Prime Minister of Albania

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Dear Mr President, dear Mr Secretary General and honourable members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, ladies and gentlemen, I should first like to greet warmly President René van der Linden, Secretary General Terry Davis and all members of the Parliamentary Assembly and thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you today. I am indeed honoured by it.

I also feel immensely indebted to you and the Council of Europe for your continuous support for Albania. The Council of Europe was the first international institution that I visited in 1992, only a few weeks after I was elected President of Albania, to ask for your assistance with our project to build a democratic society based on the rule of law on the ruins of the most Orwellian dictatorship that Europe has known. Since then, the Council has always been on Albania's side.

I am deeply moved and proud to speak before you all, dear friends. I have had the opportunity and the privilege to debate and defend with you the democratic values and principles we hold in common. This enriching experience has inspired and empowered me to lead the efforts of the Albanian citizens to vote out one of the most kleptocratic regimes of modern times which was installed in Albania.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that images of the past unpleasant, unhappy news about my country still linger in your memories. I stand before you today to assure you that Albania has archived those events in its past and is swiftly moving toward a new and European reality.

Last year, overcoming the autocracy of the country's kleptocratic regime, Albanians succeeded in producing a peaceful change of power. They voted in scores to tear down the wall of corruption, organised crime and poverty that was thrusting them away from the democratic world. The Council of Europe resolution, elections in Albania and its monitoring of last year's elections were a valuable encouragement and assistance to all Albanian voters.

My government took office pledging to restore the rule of law – an essential condition for guaranteeing fundamental rights of citizens – to fight against organised crime, uproot the kleptocratic system and consolidate democratic institutions, as the foundation for all other reforms. A year ago, more than two thirds of all court decisions were not enforced, and the index of the rule of law was three times lower than that of Burkina Faso. Since then, the firm and fair application of the enforcement of all court decisions and the abrogation of hundreds of unlawful decisions have resulted in the law prevailing throughout the country.

In past years, Albanians have suffered more than any other people from organised crime, due to its symbiotic collusion with power at all levels. Organised crime had become so powerful that it was practically the real power behind government decisions, thus managing to make Albania a major trafficking territory. Facing such a reality, we adopted a stance of zero tolerance towards organised crime. A year later, I am happy to inform you that, thanks to the courage and professionalism of Albania's police and other law enforcement agencies and their excellent co-operation with other countries' law enforcement agencies, more than 33 major criminal organisations and groups have been tracked down, and hundreds of their members and all their bosses have been brought to justice, and their assets – worth millions of euros – have been seized.

In a drive to curb trafficking, the parliament enacted a three-year ban on the use in our waters of speed­ boats, which were being widely used for drug and human trafficking. As a result of those efforts, according to the international centre for the fight against organised crime, based in Bucharest, the drug trafficking route is moving from Albania, which today is a safe country and is widely perceived as such. The fact that, during the summer, 30% more foreign tourists visited Albania is a clear indication of this new reality.

In past years, corruption in Albania led to the development of a kleptocratic system. According to international reports, the bribes and illegal payments that Albanian citizens and businesses paid to officials in exchange for the very services and rights to which they were freely entitled were estimated at around € 1.4 billion. The country's customs and justice systems were among the most corrupt in the world, while confiscation by the state was widespread.

The fight against corruption – the cancer that has weakened and drained the body and soul of my nation – has been another major priority for the Albanian Government. We have initiated thorough, energetic measures to overcome corruption. We have adopted a small, efficient government on a diet, replacing the large, beefed-up administration. We have instituted new administrative and ethical standards, with the aim of preventing the use of public money for private and personal gain. We have decreased all administrative expenses by 40%. Most of those savings have been made simply by ending the mismanagement and abuse of public funds by the administration. We have amended the law on conflict of interest. The previous administration was built on conflicts of interest, but today there are no reported cases of such conflict, and if any are found they will be dealt with accordingly.

We have amended the law on public procurement. As a result, 92% of goods and services are now procured through open bidding, compared with a mere 25% a year ago. Parliament has also approved a law on whistle-blowers and denouncers of corruption, offering them special witness protection under the law and rewarding them with 6% of the recovered funds.

Our fight against corruption, smuggling and fiscal evasion has produced significant and encouraging results. Revenues from tax collection are 24% higher than forecast, which allowed us to have a supplementary budget in June. The cost of procurement has decreased by 25%, and the expenses of public administration have decreased by 40%. Bribery has also declined significantly. Corruption is a cancer in society. We have dealt a firm blow to the kleptocratic system that we inherited and are continuing our efforts to uproot this harmful phenomenon through our policy of zero tolerance.

Creating a favourable business climate and making ·Albania the most attractive country for foreign investment is our government's main objective in the economic field. To this end, alongside our efforts to restore and consolidate the rule of law, we have embarked on a truly fiscal revolution. Our goal is to implement a flat tax, at the lowest rate in Europe. So far, we have considerably lowered all taxe. According to the KPMG ranking, in 2006 Albania was the country with the highest percentage rate of tax reduction in the world.

In addition to this fiscal revolution, we have lowered by 33% to 45% the price of electricity for businesses, cut in half the cost of business registration and reduced the time 'required for business' registration from 42 days to only 8 days. Thorough deregulatory reform aiming at liberalising the licensing and administrative business procedures is also under way.

Last but not least, the government has launched a new initiative – “Albania 1 euro”. From now on, investors from your countries can enter Albania paying only,€ 1 at the border, register their business for € 1, or rent for € 1 for ninety-nine years the land needed for investment in productive activities. Mines, hydropower plants and railways will be given out to investors for € 1. A full range of other services will also be offered for the price of € 1. I would like to use this opportunity to ask you to encourage investors in your countries to consider the opportunities and potentials that Albania offers. "Albania 1 euro" is our promise to them. Our economy is doing well, with 6% growth and the opportunity for further growth in the year to come.

In co-operation with the Council of Europe, our government has also embarked on meaningful reforms in the field of decentralisation, education, and other sectors such as property reform and information technology. "Albania in the age of the Internet" is our new effort to boost IT penetration in Albanian society.

At the end of autumn, Albania will hold local elections, and I pledge that my government will do its best to ensure a free and fair election process. I invite the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe to monitor those elections.

On 12 June, Albania signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union. Ratification of the agreement by the European Parliament last month was the ultimate recognition of Albania's western vocation and the values that Albania shares with your nations. At the same time, it showed appreciation of all 25 EU countries for the reforms undertaken by the government that I chair, and appreciation for Albania's overall peaceful transformation during the past fourteen years. Albania has made great achievements due to its great and unwavering efforts as well as to your generosity and exceptional solidarity. In these endeavours, we have greatly benefited from the assistance of your governments, your nations and the taxpayers of your countries. The assistance and support of the Council of Europe have played a great role in this, and we remain always grateful to you.

I want to seize this opportunity to reassure you that, for my government, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement is the most significant contract for my nation with the member states of the European Union and it constitutes a road map for Albania's full integration into the EU. For this reason, I ask you positively to persuade your parliaments to ratify it as soon as possible.

For fourteen years, Albania has built and retained an excellent and loyal partnership with NATO and the United States. Our armed forces are undergoing a deep transformation with the aim of building a modern and professional army. Our soldiers are serving alongside NATO units in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Afghanistan, and in coalition with the United States in Iraq.

My government is determined to introduce all necessary reforms and pay any price to deserve the invitation to join NATO at the first enlargement summit. Albania's membership of NATO represents the most secure future for Albania and her citizens. The support of your governments and parliaments for that process will always be highly valued and appreciated.

The tragedies, wars and cruel dictatorships that the people of the Balkans experienced during the last decade of the last century did not extinguish their aspirations for freedom, human dignity and integration into the EU and NATO. In a matter of a few years the Balkans leapt from an age of violent confrontations, wars, ethnic cleansing and blind nationalism – paralleled only by the events in East Africa – into an age of friendly political, economic and military co-operation, and of irreversible regional and European integration. The year 2006 is a historic year for the peoples of the Balkans: today they are more united than ever in their European project.

Two important countries of the region, Romania and Bulgaria, will become members of the European Union on 1 January 2007. Croatia has opened its membership negotiations with the EU. Macedonia has been given the status of EU candidate. Albania has signed its Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. SAA negotiations have been opened for Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Republic of Montenegro proclaimed its independence. Kosovo is moving towards finalisation of its status as a free and democratic European country.

A few months ago, I visited Kosovo. With great pleasure, I observed that no other country had changed more than Kosovo in the past seven years. Out of the ashes of hundreds of thousands of burnt houses in its towns and villages, from the rivers of tears, enormous human suffering and blood, out of the mass graves, the citizens of Kosovo rose like a phoenix. With the precious help, generosity and extraordinary solidarity provided by your nations and governments, they built anew hundreds of thousands of homes, schools and kindergartens. They held fair and free elections. With the assistance of the best western expertise, they built efficient democratic institutions and established the rule of law.

I was particularly gratified to witness, in my meetings with the common people of all ethnic origins and their political and religious leaders, their firm will and enthusiastic efforts to build a European Kosovo where all citizens are equal before the law. I was witness to the commitment and determination of the Albanian majority to forgive but not forget, to respect and guarantee the freedoms of all minorities and Serbians in particular, and to respect their religious and cultural heritages as well as their languages.

In the last century, Kosovo was at the heart of the Balkan crisis. I believe that a fair and just solution of the Kosovo issues, respecting the will of the Kosovo people, is closely linked to the stability of Albania and other neighbours – Macedonia and Montenegro – as well as the stability of the region..

Regrettably, despite all the changes that have occurred in Belgrade since the fall of the Milošević regime and despite all the fundamental differences between the current Serbian leadership and yesterday's Serbian communist nomenklatura, the ghost of greater Serbia remains, and a lack of realism still dominates Belgrade's stance towards Kosovo.

As a witness to developments in the Balkans during the past two decades, I can say that there are no essential differences between the position adopted in the Serbian Constitution in the mid-l980s and the Serbian constitutional scenario of 2006. I also remind the Assembly that between 1991 and 1995, Belgrade's only option for a solution for Kosovo was partition, and the drawing up of maps that changed every three months. Today, in 2006, the partition of Kosovo is still Belgrade's only option for a solution to the crucial question of the Balkans.

Yet I am deeply convinced that changing the existing international borders in the Balkans poses the danger of awakening the old conflicts, with severe consequences for the region. Furthermore, over 90% of Kosovo's population is Albanian, and Kosovo has been the home of those people since the beginning of ' time. The idea of partition, with the aim of creating a pure ethnic country in a region where such homogeneous countries do not exist, is not only unhelpful but dangerous.

Albania has adopted, and maintains, a realistic stance on the solution of the issue of Kosovo's final status. We have fully supported the mission of President Ahtisaari and the Contact Group. We believe that the final status of Kosovo must guarantee the rights and freedoms of Serbians and all other minorities in the country, that it must guarantee full and effective implementation of the decentralisation process in compliance with the European Charter of Local Self­ Government, that it should ensure full respect for the cultural and religious heritage and that it should endorse the expressed will of the Kosovo people for independence.

I think that the independence of Kosovo is essential to its economic and social development, and crucial to its stability and the stability of the entire region. The independence of Kosovo will provide a permanent answer to the fluidity of the Albanian factor in the Balkans. That is why Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro share similar views on the final status of Kosovo. Furthermore, I believe that the independence of Kosovo would contribute to the stability of Serbia. It would help Serbia to depart from its recent past, marginalise its radical forces and speed up its demilitarisation, thus helping it to integrate in the Euro­Atlantic institutions and secure the future that the nation deserves. However, owing to the absence of realism in Belgrade, an agreement between Pristina and Belgrade is elusive. That is why I believe that the only remaining alternative is an imposed agreement. The same has applied to all important agreements in the history of the Balkans over the past one hundred and fifty years.

At the same time, I remain deeply convinced that Albanians and Serbians must follow in the great tradition of the other European nations, and embark on a new chapter of neighbourliness and friendly co-operation to the benefit of our common European future.