Albania’s Deputy Prime Minister Edmond Haxhinasto came courting Canada last week, as eager for Ottawa’s attention as Canadian politicians are for high-level face time in places like Beijing and Washington.
Mr. Haxhinasto was armed with a clear game plan when he landed in Ottawa for two days of meetings. He was determined to push forward a series of commercial agreements that will encourage Canadian investors to risk their money on his country’s economic development. And he wanted to deepen the political relationship that is built on common NATO membership – including troops in Afghanistan – as well as support for Israel and a commitment to free markets.
Mr. Haxhinasto’s arrival went virtually unnoticed in Ottawa. While Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk got a big welcome during his Ottawa visit on Monday, Albania received very little recognition. No distinctive red-and-black Albanian flags lined Wellington Street in front of Parliament; there were no meetings and photo-ops with Prime Minister Stephen Harper; no advisory of the visit was issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
But the Albanian politician was unconcerned about the lack of ceremony, more focused on cementing a relationship that is paying dividends as his country prepares itself for eventual membership in the European Union.
“We have excellent political relations between the two countries and the intention is to convert this political climate into concrete projects, into more economic and trade exchanges between the two countries,” the Albanian deputy leader said in an interview.
On his arrival Thursday, Mr. Haxhinasto – who also serves as foreign minister – met with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
The two agreed to move forward with a series of bilateral initiatives that are the foundation stones of modern international relations: a foreign-investment protection agreement; a treaty to avoid double-taxation of individuals and companies operating in both countries; a social-security agreement to support Canada’s 30,000 Albanian immigrants in their old age; and cultural and educational exchanges.
He also managed to signify Albania’s alignment with Canada on a key priority for the Harper government: support for Israel.
Thursday evening, Mr. Haxhinasto attended an exhibit at the National Archives commemorating Albanians’ protection of Jews during the Second World War. The country’s wartime experience earned it the designation “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel, and it is one of the few Muslim countries to maintain friendly relations with Israel, even as it maintains membership in the Organization of Islamic Co-operation.
But Mr. Haxhinasto’s primary mission was prospecting for foreign capital, especially from Canadian-based resource companies that lead the world in investing in small-scale exploration and development in places like Africa, South America and Albania.
To a group of two dozen business people, he extolled his country’s economic development – it has led southeastern Europe in growth in recent years – and his government’s low taxes and other business-friendly policies.
The EU has put Albania’s bid on hold, saying in recent reviews that the country needs to make further progress in meeting European political and legal standards. Albania has had a reputation as a country plagued by organized crime and a source of illicit trade in drugs and prostitution, while its coalition government has had a hard time passing reforms.
Mr. Haxhinasto said the country is making progress, and it is generally given reasonable marks by international watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Transparency International.
Despite the economic crisis among some of its major trading partners such as Italy and Greece, Albania has seen its growth continue and, in fact, has led southeastern Europe in growth rates for the past several years. One reason for this is the surge in foreign investment in the energy and mining sector.
The country straddles the largest onshore reserves of crude oil in Europe, and Calgary-based Bankers Petroleum is the largest producer of oil after plowing more than $1-billion into the country.
Vancouver-based Tirex Resources Ltd. is the largest investor in Albania’s mining sector and plans to build a copper-gold mine in the country. Tirex chief executive Bryan Slusarchuk said his company has invested $35-million into exploration in Albania but has been frustrated by a lengthy wait for a permit to build the mine. He said it remains to be seen how Albanian politicians will react when international investors want to take profits out of the country.
“Many people will be watching Tirex to see the proof in the pudding,” he said.