CG/BUR (7) 116 revised

Report on the visit to Albania by the President of the Congress with a delegation from 3 to 7 April 2001

Document prepared by the Secretariat of the Congress, approved by the members of the delegation and sent by the Bureau of the Congress to the Committee of Ministers, to the Parliamentary Assembly and to the national, regional and local authorities in Albania

1. Membership of the Congress delegation

Mr Cuatrecasas, President
Mr Alain Chénard, Past-President of the Congress
Mr Mildon, Vice-President of the Congress, representing the Chamber of Regions
Mr Newbury, representing the Chamber of Local Authorities
Mr Locatelli, Head of the Congress Secretariat
Ms Kopaci-Di Michele, Administrative Officer in the Congress Secretariat

2. Purpose and programme of the visit

The visit followed an official invitation from the Albanian Government, which wished to discuss with the Congress delegation the action taken in response to the Congress report on the local elections in October 2000, together with the implementation of the reform of local and regional self-government in Albania and especially the establishment of new regional authorities. The full programme of the visit is appended. It should be noted that all delegation members were present during the strictly official part of the visit, which took place in Tirana itself and featured meetings with representatives of the government, the associations of local and regional authorities, the main political parties and European institutions. However, the visit to Himara and Vlora only involved MM Chénard and Newbury accompanied by the Secretariat. The programme was arranged thanks to the co-operation of the Ministry of Local Government in close liaison with the Council of Europe Office in Tirana headed by Mr Grunnet, whom the delegation members met on arrival in Tirana for a very useful initial briefing.

The members of the delegation wish to thank the Ministry of Local Government staff and the Council of Europe Office in Tirana most sincerely for their co-operation and hospitality.

The following report deals with the various subjects covered during the numerous exchanges.

A. Action on the recommendations made by the Congress in the report on observation of the October 2000 elections

It was especially important to verify the implementation of the Congress recommendations, in so far as they were aimed at more satisfactory preparation of the forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for June this year.

Overall, the Congress report was extremely well received by the various personalities encountered, who stressed its impartiality and political soundness although some had reservations about the part dealing with the elections in Himara. In general, they recognised that the political climate had calmed down somewhat. The government authorities all expressed a resolve to organise genuinely free, fair and democratic elections and to receive as many observers as possible.

A.1 Central Electoral Commission (CEC)

Improving the CEC was one of the central concerns of the Congress recommendations. Readers will be aware that three changes have occurred since the elections: a new chairman, a new vice-chairman and a third member have been appointed, thereby giving the Commission a more pluralist base. Thus there has been some definite response to the recommendations, and most observers apart from Mr Berisha agree that hitherto the new CEC has proved itself to be more professional and efficient than its predecessor. However, as will be further discussed in the following paragraph, there is still divergence between the CEC and the parliamentary committee mandated to reach a compromise on voter registers.

A.2 The problem of voter registers

This was one of the major problems of the local elections in that the government had drawn up a new computerised register based on social insurance files but supported by door-to-door checks in several municipalities. The register had proved incomplete and, barely in time for the local elections, a list B derived from the population register, itself very incomplete, had to be added. Nonetheless, many problems were caused by the dual listing and by some voters' uncertainty as to the polling station where they were registered. These registers had been emphatically challenged by Mr Berisha who claimed that they omitted a large number of his party's voters, holding up as an example the city of Tirana. According to Mr Berisha, in Tirana these registers excluded 30% of the electorate, and in certain other towns such as Shkodra, he estimated that 15% were excluded.

Mr Nano, leader of the ruling party, considers Mr Berisha's objections unfounded; he confirmed the notification received by us earlier from other sources of an agreement reached by ten parties (five in the governing coalition and five in opposition) on 28 February to co-operate in preparing free elections and particularly on the issue of the voter registers. In this matter, a joint parliamentary committee has been set up to devise a plan for compilation of registers. The committee is believed to have suggested that the registers should be verified by the local electoral commissions, composed on a parity basis, and then published on 12 April (date confirmed by several official informants) to enable the citizens, helped by the parties if appropriate, to check that their names actually appear on the registers and to enquire about the polling station where they are listed.

In fact it seems clear that so far the CEC has not accepted this agreement among the parties which emanate from the joint parliamentary committee, and that it would oppose the transmission of the registers to the local electoral commissions - as Mr Berisha fervently wishes. The fact remains that the publication of the lists on 12 April or at an early date seems certain and that citizens and political parties would be able to verify the registers and request further enrolments. A copy of the lists should be issued to the parties without charge or for a moderate fee.

Consequently, despite the agreement of 28 February and the work carried out by the joint parliamentary committee and commended by the Congress delegation, problems evidently persist.

That is why Mr Chénard, who headed the Congress delegation that monitored the October 2000 local elections, proposes that the Parliamentary Assembly send a delegation to Albania in late April or early May in order to ascertain the proper functioning of the system for finalising voter registers through verification by the citizens. The Congress could also join in this assignment by sending one or two representatives from the October 2000 observation mission to give the Parliamentary Assembly the benefit of the experience gained at the time of the local elections.

A.3 The problem of Mr Pollo, the New Democratic Party leader

This new party musters the ex-Democratic Party members of parliament who would no longer accept Mr Berisha's leadership. Mr Pollo has formed a 6 member parliamentary group. The electoral code drawn up with the assent of the international community and the Council of Europe (Venice Commission) stipulates that local electoral commissions and polling stations shall consist equally of representatives of the parties which contested the previous elections. As a result, Mr Pollo's new party would be excluded from both. Mr Pollo is not content with the possibility of having observer status in these bodies, believing that unless he has a right of decision the votes gained by his party would not all be recorded and validated. He has accordingly made various moves, including approaches to the Council of Europe, to request a last-minute amendment of the electoral code. The members of the Congress delegation, without committing themselves as to the expediency of urgently altering the electoral code, consider in substance that it should be possible for a political party which has a parliamentary group to be admitted to local electoral commissions and polling stations.

A.4 The case of HIMARA

It will be recalled that the Congress, alerted after the first round of the local elections that incidents had occurred in the town of Himara, sent observers there for the 2nd round. This was the subject of a special appendix to the report on the observation of the elections. Himara is a small town with no more than 3 500 constituents, the majority of whose inhabitants belong to a "Greek-speaking" community although it lies outside the officially recognised Greek minority zone comprising 99 villages. This non-recognition, particularly as regards the opening of Greek-language schools, had caused a very tense situation at the time of the local elections. The Congress delegation then noted irregularities at Himara in at least three polling stations and requested the possibility of re-running the elections. Other observers noted irregularities in other polling stations.

The Congress has been informed that the complaint lodged by the Human Rights Party, representing the activist fringe of the Greek-speaking community, was dismissed by the CEC on the ground that the irregularities did not affect the result of the poll. The Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of the complaint. It should be observed that the mayor and 11 of the 16 persons elected to the municipal council belong either to the Socialist Party or to the Democratic Party, and the remaining 5 to the Human Rights Party.

These circumstances prompted the visit of a Congress delegation to Himara for talks with the Human Rights Party representative and the elected mayor respectively. In addition, the Congress delegation met Mr Melo, Chairman of the Human Rights Party and member of the Albanian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly. Otherwise, these questions were also raised during the meeting with the Foreign Affairs Minister and with the Prefect of Vlora, responsible for the Himara area. The journey to Himara was very long and arduous. Even so, the delegation was able to hold sufficiently detailed talks with the Himara officials.

The general remark should be made that the case of Himara, though only involving a town of fairly limited importance, raises strong feelings on both sides. The governmental authorities, through spokesmen including the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Prefect and others, consider that what they refer to as the "so-called Greek minority in Himara" does not count as a true minority, merely a community of people who speak Greek because they are still in close contact with Greece today. In short, it is seen as an affair blown up out of all proportion as it affects a limited number of persons most of whom are absent from Himara working in Greece for a good part of the year.

The representatives of Omonia and the Human Rights Party, their local leader Mr Bollanos in particular, base their contentions on historical documents showing that Himara was part of the area with Greek minority status until 1946 when the Communist regime abolished its rights, and that there used to be Greek-language schools – we were shown registers from their 1936 archives. They also quoted to us passages from a 1961 publication of the University of Tirana covering the period 1510-1839 and demonstrating the presence of Greek speakers in the Himara area from that time onwards.

The main demand of the Greek community in Himara concerns the opening of a state school using Greek as the language of instruction, as in the 99 villages recognised as Greek-speaking. The Omonia representatives estimate that 70% of citizens in Himara have Greek as their language, which justifies the opening of a school. However, the representatives of the government, notably the prefect and Himara's elected mayor, consider that no historical precedent exists and that there are too few Greek-speaking pupils and allegedly no qualified primary teachers. The mayor nevertheless acknowledged the existence of a private nursery school catering for about a dozen Greek-speaking children.

The Congress delegation, though unable to substantiate with exactitude the validity of the arguments raised on either side, considers that there is no doubt a strong presence of citizens with Greek as their mother tongue in Himara and that this fact should prompt the authorities to find a solution allowing a school or other cultural facilities to be provided, the more so because the number of children affected is not very large.

In view of the political context described above, the Congress delegation turned its attention principally to the electoral process and the action or inaction on the observations made by the Congress, and to examining the post-election situation. The present position is that the Human Rights Party, having failed to obtain satisfaction through its complaints, refuses to recognise the elections as valid and is therefore boycotting the municipal council. The council nevertheless has the quorum for conducting business and, after a somewhat confused election in which the candidate who won the first round withdrew, has managed to appoint a municipal council chairman and function more or less normally.

The Congress delegation can only note that the Congress observers found a number of irregularities in at least three polling stations and more according to other observers, and that anger might have been appeased by organising fresh elections. It regrets that the Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court did not see fit to order this, on the unverifiable ground that the irregularities did not influence the election result.

B. Progress with local and regional self-government

It was the wish of the Congress to encourage the Albanian authorities to re-launch the devolution strategy plan following the establishment of the newly elected regional authorities. The opinion of the Minister for Local Government is that the strategy should be re-launched with the finalisation of a law on the Prefects and the drafting of new laws on local finance. An interdepartmental committee on devolution has been set up, chaired by the Minister for Local Government, and a Task Force has been formed, its composition and chair having been renewed recently. New laws on regionalisation are also to be prepared in order to specify the powers and financial resources conferred on the regions.

The Prime Minister Mr Meta also stressed the importance attached by the Albanian government to reform of decentralised administration and the public service. Progress is generally acknowledged even by the opposition representatives, who nonetheless condemn the weaknesses of the current system and its excessive dependence on central government particularly in financial matters but also regarding powers, which are not as full as the European Charter of Local Self-Government requires. The opposition representatives chiefly emphasised the undue weakness of the opposition in the municipal and regional councils, and the incompleteness of the present legislative framework, particularly for the regions but also for the municipalities.

B.1 Functioning of the local institutions

Mr Fino, Minister for Local Government, disclosed to us the government plan on local finance aimed at increasing municipalities' independent resources (local taxes) and converting special-purpose subsidies into general-purpose ones, except for subsidisation of capital expenditure which will continue to be earmarked. The new Mayor of Tirana Mr Rama, member of the Congress, considered that municipal management should be rationalised by making use of better-paid young public servants. He had therefore concluded an agreement with the Sorosz Foundation in order to double the salaries of these new managers recruited by him and to place them on a competitive footing with the private sector. In particular, he had succeeded in altering the tax collection method and had thus been able to multiply revenue by two and a half in the space of a few months. The major problem is the Tirana land-use plan, to which he has applied himself in order to prevent building against regulations or collusive building permits. The serious problem to be solved in his view is to professionalise and rationalise the local government service and offer its employees attractive salaries, as poorly paid public servants are more likely to yield to corruption.

The meeting with the Albanian National Association of Mayors provided the opportunity to speak with the mayors or deputy mayors of Kucova, Kukes, Berat, Lushnja, Durrës and Shkodra, ie mayors belonging to the Socialist Party and also to the Democratic Party. This gave an overview of the serious problems confronted by the municipalities, burdened with unemployment, a large number of families living on welfare allowances and above all the problem of housing, infrastructure, street improvement and in general all local public amenities. The Mayor of Lushnja gave us confirmation of the problems relating to tax collection already described by the Mayor of Tirana; in his town, he had succeeded in increasing revenue by three and a half thanks to a new collection scheme. The Congress delegation concluded that the problem of collecting local taxes should be covered by specific technical assistance.

Many mayors also insistently called for twinnings with other towns, and requested help in this direction from the Congress.

Other mayors considered that the principal difficulty concerned relations between local authorities and central government, and demanded a new law defining these relations (opposition mayors especially). The Mayor of Shkodra stressed the need to establish a special status for towns, to which greater powers and resources should be assigned.

Generally speaking, the Association appears to work well and is capable of bringing together elected representatives from different parties; it deserves support in order to gain the government's growing recognition as a partner in the preparation of new statutes.

B.2 Establishment of the new regions

The Congress had already organised a seminar on regionalisation in May 2000 at the time when the Albanian authorities were framing a law to institute the regions, as provided in the Constitution. Finally twelve regions were created, replacing the 37 former districts. These are indirectly elected regional authorities in that the regional councils are made up of representatives of the region's municipalities, the number of representatives depending on the size of the municipal populations. After the October 2000 election, the municipalities accordingly designated their representatives, allowing the regional councils to be formed and to appoint their Chairmen and Boards. This operation went off quite satisfactorily despite the tensions between the two main parties. However, the Congress delegation could observe a tendency to set up outright or virtually single-party regional council boards. Four regions have appointed a board with members belonging to one party, while the eight other regions have conceded at least one seat and as many as three (Tirana region) to the opposition.

More significant difficulties have been encountered only in forming the Lezhe Regional Council, one with a Democratic Party majority whose establishment in office was completed only a few weeks ago.

The delegation was able to speak with the newly elected regional council chairmen meeting at the Tirana regional council headquarters under the chairmanship of Mrs Canaj, Chair of the Tirana Regional Council and member of the Congress. Eleven regional council chairmen and one vice-chairman were present.

Discussions clearly revealed that while the regional councils have been instituted and begun work, the legal framework for their action has yet to be completed as regards:

. definition of the role of the regions in regional development;
. definition of relations between the regions and the municipalities;
. means of harmonising central and regional government policies;
. nature of the prefect's relationship with the regional authorities;
. nature of the regions' allocated finance and independent resources.

Meanwhile, the regions have nevertheless addressed a number of issues, in particular rural road-building and taking over the powers of the former districts. The more active regional councils have considered the preparation of a regional development plan.

Opinions round the table nevertheless revealed a need for the new Albanian regions to gain experience and consolidate their administration. It was proposed that the Chamber of Regions of the Congress might issue an appeal to the European regions in order to find one or two candidates for partnership with each Albanian region. It was agreed that the Albanian regions would send the Congress Secretariat a brief description of their characteristics in order to make up a file which would be circulated to the European regions to elicit candidatures for such partnerships. As the Albanian regions are constituted on the pattern of the Finnish regions (indirect election), the President of the Chamber of Regions, Mr Koivisto, might think of ways in which the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities could assist the Albanian association of regions already created and being constituted. [For practical reasons, the Congress Secretariat should obtain the addresses of the 12 regional council chairmen and include them in the list of European regions.]

B.3 The new law on the Prefects

Prior to departure on its mission, the Congress delegation was able to obtain particulars from the Directorate of Co-operation for Local and Regional Democracy about this draft legislation and the relevant opinions provided by two Council of Europe experts. Mr Grunnet, Head of the Council of Europe Office in Tirana, told the delegation that so far not all proposals by the Council of Europe experts had been taken into consideration. Fears had been expressed that, under a system of prior scrutiny of all acts and decisions of local and regional authorities, the law might in effect transfer the powers of municipalities or regions to the Prefect.

The delegation had a frank discussion on the subject with the Minister for Local Government, who informed the delegation that the new law represented a major advance over the present situation where prefectural supervision was concerned. He further announced that, following the Council of Europe experts' opinion, the prior scrutiny by Prefects would henceforth apply solely to regulatory acts and that suspension of acts could only be ordered by a court of justice. The latest version of the bill, as the Congress delegation understood, still raised problems. Section 15 in particular still provides for automatic review, at least every six months, of all decisions of local authorities, not only regulatory acts but also individual decisions, and their automatic referral to a court of justice when they have not undergone prior scrutiny. The secretariat of the delegation pointed out this inconsistency in the text to Mr Klosi, Vice-Minister for Local Government, who said he would take account of it during subsequent examination of the bill. The Minister indicated that owing to the difficulties attending the passage of the bill, it would probably not be submitted to Parliament before the parliamentary elections.

The Association of Municipalities told us that it had been consulted about the bill and had transmitted its comments but did not know what response its opinion had received. It had been assisted by US Aid and had the impression that the new law entailed unduly broad oversight of local government acts, since in its view the elected representatives and their experts, not the Prefects, should judge the expediency of acts. The procedure for final adoption of the law on the Prefects should therefore continue to be closely monitored in order to verify that the proposals of the Council of Europe experts receive full consideration, although it must be acknowledged that up to the present time some of the proposals have already been incorporated into the current version of the draft.

B.4 Training of local and regional government staff

About two years ago the Congress worked out a full programme for setting up a local and regional staff training centre in Albania, to be developed in co-operation with the associations of local authorities, the government and a number of foundations and NGOs interested in the project. The project was devised with the support of the ENTO representatives. It carried an estimated budget spread over three years, which included European funding of some 780 000 Euros to be provided by European Union-Council of Europe co-financing. Unfortunately it has never been possible to implement the project, since it could not be included in the joint Council of Europe-European Union programme for Albania. The delegation was also informed that a German government contribution of some 50 000 Euros under the Stability Pact had been made for local and regional government staff training activities in Albania. The Congress delegation sincerely regrets that the plan for a local and regional government staff training centre in Albania was not adopted by the European Union and the Council of Europe, considering that all contacts at every level during the visit emphasised the crucial importance of looking after the training of local and regional elected representatives and staff in Albania. Furthermore, the delegation observes that at all levels (Minister for Local Government, mayors' association and the new association of regions), unco-ordinated initiatives are afoot or planned in the training field, with a risk of duplication and unwise use of financial and human resources which are already very limited.

The Minister for Local Government, after thanking the Congress for producing a plan for a training centre, officially informed us that he was still in favour of setting up a training centre for local and regional elected representatives and public servants because, while there are initiatives for national civil service training, they completely omit the 6 000 or so local and regional government employees. In the new ministry building he has envisaged premises suitable for use as a training centre, and he urged us to raise the matter with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister assured us that that the government's devolution strategy must necessarily be accompanied by arrangements for training local and regional elected representatives and staff. We also received ample confirmation of the need for training from Mr Peretti, the European Union Ambassador in Tirana, who thought that the only explanation for jettisoning the centre was the priority given to creation of state structures. Mr Rama, Mayor of Tirana, explained to us at length the need for staff to be trained in modern democratic governance methods, and even identified lack of training as the main stumbling-block for local authorities in performing their tasks properly. The representatives of the association of mayors not only impressed upon us the urgent need for local elected representatives and staff to be trained in municipal administration of public services and town planning, but also informed us that the association had already made moves in this area, particularly training for elected representatives, and that they felt able to provide part of this training if assisted by European experts. In this connection, they stated the intention to join ENTO, with which they already maintained working relations. Lastly, the regional council chairmen emphasised the great need to benefit from European experience of regionalism through regional twinnings (see paragraph B2), as well as through a training programme which they considered should be specific and geared to regional issues.

Such being the position, the Congress delegation considered that it was a matter of urgency to revive the idea of either a single training centre or a least a co-ordinated programme of assistance for training of local and regional government members and staff in Albania, and that a further mission on this subject should be organised by the Congress in conjunction with the ADACS programme in order to update the proposals prepared by the Congress two years earlier, having regard to subsequent developments and also the urgent need to assist in training both office-bearers and employees of local and regional authorities in Albania.

C. Albania and the problems of the Balkans

Although this issue was not intended to be part of the objectives of the Congress mission, the recent crisis in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia prompted a number of our talking-partners to raise the question. Mr Nano, Socialist Party Chairman, considered that the forthcoming elections were an important time for Albania given its position and role in the Balkans. He went on to mention the FYROM crisis and his contacts with Mr Xhafiri, the DPA
party leader there. It emerges from these contacts that the FYROM Albanian leaders are placed in a very difficult situation by the growing discontent and disappointment of the ethnic Albanian population. He stressed the need for greater freedom of contact and exchange in the Balkans, and encouraged the Congress to promote transfrontier co-operation in the region in order to arrive at a situation comparable to that of Western Europe.

Prime Minister Meta informed us of Albania's official position; the nation is concerned that the terrorists' activities may impair its image in the Balkans and Europe. His government has distanced itself from these acts and maintains dialogue with the FYROM authorities and the DPA party which is also a member of the governing coalition, on the one hand to preserve the integrity of the republic but on the other hand to better the position of its Albanian minority.

Please quote: CPLRE/lk

30 March 2001

DRAFT PROGRAMME

Visit of the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe
Mr. Llibert Cuatrecasas
Tirana, Albania, 3 - 8 April 2001

Accompanied by Mr Alain CHENARD (France), former President of the CLARE, Mr Yavuz MILDON (Turkey) Vice President of the CLRAE, Mr Christopher NEWBURY (UK), Member of the CLRAE, Rapporteur on the progress of local democracy in Albania, Mr. Rinaldo LOCATELLI, Head of Congress Secretariat, Mrs Liri KOPAÇI – DI MICHELE, Administrator, CLRAE

Tuesday, 3 April 2001

12.15 Arrival at Tirana Airport of Mr Cuatrecasas with Alitalia

13.00 Arrival at Tirana Airport of Mr Mildon with Turkish Airlines

14.10 Arrival at Tirana Airport of Mr Chénard and Mr Locatelli with Swiss Air

17.00 - 18.00 Briefing with the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to Tirana Mr Jørgen GRUNNET followed by dinner of the Delegation with Mr Grunnet.

19.30 Dinner hosted by Mr GRUNNET

Wednesday, 4 April 2001

9.00 – 10.00 Meeting with EU Ambassador to Albania, Mr. Michel PERETTI

10.15 – 11.15 Meeting with OSCE Ambassador in Albania Mr. Gert AHRENS

11.30 – 12.30 Meeting with Minister of Local Government Mr Bashkim FINO

12.30 - 14.30 Lunch with

14.10 Arrival of Mr Newbury with Swissair

15.30 - 16.15 Meeting with Mr Fatos NANO, Chairman of Socialist Party

17.00 – 18.00 Meeting with Mr. Edi RAMA, Mayor of Tirana, President of the Association of Albanian Municipalities, Head of the Albanian Delegation to the CLRAE

18.15 – 19.15 Meeting with Minister of Foreign Affaires Mr Paskal MILO

19.30 Dinner hosted by Minister FINO

Thursday, 5 April 2001

9.00 – 9.30 Meeting with Prime Minister Ilir META

10.00 – 10.45 Meeting with Mr Sali BERISHA, Chairman of Democratic Party

11.00 – 11.45 Meeting with Mr Vasil MELO Chairman of the Party for the Union of Human Rights

12.00 – 12.45 Meeting with Mr Genc POLLO, Political Secretary of the New Democratic Party

13.00 – 15.00 Lunch Break

15.30 – 16.30 Meeting with newly elected municipal and communal representatives

16.45 – 17.30 Meeting with the Albanian delegation to the CLARE

Friday, 6 April 20001

8.30 – 9.30 Meeting with Presidents of the newly established Regional Councils

10.00 – 10.30 Press Conference

11.00 Departure of Delegation for Himara

12.30 Departure of President and Mr Mildon for Airport

Saturday, 7 April 2001

09.00 – 10.00 Meeting with locally elected representatives in Himara

10.00 – 11.00 Meeting with representatives of the Greek speaking community in Himara

11.00 - 13.00 Travel from Himare to Vlora

13.30 – 15.00 Working lunch with Mayor and Prefect of Vlora

15.00 Departure for Tirana

Sunday, 8 April 2001

Free morning

12.00 Departure of delegation for Airport



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