Tirana Top Secret (2)

Albania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that there are currently 33 Honorary Consuls posted in Albania. Honorary Consuls are usually businessmen and businesswomen with a successful track record at the corporate level and well positioned to remain influential in political circles. Their role is usually to support foreign diplomatic missions in their visits in Albania, to connect foreign and local firms in order to identify business opportunities, to bring foreign direct investment into Albanian soil, and last to assist foreign tourists if consular aid was needed. In the morning of Saturday 17-October-2015 in two consecutive meetings I speak with Japan Honorary Consul Avni Ponari and with Latvia Honorary Consul Sokol Kraja.

Avni Ponari is the Honorary Consul of Japan in Albania. In addition he is the founder and current CEO of Albania's largest insurance provider SIGAL, which today holds a 30% market share in the sector. I pay a visit to the inspirational executive at 10H00, when he welcomes me in his astonishing fourth-floor two-piece office in the SIGAL Business Center on Boulevard Zogu I, immediately north and behind the Tirana International Hotel. I signed up for SIGAL Health Insurance upon arrival in Tirana on 30-August-2015. I remind Mr Ponari that he should nominate Insurance Specialist Erinda Hysi SIGAL's employee of the year, as I am extremely satisfied with the customer service she provided to me in the couple of occasions that I have signed up for SIGAL Health Insurance on 3-September and 4-October-2015 respectively. I also encourage him to receive Artist Painter Mikel Temo, the "Piktor" will paint his portrait masterfully as he has previously painted Actress Tinka Kurti's visage prior to Ms Kurti's hopeful Oscar award for her performance in 2014 movie Bota.

Mr Ponari is one of Albania's most successful businessmen. He is also the President of Kosovo's number one basketball franchise "SIGAL Prishtina" which has won 6 of the last 8 Kosovo Basketball Superleagues. In addition he is President of the Albania Basketball Federation. He founded SIGAL in 1999 with a capital of $400 000 and four employees. Today the firm's capital is $30 million and the number of employees 1 100. Now that is an accomplishment. The company is present in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. He is happily married with a 31 year old son and a 27 year old daughter. I feel comfortable in his presence. The former Albanian Navy captain is charismatic and affable. Kudos Mr Ponari!

Mr Ponari reckons that the Honorary Consul position does not take much of his time. He regrets that the number of Japanese tourists visiting Albania is still very low at about 5 000 yearly. He anticipates that Japan may open a representation in Albania. Currently the Japanese Ambassador in Italy Kazuyoshi Umemoto covers Albania from Rome, but unfortunately rarely visits the country. Embassy of Japan in Rome's Second Secretary Yukiko Constantinescu indicates to me from Rome that "unfortunately Ambassador Umemoto has no plan to visit Tirana within the next few weeks, we cover Albania from Rome and the occasion of the visit to Tirana is quite limited".

I have a constructive criticism to make which I target to developed countries. I think that they should focus the bulk of their diplomatic and international cooperation efforts in developing countries in lieu of developed countries where they sure have a business and corporate vested interest to defend. Diplomatic missions should not be assisting the powerful, but the needy, and as far as I know Albania is nowadays worse off than Italy. In fact Albania plus Kosovo are Europe's poorest republics. The Western Balkans should become hereafter the focus and the priority of Europe's development policy, as I have reminded time and again European Commission Presidents Jean-Claude Juncker, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Romano Prodi and Jacques Delors.

Sokol Kraja is Latvia's Honorary Consul in Albania. The 1969 born Albanian is a businessman and CEO of Kraco, Albania's leader in several lines of products including hot (lemon) tea, white chocolate and enveloped sugar. Kraco was designated the best business in Albania in 2014 in the category "made in Albania". He suggests that an Honorary Consul is not a political appointment, but rather in charge of logistics and bureaucracy.

"Unfortunately products made in Albania suffer from reputational risk when exported to other countries", Mr Kraja reckons. The businessman is a former diplomat who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for four years between 1997 and 2001. At the time he was the Ministry's Director of Economic Affairs, a sort of internal auditor who would travel to Albania's missions abroad to control expenses and bring about improvements such as medical insurance for expatriates. The handsome Albanian is a gentleman who reminds me of Hugh Grant. The good looking Honorary Consul is willing, ready and able to provide more information about Latvia in his pristine newly open Consular floor, the one and only of its kind worldwide, located inside Galeria Tirana, a modern mall in the northeast neighborhood of Tirana International. Usually Honorary Consuls will use their personal offices as Honorary Consulates. Mr Kraja decided to invest out his own pocket and opened an impressive facility this past June 2015.

Other well known businessmen from Albania who in addition are Honorary Consuls are Thailand Honorary Consul Samir Mane and Mexico Honorary Consul Ylli Ndroqi. They did not reply to my request for conversation, perhaps they would have, had I been of Thai or Mexican origin. However Spanish Ambassador in Tirana Silvia Cortés Martín invited me to lunch in her official residence to later cancel only hours before our Rendezvous. "I shall be waiting for your invitation to lunch before your departure from Albania, your honor". More about my lunch with Ambassador Cortés Martín will be reported in my forthcoming story. In the meantime "bon appétit" to everyone and a great celebration of Mother Theresa National Holiday.

Jointly published on Albanian Daily News