Qirjako Kureta: Bulgaria, Albania Shall Focus on Ecotourism, Rural Tourism
As Bulgaria has completed its one-year term as the Rotating Presidency of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), Novinite is interviewing Ambassadors of countries that are parties to the process.
Following is our interview with H.E. Qirjako Kureta, the Ambassador of Albania to Bulgaria.
Mr Kureta, as a career diplomat, joined the Albanian Foreign Service in 1986, subsequently assuming missions to the Albanian Embassies in Hungary and Greece. Mr Kureta then took up different positions within Albania's Foreign Ministry, and in missions abroad, including Head of Mission at his country's Embassy in Israel and to the Republic of Poland.
Your Excellency, Albania was Bulgaria's predecessor as chair of the South-East Europe Cooperation Process (SEECP). Having been down that road recently, how does it evaluate the performance of Bulgaria now that its term has officially come to an end?
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of SEECP, which has proved to be an accelerator of regional cooperation and remains a key political format in Southeast Europe. Our countries, individually as well as the region as a whole, have been radically changed since then. SEECP has definitely urged, encouraged and promoted cooperation among us, but it also inspired the birth of many other regional initiatives, which have greatly increased the opportunities of exchanges.
We believe that regional cooperation should also advance further. It is encouraging that our governments fall in agreement about joint projects in the framework of various regional initiatives, including the Brdo-Brijuni Process and the Berlin Process. In this context, it is also important that the Western Balkans Fund and the Center for Youth Cooperation become operational as soon as possible.
In the capacity of Chairperson-in-Office of SEECP in 2014-2015 – and in line with its foreign policy agenda - Albania has continued to promote peace and stability in the region. However, neither peace nor stability should be taken for granted; they need to be sustained through our continuous efforts and concrete action, and above all our unwavering commitment to overcome bilateral disputes inherited from the past and build better futures for our youth. Albania effectively led the reform process of the SEECP with a clear goal: to strengthen the internal structures of our regional political forum, so as to be able to meet the present challenges and those of the future.
During its presidency, Bulgaria continued to work actively to reconfirm this lead and managed to achieve important results in the three priority areas: connectivity; strengthen democracy and support for active civil society in the region; security and migration. Another clear success was the adoption by the foreign ministers of SEECP during their second informal meeting in Sofia of the Joint Statement of the migration challenges faced. This statement was a clear message that the SEECP is an important forum, which is also dealing with the complex migration problem.
Albania has been and will continue to be a serious and reliable partner in this process and the regional cooperation in general. We are ready to offer our direct contribution to face the challenges, including those in the field of security. We are progressing quite naturally towards more concrete regional and objectively centered initiatives which provide not only results to benefit a substantial communication among our governments, but particularly will positively and substantially affect the lives of the citizens of our countries.
The Bulgarian government still fears a possible surge in the number of migrants from the Middle East as the summer approaches. Given Frontex's warning of a possible new route through Albania and then further to Europe across the Adriatic, is the migrant crisis over from an Albanian perspective?
Albania has not been affected by the refugee crisis due to its geographical position. The border with Greece and Macedonia are quite mountainous. Right now we don’t see a diversion of the route taken by the migrants. Albania is taking some preventive measures, firstly reinforcing border controls with Macedonia and Greece, and secondly closely cooperating with Italy. But at the same time, we have adapted a contingency plan in case we are affected by this phenomenon.
We want to make sure this migration crisis is not accompanied by smuggling aspects. We believe that the registration process of migrants at the entry point is a valuable measure. It goes along with the spirit of the Schengen and Dublin system, but one needs to take into account the magnitude of this crisis. The Schengen and Dublin system was meant to be implemented in normal times. We are living in times of crisis, so I wonder whether those mechanisms could serve us in addressing the current crisis.
The Middle East and Africa refugee crises is an unprecedented crisis, which can become the worst humanitarian disaster. In this context, it requires an all-inclusive response and the cooperation with the Western Balkan Countries is very important, at a time when the current structures and legislation in place in Europe are not sufficient to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.
In our opinion, building fences and walls is not an appropriate solution. Closing borders would produce a chain effect in the neighboring country, but it would not necessarily address the root causes and the phenomenon we are all facing.
We have always believed that on one hand we need to address the root causes of the crisis and show strong signals of solidarity, and on the other hand we have to ensure the safety of the people and the security architecture of Europe. We genuinely want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I believe that at this particular moment in time it is important for the Western Balkan countries to avoid becoming stationary countries as this would be highly disruptive for the entire region not to mention security concerns.
Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev has repeatedly called for a motorway and a railroad to be built linking Bulgaria and Albania. Construction of the so-called Corridor VIII, however, has been stalled for years. How are the two countries working to get closer in terms of infrastructure?
Corridor VIII is an important and major project of regional cooperation, especially in terms of infrastructure. Albania is known as the Balkan terminal of Corridor VIII - which stands not only as a significant way of trade exchanges - but also as a bridge between peoples and cultures. Today this project is of high interest in regional geopolitics and aims to intensify the economic and social development in the region.
The Ministers of Transport of Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, signed on the October 31, 2014, in Sofia, a Joint Declaration for the Coordination of Action for the construction of Corridor VIII. The Albanian authorities have put intense effort in mobilizing financial resources and investments in order to construct the Albanian part of Corridor VIII.
In this context, I would like to point out the construction of the Tirana-Elbasan segment, new segment Quk?s - Qaf? Plo??, as well as the project of the Arb?ri Road. Investments have been made in increasing capacity at the port of Vlora as well as in Sh?ngjin. Corridor VIII would certainly contribute to a better connectivity and increased cooperation among the countries of the Region. Therefore, I would like to stress the necessity of the support of the Bulgarian authorities for further integration of the Balkans by promoting and encouraging regional projects.
Albania's Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati said while visiting Sofia in May there is unused potential bilaterally in energy and tourism. Have the two countries been discussing something more specific in these two sectors?
All countries of South East Europe are paying attention to strengthening ties between their interconnection, to maximize energy exchanges. In this context, Albania has functional interconnection line with Montenegro and Greece, while recently a transmission line is effective with Kosovo. Albania has pledged financial support for the construction of the interconnection line with Macedonia which in turn raises potential opportunities for exchanges with the Bulgarian energy market.
Particular attention is being paid to the connection of the electrical systems of Albania and Bulgaria, via the extension of the interconnection line Elbasan-Manastir-Bulgaria and the integration of the Albanian system in the European market. A complete interconnecting network between our countries means more opportunities for interaction between public companies as well as private investors that operate in the energy sector. All this will undoubtedly contribute to the primary objective of energy security.
Besides this I would like to stress the importance of the TAP [Trans-Adriatic Pipeline] project which gives Albania a new role in the regional energy sector. By linking the TAP pipeline with IAP [Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline] new investment opportunities will be created in the Western Balkans.
In my opinion, it’s time to set up a bilateral working group on energy matters – to further explore cooperation possibilities in the field of oil and natural gas sector.
As regards tourism, I think that Albania and Bulgaria have to establish a joint Albanian - Bulgarian committee at expert’s level but also to encourage startup of bilateral business forum that will promote investments in the tourism sector in both countries. Both parties shall intensify their cooperation in tourism, educational institutions that deal with hotel management and services, and will appreciate any initiative or project that stimulates cooperation programs between public and private tourism associations.
Considering Bulgaria’s experience in tourism, I think that we shall focus our cooperation in ecotourism and rural tourism, through the diversification of the tourism products, considering that both countries have extended touristic season. Among other things it is of great interest the exchange of the positive experience concerning marketing and market research of tourist destinations, twinning regions with features similar events in the development of tourism.
The number of Bulgarian tourists visiting Albania is increasing, last year 14 000 Bulgarians visited Albania. But if we compare those figures with the Bulgarians that visited Greece and Turkey, this is a small number.
Based on the priorities set by the Albanian Government in tourism we face the necessity to negotiate and sign a new agreement in tourism that will comply with the new developments in our countries (there is an agreement of 1995).
Are the two countries working to boost their economic exchange, which national statistics show as small if compared on a regional basis?
Bulgaria has been and remains a traditional economic partner of Albania, which is based on three main pillars: trade cooperation, direct investment, and participation in regional projects and initiatives. Geographical distance is considered an advantage for the implementation of concrete projects and promotion of direct investments.
Trade volume between Bulgaria and Albania is at about EUR 76 M. The current level of economic cooperation and trade exchanges, although last years have increased, is still far from the potentials that both countries can offer. The lack of regular direct transport (road, rail) and insufficient knowledge of business opportunities (import and export) are considered as barriers in further advancement of mutual trade. There are about 66 Bulgarian entities or joint-ventures operating in Albania, focused primarily on wholesale and retail trade in industrial goods, agriculture, construction, food, confection, etc. The Bulgarian bank FIBANK which is conducive to the growth of economic exchanges, is present in Albania.
Economic relations between the two countries tend to improve, thanks to the common interest expressed in numerous official visits. The Protocol of the Sixth Session of the Joint Intergovernmental Albanian - Bulgarian Commission on Economic Cooperation, which was held on March 19-20, 2015 in Tirana, will contribute to the expansion of relations in areas of mutual interest.
In this context, I want to point out that last year in October, in Sofia took place the Joint Economic Forum, during which representatives of chambers of commerce and businessmen of both countries discussed the possibilities of expanding economic cooperation.
Let me bring to your attention some of the opportunities for further expansion of bilateral trade. Firstly, this can be done by promoting direct contacts between business representatives of the two countries to present the Bulgarian economy in Albania and the Albanian economy in Bulgaria. Active could also be promoted through the cooperation through the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, by supporting the participation in international fairs and exhibitions organized in our countries, etc.
Albania and Bulgaria have a favorable legal framework, which helps the economy and business exchanges and cooperation between the two countries as a whole. It is unfortunate that the common legal framework in force, with nearly 40 joint agreements, as well as very good political will to promote economic and trade cooperation, have not yet produced the expected results. This agreement stands as solid foundation promoting sustainable cooperation, but are not sufficient.
During the visit of Mr Bushati, Bulgaria and Albania signed a memorandum on EU integration. How Sofia is helpful to Tirana in that direction as your country is already a candidate to join the bloc?
Albania’s Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, on behalf of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Albania and Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov, on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria, on May 19, 2016, signed the Memorandum of Cooperation in the field of European integration.
The signing of this Memorandum will further expand Bulgaria’s support as Albania gets closer to the next step in its EU accession path. It aims to promote further development of the traditionally friendly relations through sharing the values and principles of the European Union (EU).
Taking into account that the Republic of Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and the strategic goal of the Republic of Albania is to join the European Union, the Parties have committed to promote cooperation between themselves in the field of European integration, focused on the successful preparation of the Republic of Albania’s accession to the European Union.
In concrete terms – by organizing joint events, meetings, seminars, round tables, and forums with experts and officials from both sides - the cooperation consists in engagement of the institution of both countries to promote the best public awareness tools to generate direct effect on EU full-fledged membership. Assistance at expert level regarding Bulgaria’s experience in the adoption and implementation of the acquis communautaire. Direct contacts between Bulgarian and Albanian institutions with regard to strengthening the administrative capacity of Albanian institutions.
The Albanian authorities believe that the closest Albania gets to the EU, the cooperation between our countries will further expand.
Are there any major bilateral projects underway or yet to be carried out during your term as Ambassador?
Some of the project are in process and others are just at the beginning. I can’t predict which would be carried out during my term as Ambassador. This is a process in progress, but I am fully convinced that the good relations between our countries, based on the good tradition between Albania and Bulgaria, for more than a century of diplomatic relations, as demonstrated by our regular contacts in different levels, are a clear evidence of the will to intensify the political dialogue and increase the exchange in all areas of mutual interest of both countries and peoples, through the common will and close cooperation.
I feel privileged to have the opportunity to contribute and work actively in order to enhance the friendly relations that already exist between our two countries.
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