Round of conversations with citizens in Lezhe

Round of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s conversations with the citizens in Lezhe: 

 

–Answering to the question made by a citizens whether the Prime Minister had been informed by the public finance experts over the lack of a cohesion in distribution of the public funds between the country’s north and south and lack of investments in Lezha district, where only the maternity hospital is being built, and whether there are other development projects for Lezhe, the government head said:

I believe that investments lacking a development strategy have been made over so many years, and investments designed to seemingly maintain some balances, but indeed failing to support and encourage development through untapped potential and resources. They were mainly irrational investments lacking logic of the steps why an investment is being made here and there today. Certain investments here and there are important to what is about to follow in the future for everyone. It is true we have placed special attention to investments in coastal area and it is true that if we are to look at the today’s overview actually lacks a very important component of this focus and there is a reason behind it. If a series of investments have been implemented on the Ionian coastal areas this is for a reason, primarily because that area has been greatly backward or behind in progress and, secondly, the Ionian sea coastal area is one of the main sources to support growth of economy, employment and welfare for entire country and not  for that area only.

On the other hand, as far as this area is concerned, if we were to call as non-capital the investments we have made, the key element linked to the strategy on development of the coastline, it is precisely the Balldren-Milot-Fier highway project that traverses through Thumane and Rrogozhine, and the Milot-Muriqan highway. It is part of the effort we have made. It is a colossal investment. The project has yet to be finalized through an agreement to allow for the construction work to begin, but the tender has been launched, despite the speculations over alleged predetermined winner, it actually failed to produce a winner, since the company that was supposed to have concluded the deal with the government, failed to meet the points we considered non-negotiable when it comes to the public interest, meaning that the tender will be reopened soon and that investment will definitely be finalized.

If you are to look at the balance of the investments in view of the tourist potential, we have invested like never before in Tropoje, Malesi e Madhe, Puke, Diber, while the Arberi Road project is becoming a reality, which was a long-time dream coming true only now and of course we have invested in whole area of Lezhe. If we are to see Lezhe as separated from the national map, you would find out that we have invested like never before. If we are to talk about Lezha’s connection with the national infrastructure it is true that the axis we named as the Blue Corridor in the 2013 elections is still lacking. From an idea that became part of the program that came to be known with this term became part of the European Union funding for the region. It is true we owe a huge debt to this whole area, but it is a debt that we have all the reasons to believe we will pay it back, because once the tender opens, I believe that the right companies will enter the race and the right company will win the tender to implement this project.

As for the urban part of the city of Lezhe, I think important major investments have been made. There is a considerable investment worth 20 million euros to build water supply system. The ongoing investments will ensure 24-hour water supply to the citizens in the biggest urban areas and the most populated areas within 2021. The only area where the project on 24-hour supply is about to complete by early 2023 is Tirana, as it is the area with the most complex problem regarding the water supply and the investments are really considerable. This is a reason to see the process in a more complex aspect.

– Answering to the question by a citizen what will be done to help the business severely affected by the pandemic this year and next year, Prime Minister Rama said:

Before I answer, I would like to add something regarding the previous question and I would highlight another component of this infrastructure of national importance, namely the road linking the coastal towns of Shengjin and Velipoje. We have concluded all due procedures, the funding has been secured and the start of the construction work is very near. As far as I have been informed, the contract with the wining company is in the process. The project is funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. We will launch a very important construction site, a mass funding in financial terms, but also a new backbone for an area with huge potential for development of tourism. We will encourage also other investments for tourism in coastal areas.

To answer the second question, I believe that in a country where the business operators with an annual turnover up to $140.000 is exempted from paying profit taxes, this is actually the most serious and long-term support a government grants to business community, because it is not a measure to cope with the pandemic effects only, but a measure that will remain into force until 2029. Businesses with annual turnover of $100.000 are exempted from paying VAT. No country in the region applies such support and low tax policies for business, let alone Europe, where tax rates are very high compared to our region.

 

The assistance we are providing to business and all Albanian citizens is the COVID-19 immunisation process. The coronavirus vaccination has been already launched and I am very confident we will secure a considerable quantity of vaccine doses in a very near future so that we can begin the mass vaccination campaign in order to make sure that we  provide relief to the upcoming tourism season by breaking the transmission chain. The vaccine is the only weapon, the only tool to break the infections chain step by step. If we succeed in delivering on the mass vaccination by mid-June, I am confident we will have a tourist season quite different from the last year’s season and quite different from a season we could go through if we fail to deliver on the population’s mass vaccination process. Of course, with the vaccine rollout for the health professionals and the vaccination of the seniors over 80 already underway, a defence process has already started, but we need to move to a whole different level if we want to break the infections chain. In order for us to move to that level, we first need to secure a different quantity of vaccines in terms of volumes, because, for the sake of truth, with the shipments of vaccine doses we have secured so far the process would be really slow. I hope we will succeed. This is the dream really disturbing my sleep right now; how could we sufficient vaccine doses that would kill the invisible enemy.

–A quake-affected Lezh citizen said she is really pleased to see many families recently moving to their newly-built homes and she asked the Premier when she and 95 residents in “Beslidhja” neighbourhood would have the keys to their new homes? The Prime Minister answered:

If I am not mistaken, “Beselidhja” neighbourhood is part of the city and you are resents of the damaged apartment building, aren’t you? If you succeed in finding a private company from the very onset of the process to the work on the construction site to build the residential complex, around 60 to 70% of the work is done.

Two days ago, we saw the airplane’s landing and takeoff tests at the new international airport in Kukes and understandably those Kukes-born guys currently living in England said why you delayed the airport construction to coincide with this period. Indeed, the work on the new Kukes airport kicked off several years ago. I am not referring to our effort, which has actually started from day one, but people think that work means seeing excavators digging on the site.

The ongoing post-earthquake reconstruction process has included a huge work volume that is not visible and tangible, but you may ask your Lezhe Mayor who can tell you the volume of work it takes starting with the damage assessment process followed by a damage re-verification process to match the affected families with the Cadastre property documents and then the Cadastre documents with the affected people, identifying the number of families living under same roof, developing the master plans in the areas where it is not about building a single residential apartment, but whole new residential complexes, be them either complexes of single-family homes or apartment buildings. I wouldn’t go over the details concerning the funding, because it is a very long story. Given all the experiences we have seen, though there could be similar cases, yet we haven’t found any post-earthquake reconstruction programmes ever implemented in Europe, from Italy to Turkey, where houses are granted for free to the affected families. As absurd it may sound, all the experiences in other countries are based on the contributions of the affected families themselves. The affected families in Italy and Turkey, who benefit housing following an earthquake, apply for non-commercial soft loans, with the government paying a part of the loan interest, but no house is granted for free to them.

We are delivering on this whole operation based on the concept that all families that became homeless in the earthquake will be provided housing. We have turned this into a housing program, because the extended families with two or three couples living under the same roof will now have their own new homes.

Why am I saying this?

I am saying it because it will still take patience. Most importantly, the process now is unstoppable and all procedure-related problems have been already addressed, the designs have completed, the tender procedures have already completed for many of these projects, the contracts have been awarded and the construction work is underway. Distribution of the single-family homes has started. We haven’t handed over keys to new apartments to date since construction of apartments has yet to complete. Construction of the apartment buildings is a more complex process, but I am confident you won’t be waiting longer than you have been waiting and you and the residents of your apartment building will soon move into a built back stronger, safer and more beautiful residential building than the one you used to live in previously.

–Answering to a citizen, who said that increasing the minimum wage was a promise-kept by the government, but it could also bring about a negative impact on the foreign investments in Albania, the Premier said:

This has been a major debate in Albania and within our government and it is a general debate actually happening not only here. Albania as a developing country should show utmost caution regarding the minimum wage, since cheap labour force is one of the main factors to attract foreign investments. On the other hand, I believe that not only we shouldn’t worry about this, but quite the contrary, because it is primarily about those working in manufacture, enterprises, men and women and the minimum wage of 300 is very low. Of course it is higher than the minimum wage of 239.000 lek we found when we took office, yet it is significantly low considering the needs of hardworking people. I don’t see it as a threat to the investments, as it should gradually go hand in hand with growth of production capacities and a change to the approach of the entrepreneurs in Albania, who should increasingly focus on ways to improve the way they plan, invest.

We will further increase the minimum wage, and it should be increased further and I don’t see it as a threat to the prospect of foreign investments. On the contrary, I believe that time when we were satisfied with satisfied with construction of a resort by a foreign investor in Albania should be left behind. The time when we were satisfied with foreign investors, who hired mothers and young girls paying them a monthly wage of 230.000 lek and forcing them to work overtime, often illegally as they didn’t pay the social and health insurance contributions, should be a thing of the past and we shouldn’t be tempted by this kind of competitive position.

–Answering to the question whether it was true that Europe has set the condition to use its coronavirus vaccines only for the visa-free travel to the EU, Prime Minister said:

Anything can happen, yet I don’t think this is the case for the time being. On the contrary, Europe has started thinking – I mean this is the case in certain European countries like Germany, the locomotive of Europe – to launch dialogue with China and Russia for their COVID-19 vaccines. It sounds unimaginable that the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful continent finds itself in such a situation. But this is actually the case. Just like it sounds incredible that the COVID-19 outbreak took everyone by surprise and succumbed all nations, regardless how powerful and developed they are, and this is a fact.

One should note that the developed world has broken any record and prediction about the COVID-19 vaccine invention, because no previous vaccines have been tested and approved for use within such a short time. However, only four companies currently produce the vaccine, while whole world is demanding to secure the vaccine. There are six vaccines available, if we are to take into account the Chinese and Russian vaccines. I don’t think, or I am not convinced at all it can happen, but anything could happen in Europe.

What preoccupies us most is doing whatever it takes to do what people need. I would like to add something, because many people think that our refusal to receive these vaccines is for geopolitical reasons. No, it is not like that. It is not that the vaccines are available at the market and everyone can go and buy them. There are no enough doses available. It is as simple as that. In other words, only a small quantity of all vaccines is currently available and it doesn’t meet the desperate need for them. It is neither a matter of vaccine price. We would abandon every other project just to secure the vaccines. I am really proud we don’t face same situation as other countries in the region that have yet to administer the first dose of the vaccine. We are about to complete the vaccination of doctors and nurses, and vaccine rollout for the seniors 80 years old and over is also underway. This is certainly not enough, but still we are progressing with the immunisation. It was until just few days ago when 140 countries around the world hadn’t administered a single dose of the vaccine. Until few days ago, around  70% of the world’s vaccine production was in the hand of ten countries only. In my view, it is impossible for Europe to impose such a condition, because Europe today faces the problem of impossibility to secure non-Russian and non-Chinese vaccines. If you are to look at the ongoing debates, except for the Great Britain and Israel, there is a tension between the citizens and the governments in all other countries of this continent. No government has succeeded in securing sufficient vaccine doses and have failed to conduct a fast vaccination campaign so that people could calm.

-Commenting on the opportunity to benefit government support to transform a private family home into a guesthouse, PM Rama said:

A project is needed to make your dream come true. The condition one should meet in order to benefit state support is that he or she should apply and present the project and if the latter turns out to be convincing enough, if the application is correct, then support is granted. I have already stated that agritourism would become a trend in the area of Lezhe since the “Mrizi i Zanave” was launched. I think we have ushered in the phase when agritourism is already becoming a trend. There are many, but I know five spectacular, category A agritourism businesses meeting highest European standards. Their examples show that whoever owns an old village home, an inherited land plot or can afford buying or renting a land plot or an old village house and invest their savings to launch an agritourism business he should know for sure that he would earn a lot more than he earns working abroad, in whatever the country, and I mean emigrants involved in a common job. It is the most fantastic and profitable solution for all areas, where intensive farming and agriculture is impossible. It is the best solution for the areas that seem desperate in terms of perspective, areas where people idly sit wondering “what I could possibly do here”, it is exactly that place where agritourism can develop to bring market close to your house, attract tourists, visitors and consumers there.

-What are the government plans to reduce or prevent the detrimental effect of regular flooding in the area, one of the participants asked the Premier, who answered as following:

We have actually acted not simply thought about preventing flooding in the area as much as possible. I visited Lezhe when the area was flooded before we took office and I have personally seen people, who were really, not metaphorically, covered by a layer of mud from head to toe. Back then, floods used to cause catastrophic effects whenever it rained in Lezhe. Floods still do damages, but not catastrophic ones as it was previously the case. We have cleaned over 100 kilometres of drainage canals, 47 kilometres in Zadrime area only. This is not about thinking, but acting. Of course there are areas where no illegal chaotic building activities were allowed as they are located at a low geographical level. I am saying this to recall a wise saying, which goes like this: “You won’t get very far if you can’t remember where you came from.” I can openly state today that what happened this year was actually a very positive test showing the results of our projects we have implemented over the past years.

We will keep doing the work still needed to be done. We will keep cleaning and maintaining the drainage canals, make sure that construction activities further improve in terms of the respect and consideration for the required land infrastructure expand green spaces wherever it is possible, because erosion is one of the reasons increasing the risk from floods, deforestation and all these have actually happened. We will keep doing a lot more by increasing the opportunities.

Answering to the question by a citizen over the government’s plan to increase pensions, the government head said:

The question about pension hike plans is actually the most difficult and most unwelcomed one for anyone serving in the position I am serving today in any country around the world. If I was someone else, I would promptly answer: “Yes, definitely yes. Vote us and I would cut the social insurance contributions and we will increase pensions.” This is actually what the Democratic Party’s program suggests, which, if translated into the language of this agritourism business language, it would mean: “yes, we will reduce milk production, yet we will increase cheese production.” How one could possibly cut the social insurance contributions and increase pensions?

The true problem is that no pension reform was implemented over the years in Albania and therefore the deficit kept increasing, because the ideal solution normally is that what the society contributes to cover the pension payments should not be as such to fill a gap larger than what people pay in contributions today so that their pension right is guaranteed in the future. We have implemented a pension reform. There are two pensioner categories in Albania; one category of people who have retired prior our pension reform was to take place and the second category of people who retire now. Those who have retired before the reform receive a lower pension payment than those who have retired after the reform. If you are to look at the pension people receive based on their social insurance contributions they have paid after the reform, you would see their pension is much higher than the minimum pension that used to be the ceiling previously. We removed this ceiling and set a pension payment according to the social insurance contribution everyone pays. Saying I will reduce social insurance contributions and increase pensions, it means you would run short of money you have available to pay pensions, you will use the tax revenue to pay pensions instead of support investments and you would deprive many others from the pension rights in the future, because the whole scheme will go bankrupt, just like the pyramidal schemes collapsed.

Of course, we want to increase pensions. We have done the pension indexation each year. We have kept paying the year-end bonus to the retired people and we will keep doing so. We are seeking to increase the year-end bonus, and we want to increase it, because, if you can afford it, that increase is healthy for the balance, but if you take the earmarked funds to invest somewhere else and fill other gaps, then the need increases, then the state coffers would dry up and you would then be forced to tell people “money is up.”

–PM Rama was asked by a local farmer in Lezhe when he would receive a reply regarding the excise-free oil that farmers are entitled to benefit through the farmers card, and the government head said:

As far as I know, more than 15.000 applications have been already approved. A number of specific problems have been noticed, but I would beg that you take a look at a communication of the Agriculture Minister with a group of farmers about this issue, because there are some questions that need to be clarified. We have conducted a number of other interventions to make sure that a maximum number of farmers benefit under the excise-free oil scheme by maximally eliminating the bureaucratic procedures and endless number of documents, but since this is very specific and I don’t know your concrete case, I am answering this way, not to shun you, but for you to receive a correct answer, because there is a number of typologies, and I don’t know which one you belong and by examining the Minister’s explanation you would precisely find out whether you should meet any criteria or required document and if not you would definitely receive an answer about this.

– A representative of big business in the town of Lezhe asked the Premier about the tax rates on big business.

PM Edi Rama: We don’t talk about tax cuts. The flat tax system favours the wealthiest ones, for the sake of truth, and if the relation with the government and the governance would be only this, then we would feel disadvantaged to you because we cure you and receive 15% tax rate from you.

They are pledging a 9% tax rate, but it implies a lot of hidden costs, because it implies a prepaid cost that will be followed by bad governance and incompetence costs. What I believe is really important for the big business is that it is provided all the guarantees and equal opportunities, benefit VAT reimbursement on time, develop a relation with the state where tax inspectors do not appear at your business premises to pressure and bother business operators, be provided equal opportunities when participating in a tender for a public project, ensure transparency in competition while in the field of competition in that area of the private sector where he works, to be honest. So there are many components.

–A sportsman in Lezhe called on the Prime Minister to support construction of sports grounds and a sports hall in Lezhe, saying such premises would make Lezhe active to participate in sports events. Prime Minister Edi Rama said:

The most popular sport in this country is becoming the phone’s touch screen and the touch game with the pointing finger. We haven’t done as much as we could have wished, but as much as we could. Until the day we took office, the physical education was not part of the schools’ curricula. We reintroduced the physical education and we reorganized the system of the physical education teachers.

We have done as much as we could, but not as much as we would have wanted to do when it comes to the sports grounds. The number of the sports grounds is much higher today than it used to be few years ago, but since no sports grounds used to exist before; the existing ones seem to be very few compared to what they should be. We have invested in stadiums for the first time. We have made the sports palace, the first, with standards in the Olympic Park in Tirana, but they are very few compared to what they should be. We will definitely continue, if I cannot promise you – because if I promise I will keep it, – that we will make the sports palace in Lezha. I am glad that the municipality has turned its eyes away from boxing. I believe that tremendous progress has been made on the football field. Unfortunately, it is true, we have neglected some others and I always, in the discussions we have had, the idea has been to support sports where we have the potential to produce champions beyond Albania, weightlifting, boxing. Although I do not watch boxing matches, the last match I watched was on Yugoslav television.