Let me tell you about Mandritsa

Ambassador Donika Hoxha had another interesting interview on the relations between Albania and Bulgaria, our commonalities, our cooperation potential and more. Read the full interview for J.P. Traiblzing: https://issuu.com/jarpin2008/docs/trailblazing_magazine_february_march_2022
1. Your Excellency, Ambassador Hoxha, can you throw more light on the bilateral relations between Albania and Bulgaria? How have you seen the trend of these relations since your appointment in this role in 2018? What needs to be improved in your view?
The diplomatic relations between Albania and Bulgaria were established in April 1913 and on 10 October 1922, Konstadin Boshniak presented his Letters of Credence as Head of Albanian Legation in Sofia. In March 1954, Albania and Bulgaria raised their diplomatic representation to the level of Embassies. From the early 60s onward the Embassies of our two countries were headed by Charges d`affaires and on 25th of January 1988, an agreement was concluded for an exchange of Ambassadors.
Relations between Albania and Bulgaria have long traditions and the contacts between our people are good and intensive. The bilateral Treaty for Friendship and Cooperation provides the legal basis for the contemporary development of our relations. Bilateral relations have evolved substantially in recent years and high-level contacts are being regularly maintained.
The last 3 years have marked exchanges at the highest level. President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev paid a state visit to Tirana in March 2020, Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama visited Sofia in June of 2021. Additionally, there have been visits in Sofia and Tirana at the level of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Negotiator, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, Minister of Culture and others at various levels and fields. Also, several agreements have been concluded that will strengthen our relations and enhance ties between our administrations.
Albania and Bulgaria are two friendly countries, which are getting to know each other more. We share understanding and values in the context of EU, NATO, UN and more. Building human bridges is not a simple mission, but my team and I have somehow succeeded in making Albania more known for our Bulgarian friends and also Bulgaria has become more familiar to Albanians in recent years. Still, more is needed to be done and we are here for that.
One of the aspects that I would like to highlight are economic relations. There is still an untapped potential. Both Albanian and Bulgarian companies need to refocus their activity and address more to the regional market. I have been able to explore and discover the needs of the Bulgarian market which continues to be seen by foreign investors as an attractive low-cost investment destination with government incentives for new investment opportunities. Bulgaria offers some of the least expensive labor in the European Union as well as low and flat corporate and income taxes. There are no legal limits on foreign ownership or control of firms. With some exceptions, foreign entities are given the same treatment as national firms and their investments are not screened or otherwise restricted. 
There is strong growth in software development, technical support, and business process outsourcing. The Information Technology (IT) and back office outsourcing sectors have attracted a number of US and European companies to Bulgaria and many have established global and regional service centers in the country. The automotive sector has also attracted US and foreign investors in recent years.In this regard, I would greatly suggest the Albanian companies and economic entities to choose Bulgaria as e potential business partner and market to expand their activity and offer opportunities to expand in Albania.
2. What are the strongest points of the cooperation between our two countries?  
Our relations are characterized by a strong will for further development in all areas such as economy, tourism, innovation, trade, digitalization, culture etc. The political dialogue, build on the traditional friendship as well as the historical, cultural, and human bonds between our two peoples and countries, is excellent and witnesses by the steadily increase of exchange of visits, which has shown the unwavering support of Bulgaria towards Albanian`s European path. There are no open or pending issues between our countries.
Relations and exchanges in the economic and infrastructure sectors are further developing  buliding up efforts to carry out the geostrategical Project of Corridor VIII, showing readiness to set up a bilateral working group on energy matters and explore possibilities of cooperation in the field of oil and natural gas sector, promoting cooperation between the two state agencies on foreign investment development, exchanging experiences on start-ups and inovations, cooperating in the field of tourism, textile and garments industry.
Cooperation in the field of education and culture reflects the good ties between our universities and in the joint research programs. At the University of Sofia “St. Clement Ohridski”, within the Department of the Balkan Studies, there is an exemplary Albanian language cathedra and more than 60 students learn Albanian language, literature and culture every year.
Certainly, tourism sector is one of the strongest points of our cooperation. Last year, there were several charter flights from Sofia to Albania with Bulgarian tourists and hopefully 2022 will see the establishment of the direct flight line between our two capitals.
Albania and Bulgaria have a very good ongoing cooperation among our institutions in the investigation of criminal offenses for narcotics, illegal trafficking, money laundering, economic and financial crime, as well as cybercrime. We have an excellent cooperation within INTERPOL, EUROPOL and SELEC and have managed to successfully finalize joint international actions.
3. What is the stance of Bulgaria towards Albania's EU membership?
During the Presidency of European Union Council in 2018, Bulgaria was successful to put back into the European agenda the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans. In the first half of 2018, Bulgaria turned out to be one of the biggest lobbyists of the Western Balkans and still remains one, despite the ongoing dispute with North Macedonia.
Bulgaria has reaffirmed its positive position for Albania on the meeting of the General Affairs Council and during the exchange of high level visits. Regretfully, Albania’s EU path has been linked to that of North Macedonia and this mean that the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia has resulted in Albania failing to progress to the first intergovernmental meeting with the EU, marking the formal start of negotiations, despite getting the green light from all 27 member states. Though, Bulgarian officials have repeatedly stated that each country should be assessed according to its own achieved merits and Albania is ready to technically start membership negotiations with the European Union.
We are grateful for the multifaceted assistance that Bulgaria has provided in the reform processes we are going through.
4. How has the cultural heritage contributed to bring the two countries closer?  What is the role of Albanian Diaspora in Bulgaria in this aspect?
What I have realized during my stay in Bulgaria is that we share more commonalities than we are aware of. We have always been very friendly nations as I already mentions with a long history to share. But it is very interesting to discover certain habits like nodding for Nand shaking our head for Yes. Also, the wonderful historic architecture, reminiscent of the Ottoman architecture is found in both countries. 
Arbanasi, a beautiful town close by Veliko Tarnovo, was founded by Albanians village in Bulgaria have similar architecture style as Gjirokastra and Berat, two Albanian cities and UNESCO sites.
Mandritsa, the only Albanian was founded in 1636 by Albanian Orthodox dairies who had served in the Ottoman army. They were allowed to occupy a piece of land and were exempt from paying taxes. Mandritsa was liberated from Ottoman rule on October 15, 1912, during the First Balkan War by units of the First Bulgarian Army, but was reconquered by the Ottomans during the Second Balkan War. Under the Treaty of Constantinople, the village passed to Bulgaria. At the beginning of the 20th century, the village reached about 3500 inhabitants, while today Mandritsa is a small village with about 70 inhabitants, some of whom still speak a pronounced Albanian dialect, Tosk Albanian. However, despite the barriers they have had over the years, the remaining inhabitants of the village of Mandritsa, most of whom are elderly, have managed to preserve the old Albanian language and proudly display their origins, without neglecting Albanian culture and tradition.
One of the smallest cultural habits I came across in Bulgaria is Martenitsa bracelet. This long held Bulgarian tradition involves people giving loved ones bracelets of red and white yarn at the start of the month of March i.e. at the start of spring. The bracelet’s colors represent vitality and purity and indicate a wish for the wearer to be healthy for the coming year. Likewise in Albania, on March 1, many children, girls and women but also men wear a similar two-tone white and red bracelet, called “verore”. Some of them put it on the 1st and take it off on the 14th of March just as there are others who put it on the 14th of March which is our “Summer Day” and take it off when they see the first swallow.
Not to forget boza drink, which we can find either in Bulgaria or Albania. The town of Radomir, which has historically been famous for boza production since the second half of the 19th century, even today celebrates the first producer of boza who is of Albanian origin. The Albanian Ali Serbez and his son are considered the first boza producers from Albania, leaving behind a valuable asset to the city of Radomir.
As to the Albanian diaspora in Bulgaria, it is a very small community compared to other countries in the region, but is a bridge to connect our people and countries. Generally, Albanian diaspora in Bulgaria is connected with Mandritsa, the only Albanian-origin village in Bulgaria. Nowadays, students are keeping the spirit of our diaspora in Bulgaria and their number is slightly increasing year by year. This is a positive approach to study in the region and in friendly country, which welcomes warmly Albanian students.
5.  If you had to describe bilateral economic relations in a few words, what would you say about trade and investment?
Bulgaria is a traditional economic partner of Albania and according to the National Business Register (QKB), as of June 2021, 59 Bulgarian companies are registered in our country, of which 37 are with 100% Bulgarian capital. Bulgarian businesses operate mainly in Tirana and Durrës, with activities in the field of electricity, gas, steam and air-conditioning supply, wholesale and retail trade, repair of vehicles and motorcycles, professional, scientific and technical activities etc.
In 2019, the trade volume of exchanges with Bulgaria was worth 95 million Euros, of which imports were worth 66.7 million Euros, while exports were worth 28.6 million Euros.
In 2019 and 2020, FDI stock from Bulgaria was 534.9 million Euros and 535.9 million Euros, while FDI flow was 11.9 million Euros in 2019 and 8.2 million Euros in 2020.
The biggest Bulgarian investment in Albania, One Communication, is a good model to attract other investments and companies. Fibank has also consolidated its position as the fastest growing bank in Albania. It will continue to play its leading role as a financial intermediary and be a major supporter of customers and the country's economy in general.
Yet, itappears to be untapped potential for profitable economic ties for both countries. We need to explore greater opportunities and be successful in exploiting the potential of regional cooperation if we hope to keep our young people at home and to attract others to our community.
6. Tourism is a very important sector for the economies of both Bulgaria and Albania. What do you think the Bulgarians would like to feel even better in Albanian resorts?
Indeed, tourism is one of the most vital sectors for both countries and the exchange of tourists has shown increase despite the pandemic and the restrictions in force. In 2019, Albania was the fastest growing tourist market for Bulgarian citizens marking an increase of 34.5% in the number of tourists compared to 2018.
In the first 9 months of 2021, the number of Bulgarian citizens who visited Albania was 16,558. This has been a positive indicator given the restrictions and measures taken under the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of Albanians who visited Bulgaria was 11,989. We emphasize that this statistic includes only Albanian citizens, travelling from Albania and not from other countries.
Albania is a favored destinations for Bulgarians, who remained loyal to this choice in 2020 and 2021 despite the pandemic Covid-19 measures imposed even during the summer season. Bulgarians are familiar with and like Albanian traditions and food, but mostly they prefer the beauty and the charms of our seaside. I expect that this summer more Bulgarians will enjoy our fascinating beaches.
Food in Albania is delicious and flavorful which make you realize that eating can be a real celebration. 500 years under the Ottoman Empire have surely left their imprints in our identity. Communism did even worse. But we’ve made a lot of progress since 1991 and recently we are trying to evolve in food as well and reconnect it to our identity. Nowadays, Albanian cuisine is very rich and it is a unique blend of various Mediterranean flavors where really east meets west. pure mixture of various, multicultural Mediterranean gastronomy. This is an attraction not only to Bulgarian tourists.
7.  Looking ahead in time, what major events can we expect in bilateral cooperation in 2022?
Surely there are new agreements in progress which will be concluded. The re-establishment of the direct regularly flights Tirana-Sofia will be a real achievement. In August of last year, GullivAir, a Bulgarian airline company, planned to launch seasonal direct flights, but due to the Covid-19 restrictions in both countries the plan was postponed. In the beginning of 2022, we are working closely with GullivAir and Tirana airport authorities to conclude successfully this task. The direct flight will boost our economic relations as well as our dynamic tourist ties.
Also, soon are to be held the diplomatic consultations between the two ministries of foreign affairs, which will be a great opportunity to elaborate and identify new ways of cooperation and fields of common interests.

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