EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin visits Vlora. Jan. 31, 2017. Source: RTSh.
Romana Vlahutin: Overcharged or corrupted?
Overcharged or corrupted?
The European Commission has recently purchased a €1.65 million villa in the area of Rolling Hills on the outskirts of Tirana, Albania.
10. EU accession
This is perhaps the least scandalous scandal on this list, but simply typical for the increasing arrogance and impunity with which the government has treated its citizens throughout 2016. Claiming until the very end that Albania just had to pass the vetting law, part of the overall reform of the judicial system, Prime Minister Edi Rama was very certain that this year his enormous efforts and international leadership for peace and prosperity would be rewarded with the opening of the EU accession negotiations.
Early warning signs were ignored or ridiculed. The Chairman of the EU Affairs committee of the Bundestag, who made the effort to come to Tirana to clearly state that Albania had to seriously fight organized crime, drugs cultivation, and corruption as a condition for the opening of the accession talks, was called a supporter of the opposition and irrelevant, all the while his Minister of Foreign Affairs was trying to persuade the same German of Albania’s best intentions.
When the final decision was made not to open accession negotiations – and all conditions were once again confirmed black on white – Rama was quick to once again blame anyone but his own government for the failure, and, openly supported by the EU Ambassador in Tirana, continues to bury his head six foot deep in the sand. It won’t be until 2018 before the EU will reconsider Albania.
9. Skënderbeg Square
Even before finishing the Tirana masterplan, Mayor Erion Veliaj revived Edi Rama’s old dream to transform Skënderbeg Square according to the ideas of his beloved Belgian architecture firm 51N4E (implicated by the Belgian state in Albanian corruption, and designers of the TID Tower, Edi Rama’s private house, the monuments for the victims of January 21, the Center for Openness and Dialogue, the new Theater of Opera and Ballet, and the grave of the former owner of Top Channel) and national artistic treasure Anri Sala (currently featured as “ghost participant” in the Onufri exhibition to crank up its absent prestige).
The reconstruction of Skënderbeg Square was tendered out in a less than decent way, with both construction phases going to Fusha shpk without any other competition, with oversight run by 51N4E for a handsome price. At the last minute, Edi Rama decided on a parking garage annex farmers’ market, which was, again, won by Fusha and without a doubt in full violation of multiple environmental regulations.
Total costs to the public: nearly €13 million.
8. Higher Education reform
The higher education reform, passed this year in spite of resistance from both university students and faculty, envisioned the streamlining of the application system but did the opposite. Early warning signs that the reform would profit the private universities by including them in the government’s centralized student allocation system and public funding scheme fell on deaf ears, and many students – afraid to be left without department – opted to apply to private universities instead, at the cost of high debts. Private university applications skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, entire departments of the public university remained empty and hundreds of students without department. Minister of Education and Sports Lindita Nikolla, in spite of several emergency orders she had to issue to prevent the entire allocation process from completely derailing, refused to accept any criticism and called her destruction of public higher education “a great success.”
The Movement for the University – one of the last hopes of civic activism – has organized several protests against the reform, pelting Prime Minister Rama with eggs and dousing Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla in tomato sauce at a political party event. All protestors were subsequently prosecuted under an antiquated law form the communist dictatorship and face jail time. They will not profit from the end-of-the-year amnesty generously announced by the Prime Minister, nor from intimate contacts in the higher spheres of justice, which happily release gang leaders and multiple murderers at the request of a single mayor – the elections are around the corner, after all!
7. Hydropower plants in nature reserves
While the government has already spent €4 million fighting Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti over the shut down of his hydropower plant project in the natural reserve of the river Vjosa, it continues to destroy Albanian natural heritage by allowing foreign companies to built hydropower plants in protected nature reserves such as Valbona.
In spite of international pressure and expert reports from hundreds of scientists, the government has claimed that “certain contracts” cannot be undone. Hundreds of citizens protested against the construction of hydropower plants in the protected valley of Valbona, yet the government has refused to stop the construction works, which are in violation of the law on the protection of natural heritage. Instead, the Prime Minister Edi Rama allowed a hydropower company to sponsor his own new year’s concert, which he then falsely advertized as “the Vienna concert in Tirana.”
Oh, and the featured artist is co-owner with the hydropower plant company of the main “sponsor” of his own musical event, cashing in €100,000 from the Ministry of Culture. We always thought that sponsoring meant giving money, not receiving it. But four times the annual budget of the National Gallery of Arts indeed seems reasonable public investment into a one-off event to which ordinary citizens could hardly get tickets.
6. Klement Balili
Klement Balili, a.k.a. the “Escobar of the Balkans” remains a free man after multiple state institutions failed to heed early warning signals given by the Greek police and the American DEA. Firmly connected to Albanian political circles, Balili has celebrated Christmas in freedom after a seven-month headstart over the Albanian police and justice system. Meanwhile, General Prosecutor Adriatik Llalla and Minister of Interior Affairs Saimir Tahiri are trying to blame each other and clean their respective streets.
Tomorrow the top five!
5. The National Stadium
During the summer, a quick succession of decisions and maneuvers led to the lightning-fast destruction of the Qemal Stafa stadium including its historical and monumental façade. Through a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Culture and the Albanian Football Federation, all public procurement procedures were handsomely avoided.
The architect, Marco Casamonti, has been sentence in Italy to 2.5 years imprisonment for corruption, while another of his “creations,” the 4Ever Green Tower across the orthodox cathedral, languishes in bankruptcy. Other participants in this project, which was only legalized after it had already started, are Sfera Studios of Artan Shkreli, who also happens to be a councillor to the Prime Minister and Atelier 4, which has lined its pockets with money from nearly every large government project.
Thanks to the dust pumped into the air until 2020 and the construction works on Skënderbeg Square and elsewhere in Tirana, the city enjoys higher pollution levels than ever.
4. Fields of Weed
This has been the year of massive, wide-spread cannabis production in Albania, making it the no. 1 drug producing country in Europe. Italian anti-mafia prosecutors spoke about the shocking corruption in Albania and links between government and crime, the BBC produced a documentary calling Albanian the “European capital of drugs,” and the Huffington Post published on Albania’s “deep-rooted drug problem.”
While drug planes literally fell down from the sky, Minister of Interior Affairs Tahiri claimed until the very end that the police had destroyed 99.7% of all marijuana plantations in Albania. Meanwhile, during five summer weeks, the public reports from the Italian police only mentioned the capture of 11.5 ton of marijuana.
3. Masterplan Tirana
The Tirana 2030 Masterplan has its origins in the territorial reform implemented by the government in 2015. All new regions, including Tirana, were required to produce a new general local plan. A series of public procurement procedures was started, showing a number of anomalies, such as Stefano Boeri Architetti winning in Tirana, and Bolles + Wilson in Korça. they were very lucky; they both won on their first and only bid. Albanian companies, meanwhile, struggled to divide the rest of the loot.
Boeri, a failed “socialist” candidate for the mayorship of Milan, has admitted in private conversation that the tender had been promised to him by Edi Rama, and in the first phase of what is now called TR030 produced an incredibly mediocre presentation of his vision, full of mistakes and last-minute work.
Subsequently, the second and third phases of the masterplanning were held in complete silence and media blackout. With the TR030 Facebook and website producing zero discussion or public engagement. By the end of the December, the TR030 masterplan became suddenly a fait accompli, when the municipality in secret and in haste convened two “public” hearings while banning the media.
The masterplan, which, in violation of the law of public hearings was only published yesterday on the “transparency” website of the municipality – after the public hearings – will most probably passed today in the Municipal Council by only majority votes. The effects of the masterplan, about which still little is known, are expected to be disastrous.
2. Four Healthcare Concessions
Technically, these would be four different scandals, but since they are all linked to one and the same person, Minister of Health Ilir Beqaj, and his unhealthy preference for public-private partnerships, let’s take them together as a single €30-million-per-year burden for the next ten years.
First we have the free healthcare check-up tender at a total value of €5.4 million offered to the companies Trimed and Marketing & Distribution. Whereas the latter company has no prior experience in healthcare services, both Trimed (50%) and Marketing & Distribution (100%) are owned by Vilma Nushi, a businesswoman close to the Prime Minister
The sterilization concession was given to another friend of the Prime Minister and Minister of Health, Ilir Rrapaj, again with no prior experience in the field. The tender procedure and point awarding scheme was skewed and favored a consortium of companies owned by Rrapaj. The annual costs for the sterilization concession is €9.1 million per year.
The hemodialysis tender was again awarded through a potentially fraudulent procedure, to a company called Evita with no prior experience in hemodialysis. It later appeared that the American Hospital had partnered with Evita, but this information was only made public after pressure from the press. The tender procedure had proportionally valued Evita’s tender higher because the American Hospital had profited from more hemodialysis contracts from the government than its competitor for the same tender. In July 2016, the entire hemodialysis clinic of the American Hospital burned down, but the hospital threatened to withdraw advertisements if media published the news.
The finally, there is the laboratory tender of €95 million, which remains to be awarded. Any party to wants to appeal the final outcome of the tender procedure (which is a legal right) will have to pay a €200,000 penalty.
1. The Death of Ardit Gjoklaj
On August 7, Ardit Gjoklaj, a 17-year-old illegal child laborer, died on the landfill in Sharra, Tirana, after being hit by an excavator. The landfill in Sharra was managed through yet another public-private partnership between the municipality of Tirana and an Italian waste management company, which in turn had contracted the company 3R to manage the landfill.
Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj had personally, at two occasions, called upon to people to find work in this “new” recycling plant, where they would receive an official contract and health insurance.
After the death of Ardit was discovered, despite the efforts of the company to hide the body, Edurim Teqja, the owner of the company (who is also head of the Socialist Party in Peqin) fled. He has not been arrested. Contracts regarding the exploitation of the landfill have been hidden by the municipality.
The aftermath of Ardit’s death, for which Veliaj is personally and politically responsible, was characterized by censorship of the media. Journalist Alida Tota was fired after she produced a reportage on the scandal, and the television program Publicús of Artan Rama was pulled from another channel after producing a documentary on the same issue. No one has been convicted for this crime, and no apology was issued by the municipality.
Innocent deaths, widespread drug cultivation, abuse of office, corruption, and censorship of the media – these are Exit’s predictions for 2017. Happy new year!