Round of conversations goes on with Berat citizens

Prime Minister Edi Rama at meeting with local residents in Berat as part of the round of conversations with the citizens: 

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: In order for us to go on with the work, press ahead with the ongoing projects and complete the frame of the huge project on transformation of the whole Berat district we would need support from everyone. We need a big and important unification of forces amid these challenging times and these are neither left or right challenges, but vital ones.

The tremendous challenge to escape the claws of the invisible enemy and liberating the country and people from the anxiety of the presence of the invisible enemy is a vital challenge we will overcome. A challenge that thanks to the unification of people, being fully aware that this is a challenge facing all of us, we have succeeded in coping with it despite the difficulties.

It is now the time to give a final push with the vaccination of the citizens under extremely difficult conditions, with the vaccine securing issue becoming a major international concern as all countries need the vaccines, while 70% of the total vaccine production is in the hands of ten nations only, whereas the rest of the world has access to only 30% of the production and where Albania, being a tiny country located right at the heart of Europe, but not included in the European vaccine distribution scheme, faces a huge challenge. Thanks to the perseverance, commitment and incredible patience we have succeeded in launching the vaccination rollout, whereas other countries have faced incredible difficulties and have yet to administer the first vaccine.

We will complete the vaccination process for all doctors and nurses in the Republic of Albania by first half of March. I am very confident that we will soon receive good news about securing the required vaccine doses to intensify the vaccination tempo and turn this spring into a season of mass vaccination.

On the other hand, we also had to cope with the huge blow from the earthquake, which affected not only thousands of families that became homeless in just few seconds, but it affected whole country and its economy, as it forced us to immediately alter our priorities and commitments, turning this government’s second term in office a mandate of character to demonstrate the strength of the character of this government, not to bow in front of such disasters, but to rise stronger.

Just like we are step by step emerging stronger in the post-earthquake reconstruction process, with many quake-affected families moving into the built back stronger, larger and safer homes than the ones they lost in the earthquake, we will also emerge stronger from this phase of the pandemic.

The pandemic has had an extraordinary negative impact on tourism as a whole and as such has hit Albania in particular as a country with a tourist profile, it has also hit Berat. Yet it is fantastic that the people here have not only resisted, but have continued to work and invest. In the last year alone, almost 350 new rooms have been built. In the period since we started the work for the Urban Renaissance, here in Berat the capacities have quadrupled. There are about 70 new hospitality facilities, small hotels, guesthouses, but also hotels that meet fantastic standards.

There is a significant figure speaking volumes about the tremendous change already underway. Such change would have been even more tangible in numbers if we had not to cope with the invisible enemy. Half a million people visited to Berat Castle in the period between 2014 and 2020, including the time when restriction measures were introduced.

The visitor number is unmatchable with the past, just as the number of new businesses launched over this period in the municipality of Berat, but also in the entire region of Berat, is very significant, a region where everyone has understood and they are all seeking to restore heritage values, tradition and nature through investments in the future and projects designed to generate revenue through hospitality and tourism.

The transformation of the rural areas in this region is also very significant. Local leading exporters of the agricultural products, renowned collector of the agricultural commodities, networks of people who have joined their forces and best cooperate to increase value of their product at the market, and they have come together being fully aware that unity makes strength.

Of course, many problems and challenges have yet to be tackled and this requires hard work and unification.

Under this format, I would like us to engage in an open relaxed conversation, where everyone should feel free to make questions, express opinions, voice criticism and we are here to provide as many answers as we can.

–An Albanian Rafting Group representative, who said he had hosted around 10.000 tourists until 2019, not only in Berat district, but all over Albania, said that international travel agencies had informed them that no flights, especially from England, will head to Tirana airport until May 17 at least. Answering to his question about the government plans should the borders continue to remain closed, PM Rama said:

Thank you for the question as it would help me clarify on a fact that many – for incomprehensible reasons – are not aware of. We haven’t closed our borders. Great Britain represents a specific case due to the emergence of the new coronavirus variant in Great Britain. Flights from Great Britain to any European country, including Albania, have been halted. Hard to say how long such a ban will last, yet there is a sign of optimism as Great Britain is faring better than any other country with the vaccination campaign for their specific reasons and for the fact that the vaccines were invented in Britain. They are moving fast towards liberating their space from the invisible enemy. Two days ago, British Prime Minister announced a series of optimistic developments in Great Britain, since it is a fact that vaccination is an irreplaceable weapon in the efforts to break the infection chain. The more people are vaccinated, the more opportunities are provided for a decision to lift the restriction measures. The Premier said that the country will prepare to gradually ease the restriction measures starting in March and they will open stadiums with 10000-seat capacity in April and everything will ultimately reopen in June. It could happen that the flights from and to Great Britain resume even earlier and not necessarily in May. Here too, this is a periodically made decision, not a long-lasting decision, as things could change at any time and the dynamics are unpredictable.

I believe it is really important for us to be able vaccinate intensively throughout the spring season with the ambition that we ensure more safety and reduce the spread of the infection by the summer season and the peak of the tourist season. We won’t be able to vaccinate whole population until then, but if we succeed to vaccinate a considerable number of people according our plan, aiming at completing the whole vaccination process in 14 months, then we would certainly secure an advantage and a much wider margin for action than today. We are working day and night so that we can secure the needed vaccine doses to keep the vaccination process going by increasing the vaccine quantities. We have set up a network of vaccinators and additional groups are being selected, including student nurses, military medical personnel, in order to enhance capacities on the ground as soon as we secure more doses so that we can enhance the daily vaccination capacities.

–Answering to a question posed by an experienced economist about the government plans to help business amid this difficult situation, PM Rama said:

I think the pandemic gave us a strong impetus to take an incredibly important step that goes beyond our pledges to business community. Because, as it is usually the case in the wake of a crisis, ample opportunities come with it to see things differently and take advantage of that crisis so that you emerge stronger from it. And this step was the introduction of a zero VAT rate on all small businesses with an annual turnover up to $100.000 and zero profit tax on the businesses with an annual turnover up to $140.000.

A 10% profit tax rate, plus 20% VAT, were applied to every business with annual turnover of $20.000 when we took office back in 2013. We made an initial measure to cut the profit tax to 5% only, whereas today the measure we had announced last year is already into force, as a result of our response to the pandemic and our support for the business through zero tax rates. Earlier on the day, I visited a small business here in Berat and it is actually an incredible support since the state gives up any access to the small business profits. What the state used to collect in taxes in the past is now distributed back to the households and the small business employees and many of the business operators acknowledged they would have been forced to fire their workers should such not a measure was not taken.

And it turns out that the number of small businesses in the Republic of Albania today is higher than in January 2020, when the pandemic was yet to start. And that’s the basic reason why business is encouraged.

Meanwhile, I have already stated and I repeat we won’t cut profit tax for large businesses. The profit tax rate we have imposed 15% and it will remain as such, at least for a certain period of time, and we would mull plans to cut taxes for large business should the opportunities are created. It is important for everyone to know that it is a clear cut between us and other alternatives. We stick to our lower tax policy for those who earn less, and higher tax rates for those earning more. However, this doesn’t mean we haven’t supported large business in various ways. We have provided support to the large business workers through the relief package; we have supported tourism industry through a special relief package and the manufacturing industries, starting with the clothing and footwear industry, so that they are not left alone.

If you are to look at the data on the consumption today you will find that consumption has returned to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, because significant amount of money has been injected into economy through the relief packages, the post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction programme. More than 25.000 jobs have been created under the Reconstruction programme, with 25.000 people now found a job placement and earning income to support and provide for their families.

Tourism has been certainly hit, but not that hard it would have been hit if we were to close the country’s borders that we didn’t; second, if we were not to act and provide relief to the hotel and hospitality enterprises so that they could fully exploit entire tourism season by hosting a different kind of tourist, since no international tourists visited the country, but many local Albanian tourists who spent their vacations here as they were not allowed to travel abroad, and visitors from Kosovo who came in droves. I am confident tourism will rebound and this year will be a better year. I am confident that the data show it will be a much better year than the last year, as a number of the international visitors, who would receive the vaccine, will now travel, while a considerable of Albanian population will be also vaccinated by then and it would be much easier for everyone. The tourism industry will breathe a bit freer this year. I also believe that things will keep improving in all other aspect.

–The question made by a high school senior over the government’s plans to combat and eradicate corruption, PM Rama answered:

This is a question that would deserve a fresh round of conversations, yet I will try to answer it briefly. Everyone should realize that corruption is an alternative to a service that is lacking. Where a certain service is lacking, where a public service is denied or the citizens’ access to it is stiffened, then it is corruption that gains ground and turns into an alternative. The fight against corruption is a fight to modernize our state functioning and public service delivery systems. Of course, we are to look at the country with a critical eye, we still face a significant problem with corruption, but if we are to put things in perspective and take into account where we started from, then we have enough reasons to believe we are on the right track and we should just keep press ahead with our job. It would suffice that the digital revolution we have launched  by making access to many public services online only in order to eliminate contact between the citizen and the official tasked with delivering public services, because the most serious problem in a country like ours is creating the opportunity for the people to become corrupt  by proposing them a bribe in exchange of a certain common public service, like obtaining a certificate, a document, a property ownership certificate, quick access to the services, and if you are to take into account the fact that we started off with just three digital services in 2013, whereas around 900 various public services are now delivered online, this reality is translated into millions of services delivered via online, while millions of contacts have been eliminated along with millions of bribes. However, this doesn’t mean that corruption is no longer a problem. On the contrary, this means we need to move on this direction, because we want to deliver via online system any public service possible. If we still face problems when applying for documents from the Cadastre agency, this is because there are areas and parts of the country where the property maps have yet to be updated and registered because of the property overlaps and this is the reason you are not provided this online service, as the computer doesn’t generate the document you apply for, as a considerable number of documents are now computer-generated ones with applicants having no longer the need to report physically at the Cadastre offices.

Of the one hundred percent of people who had to report at the state offices physically and start interactions that most of the time ended up with the intervention of an intermediary or a middleman, today, a significant percentage of people no longer need to do so. But it is the rest that remains a problem and we are very aware of that. If there are a significant number of services that are delivered online, there are still some services that cannot be delivered via the online system, just like the medical service for which you have to visit a doctor, a nurse at the hospital. In this sector, we have already created the conditions to usher in the next phase of the health system reform by altering the hospitals management model by introducing the hospital autonomy.

To this end, we will transform the new Fier regional hospital into a technology and know-how transfer centre, where the hospital autonomy will be applied for first time as a pilot project, with the health and hospital authorities taking note of how it works and undergo needed training programmes. The hospital will be run by a Turkish management team for a transitional period of one to three years. Managers and the ward heads will be Turkish citizens.  A team of 50 individuals will come from Turkey and will join medical personnel of 320 Albanian doctors, nurses and health workers. The hospital autonomy concept will then be extended throughout the country.

Turkey has been facing same problems before the health system reform was launched. Similar reform is also underway here, but the hospital autonomy couldn’t be implemented if you have no proper hospitals to implement such a concept and the hospitals in the country were in terrible conditions just seven years ago. No hospital autonomy can be implemented if no supply lines and proper medicine storage infrastructure is not in place. You can’t apply hospital autonomy if you lack equipment and medical devices for a hospital. Doctors and nurses even faced shortages of their uniforms. A series of important interventions have yet to be done regarding some aspects, but such a level has been somehow established and we can move forward in tandem with creating another system, where in addition to the hospital autonomy, doctors and nurses will be more financially motivated and doctors will be rewarded based on their contribution and performance and they will receive higher pays by self-managing both the government funds and the revenue the hospital generates.

Now that we have overcome the worst, we just should keep doing our job.

Albania is in the same situation in every sector. Some foundations have been laid, some walls have been erected, but the work has yet to complete, otherwise you cannot say look how well people live here.

There has been a great deal of enthusiasm about justice reform that secured quite a significant popular support. However, a considerable part of people have yet to realize, or they are unwilling to realize, that vetting process represents just the foundations, as vetting just cleans the system and it is not a court to sentence the corrupt judges and prosecutors. Vetting just helps to overhaul and clean the justice system from the scum. Given that the vetting process is already underway and, on the other hand, people still keep asking “why he or she, this and that are not arrested”, as if I am a chief prosecutor, and I really understand such a frustration, yet the thing is that it is no longer the distant year 1945 when people were arrested on the party orders. However, some positive signals have been sent today. A judge and a group around her, who had issued terrible rulings, have been arrested. This didn’t happen until lately, but it is happening now and it is a very clear message to everyone. A doctor who had been ripping of people has now been arrested. This didn’t happen previously.

The last event to critically trouble other parts of the politics following the US Secretary of State’s decision to award a special honour to an Albanian judge, who everybody knows what he became famed for, and everybody knows who he had been conflicting with, is very significant.

Do we have the needed justice?

We have yet to build the needed justice, but we have laid its foundations. This is an unquestionable fact.

Who can support justice?

This is very clear; just it is obvious who can obstruct justice.

So, to answer your question, corruption is being fought through reforms and by modernizing the systems, but these systems have yet to be taken to the level where we could say that corruption is eradicated everywhere.

-Answering to the question about the phase of Albania’s EU integration process, PM Rama said:

The integration process involves two factors, Albania and the European Union. The EU is not a single factor, but a community of states representing various different factors in this process. Based on the European Council’s decision, the accession negotiations have been formally opened. If you are to ask them, the accession negotiations with Albania have been opened, but formally starting the negotiations with under the European Council’s decision is subject to approval by all member states, while the negotiations process is linked to the formal step towards the intergovernmental conference, while a story of many chapters is what ensues.

We are now at a phase where we have all seen that the EU’s internal dynamics and the internal problems of various member states have their impact on the process. I have earlier stated that we will be coming across many statements, yet the Intergovernmental Conference won’t take place without the elections in the Netherlands are held first. This is one of the factors and not the only one. Let’s see what will happen then. The pandemic has also largely affected the process, as it has dictated another agenda in between. Most importantly, we have done and delivered on our homework.

The European Union operates through two levels; the European Commission that conducts the technical evaluation of all steps and accomplishments, whereas the European Council makes the political evaluation over the internal situation and this is closely connected with the internal situation in various member states. For example, the government of a certain member state is not willing to yield to the request at a certain moment, as it is worried about what its voters would think about it. It is not a process progressing technically only, not a process solely depending on what we do, but it is a process largely depending on many other components. What matters most is that we should deliver on our commitments for a very simple reason. We do our homework because they are the right thing to do in best interest our country, state and our children. Any reform and every step we take are dictated by the European integration process are in best interest of our country.

-Speaking about plans on future of pre-university and higher education system, as well as the online schooling alternative, PM Rama said:

The online schooling is an alternative when you have no other choices. The online schooling could be valuable at certain moments, when it is a result from free choice. But the online schooling, when it is impossible for normal classes, it is of course not the ideal alternative, but an alternative not by choice, but out of necessity. It is pretty easy for me to imagine it, given the experience in my own home, when little kids access the internet and it is a story that has really tremendous difficulties for them, for the teachers, for the parents. But this is a transitional phase and I hope it would end soon.

If we are talk about the reform, I think that real transformation of the pre-university education system is now a fact. It would suffice to take a look at the huge change regarding the textbooks. Albanian children now have available Oxford, Cambridge, and Pearson textbooks. Teachers are now in a completely different situation than they used to be, they enjoy a completely different human and professional status. Becoming a teacher today is not like it was until lately. To become a teacher, one has to sit a national exam and wait to be employed according to the merit and performance-based system.

If I were to point a finger to a long-time problem, I would name the schools’ management problem, where we are still at a very early stage of the process. We have made sure that the previous militancy spirit in running the school. We want licensed school principals in charge of schools. We borrowed a model from Israel, which is the school of directors.

As far as the higher education system is concerned, to be very honest and straightforward, I am concerned because the higher education reform has been a profound and bold reform. The law is very strong in paper and it offers room for progress, but it is a problem that the university autonomy, fully guaranteed by law, has two sides, freedom and responsibility. What I perceive and what is easily perceived by all those who observe the situation is that the aspect of freedom is absorbed, but this is not the case when it comes to the responsibility. If you look at the requirements for new programs, it is disturbing. If you are to look at the requests for new programs, you would find it is really disturbing. University officials demand ask for programs that clearly indicate the anxiety and the need for them to create new jobs, without caring about how to create new jobs for the young people. What’s the point of teaching students programs not required by the labour market?!

This is where we need to take a courageous step ahead and really reform the programs system in view of the market needs. Vocational education system lies in between and the creation of conditions for vocational colleges, not only vocational schools but also colleges. A part of people graduating from high school should enrol in a vocational college that is a higher qualification, just like it is the case everywhere else around the world.