Illyria / September 20, 1995
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital, frequently the venue for seminars on investing in Brazil, the former Soviet Union and even Cuba, last week hosted not only the president of Albania, Sali Berisha, but also a well-organized conference entitled "Exploring Albania and its Economic Opportunities."
The meeting, sponsored by the Albanian-American Trade Association and held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Arlington, Va., attracted more than 100 executives, diplomats and others -- most of them paying $200 apiece to hear speeches by such dignitaries as Albanian Finance Minister Dylber Vrioni; Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York); Domenick G. Scaglione, chairman of the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund, and Jay Burgess, director of the U.S. Commerce Department's Eastern European Office.
Burgess summed up the mood well when he told participants that "no country in Eastern Europe has faced a bigger challenge than Albania."
"Berisha's visit comes at a crucial point in Albania's economic development. Albania wants and needs American investment," he said. "There are realities, however, about U.S. investment. Even by Eastern European standards, it is low, only about $20-30 million. Neverthless, the economy is emerging, and Albania is in much better shape than anybody thought possible."
Burgess, promising that "the Commerce Department is committed to helping Albania maintain a strong free-market economy," noted that privatization is proceeding in four key areas: energy, telecommunications, mining and tourism. In 1993, Albania established a center for foreign investment promotion.
"We applaud that, but believe that the center needs a greater commitment by the government," said Burgess. "It should become much more visible and known to visiting investors, and should be able to provide better access to senior levels of the Albanian government."
At the moment, he said, more than 60% of Albanian exports to the United States in 1994 entered duty-free under the GSP (Generalized System of Preferences). "The time is right for U.S. business involvement," he said. "At the same time, Albania needs to hear wht it takes to make its business climate more attractive. Albania is a small market, but it has excellent potential."
Scaglione, chief of the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund (AAEF), said the U.S. government has already spent $160 million in Albania through the U.S. Agency for International Development and other specialized agencies. He told participants the $30 million AAEF refers to help American companies, those that create foreign exchange such as export industries, and those that help substitute costly imports for locally made products, saving Albania hard currency in the process.
"AAEF is not a charitable organization, it is a business," Scaglione said. "We must treat the Albanians with dignity. The fund has to work with American entrepreneurs willing to invest, and Albanians willing to come out of the dark ages. There's a wave of privatization in progress, and this is where we can help."
Assistance, he explained, can come in three ways. "If the joint venture needs financing, we will give guarantees. We will also make outright loans to the joint venture or enterprise. But our preferred method is equity participation, because -- with all due respect to local enterprises -- we would feel more comfortable participating in a venture so that we can be a part of the decision-making process. I've visited 90 firms all over Albania, and all of them have welcomed the fund with open arms. Not only do they gain credibility this way, they also get access to technical programs."
Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat whose Bronx district includes many Americans of Albanian origin, recalled how he had slept in Enver Hoxha's bed during his first visit to Albania, and vividly remembered the bunkers he saw on the way from Rinas Airport to Tiranė. He made the case for increasing foreign aid to the country, which he calls a special case.
"These people have been under oppression for so many years," he said. "The United States has a moral obligation to help."
Asked if the United States should recognize Kosova, Engel replied: "Yes. As a first step, the U.S. Information Agency should open an office in Prishtinė. It would send a very important message to Milosevic, that the U.S. is firmly committed to the integrity and the human rights of the people of Kosova. Most people in the State Department say Yugoslavia should go back to being part of a federation. But it was unacceptable then, so why would Albanians want to put themselves in that position again? As far as Russia's opposition to NATO goes, I don't think Yeltsin should dictate to the West what we and our allies do. They can give their opinions, but we ought not to listen to them. And they should certainly not have veto power over the expansion of NATO."
The conference had its light and surprising moments. Asked by one participant what kind of impact a possible loss by Berisha's Democratic Party in the May 1996 elections might have on foreign investment -- and if the opposition party would continue with Berisha's policies -- Suzana Panariti, Albania's minister of industry, transport and trade, said such a possibility is unthinkable.
"I can say very clearly that the democratic forces will win the elections, because of the changes which have happened," Panariti said, speaking through an interpreter. "We are going ahead with our free-market economy. That's why there's no uncertainty over the outcome of the elections."