Albania – Soros, Rama, Clintons & cannabis hotbed

Simply put: Albania is a mess.

One of the country’s two major political powers, the center-right Democratic Party, is boycotting parliament and refuses to participate in June elections as long as the governing Socialist Party is in charge.

Meanwhile, former political dissidents surged through Tirana streets last month protesting Rama’s appointment of a new Interior Minister, Fatimir Xhafaj, who was a state prosecutor during Enver Hoxha’s malevolent, highly repressive communist regime and has a brother indicted for international drug trafficking.

Hoxha imprisoned close to 100,000 people in inhuman jails and camps; some 5,500 people were executed without trial. Among the groups he wiped out were poets, writers, intellectuals, and Christian clergy. Pope Francis beatified 38 Albanian martyrs last year.

Incredibly, 27 years after communism’s collapse, Albanian politics is still vexed by predatory clans empowered during the Stalin-, then Mao-inspired dictatorship.

Did the West fail to aid Albania on its path toward democracy?

On the contrary, Albania (some three million people living in a country the size of Connecticut) has received extensive assistance from Western institutions including the European Union and U.S. government.

USAID spent $60 million in the country’s justice sector alone, 2000 to 2015 — often coordinated with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation under the last administration. As Albanian newspaper editor Erl Murati explained earlier this year, “U.S. official interests coincide with the activity of Soros. It’s difficult to distinguish where the interest of one begins and the other ends. His interests became synonymous with American policy.”

But Western aid has mainly reinforced a dysfunctional State while enriching a nepotistic network.

As explored in the first part of this series, “Macedonia to George Soros and USAID: Go Away,” this external aid is helping the Socialist Party and its fifth column of NGO allies, employing violence as one of its noteworthy tactics, try to gain power against conservatives.

Soros’ analogous plan for Albania succeeded already in 2013, when Edi Rama’s Socialist Party defeated the Democratic Party in a victory preceded by violence.

Smoking Gun

Albania actually figured in the 2016 American election.

The WikiLeaks revelation of Clinton emails last summer included a smoking gun: Proof that billionaire tax-evader, George Soros, directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take specific action, namely to intervene in Tirana on behalf of Edi Rama, leading violent street protests in January 2011.

Clinton’s staff immediately responded. Within days, a EU envoy suggested by Soros, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak (current foreign minister for the governing Direction-Social Democracy Party, he was a Communist Party member before 1990), arrived in country.

At the time, Rama was Tirana’s mayor and the country’s opposition leader, locked in a power struggle with the governing Democratic Party, which had narrowly defeated his side two years before.

Rama instigated the demonstrations — which killed four people and injured more than 150 — to protest government corruption, revealed by a video secretly recorded by the economy minister, showing how he was ordered by Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta to commit fraud involving public contracts and bribes. The two men belong to the same party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, DP’s coalition partner at the time.

Superficially, Edi Rama, a 6-foot 6-inch former national basketball player, turned artist, turned politician, has a cool, hipster vibe — at least, that’s what he strives to project.

Elected in 2000 to serve as mayor of the capital city (where over 800,000 people live, approximately 30 percent of the population), having spent two years as Minister of Youth, Rama made a global impression for ordering drab, Soviet-style housing blocks painted with whirls, swirls, and checkerboards from a Crayola palette.

He polished an international reputation as a post-modern innovator, giving, for example, a Ted Talk in Thessaloniki on how his urban paint projects brought down crime — although there’s no evidence they did — and bragging to the Guardian, “Once the buildings were colored, people started to get rid of the heavy fences of their shops. In the painted roads, we had 100% tax collection from the people, while tax collection was normally 4%. People accepted to pay their share for the city, because they realized that through the colors the city exists.”

Rama’s Renaissance

Preparing for parliamentary elections in 2012, Rama made two bold moves: He engineered a photo with Barack Obama and forged an alliance with an ostensible enemy.

First, at a San Francisco fundraiser, Rama managed to snag a photo with the president.

Using the image in campaign materials was extremely effective because Albanians have been wildly pro-American, especially since the 1999 U.S.-led bombing of Serbia on behalf of Kosovo, where more than 80 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian.

But the photo was procured as a result of a crime.

Albanian-American Bilal Shehu, a New Jersey limo driver, bought two $40,000 fundraiser tickets via the Obama Victory Fund, then brought Rama to the party instead of his wife. Shehu and businessman William Argeros eventually pled guilty to laundering an illegal $80,000 donation from Tirana in order to procure the tickets.

Foreign contributions to presidential campaigns are illegal. Rama denies he was behind the scheme. Some claim the money came from drug dealers, a flourishing occupation.

Rama’s second pre-election accomplishment was joining forces with Ilir Meta, the politician who was filmed orchestrating corrupt deals in 2011, the one who sparked death and destruction in Tirana’s streets!

The alliance between Rama and Meta broke the Democratic Party’s governing coalition. (Today, Meta is speaker of the parliament.)

Together with a raft of small political entities, including minuscule Green and Communist party formations, Rama’s Alliance for a European Albania won the 2013 parliamentary elections.

“The Renaissance has won,” the egocentric leader declared, according to the BBC. Three months later, he was celebrating in New York with pal George Soros, at the octogenarian’s third wedding.

As prime minister, Rama staffed his cabinet with a blend of old guard and new elite. The old guard includes Gramoz Ruçi, the most powerful Socialist Party leader after Rama. Ruçi leads the party’s parliamentary group. In yesteryear, he was minister of interior, one of the last goons of the Communist period, chief of the secret police, in 1990.

Then there’s the new elite: men such as Albania’s foreign minister since 2013, Ditmir Bushati.

Bushati benefited from Soros support while studying at Harvard University. Then, he came home and served as the Open Society Foundation’s national coordinator to monitor progress toward European integration. From there he went to parliament and a leadership role in the Socialist Party.

Or look at Ejon Veliaj, Rama’s first minister of social welfare and youth, elected mayor of Tirana in 2015. Veliaj’s main credential for running a ministry that managed about 30 percent of the country’s budget was leadership of an NGO created by the Open Society Foundation, Mjaft! (Enough!), which spawned a slew of other NGOs to create what one blogger describes as the “Soros octopus.”

Soros’s structures groomed people like Bushati and Veliaj to lead the country, together with numerous others playing key roles in government and media.

What old and new seem to share, unfortunately, is a predatory attitude toward the state, based on economic data and public opinion. Because on dimensions such as prosperity or happiness, precious little progress has been made under Rama’s government.

Cannabis and Corruption

How is the Renaissance coming along, almost four years later? Excellent, if you’re in the drug trade. Rather badly, if you are a regular citizen.

Albania is Europe’s “main source” for cannabis, according to the 2017 Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, released annually by Europol. As the best independent, English-language news site points out, last year, the country was one producer among several (Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Serbia), but Albania appears to have displaced the others.

Cannabis production is the most important agricultural income generator, especially in mountainous regions. An Italian blog explains, “Cannabis plantations have grown up like mushrooms all over the country” in the last four years, in part because a new Vietnamese seed that grows quicker is being used.

According to Italy’s top anti-mafia prosecutor, Franko Roberti, cannabis trafficking from Albania to Italy increased 300 percent over the last year — and receipts are linked to financing for Islamic extremists, the Italians believe.

An onsite BBC report in December estimated the industry is worth approximately five billion euros a year, which is about half of the country’s GDP.

Heroin from Afghanistan also transits Albania on its way to Europe, and Albanian émigrés comprise a distribution network throughout Europe.

Although Rama points to a marked increase in marijuana confiscation by police, independent journalist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei assessed a new drug action plan prepared for the EU and concluded it won’t make a dent in prosecuting organized crime — an unsurprising weakness considering the new interior minister’s brother is an international cocaine dealer under indictment in Italy.

In a different case, a major drug dealer wanted by the Greek government for financing multiple cannabis shipments, Klemend Balili, can’t be touched, due to his connections with Socialist Party national and local officials, write Balkan Insight and CNN Greece based on police sources.

The drug trade is enabled by ubiquitous corruption marring Albanian law enforcement, justice, and politics.

A European Union study found an increase between 2014 and 2016 in citizens being expected to bribe officials — and more public hopelessness, as well.

Meanwhile, Albanian news sites are filled with bizarre accounts of both bad behavior by politicians and brazen disregard for attempts to make them accountable: Two SP mayors investigated for document fraud were protected by the Central Election Commission as was a SP parliamentarian who assaulted colleagues. At least, the deputy accused of murder in Belgium and of plotting to kill Speaker Meta eventually did lose parliamentary immunity.

New York University Professor Shinasi Rama, an Albanian-American (no relation to the prime minister), confirms, “Albania is totally and thoroughly corrupt, criminalized to the core, a mafia state.”

The country “is being used by international crime syndicates with terrible consequences for the State, its people, social values, and of course, for democracy, because the mafia only recognizes one form of rule, its own, and it wants to impose this rule over politicians as well,” he continued.

“Basically politicians are the capos of the mafia, jostling for power, because who ever loses the State loses a lot more than administrative authority,” said the international relations specialist, who helped found the Albanian Bee, an anti-establishment diaspora group.

No Accomplishments

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a morally challenged elite presiding over a cannabis kingdom have trouble producing positive economic indicators. World Bank data shows a sharp decrease in foreign direct investments between 2013 and 2015.

According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, Albania’s economic prosperity has fallen significantly since 2013, due to unemployment, poor infrastructure, and corruption.

Perhaps Albania’s saddest decline is on the United Nation’s Happiness Report, which ranks counties based on six dimensions of a nation’s life: income, life expectancy, social support systems, generosity, freedom, and trust.

While in the U.N.’s 2012 report (its first year with rankings), the country was ranked 63 out of 156, this year, Albania fell to 110.

Edi Rama has managed to accomplish something for himself, though: The inveterate opportunist promotes his felt-pen doodles worldwide, combining official visits to Berlin, Munich, and Hong Kong with exhibit openings in 2015 alone.[1]

He even got an Art in America review in February for his exhibit at a New York gallery of the same old doodles, plus printed wallpaper (of doodles), and some new, messy ceramics.

The critic wasn’t wowed, though, finding something “perverse” in contrasting the slight drawings to the reality of Albania as “one of Europe’s poorest countries… plagued with rampant corruption,” as though Rama’s ministerial office were merely “an aesthetic prompt.”

Dubious Projects, Empowering Soros

Reviewing various taxpayer-dollar-wasting programs promoted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the U.S. embassy, especially focusing on “democracy building” over the last eight years, shows how fundamentally irrelevant they are to the country’s main problems.

Millions of dollars were spent to install high-tech digital audio recording equipment in 160 courtrooms, as part of a five-year, $9-million program implemented by Chemonics International, between 2010 and 2015. Installing trial scheduling software was another activity to improve court efficiency.

A 2013 assessment by USAID’s inspector general found a serious risk that the equipment could not be sustained since it depended on ongoing investments in server capacity and network upgrades, which Albanian public budgets could hardly afford.

In 2016, USAID/Tirana selected a new contractor, East West Management Institute (EWSI) — a training consultancy financed by George Soros in the 1990s — for a $8.8-million project, “Justice for All,” once again dedicated to improving the country’s justice system through greater transparency, accountability, accessibility bla bla bla.

At about the same time, USAID/Skopje awarded a multi-million contract to EWSI for “civic engagement” in partnership with Soros’s Open Society Foundation in Macedonia.

EWMI and Soros World maintain close connections; one of EWMI’s four directors is George Vickers, former director of international relations for the Open Society Institute.

Guess who oversees the EWSI programs in Albania and Macedonia?

Edi Rama’s ex-wife, Delina Fico, is EWMI’s director of civil society programs.

Her current partner is Bledi Çuçi, Rama’s minister of state for local issues until last month, when he was moved to a regional SP campaign position — part of a government reshuffle to satisfy EU anti-corruption demands.

Thus, USAID in the Balkans has empowered the incestuous Soros clan, embedded in the region’s socialist parties, to fly the American flag over its partisan, nepotistic activities.

U.S. Favoritism

And the U.S. government has pressured the Democratic Party to defer to the SP on important internal matters.

Last summer, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland came to Tirana to persuade Lulzim Basha, leader of the DP (who defeated Rama in the 2011 Tirana mayoral race), to give in to the prime minister regarding judicial reform in order to inspire the EU to open membership talks with Albania. Basha’s party boycotted the vote.

Nuland’s long gone, but Embassy Tirana continues to be embroiled in Albania’s partisan politics, siding with the SP, as is well documented by Luke Coffey, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

Among the recent fights U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu has picked, he canceled U.S. visas for approximately 70 judges and prosecutors, including the country’s general prosecutor, all DP members, none, reportedly, from the SP.

Six U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on March 15 asking him to investigate funds dispersed by USAID and embassy in Albania as well as Macedonia that might benefit socialist parties and policies advanced by George Soros’s foundations.

With regard to Albania, the letter says, opposition leaders believe judicial “reforms” promoted by Embassy Tirana “are ultimately aimed to give the prime minister and left-of-center government full control over judiciary power.”

Failed Experiment

Professor Shinasi Rama considers Albania over the last 25 years to exemplify a “failed experiment.”

He explains, “Albania was a guinea pig, an experiment with new forms of organization suggested, recommended, and imposed from outside.”

In the U.S., for example, various groups are organically created and privately funded, Professor Rama pointed out, but in Albania, outsiders, whether USAID or Soros, “tried to press templates on locals,” calling it civil society.

As a result of facing “international factors which were multiple and conflicting,” the professor says, Albanian politicians “started playing a double game: Cooperate by day, undo it by night. Every law that was passed, included a lot of ‘back doors.’”

Overall, the professor concludes, “There was too much desire on the part of outsiders to change the people and the State.”

Today, Shinasi Rama sees “perpetual crisis, a country that can’t solve its own problems so it’s about to be captured by criminal forces.”

Stephen Schwartz has a similar assessment of the negative impact of outside solutions, explaining that Albanian identity has always been strongly attached to the land, yet Hoxha’s forced collectivization destroyed agriculture and the peasant’s great wealth of knowledge.

“They went from Hoxha telling them how to be an Albanian to Soros telling them, ‘You have to be a European the way I tell you how to be a European,’ imposing his mentality, which has no use for religion, culture, or education,” said Schwartz, who was a Soros grantee for work on Croatia.

Schwarz said he escaped the “prescriptive materialism” of the Soros mentality, likening it to “Communist style corruption of the intelligentsia.”

What all of the Western advisers ignored is the real treasure of the region: “I said in ’87, Balkan Muslims are a precious resource for Europe. They can create a commercial Metropole like Hong Kong. What we need is a dialogue of the religious, based on the experience of co-existence and entrepreneurship,” Schwartz said. “None of this penetrated the mind of Brussels.”

“Instead, Clinton and Soros offered exactly the same thing. Prescriptive imperialists. They think only they know what is good for you because they know! You don’t know what you need… all under the U.S. flag,” the Muslim scholar sighed, ruefully.


George Soros’s Contributions to a Cannabis Hotbed

Russia – Agriculture – Western Sanctions Keep on Giving

Russian agriculture sector flourishes amid sanctions

Agriculture has overtaken arms sales to become Russia’s second-biggest export secto

When the EU and US imposed sanctions on parts of Russia’s economy following military intervention in Ukraine 2014, some local officials portrayed the blockade as an opportunity. Together with a falling rouble, they said, it would boost development of domestic business by encouraging import substitution and making exports more competitive.

Many western analysts and investors were cynical. But in at least one area of the economy — agriculture and associated sectors — the optimism has been vindicated. Russia last year became the world’s biggest exporter of grains, at more than 34m tonnes. Total Russian grain production hit a record 119 m tonnes. The turnaround is striking since as recently as 15 years ago — and for a couple of decades before during the Soviet era — Russia was a net importer. The success goes beyond grain. Russia has fully substituted imports with domestic production of pork and chicken. It has become a top producer of sugar beet; greenhouse vegetable production last year was up 30 per cent on the year before. While agriculture remains far below oil and gas, the sector has overtaken arms sales to become Russia’s second-biggest exporter.

Globally, a weak agricultural commodities market has hit demand and prices for fertilisers at the same time as new capacity is coming online. But PhosAgro and other Russian fertiliser companies are benefiting from the domestic agriculture boom, with Russian consumption of crop chemicals up 16 per cent last year, against global growth of 2.2 per cent, according to preliminary data from the International Fertilizer Association. There are relatively few large quoted Russian agriculture companies. But since March 2014, when sanctions were imposed, shares in Cherkizovo, the meat processor, have jumped 63 per cent, well above the 45 per cent increase in the rouble-denominated Micex index. PhosAgro’s shares have risen 85 per cent in rouble terms in that period, and shares of Acron, another mineral fertiliser producer, have tripled. Growth in Russian agriculture and linked sectors could potentially continue to be strong as rising profits allow farm groups to invest in technology and more fertilisers to improve sub-par productivity. The most exciting opportunity lies in Asia, where Russia has a band of fertile land along its border with China. There, the soil and climate — on a similar latitude to the big grain-growing areas of the US — is good for soyabean cultivation. With food exports to China still in their infancy, developing that sector could take years, or even decades. Even without it, however, Russia’s agriculture boom shows that, despite sanctions and the poor state of east-west relations, there are pockets of value and opportunity to be found in the Russian market.



Russian Agriculture Thrives Amid Restrictions

Russia’s agricultural boom continues to pick up steam. The government has committed 13.7 billion rubles in new subsidies to farmers, which will help them with the purchase over 21,000 new pieces of equipment, including tractors and seeders. The agricultural sector has only seen benefits from the three year sanctions war between Russia and the West.

The Russian government expects the 13.7 billion rubles in new assistance to help not only farmers, but the domestic agricultural machinery sector as well. In the first six months of 2016, Russia produced 35% more tractors and harvesters than it did in the same period in 2015, with farmers ever-hungry for new equipment. The Cabinet seems to be hoping to continue that trend.

Russia has enjoyed an agricultural boom since 2014, with the trend setting to enter its third straight year. In 2014, in response to a series of sanctions by the US and Europe on Russian companies and individuals, Moscow slapped a ban on the import of some agricultural products from the countries which introduced the anti-Russian restrictions.

The sanctions have hit Europe particularly hard, with estimates in mid-2016 indicating that the countersanctions had cost European producers $65 billion in lost revenues. Some countries, like the Baltic states, were hit especially hard: their dairy farms and fisheries have suffered catastrophic declines of 30% or more.

Russian farmers, on the contrary, only benefited from the restrictions, producing record harvests and even becoming the world’s leading exporter of wheat and other grains.

Russian food security also stood to benefit. In 2016, Russia imported 22% of its total consumption of agricultural products, down from nearly 40% in 2013.

Growth in the domestic production of pork and poultry products has already come to negate the need for imports. Fresh vegetable output grew 30% in 2016 compared to the year before, with the use of greenhouses allowing imports to decline dramatically even in winter, from 70% before the countersanctions took effect to 35% today. In a year’s time, the Russian Institute of Agricultural Marketing expects imports to fall to less than 20%.

The agricultural boom has been so strong that it even defied the overall recession facing the Russian economy over the last year and a half. In 2015, when GDP contracted by 3.8%, the agricultural sector grew 2.2%. In 2016, when the decline stopped and economic growth inched forward 0.3%, agriculture jumped by 4.8%, becoming the leader among those industries showing dynamic growth.

Even Western financial observers have been forced to begrudgingly admit the futility of Western countries’ sanctions policy. The Financial Times recently reported that agriculture has overtaken arms to become Russia’s second-largest category of exports. Sanctions, FT noted, only served to fuel the development of Russian agricultural companies, with government and producers focusing their efforts on import substitution. Amid the devaluation of the ruble and falling fertilizer and fuel prices, the profitability of the sector skyrocketed, according to the newspaper.

Speaking to RIA Novosti, Timur Nigmatullin, an analyst at Moscow-based Finam, a financial services company, pointed out that in contrast to other industries, the Russian farming sector doesn’t require a lot of investment to get going. This was a key component to its success, he said.

“The industry itself is not very capital intensive. To start production, for example, on the open field, does not require a large amount of capital, in contrast to the construction of say a factory. It’s possible to start producing relatively quickly if the demand is there,” Nigmatullin noted.

For now, the analyst added, the sector still has a long way to go to reach its full potential, with agriculture still occupying a very small share of total GDP – about 3.5%.

The Russian government seems to realize the importance of countersanctions in improving the outlook for agriculture. Last month, Russian Minister of Agriculture Alexander Tkachev proposed extending the food embargo for another decade. The minister insisted that given a few more years, Russia can become a net exporter of food, and not only in grains.

Nigmatullin agreed, saying that given the right conditions, agriculture, which accounts for 5% of total exports, can continue to strengthen its position in Russia’s export balance, outpacing chemicals and rubber goods (6%), and perhaps even metals and metal products (10%).

Best of all, the boom is expected to lead to lower prices for Russian consumers. Amid the shocks accompanying the decline of the ruble’s value in 2015, prices for many food products have also crept up. However, according to Institute of Agricultural Marketing director Elena Turina, domestic production has already helped to stabilize prices, and even bring some of them back down.

“A similar situation is already being seen in the pork and poultry markets. The growth in production has led to stable prices, with prices even falling in some categories. We can expect the same thing to occur in the market of greenhouse-grown vegetables,” Turina said.

Furthermore, the analyst noted that Russia is now investing in new categories where it previously had limited experience, including the production of new kinds of mushrooms (champignons and oyster mushrooms), orchards and viticulture. “In two years, we will reduce the import of stone fruit (plums, cherries, black cherries) and pome fruits (apples and pears),” the expert promised.