainly textiles, shoes, minerals, cement, metals, foodstuffs, etc., and imports mechanical and electrical machinery, foodstuffs, tobacco and minerals. In exports Italy is the main trade partner with 52% of the total, followed by Kosova at 7.3%, Spain at 6.5%, Malta at 6.2% and Turkey at 3.9%. Italy is also the main partner concerning imports, at 29.8%, followed by Greece at 9.4%, China at 7.3%, Turkey at 7.1% and Germany at 6%.

As one can see, the Albanian market is open to foreign investors without distinction. Countries like Italy and Greece are natural partners, but the recent economic crisis in both countries forced the Albanian companies to adapt and look for new markets.

China’s European Investment Tactics and Infrastructure Projects in Albania

BM: Do you think that China is exploiting the zero custom tariff regime in the Western Balkans, applying the same model as with Iceland to penetrate the European Single Market via those Balkan countries which are on the way towards EU membership, but are still not full EU members?

AS: The relations of China with the countries of the Western Balkans are focused on several areas – economy, culture, humanitarian and social development, etc. To come to the question, yes, Western Balkan countries have a zero custom tariff regime for exporting their products to the EU, which China should see as an opportunity for its producers. It means that Chinese companies, after producing their goods, let say in Albania, sell them to the EU market as “made in Albania.”

So far China has not taken advantage of this convenience with the EU, at least not of Albania’s quotas, as it considers them irrelevant. Instead, China is approaching Central and Eastern Europe through the China – CEE Cooperation Initiative. This initiative, which involves 16 European countries, EU members and candidates, aims at strengthening China’s presence through the investment of $10 billion in several areas like infrastructure, energy, transportation, agriculture, etc.

Currently, Albanian authorities are negotiating with Chinese companies on the construction of a highway that will link Tirana with the Macedonian border. Chinese companies have shown interest also for the development of the Port of Shëngjin and construction of an industrial park near the Port of Durrës. Let me underline that for China, the last two projects offer – along with the Port of Piraeus in Greece – access to European seas only a few miles from the EU waters of Italy.

Regional Energy Cooperation and Views on the ‘Balkan Benelux’ Concept and the ‘Western Balkans 6’ Initiative

BM: In the article “The energy-security nexus in south-east Europe” published on The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Mr Ditmir Bushati, writes about the strategic value of the regional cooperation in south-east Europe: “Connecting the energy islands in south-east Europe will help to build a true region in both economic and security terms, a region that can act as a strategic partner for the EU in the broader energy security nexus. Last but not least, such a bold approach will further consolidate the regional cooperation and the EU integration agenda of the Western Balkans, following the successful example of the six founding member states of the European Union.”

Some months ago, the idea of the Balkan Benelux-Model was again circulated. This would be aimed at creating mainly a Balkan Energy Union, (BEU) and a Balkan Area of Free Trade Agreements (BAFTA) between Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. Who is proposing this model and would it require a change in the state integrity of the countries involved?

AS: The interesting idea of a Balkan Benelux was proposed several years ago by the Action Group for Regional Economic and European Integration (AGREEI), a think tank which aims to support the economic and European integration of Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. According to AGREEI, the creation of a market of eight million consumers with free movement of goods, services, capitals and people and cross-border cooperation would speed up the EU integration of the four countries.

Instead, another format raised more interest and was accepted by our countries, the EU and other actors – the Western Balkans 6. This informal initiative is a forum of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Like Balkans Benelux, it aims at supporting them on their individual paths towards the EU. It involves the European Commission and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) as observers.

So far, WB6 meetings have focused mainly on connectivity, youth cooperation and mobility, establishment of the Western Balkans Fund (WBF), etc. Tangible results have been achieved. In November in Prague, the WB6 Ministers of Foreign Affairs will sign the Agreement on the Establishment of the WBF. Its seat will be in Tirana.

In Vienna, the WB6 prime ministers signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre. Earlier, in April, they agreed on the regional projects related to the extension of the EU core network in the Western Balkans. The ministers of Energy, as well, have agreed on regional projects that aim at creating a regional energy market, functioning according to TEN E guidelines, and connecting the energy islands in this part of Europe. Cooperation includes other areas, as well, like security and home affairs, cross-border cooperation, etc.

Regional Free Trade Area Processes and Bilateral Agreements

BM: The Free Trade Area between the EU and the Western Balkans countries has been achieved progressively through the SAA agreements and further on is subject to membership obligations in the Euro-Atlantic structures. The reliability of such a process is to be achieved also by avoiding bilateral competition between the Western Balkan states.

Within the framework of the Regional Cooperation Council of SEE and the common efforts to address the political, economic and energy-security nexus of regional issues in a cooperative way, could you describe for us the bilateral and multilateral relations of Albania with its neighbouring countries, starting with Kosova, mentioning also the number of bilateral agreements undersigned in the latest High Level Meeting held between the two countries in Tirana, Albania, in March 2015?

AS: Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation are pillars of our foreign policy and form an essential part of Albania’s EU integration process. Albania has continued to actively participate in regional initiatives, including the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), the Central European Initiative (CEI), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the Energy Community Treaty, the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and the WB6. In November, the countries of the region will formalize the Western Balkans Fund, followed by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. According to the Progress Report 2014, “Overall, Albania has continued to act as a constructive partner in the region, further developing bilateral relations with other enlargement countries and neighbouring EU Member States.

Albania’s Bilateral Regional Relations

Concerning bilateral relations with the neighbouring countries, Albania has excellent relation with Kosova. Last year, on 11 January, in Prizren, was signed the Joint Declaration for Cooperation and Strategic Partnership between the two governments. I would like to point out the G to G meeting between Albania and Kosova on 23 March 2015, in Tirana, where 11 agreements of cooperation were signed. These relations are a successful example of cooperation between two countries, sharing one European future.

We welcome the resumption of political dialogue between Kosova and Serbia under the auspices of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mrs. Federica Mogherini, as a contribution to peace and stability in the region.

At the same time, Albania urges all countries to support Kosova in its bid for membership to regional and other international organizations, like UNESCO. The membership to international organizations means more opportunities for the country to develop, more responsibility and more accountability.

Albania aims at having good-neighbourly relations with the Republic of Serbia and has full readiness to engage in an open political dialogue, in order to create a sustainable climate of confidence and respect. The visit of Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade opened a new chapter in our overall political and economic bilateral relations. Meetings between Prime Ministers Rama and Vučič are not a taboo anymore and the ministers of foreign affairs, Bushati and Dačič meet on regular basis, particularly in the WB6 format. There is a set of pending bilateral agreements which need to be finalized. Albania pays great attention to the well-being of the Albanian minority living in the Presheva Valley and to their treatment according to European standards.

We are willing to maintain good bilateral relations with Macedonia. We consider Macedonia a friendly neighbour and we support its prosperity, sovereignty, integrity and stability. Events in Kumanovo have threatened normality and ethnic relations, which are still fragile, due to the partial implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Interethnic relations are vital to the existence of the Macedonian state. Albania condemns any act of violence, considering it unacceptable for a democratic society that aspires to Euro-Atlantic integration. We consider that the full implementation of the “Ohrid Framework Agreement,” without any delay, is essential for Macedonia’s security, democratization and its Euro-Atlantic integration processes.

Political dialogue and high level contacts with Montenegro have been further intensified. Cooperation is focused on economic and trade relations, energy, joint cross-border projects, strengthening of the system of communications and telecommunications, further facilitation of the movement of people and goods, strengthening of the joint fight against organized crime and illegal trafficking, etc.

Albania and Greece have good neighbourly relations. As NATO members and as countries sharing vital and mutual interests, relations between the two countries are of strategic importance in the region. Nevertheless, from time to time, some frictions fuelled by certain circles arise. In our opinion, bilateral issues should be addressed in compliance with international law and accepted by both parties. Greece continues to be a very important economic partner for Albania. For years, it has been at the top of Albania’s list of partners in trade and foreign direct investments. The Greek minority in Albania and the community of Albanian immigrants in Greece constitute strong bridges of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The Berlin Process and Developments after the Recent Vienna Balkan Conference

BM: Let’s discuss the Berlin Process initiated by Chancellor Merkel, created with the aim of fostering the interregional cooperation among the business community and the governments of the Western Balkan countries, to strengthening the interconnection b2b, g2g e g2b and reinforcing the perspectives for EU accession. What is the message Albania is bringing home after the waltz on the beautiful blue Danube in Vienna?

AS: Indeed, the Berlin Process, initiated by Chancellor Merkel, has intensified regional cooperation. It set in motion a process that aspires to generate tangible benefits for our citizens from the process of EU integration. But it is not a substitute for EU accession. It aims at reinforcing the perspectives of EU accession, by building up in the Western Balkans a true region in economic and political terms.

The process has produced practical and political consequences and has shown that the countries of the region can deliver on their promises. The participating countries committed themselves to resolve any open questions through bilateral negotiations or other peaceful means, and not to block the progress of neighbours on their respective EU paths.

Kosova and Serbia signed four agreements while Montenegro signed the border agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The participants jointly identified the projects related to the extension of EU core network corridors through the Western Balkans, as well as the projects related to energy connectivity. They agreed on establishing the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre, an initiative of both PM Rama and PM Vučič.

The Conference of Vienna served also as a platform where our countries voiced their concerns. The resource gap between member states and candidates is significant: in terms of net inflows the difference between membership and accession is a factor of almost six.

In Vienna we emphasized that citizens of all countries in the region need to feel the benefits and the transformative power of the EU accession process. In this context, connectivity is seen as a transformative concept aiming at increasing social cohesion, reducing economic “nomadism” and supporting trust-building mechanisms that are born out of successful regional cooperation processes.

In its second phase, the Berlin Process should lead to the definition of investment priorities that will form a growth package for the Western Balkans in the form of financial guarantees. The EU’s strategy for the region needs to encompass the energy security dimension: more particularly, a better channel of EU funds towards energy infrastructure. One key pre-identified project that deserves collective backing in the months and year ahead is the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline.

For these connectivity investments to be sustainable, we must continue to invest in the education of our youth. We must implement vocational training in our countries in the fields matching our countries’ respective market demands, among them, IT, tourism, energy, and agriculture. We must also maximise use of the Erasmus+ program, which will allot up to 14.8 billion euros EU-wide by 2020. Additionally, we must mirror the opportunities created by Erasmus+ for students and lecturers in a program solely for the Western Balkans.

This is just one part of the homework we need to focus on doing this year. The others are related to the strengthening of the National Investment Committees’ role in preparing the single sector pipelines, to the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office and youth mobility, to the involvement of civil society in the integration process, etc. As you can see, there is a lot to do before going for a “tango” to Paris.

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*Note: the content of this interview does not represent the official position of the Albanian MFA.

Female Political Participation in Albania: Interview with Filloreta Kodra

In this new interview, Balkanalysis.com contributor Aida Dervishi gets the perspective of Filloreta Kodra, Albania’s Deputy Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, regarding what strategies the government in Tirana is undertaking to foster gender equality and achieve greater female participation in social and political life.

Aida Dervishi: After the elections, you were appointed Deputy Minister of Labor, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. Since then, have there been any particular reforms taken by the Ministry of Labor in order to empower women in Albanian society?

Filloreta Kodra: In 2007 a national strategy for equal opportunities and anti-domestic violence was adopted, a strategy that has brought significant changes to the recognition of gender issues, identifying problems and barriers in women’s development as well as illustrating priorities and tools for their realization.

An important milestone in implementing the strategy was the increase of women’s participation in decision-making in more direct way, by setting quotas for the participation of women in lists of MPs, a measure that brought the immediate doubling of the number of women in the Albanian Parliament. The strategy in question, however, was very wide in corresponding with the problems people deal with, especially women. In addition it contained many priorities. For that reason, along with the fact that the strategy was three years old, we started reviewing it in order  to focus better in some directions and  define more precisely some priority areas, which will directly affect the rapid change of the status of women and the development of society in general.

Furthermore, in an attempt to answer your question, I feel that this is a very important reform for changing society’s mindset toward gender issues, as well as for changing the status of half of the population.

AD: Women living in rural areas especially have many more challenges to overcome. As has often been reported in the Albanian media, there are cases of families living in extreme poverty where women are dependent on traditional family structures for support, and where they also experience limited public activity. Hence, their opportunities to find a job are rare, with serious social and economic impacts for their families. Is there a strategy available to integrate the role of rural women in Albanian society?

FK: It is true that rural women face acute economic and social problems, this is why in the revised strategy they have been given a special place and treatment. However, let me also express some thoughts that might differ from what we consider as a general attitude in the media; women in rural areas live in poverty, are working in the fields, sow and reap, care for children, the elderly and solve all the problems that arise in their houses and outside of it. In most cases, women carry the heavy burden of being the head of the family, since men are often in economic immigration.

In this sense, I would say that women in rural areas are free to make more powerful decisions (though maybe they do not realize this) than many other women in towns who are economically dependent on men and locked inside their houses.

In this aspect, the government is addressing them in a diversified way in the revised strategy, women in urban and those in rural areas. For example, while for women of the urban areas job creation and the promotion of opportunities is a necessity, for women in rural areas, on the other hand, is necessary to facilitate them from their heavy labor, orientate and train them in the processing of agricultural products, promote the creation of social structures and opportunities for growth, child care and education, in order to be more active in social and public life. All the above ideas will be materialized in the revised strategy, with all required legal provisions for their implementation.

AD: However rural women generally are not employed. The activities you referred to above are not paid. Keeping rural women dependent on agricultural self-employment and household activities (not included in the unemployment figures) can isolate them more and exclude them from the labor market. With no sources of income, and an increasing cost of living, the position of rural women is deteriorating. Are there any concrete mechanisms or instruments available in order to link those women with the labor market, and so in this way to protect the social structure and encourage development?

FK: The unpaid labor of women is a problem for both women of urban areas and those in rural areas. The strategy that the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities is reviewing and preparing for the years 2011-2015 aims to focus on priority issues and setting development priorities. We think this will be employment, or more broadly economic empowerment of women which includes promoting employment, narrowing the differences in payment between women and men, promoting women’s participation in entrepreneurial activity by applying fiscal policy for women, grants for opening businesses and other measures to increase the number of women entrepreneurs, as well as encouraging them to open new job positions mainly for women.

These measures will target all women, and I would say that rural women have more opportunities to get involved in such activities starting with agricultural products which they produce themselves. In this sense, women farmers will have a concrete opportunity as long as they produce themselves the raw materials needed in the processing of agricultural products, adding as well in the development of entrepreneurship. Naturally, these developments will need counseling, financial aid, credit and other measures, more than that we are looking at the possibilities of meeting those needs in an institutional and systematic way.

Women in rural areas will also have a special support mechanism protecting them from violence; a system that has been built and has begun to operate in urban areas, as the system of referring cases of violence, as well as the prevention of it and will soon be extended to rural areas.

AD: To What extent has Albania’s tradition of a rural and patriarchal society prevented women from full participation in political life? Is this changing, and if so, why?

FK: Albanian tradition has always put women in charge; you are certainly aware of the legends [of women like] Teuta to Shote Galica and many other women from north to south. Unfortunately, chaotic development during the transition period has brought back some denigrating behaviors toward women which are misinterpreted as tradition, like the application of kanun, or other justifications, which have aggravated the situation of women more than the rest of the society.

In a way, women in rural areas are freer than urban women because they work, albeit in difficult conditions, but they do go to work, while urban women are often largely kept at home and essentially serve their families. I mean that is not tradition, even it has its share too, but rather than the fragmented economic development, lack of employment, lack of social measures to help young mothers with childcare that have led to the limited presence of women in social and political life.

It was therefore necessary the intervention of the state, with a vision of concrete measures for promoting employment, enhancing social care, nurturing of children with a frame of mind where men and women are treated equally, as well as avoiding any tradition that prevents the development of girls and women, and alternatively creating a culture of cooperation and development for the whole society.

AD: According to the last report on the Implementation of the CEDAW Convention in Albania /June 2010, Albania still remains a male-dominated society where women are under-represented, both on the local and national level. Although Albania has set standards and has passed laws in promoting gender equality, this goal has not been reached. Where do you think the problem stands now? Is it a matter of stereotypes or of a previous historical legacy?

FK: The answer to your question is partly to be found in the question itself. The differences between man and woman and the subordination of women has been a practice experienced globally for thousands of years, and is also a way of thinking inherited from generation to generation, expressed most clearly in gender stereotypes that we face daily. It is difficult to face a wall set up over centuries.

Walls can be broken down by dynamite, but also by bypassing them and moving forward. And we are moving forward, not yet to the degree that we would like, but we do not stand still. A mentality cannot be demolished, so we work to build a new practice and create a mindset where first of all human rights are respected; the first requirement of a democratic country is to protect and respect the rights of each individual, particularly those of women.

International conventions and institutions such as the CEDAW Committee are instruments to help us move forward and always learn from the experiences of countries that are ahead of us. Setting quotas for increasing women’s participation in decision-making is a good step forward, but not the only one. The fight against domestic violence, along with improving health care for mother and child, education, social protection and employment are instruments that greatly support the further progress of gender issues in Albania.

AD: Albania still has one of the lowest percentages of elected women in Europe. After the adoption of a quota of 30% for the under-represented gender in the last general election, the representation of women in parliament increased from 7% to 16.4%. Is this shift in the gender balance reflected in the decision-making process?

How has it contributed to the decision-making in Albania so far?

FK: I prefer to consider the optimistic side of the issue, the one that I mentioned above. The number of women MPs in the parliament has doubled compared to the previous legislature, and this is a direct result of a legal obligation of setting quotas for female participation in decision-making.

The process of drafting the law for the establishment of quotas has been a long and difficult process, with objections and arguments pro and against, which fortunately brought a quantitative change in parliament. Regarding how much this shift in quantity has changed the quality of parliamentary life- this is an issue that will need time to verify, at least one parliamentary term.

Unfortunately, since the last parliamentary elections in Albania it has been a period of conflict, during which some of the MPs were spending more time outside of the parliamentary walls than inside. Moreover, many of the female members of parliament preferred to make the spokesperson of their party’s leader rather than to deal with major policy issues or the problems that concern the society and women.

Further, they are even less concerned about increasing Albanian women’s interest in politics- particularly in terms of political issues that directly affect their daily lives, as well as to increase women’s participation in elections… therefore the support of the mass of women in relation with those elected.

Obviously, this behavior will be reflected in the electoral results of the upcoming local elections, as well as in the general elections three years from now. I personally believe that increasing women’s participation in parliament, the executive branch, local government and other institutions will have an influence on changing the social mindset, especially in the education of the generations to come, without prejudice, with the right ideas on freedom, equality and living in harmony.

The means of implementation differ, it can be implemented gradually over a long time, or can be performed institutionally, in ways that require a shorter time and that create opportunities for continuity. The Albanian parliament and the government have chosen the second way, and the results of this are starting to become visible.

AD: The percentage of women in the public administration is still low. Given that you have a long experience in public administration, what do you believe is the cause of the weak female representation in public administration? The same situation prevails in local institutions, where out of 65 mayors, only one is a woman, and only 9 women are head of municipality councils, after the last local elections in 2007. Is there any strategy for mobilizing more women in the upcoming local election in 2011?

FK: Your question concerns two categories of individuals: those elected and civil servants. It is true that the percentage of women in both elected and appointed positions is low. For women elected at the local level, who are few in number, I would say that the electoral code provides a strong constraint in forcing all parties participating in the elections [to ensure that]for every three candidates one should be a woman. This obligation will significantly result in a considerable increase in the number of women in the local elections next May 2011.

However, increasing the number of women in the upcoming elections is not just a matter to be left up to law enforcement. It is also being accompanied by a number of other measures, education, and training- and, especially, in terms of raising the awareness of women themselves and general public opinion regarding the importance of increasing women’s participation in public and political life.

There is a different ratio in the civil service, where 67.4% of those employed are female and 32.6% male. However, at managerial levels this ratio is reversed; 43.2% are females, whereas 56.8% are males. This is a clear expression of the position of women in Albanian society.  In order to change this situation, work has started on an institutional level, such as with making suggestions for the revision of the job descriptions for civil servants, or setting quotas for managerial positions. Among the civil and public servants, a special effort is  being made in order to raise awareness among women themselves about their value, and the importance of increasing their participation in decision-making, and more widely in public, social and political life.

AD: Has Albania received support from outside parties, such as the UN, US or EU, in developing programs for empowering women in politics? If so, what were they and has there been any positive result?

FK: Albania is considered one of the countries to have made considerable progress in the development of gender issues over the past three years. This is partly due to the assistance that it has received with the implementation of the One UN program. Albania is one of eight countries worldwide that are implementing this program.

The One UN program in Albania has proven very successful in some respects, one of which is the increase it has achieved in women’s participation in political life. In this endeavor, the government is being supported by UNIFEM, within the framework of One UN and the OSCE, with program projects continuing to be implemented. The Albanian government relied on this program for the drafting of the Electoral Code in the parliamentary elections of 2009, a process that brought about a doubling in the number of female representatives in parliament.

We believe that the law on gender equality and the implementation of the Electoral Code, which obliges the political parties to nominate at least one woman in every three candidates, will make it possible in the local elections of May 2011 to have more women in the municipal councils- and, why not, as mayors or heads of municipalities.

AD: Ethnic nationalism is a hot topic in the Balkans, and sometimes political leaders in Albania use it for making themselves appear stronger, especially in regards to caring for events in Kosovo and Macedonia among Albanian issues there. What about female politicians from Albania? What is their relationship to the ‘nationalism issue’? Do women have a different approach – in general – to dealing with nationalism and ethnicity?

FK: If there is any issue in which the Albanians do not excel, this is nationalism and this is an inherited national virtue we have. Regarding your question I would say that women in general and women in politics are particularly involved with dialogue, cooperation and understanding. The fact that UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security has been initiated and supported by women of the region is an achievement of all women and an example to follow.

There is no clearer example than this of women’s approach to regional nationalism and the devastating consequences it has brought to the region. Personally, I think that the agenda of Albanians, and also that of the region is the orientation toward Europe, towards prosperity and welfare, towards a Europe where nationalism is no longer a problem, at least [to the extent that it was] over the last fifty years.

Recently in Albania and Bosnia, the barriers were knocked down that had impeded the free movement of persons- marking one more opportunity for getting closer to Europe not only physically but also mentally. [It marks] an opportunity to see that Europe has developed specifically because the countries that comprise it decided to set aside nationalist strife to cooperate for a common future which has successfully been envisioned. It is time for the Balkan to look towards Europe, towards development and this development can be achieved by requiring and building within each country, but also all together for a better and prosperous life. Let our past serve as a lesson and not as an inspiration; the future is open to a developed and cooperative Balkan.

AD: In this light, how are female politicians affecting the type of issues that are appearing on the parties’ political platforms?  5 years in the future, 10 years in the future, will there be any considerable differences in the kind of issues that political parties in Albania raise, specifically because of female political participation?

FK: Changes occur daily and 5 or 10 years from now those changes that we are  planning today [will be realized]; how we work today, how committed we are and how fast we move, will also determine to what degree those changes will be accomplished.

It is important that women and girls become a stable and integrated part of politics as a result of personal choice and support they receive from society as well as women in particular- something that is happening [naturally],  and not due to any imposed conditions. Also, it is important that this process continues. The quantitative increase in the number of women in legislative and executive positions, and in social life in general will necessarily also result in an increase of their influence in politics, economy and society, and change social and political agendas, by focusing more on problems concerning society and seeking solutions, such as in education, health, empowerment and improvement of social care.

All of these will necessarily be accompanied by other legal measures and concrete actions towards a more responsible and fairer society. This will happen because women facing these problems daily also require these changes. Practice has proven that the more active are women in society, the more advanced is the society itself, and the more developed, prosperous and peaceful is the country.

AD: There is a lot of corruption in Albanian public life. Is there any difference in how male and female politicians in the public sector are involved with corruption, or react to it? Or, similarly, do you think that an increase in the degree of female political representation can have an effect on decreasing corruption?

FK: Personally I think women just like men can be corrupted in certain situations. But I can also say that in all cases presented in the media – because usually such cases are reported in the media (and this has an effect on transforming the fight against corruption, minimally to a political instrument and maximally to an unresolved matter)- that there should be evidence.

What I am trying to stress is that unfortunately, we have no investigative media in a professional sense, at least not in Albania and as far as I know not in the region as well; which means that with regard to the cases denounced by the media, they should also be accompanied by proof or evidence, so that the cases can then be handled in prosecution or courts. In practice, however, denunciations in the media are made by political forces and afterwards are used for political motivations… and this can also hinder the investigation by the competent institutions.

Under such conditions, a situation is created whereby everyone accuses everyone one, and no one holds responsibility. This has created a negative opinion of the political class among the public. Even if this is not true, it results in the detachment of politics from the public and the opposite, which in the end leads to the preservation of the status quo among the political class.

It would be more appropriate if before declaring a case of corruption in the media, it could be investigated by the competent authorities beforehand, if indeed there is evidence. Here, the media has a very important role to play by being careful in the publication of news, and thus to help in the fight against corruption in particular.

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About the interviewer

Aida Dervishi is a native of Albania, who holds a BA in International and European Studies from the University of Piraeus. She has been working with the NGO Vote Women in Politics, a non-partisan organization dedicated to helping women to run for office, and to be elected, in countries around the world, while also inspiring young women to participate in politics. Her interests include government, project management and media outreach.