Strasbourg, 20th November 2006 CG(13)29PART2
Local and regional democracy in Albania
Rapporteurs: Guido RHODIO, Italy
Chamber of Local Authorities, Political Group: EPP/CD
Jean-Claude VAN CAUWENBERGHE, Belgium
Chamber of Regions, Political Group: SOC
1. According to Article 2.3 of Statutory Resolution (2000) 1 of the Committee of Ministers of Council of Europe, the Congress shall prepare monitoring reports on the situation of local and/or regional democracy in the member states and in states which have applied for membership, on a regular basis.
2. The state of local and regional democracy in Albania has already been the object of a report and Recommendation (28) adopted by the Congress in 1997. The decision to prepare a second monitoring report on regional democracy in Albania was taken by the Congress Bureau on 3 November 2004 given the necessity of examining the present state of the second level of the territorial authorities, established in 2000, and prospects for regionalisation in Albania. The local dimension was added following the Bureau decision on 16 December 2005.
3. The Bureau also instructed the Rapporteurs to look into the situation prevailing in Tirana, further to the request of the Mayor of Tirana, member of the Congress, and to examine the disagreements between the Government and the Municipality of Tirana with regard to public works in the capital.
4. Ömür Aybar (Turkey, EPP/CD, R), was appointed as Rapporteur to prepare and submit the report on Albania to the Congress. She paid a visit to Albania on 11-12 May 2005. Taking into consideration the general elections which took place in Albania in July 2005, it was decided to postpone the presentation of the report and to organise a new visit with a view to meeting representatives of the Albanian Parliament and Government formed after the 2005 elections and to evaluate the progress of the ongoing reforms in the field of local and regional self-government and decentralisation. Following the Bureau decision on 16 December 2005, the rapporteurs of the Institutional Committee of the Congress in charge of the preparation of this report - Guido Rhodio (Italy, EPP/CD, L) and Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe (Belgium, SOC, R) – visited Albania on 10-12 April 2006.
5. In carrying out their task, the Rapporteurs were assisted by Prof. John Loughlin, consultant (Ireland), member of the Group of Independent Experts on the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and Ms Antonella Cagnolati, Deputy Chief Executive of the Congress, and Ms Irina Blonina, Secretariat of Congress.
6. During the visits, the Congress monitoring delegation met a number of representatives of Albanian authorities at local, regional and central level (Government and Parliament), the national associations of the local and regional self-governments as well as experts and representatives of the international community in Albania (for detailed programmes of the two visits see the appendices).
7. This report was prepared on the basis of the information received during the two on-site visits to Albania as well as all necessary extracts from the relevant legislation and other information and documents provided by the representatives of the Albanian authorities, international organisations and experts.
8. The Rapporteurs wish to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Representation of Albania to the Council of Europe for their help in arranging the various meetings with central government and parliament representatives. They also convey special thanks to Delphine Freymann, Special Advisor of the Council of Europe in Albania, and the Council of Europe Information Office in Tirana for their valuable support, which guaranteed the success of the Congress’s visits.
9. Albania is traditionally a highly centralised state and it made the transition to democracy in 1991 without ever having experienced any significant form of local democratic government. Until independence in 1912, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, which did not encourage decentralisation or local autonomy. Similarly, during the period of the Zog monarchy (1925-39) and the Italian occupation (1939-1943), local government was non-existent. After the Second World War, the communist regime made a determined effort to consolidate national independence by emphasising the centralisation of the state. The Albanian communist regime was one of the most authoritarian of the entire communist world and local administration was a means by which the central government and the Albanian Party of Labour (ALP - the communists) controlled civil society. Local government was administered by People’s Councils who administered the affairs of the district (rreth), the city (qvtet), the locality (lokalitet) and the village (fshat). However, the “People’s Councils” were in turn controlled by the ALP and were thus a bogus form of democratic organisation.
10. One of the key tasks of the democratisation process was, therefore, to create, almost ex nihilo, a new system of genuine local and regional government rather than simple administration at these levels. In 1992, the new Democratic Party (DP) government which had come to power embarked on an important programme of administrative reform, including the reorganisation of local government. Laws No. 7570 and No. 7572 (1992) on “The Organisation and Functioning of Local Governments”, as well as Law No. 7573 (1992) “On the elections of local government units” established decentralisation as one of the basic goals and principles of local governance in Albania. In 1994, the DP proposed a new Constitution, which enshrined the principle of local self-government, to replace that of 1976 but this was rejected by the electorate who thought it placed too much power in the hands of the president. Following the crisis brought on by the collapse of the pyramid schemes, the DP was replaced by the Socialist Party (SP) in 1997. The SP also produced a new Constitution which, this time, was passed by the Parliament and by the electorate in a referendum. The 1998 Constitution (Article 108) followed the 1994 version by also accepting the principle of local self-government. In 2000, the government adopted a National Strategy for Decentralisation and Local Autonomy. Also in 2000, the Parliament passed Law No. 8652 “On the Organisation and Functioning of Local Government” (hereinafter the 2000 Law). This, along with a number of other subsequent laws, completed the legislative process of establishing democratic local government in Albania.
11. Although the constitutional and legislative bases of Albanian local government now conform to a great extent to the norms established by the Council of Europe and to best practice in Western Europe, the actual practice of local democracy is beset with difficulties. One problem is that a number of laws were passed before the above-mentioned constitutional guarantees of local autonomy and the 2000 Law, and are not in harmony with the principles of local self-government. Examples of such laws, which have caused recent conflicts between central and local governments, are the law setting up the “Construction Police”, the law on urbanisation which set up National Planning Agencies as well as Urban Planning Agencies and the law setting up prefects.
12. The difficulties also arise because of the weak nature of Albanian civil society as a result of the years of dictatorship. Furthermore, the central government and central departments have been reluctant to devolve real political and financial powers to local authorities. To some extent, this is understandable given the lack of expertise and the poor human and financial resources within the local authorities. At the same time, recent surveys have shown that Albanians feel closer to and trust more local government than national government. All the political parties and the most important interest groups in society as well as international organisations agree that the process towards political decentralisation must continue and, indeed, be strengthened. There are, however, differences among the parties as to the most appropriate measures to take (for example on the role of the regional councils) and parties sometimes change their position when they pass from being in opposition to being in government. It is very important that the decentralisation reform is implemented on the basis of openness, participation and consensus, with a timely consultation of local government for any decision that affects them. All of the international organisations present in Albania, notably the European Union, the OSCE, the World Bank, USAID, the diplomatic community, as well as numerous Albanian think tanks and NGOs are in broad agreement that decentralisation is an essential element of Albania’s transition to democracy and also that it is an important tool in fighting corruption. At the same time, the international community recognises that the country has serious obstacles to achieving effective decentralisation and regional and local democracy.
III. The Albanian System of Local Government
13. Article 13 of the 1998 Constitution reflects the European Charter of Local Self-Government (hereinafter “the Charter”) and states that “Local government in the Republic of Albania is founded upon the basic principle of decentralisation of power and is exercised according to the principle of local autonomy”. At the same time, the Constitution states that Albania is a parliamentary Republic and a unitary State. Article 13 of the Constitution was expanded by the 2000 Law on the Organisation and Functioning of Local Governments, which, in Article 3, outlines the basic purpose of the legislation:
14. Albanian local government consists of two levels: the first level consists of 373 local government units (LGUs) divided between 65 municipalities (bashkia) in urban areas, which may be divided into “quarters”, and 308 communes (komuna) in rural areas, which may be further sub-divided into “villages”; the second level consists of 12 regions (qarku). The municipalities and communes have representative councils which are elected by the population using proportional representation and closed lists. The mayors and heads of communes are directly elected by the population using a majority system. The regional councils are indirectly elected and are composed of the mayors/ heads of communes from the municipalities and communes within their boundaries as well as representatives of the municipal and communal councils in proportion to their populations. There must be at least one representative from each. If there is only one representative, it is automatically the mayor; if there is more than one representative, the other representatives are elected by the respective council. Tirana, the capital of Albania, has a special status defined in Law No. 8684 of 31 July 2000, which sub-divides the city into eleven municipal units, of which the heads are directly elected by the population. The Municipal Council of Tirana has authority over the municipal units with regard to decision making and delegation. Local authorities have the right to create their own forms of local administrative organisation and to employ personnel to carry out administrative tasks.
15. Alongside the system of local representative government there also exist a number of state services which conduct their activity at local level and especially at regional level.. The highest representative of the central administration at regional level is the prefect. The office of prefect was created in 1992. Law No. 7608 of 22 September 1992 “On Prefectures”, for the first time after the fall of communism, stipulates the Prefect, as a representative of the Council of Ministers at regional level. There are twelve prefectures, which correspond to the boundaries of the twelve regions. A new Law “On Prefect” No. 8927 was adopted on 25 July 2002. The Constitution of the Republic of Albania provides that the Prefect conducts his/her activity at regional level. In compliance to the law No. 8927 (2002), the Prefect is the representative of the Council of Ministers’ in a region. He/she is appointed and removed by the Council of Ministers and reports to the Prime Minister for the duties charged on him. From the administrative point of view, the administration of prefectures is a responsibility of the Minister of Interior. Article 6 of the Law “On the Prefect” stipulates the mission of the prefect as follows:
In reality, the prefect exists to ensure that the policy approaches of the central government are followed at the local level. This has been criticised because of the political partisan bias this may imply at the local level and an opportunity for the central government to exercise a direct control over the local and regional authorities. The prefect employs a number of staff who monitor the social, economic and political affairs of the region. All policy documents and budgets are passed to the prefect who can hold them for ten days to assess their legality. The prefect may also appoint and dismiss the employees of his own administration.
IV. The Functions of Albanian Local Government
16. The 2000 Law “On the Organisation and Functioning of Local Government” defines a typology of functions of local government. These may be exclusive, shared or delegated.
a) Communes and Municipalities
i) Exclusive Functions of the Communes and Municipalities.
There are four main categories of functions which are exclusive:
1. Infrastructure and public services:
2. Local economic development.
3. Social, cultural and recreational functions.
4. Civil security.
ii. Shared functions.
From January 2002:
iii. Delegated functions.
17. These are functions of the central government or administration which, by law or by a contractual agreement, are assigned to the local government. The central government guarantees the necessary financial support for the exercise of these functions but the local government may commit its own financial resources to the task in order to attain a higher level of service. Delegated functions may be mandatory or non-mandatory.
18. The regions, like the municipalities and communes, also have exclusive and delegated functions. Their main exclusive function consists in developing and implementing regional policies and of harmonising these with national policies at the regional level. The region may also adopt functions delegated to it by the communes and municipalities within the region or by the central government. In the latter case, the central government must guarantee financial support for the carrying out of the function. Central government delegated functions must be on the basis of a law or mutual agreement.
19. Compared to the municipalities and communes, the regions are weak in terms of the functions they have been assigned. But, it is argued that they are of much more recent creation and will take time to grow into their role. Other people point out that, since they are primarily made up of local elected representatives, the latter are naturally not inclined to transfer powers and financial resources to the regions, a level of government outside their sphere of direct competence.
c) Local finances
i. Municipalities and Communes
20. There are two main sources of local revenues: own revenues (local taxes and fees) and conditional and unconditional transfers from central government. When local government was first established in Albania after the transition to democracy, its fiscal autonomy was almost non-existent. This can be seen from the fact that transfers from central government constituted almost the entire source of local government revenues: 96.22% in 1996, 98.28% in 1997, 97.24% in 1998 and 96.30% in 1999! Furthermore, in 1999, 86.6% of all revenue was in the form of conditional transfers, that is, where local government has little or no discretion in their use. In 1999, only 3.7% of local revenue was raised from own sources, mainly fees (2.49%).
21. The main reason given for the huge disparities between transfers and own resources are that the biggest budget items of Albanian local government are on education and health, seen as important elements in the struggle against the great poverty and deprivation that exists in the country. It is this very poverty that deprives the local authorities of a sufficient financial base in the form of local taxation.
22. Nevertheless, it was felt that increasing local fiscal autonomy was an important element of local democracy and, in 2002, a new fiscal package was put into law. This package had the following features:
a) municipalities and communes have full rate-setting authority for fees and may decide on how these fees are administered and collected;
b) the property tax on buildings, the agricultural land tax (ALT), and the local small business tax (SBT) are all defined as local taxes. Municipalities and communes set the rates of these taxes within a limit of plus or minus 30% of what is defined by law. Local authorities decide on the administration and collection of the buildings tax and the ALT; at least in the law the SBT was collected and administered nationally but it was envisaged to transfer this to the local authorities (see below for recent developments with regard to the SBT);
c) other local taxes over which the local authorities could determine the rate were: hotel taxes; infrastructure impact tax; tax on occupying public spaces;
d) local authorities also receive the full revenues of the simplified profit tax; the vehicle registration tax and the tax on property transactions but they cannot set the rates of these revenues.
23. The new local fiscal package has had an important impact on the level and composition of locally raised revenues available to municipalities and communes. Taken together the revenues from own resources and unconditional transfer grants now account to more than half local government revenues. In 2000, own-source revenues amounted to 1.6 billion Lek (13,7 million Euros) of which around 8 % came from local taxes while in 2003, they were 8.4 billion Lek (68 million Euros) and of which 28 % were from local taxes. In 2003 local authorities controlled the allocation of around 49 percent of local government expenditures compared to 8 percent in 2000. There has also been an increase of the proportion of unconditional compared to conditional transfers. In 2003, local authorities controlled the allocation of around one-third of spending on local public services, compared to about 7% in 2000. The new fiscal package has changed the balance of funding from central state resources and own revenues. In 2004, central state resources were 54 % and locally generated own resources were 46 %. There has also been an increase in the proportion of centrally funded resources that is unconditional. For the year 2005, about 32 % of grant aids for the local government were allocated as a conditional grant. The Rapporteurs note that in 2006 the Government decentralised the investment funds in rural and urban roads, so that the amount of conditional grants declined from 32% to 15 %. In fact, the amount of 15 % conditional grant, which goes for investments in education, health, is semi-conditional, since the local government units have a wider autonomy in deciding about their investment priorities in the sector of primary health care and pre-university education. Finally, there is a financial equalization package that is meant to assist those municipalities and communes that lack sufficient financial resources and to draw a balance between efforts of local governments in increasing their incomes with the solidarity and contribution in assisting local government units with limited possibilities of generating incomes. According to the Ministry of Finance, equalisation is according to a formula based on the following criteria: i) population, ii) surface area, iii) the co-efficient of urban services, iv) local fiscal capacity. The horizontal equalization is regulated by a fiscal capacity indicator and not by a fiscal potential indicator by penalising those local authorities that collect better revenues compared to those that do not and get compensated by transfers from the state.
24. The 2002 local finance package has undoubtedly been a significant improvement in terms of the balance between central funding (including local discretion over these grants) and locally generated resources and the improvements of this balance seem to continue. There are, nevertheless, a number of problems and the system can be further improved. First, although the balances are now better, in absolute terms the amount of funding for local government still remains quite low and it is difficult to see how they can perform the tasks allocated to them and to respond to the economic developments and to the expectations of the community. There is a general opinion among the local authorities that the total revenue of local authorities does not correspond to their current and expected level of responsibilities. The Government should take vertical balance into consideration in order to address it fairly especially after the abolition or reduction of up to 50 % of the rates of some local taxes. A Law on Local Borrowing is also necessary for increasing the base of capital investment to provide better local services. The shared taxes, as Personal Income Tax and Corporate Profit Tax defined in the 2000 Law should be implemented because the revenues from both taxes distributed by point of collection or by population would support the level of local revenues and improve the vertical balance. Second, there is a great disparity between larger cities and towns and very small communes especially in rural areas. The latter often lack the capacity and resources to raise local revenues to carry out their tasks and rely largely on the equalisation system. According to some independent observers met by the Congress delegation, many of the local authorities are able to exercise fiscal autonomy in a competent manner although there is a big discrepancy between the larger cities and towns and the small rural communes with the latter needing greater assistance (see below on territorial organisation).
25. One important modification of the 2002 fiscal package was the change with regard to the Small Business Tax introduced by the new government in October 2005. This reduced by 50% the rate on this tax. This measure was not accompanied by a replacement with another local tax or compensation with funds, which means that the total funds available to local authorities were reduced. It seems that this decision was taken without consultation with the local authorities and was applied during the 2005 fiscal year thus creating difficulties for the municipalities and communes. The same was true for 2006. The business tax is a particularly important tax for local authorities given its buoyant nature and it is important that this remains under their control. The Rapporteurs were also informed that there is a new draft law "On local tax system" that is merging both previous laws No.9456 "On the Local Tax System" and Law No.9327 "On the Local Small Business Tax" will be submitted by the Government to the Parliament in October 2006. This draft law is abolishing the Hotel Tax, which is defined as a local tax, in the framework of national policy for facilitating the business environment. As it was already the case with the reduction of Small Business Tax, it seems that no consultation or discussion with local authorities took place prior to this decision.
26. The Rapporteurs recommend that:
i) attention be paid to the discrepancy between the responsibilities allocated to local authorities and the financial resources necessary for carrying out these responsibilities in line with Article 9.1 of the European Charter for Local Self-government;
ii) broad consultations with local authorities be conducted on the decision to halve the Small Business Tax, in order to reconsider this decision, if necessary, and generally before the implementation of similar measures;
iii) the financial and fiscal package be reviewed according to the recent changes which absorbed an important share of own local taxes such as Small Business Tax, Simplified Profit Tax and Hotel Tax, in order to ensure adequate financial resources of local authorities and efficient exercise of this fiscal competence at the local level.
d) Regional finances.
27. Revenues for the regional authorities derive from two sources: the central government and the municipalities and communes. In addition, they obtain fees from the services they provide. It is clear that this arrangement leads to the regions having a low level of fiscal autonomy given that they cannot raise their own taxes. Even if we see the regions as a kind of intercommunal association rather than directly-elected councils in their own rights, it would still be possible to strengthen their fiscal autonomy by allowing them their own tax base. This is the case, in some countries which, in recent years, have developed a system of various kinds of intercommunal association some of which have their own taxes (the ‘Ėtablissements Publics de Coopération Intercommunale à fiscalité propre’ – Intercommunal Groupings with their own tax base).
e) Local Government Associations and other forms of collaboration
28. Article 109 of the Constitution gives local government units the right to form associations with each other as well as to establish links with similar local authorities in other countries. They may also be represented in international organisations of local authorities. This right has been affirmed in Article 8, Chapter V of the 2000 Law. Currently, there are three such associations in Albania: the National Association of Municipalities, the National Association of Communes and the National Association of Regions. The Rapporteurs welcome the fact that these associations have been consulted by the central authorities in matters concerning local affairs, but recommends that these consultations become a part of an institutional mechanism.
V. Evaluation of the Albanian decentralisation programme.
29. A very positive feature of Albanian politics is that the political parties whether of the government or the opposition and all the key actors of the administration and of civil society are unanimous in agreeing that decentralisation and the creation of an effective system of local government are to be given the highest priority. Equally, there is widespread agreement that, while progress has been made, a number of problems remain and a number of actions should be undertaken for the consolidation of the process. The political parties do not always agree on how to tackle these problems and whether or not more radical territorial structural reform needs to take place. One of the major difficulties in achieving the necessary consensus is that there is a high level of distrust between the two main political parties, the Socialist Party, in government until 2005 and the Democratic Party, which is the main party of the current governing coalition.
i. Number of regions.
30. Albania is a small country but with some geographical and topographical differences between its different parts. Although some voices wished to keep the present number and some also wished to abolish the regions, there is widespread agreement that the present number of 12 regions is too many for such a small country. A smaller number of larger regions – about 5, 6 or 7 – would bring Albania in line with other European countries and also enable the regions to develop those functions which are usually allocated to this level of territorial governance: economic and social development as well as environmental matters.
ii. Regional Councils: directly or indirectly elected.
31. The Regional Councils are caught between the central state and the municipalities both of which have delegated some functions to them. As the National Association of Regions made clear, these functions are not always very clearly indicated in legislation and we agree that there is a need to clarify this. A deeper problem is that the current regions lack legitimacy and are practically unknown to the general public. Several of our interlocutors thought that this would be improved if the regional councils were directly elected rather than being composed of the elected members of the municipalities and communes. A further question is whether the regional leader should be directly elected by the population or by the regional council but that would have to be decided following a decision on the mode of the election of the council itself. Some feared that a stronger, directly elected region would lessen the autonomy of the other LGUs. This fear, however, is ill-founded as the current non-hierarchical relationship among levels of local government could be maintained as is the case in other countries. Such a radical change in territorial administration would necessitate a change in the Constitution and a cross-party consensus on the issue. USAID (the US Agency for International Development), which had been advising the Albanian government on decentralisation strategy considered that the regional councils were still trying to find their role.
iii. Real competences of the regions
iv. Regional finances (see also above IV d).
33. There was a widespread wish among regional politicians that the regional councils be accorded more functions in a wider range of areas. To exercise these functions as well as to strengthen the democratic legitimacy and accountability of the regions, it would be necessary to allocate own resources in the form of taxes as well as fees to the regional councils.
34. Although the national parties seem to differ on whether the regions should be kept as they are or developed further, there was a certain amount of agreement on this issue among different players involved at the regional level. This agreement spanned the two main parties, the DP and the SP. The National Association of Regions, which is composed of the presidents of the regional councils, has a PS chairman and a DP Vice-chairman. In the meeting with the Association during the visit of the Congress monitoring delegation in May 2005, it was affirmed that there is good co-operation among the different political groups and that the Association has good relations with the central government and participated in the drawing up of draft laws on local government. There was also some improvement in their financial situation as funds not used in one year could be reserved for use the following year rather than being returned to the central treasury. However, we were informed at the latter stage by the President of the Association of Albanian regions that since then and until now the Association was not involved in the process of drafting new laws and that there was no improvement of financial situation of regions for the year 2006.
According to the Association, there was room for improving the position of the regional councils and the need to:
35. The Rapporteurs recommend that:
i. consideration be given to reducing the number of regions to position them at an appropriate, effective level, as part of a programme of territorial re-organisation;
iii. in line with recommendations of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Albania move towards a system of direct democratic election of regional councils under a system of proportional representation;
iv. as part of territorial restructuring of the regions, attention be paid to providing regional councils with sufficient resources including own funds raised through regional taxes and fees;
b) Tirana and the Regions
36. From the legal point of view, the Municipality of Tirana is part of the Regional Council of Tirana. It is represented at the Regional Council of Tirana by twelve members, Mayor included. On the other hand, the Chairman of the Tirana Region is member of the Municipal Council of Tirana. The Tirana city authorities argue that the regional council is more appropriate as an umbrella organisation for small municipalities some of which are too small. The regional council then can play a coordinating role. For this reason, the Tirana municipal council does not see the need to participate in the Tirana regional council. We felt that, while recognising the special position of Tirana as the capital of Albania and its economic strength, it was unfortunate that there seemed to be little contact between Tirana and the regional council.
37. The Rapporteurs recommend that consideration be given to improving Tirana’s legal status, its integration in the system of regional government and the relationship between the Municipality of Tirana and the Region of Tirana, by recognizing Tirana as a city-region or giving it region equivalent status. This would constitute a solution in the interest of co-operation between the capital and the region, while allowing for a possible extension of the city boundaries.
c) Prefectoral system.
38. There was a good deal of criticism of the prefectoral system by some regional and local politicians who felt that the prefects did interfere too much in the affairs of the regions. Some called for the complete abolition of the system or at least that the regional and the prefectoral administrations should be kept apart. On the other hand, some of the local politicians disagreed. The Rapporteurs noticed that a discussion regarding the Prefect, his mission, duties and responsibilities is going on among the political parties and local elected representatives.
39. In our 2005 visit, the delegation met the Prefect of Dürres who provided details of her role with regard to regional and local governments. This was to coordinate the functioning of all local government units, to exercise an a posteriori control over these especially with regard to finances and to maintain public order, defence and well-being of the population. The prefect organises regular meetings with the local authorities to consider problems and discuss solutions to these problems. Once a month the prefect reports to the Council of Ministers. She pointed out some weaknesses in the current legislative basis of the regional councils. One was that there is a certain amount of overlap between the competencies of the prefect and those of the regional council. This should be amended. She also argued that the prefecture should be strengthened including financially and also with regard to the salaries of the prefects and her administrative staff.
40. It seemed to us that, while the prefectoral system exists in other countries such as France, Greece and Romania and a form of it exists in Sweden, in Albania the system was sometimes used by the central government as a way of controlling or at least interfering in local government. While a case can be made for a post which co-ordinates the administrative offices of the state at the regional level, this should not be confused with the administrative autonomy of local governments, which would be a breach of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Part of the difficulty may arise from the way in which Article 16.1 of Law No. 8927 dated 25 July, 2002 "On the Prefect” is interpreted. This states that; “The prefect checks the realisation of the functions and competencies delegated by the central government and the use of the funds contemplated for them, both when they are contemplated by law and when they have been set by joint agreement between a central institution and an organ of local government.” The difficulty lies in the translation of the word ‘kontrol’ from Albanian. This may be rendered as “audit”, “check” or “control” which all signify different degrees of involvement and some of which may indeed involve a ‘control of opportunity by the prefect rather than a simple control of legality. This may indeed lead to a direct interference by the prefect in the exercise of the local authority’s “functions and competences”. At the very least, it would be important to clarify this aspect of the law and reinforce the interpretation that favours no more than a control of legality. The revision of the Law on the Prefect, in full respect of the provisions of the Charter of Local Self-Government, should be considered as a priority.
41. The Rapporteurs recommend reviewing, if not the appropriateness of the prefectoral system, at least the status of these central government officials, preventing political interference in local and regional affairs through the exercise of their supervisory function.
d) Municipalities and Communes
i. Functioning of these local government units.
42. Central government and central administrations tend to lack confidence that these units will have the administrative and political capacity to function correctly and the temptation is, therefore, to intervene in their affairs. This is understandable given the lack of a tradition of local democracy in such a highly centralised state as Albania. It is also understandable given the considerable obstacles related to the weak influence of Albanian civil society and the existence of corruption and crime at all levels of the system. Nevertheless, over the years and there has been a positive collaboration between central government and international organisation and this has brought about a steady improvement in local government functioning. At the same time, much improvement is still necessary and there are a number of serious obstacles that still exist.
ii. The large number of small communes
43. Albania possesses a large number of small communes that, by themselves, are not able to carry out the functions that are required of them. Alongside these are a number of larger municipalities that are more capable of doing so. This is a problem not unique to Albania and can be found, for example, in France and Spain. There have been quite successful programmes of intercommunal association that have developed in recent years in some countries. Exacerbating the disparity between small, weak LGUs and those which are more effective are the internal migrations which have occurred within Albania over the last number of years. These have depleted the small communes of population and swelled the larger towns and cities with uncontrolled settlements – the “informal zones”. These settlements are often without the basic amenities and it is difficult to account for the population residing there. In both the depleted communes and the informal zones, there are difficulties in drawing up lists of residents, which has consequences for electoral registers, as well as urban planning and statistics.
44. Given these circumstances and in line with earlier remarks on territorial organisation in Albania, serious consideration should be given by the Albanian authorities either to reducing the number of communes by amalgamation (as in most European countries) or to encourage voluntary association (as in others) and relating these to new directly elected regional councils.
45. The Rapporteurs recommend that the Albanian authorities begin a reform of the communal system through either the amalgamation of those small communes that are unable to perform the tasks required of them into larger units or through voluntary association, and this reform should be carried out in conjunction with the reduction of the number of regions mentioned above. Any solution to this problem should be a result of a democratic and participatory process, which respects the constitutional provision regarding consultation with the respective community, when a change of the borders of the local units needs to be done, and also which also takes into account the coordination of territorial government units at all government levels.
VI. Specific Problems
a) Corruption and Crime
46. The Rapporteurs welcome the commitment of the present government to make the fight against corruption and crime its first priority. The governmental authorities, the opposition parties and all the international organisations we met agreed that this is still a serious problem in Albania and exists at all levels of government and the political and judicial systems. The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) reports underline that there is a need to strengthen the fight against corruption at local level. The OSCE saw this as one of the great obstacles to building democracy. On the other hand, they also thought that decentralisation and strong local government could be a way of combating corruption. USAID also agreed that there was corruption at every level and that the best way to avoid corruption was to have an active and informed citizenry and to overcome the fatalistic character of the Albanian population. They agreed that this was the rationale underlying the Albanian government’s espousal of decentralisation. It was our understanding that Albanians, while distrustful of government in general, were more trustful of local government than national government and this should be built upon in the fight against corruption.
b) The Zogu i Zi affair and the role of the ‘Construction Police’
47. The Congress delegation was informed on a conflict between the new Albanian government and the municipality of Tirana over the construction of a flyover at Zogu i Zi on the outskirts of Tirana. The government ordered the ‘Construction Police’ to intervene in order to halt the construction of this site which had already begun some time previously. It would seem that the Construction Police, a part of the executive arm of government, had decided not simply that there had been procedural violations with regard to the construction of the Zogu i Zi flyover but that there were breaches of legality. The Territorial Adjustment Council of the Republic of Albania (TACRA) claimed that there were serious infringements of the rules on urban planning that had occurred during this construction. The municipality of Tirana accused the central government of intervening inappropriately. The central Government publicly asked for the intervention of two institutions - the Ombudsman and the High State Audit - that by law are responsible for law implementation and financial and economic legality of local governments. Both have ruled that no consistent irregularities have been noted in municipality actions regarding public works. They recommended releasing of public works otherwise there would be a case of breach of law by the Construction Police. Mr Giovanni Di Stasi, the then President of the Council of Europe Congress, criticised the central authorities during a visit to Albania in January 2006 and stated that “the powers of the Construction Police and the composition and functioning of the Territorial Adjustment Councils do not conform to the provisions of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and this creates a lot of misunderstanding and confusion.”  The public works were not released and furthermore, on July 2006 the Zogu i Zi flyover was completely demolished by the Construction Police.
48. It is outside the competence of the Rapporteurs to decide on whether there had been infringements of the urban planning rules or not. According to some external opinions, some procedural irregularities on the part of the Municipality of Tirana had occurred and, in particular, that no formal building permit had been issued. This seems to have been an established practice and occurred in other parts of Albania. Furthermore, the construction company, EUROTEORAMA, was not in possession of the correct permits at the time of construction. The Tirana District Court which examined the case was split with regard to whether the intervention of the Construction Police and the decision to demolish were justified. A majority of two of three members of the Court decided that it was justified on the basis of Article 10 of the Urban Planning Law which states that the TACRA can repeal decisions by TACs “… in cases where violations of law in the decision-making of district and municipality TACs are observed and the implementation of governmental programmes is hindered”. The majority opinion was that if either of these two conditions were fulfilled, then the repeal by the TACRA would be justified. The minority opinion, which was that of the Court’s president, was that both conditions had to be fulfilled. It is important to stress that one of the judges based his decision on the European Charter of Local Self Government principles and considered that the TACRA decision is an intervention in local autonomy.
49. At the very least, there is an ambiguity in the law which needs to be clarified. The Rapporteurs would suggest that the bias should be in favour of the principle of local self-government rather than in giving the central government greater powers to interfere in the activities of local authorities. Furthermore, Article 8 of the Charter provides that supervision of local authorities should aim only at ensuring compliance with the law and exclude any supervision of the expediency of actions that fall within local authorities’ own areas of responsibility. The formulation of Article 10 of the Albanian Urban Planning Law would seem to contradict this provision of the Charter since it allows an organ of the central executive to interfere in local decisions – “where the implementation of governmental programmes is hindered” – that goes beyond the control of legality and may be an instance of the control of opportunity. It is for this reason that it seems to the Rapporteurs that the minority interpretation of the Tirana District Court is more in keeping with Article 8 of the Charter since it ensures that there is also a control of legality as an essential element of the repeal of a TAC decision by TACRA. The decision of the Tirana District Court has been appealed by the Municipality of Tirana to the Appeal Court, but the appeal is still pending. There is another decision of the Construction Police for demolishing the Flyover. This case has also been brought to Court and is still under judgment of the First Instance Court thus knowing that the Court Decision even of the first instance has not yet been taken regarding the demolition. The issue is still under judgment of the judiciary system although the “Zogu i Zi” flyover was demolished by the Construction Police.
50. Article 4.4 of the Charter states that the ‘Powers given to local authorities shall normally be full and exclusive; they may not be undermined or limited by another central or regional authority’. This raises the question of the role of the Territorial Adjustment Council (TAC) and the Construction Police in the Albanian planning system and whether the activity of these two bodies may be in conflict with the principle enunciated by Article 4.4 of the Charter. Both bodies were established before the 2000 Law on Local Government.
51. The Territorial Adjustment Council of the Republic of Albania (TACRA) is the state organ responsible for overseeing planning and was established by Law No. 8405, dated 17.09.1998 on Urban Planning. It is under the direct authority of the Prime Minister. It has a wide remit to oversee urban and regional planning in all of Albania. Each level of local government may establish its own TAC although if a commune is too small to do this, it may ask the regional TAC to perform this function. Although the Albanian Constitutional Court found that the majority of this law was not unconstitutional and did not infringe the right of local self-government of local authorities, it found that certain parts of the law were indeed unconstitutional and did infringe this right - the last paragraph of Article 14 and of the first and third paragraph of Article 23. The last paragraph of Article 14 gave to central government ministers the right to make the final approval of members of the local TAC’s. The unconstitutional parts of Article 23 gave ministers the right to appoint and dismiss those in charge of urban planning a clear infringement of the right of the local authorities themselves to do so. In the case of the Zogu i Zi affair, it would seem that the central government asked the prefect of Tirana to convene a meeting of the municipal TAC on the grounds that the mayor delayed or refused to do so. The government, it seemed, introduced a normative act to generalise this approach to all of Albania. The Municipality of Tirana brought the issue of the conflict of authority in the field of the urban planning at the beginning of 2006 before the Constitutional Court. The constitutionality of the Urban Planning Law and the Construction Police Law is expected to be judged again in the light of the recent developments. The Constitutional Court has not delivered its decision yet.
52. The other body which seems anomalous compared to European territorial planning approaches is the so-called ‘Construction Police’ set up by Law No. 8408, dated 25.09.1998. Article 1 defines this police as “an armed executive body, specialised for controlling the implementation of legislation in the field of construction works and urban planning”. Most democratic states have a planning inspectorate of some kind which oversees planning processes from a national perspective but no other uses an armed police for this purpose. The allegation of the municipality of Tirana is that this police force was used in the Zogu i Zi affair in a partisan and biased manner since there are many other cases in Albania where regulations are infringed and the police are not used because the local authorities concerned are sympathetic to the party in power.
53. The Rapporteurs felt that the way in which the TACRA and the Construction Police functioned was in violation of Articles 4.4 and 8 of the Charter. This was also the opinion of the Ombudsman who examined this issue. This is an example of legislation passed previous to the 2000 Law on Local Government which is in contradiction to it.
54. The Rapporteurs recommend that :
i. the Albanian authorities review the composition and functioning of the Territorial Adjustment Council of the Republic of Albaniaand local authority Territorial Adjustment Councils with a view to bringing them into conformity with the Articles 4.4 and 8 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the 2000 Law on Local Government;
ii. the Construction Police be replaced by a planning inspectorate independent of the government in power whose task would be to control the implementation of technical standards on the territory and under the authority of local government;
iii. the control of legality of decisions made by the Territorial Adjustment Council of the Republic of Albania and local Territorial Adjustment Councils be given to the independent judiciary power;
iv. any initiative to improve the Laws on Urban Planning and Construction Police should aim at making this legislation compatible with the provisions of the European Charter of Local Self-Government and Law N° 8652 “On the Organisation and Functioning of Local Government” of 2000.
c) The passing of ‘normative acts’
55. This is a process whereby the government may make decisions, which must be ratified by parliament within forty days, thereby have the effect of law. In December 2005, the Council of Ministers made such a normative Act which would have allowed prefects in general and the prefect of Tirana to call and chair meetings of the Territory Adjustment Councils and even to adopt decisions, allegedly to unblock the situation over the Zogu i Zi affair on the grounds that the mayor and council of Tirana were refusing to convene a meeting of this body. The normative Act provoked widespread concern among the local authorities and the international community and it is clear that such an approach would have been a clear breach of the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Article 8) as it was a case of a central government agent – the prefect – usurping a function of the municipal council. In the end, although the President of Albania sent the normative act back to Parliament for further consideration, the Parliament approved it without any revision or change of it. The Constitutional Court ruled on 10 November 2006 that a Government Normative Act on Urbanisation was in breach of the Constitution and violates the local government independence from the central government.
56. The Rapporteurs recommend that the procedure of passing of ‘normative acts’ be replaced by normal procedures of decision-making by adopting laws while respecting the principles enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
d) Suppression of the Ministry for Local Government
57. During the delegation’s first visit in 2005, we met with the Minister for Local Government. We were therefore surprised to learn, during our 2006 visit, that the new government formed after the 2005 elections had suppressed the Ministry of Local Government and now local government issues were dealt with in the Ministry of Interior. The reasons given for this were that it was necessary to cut costs and streamline the governmental system. While we understand this necessity, we felt that it was unfortunate that there is no longer a separate ministry devoted to local government issues given the importance of decentralisation for Albanian democracy.
e) Local elections
58. The date of local elections, which were due to take place in autumn 2006, has not been fixed yet. The elections have been postponed to the early 2007 and it seems that there is no consensus on the date. The election date should be defined according to the schedule prescribed in the Constitution and in the Electoral Code. In the light of the forthcoming local elections, several electoral issues (voters list, electoral commissions etc) were the subject of a major crisis between majority and opposition parties during the summer 2006. However, the Rapporteurs welcome that the ruling party and the opposition managed to reach a political agreement on most of electoral issues at the end of August 2006. It is crucial for the sake of democracy that the electoral process be considered with professionalism and responsibility, with the participation of all parties and citizens.
59. Another important issue is the length of the mandate of elected local councillors and mayors, who are currently elected for three years. The Rapporteurs, in line with the Joint Recommendations of the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR on the Electoral Law and the Electoral Administration in Albania, recommend that the mandate of local councillors and mayors should be for a minimum of four years.
VII. Conclusions and recommendations.
60. The Congress monitoring delegation felt that considerable progress had been made in Albania with regard to building the constitutional and legislative framework for the implementation of the European Charter on Local Self-Government which Albania signed and ratified in 2000. However, it was also recognised that the provisions of the Charter have not always been fully implemented. The obstacles to full implementation include: a general distrust of politics at whatever level; the inadequacies of the system of public administration; the legacies of the centralised communist state; the lack of financial and human resources; the rivalry between the parties. Despite the difficulties of implementation, the Congress monitoring delegation felt that decentralisation was among the best remedies to overcome these problems and welcomed the willingness of all the political parties to pursue this strategy. The Rapporteurs took note of several positive achievements and projects of the Albanian central government as the organisation in May-June 2006 of the Donors’ Conference for a better coordination of the activities on supporting the governance and local democracy and the establishment of the Inter ministerial Committee on Decentralisation (ICM) and of the Group of Experts on Decentralisation (GED). The Rapporteurs were also informed on the adoption of special working programmes (decentralisation templates), which are now under implementation for the essential problems in Albania, namely the drinkable water transfer, business tariffs transfer etc. The Rapporteurs welcome the effort of the Parliament of Albania in considering the legislation to allow local government total authority and responsibility in collecting and managing several taxes.
61. Albania still needs to consider its overall system of territorial organisation and in particular the number of regions and municipalities and the division of functions among these levels of local government. It also needs to re-examine the prefectoral system and how it functions.
62. There are too many small communes that are incapable of carrying out the tasks allocated to them and this situation is worsened by the internal migrations from the country to cities which has depleted these small communes even more of human resources. Consideration should be given to encouraging them to amalgamate. Any solution to this problem should be a result of a democratic and participatory process, which respects the constitutional provision regarding consultation with the respective community, when a change of the borders of the local units needs to take place, and also which also takes into account the coordination of territorial government units at all government levels.
63. The twelve regions are quite new bodies and, according to some contacts met by the Congress monitoring delegation, were "improvised" while drawing on experience with the districts. Although they have been in place for only a short time, they nonetheless have a constitutional existence. We felt that mistakes had been made in the initial design of the regions and in the definition of their role and functions in the political and administrative system. This is unfortunate as it easier to build a new model rather than modify an existing one. There was a consensus among the political and administrative class that the regions were a positive development but that, at present, they did not function well. Their functions are not clearly defined, they lack financial and administrative resources and they are too many in number. There is also excessive interference on the part of the prefects who act as an instrument of central government control rather than being an administrative support. The regions also lack political legitimacy and are not well known to the general public. For these reasons we feel there is need for a new law devoted to the regions which might contain the following elements:
a) In conformity with the Council Europe’s Helsinki Declaration on Regional Government, there should be directly elected regional councils.
b) There should be a more effective organisation of regional councils, which should be fewer in number and whose boundaries are determined on the basis of socio-economic space.
c) There should be a separation of the regional assembly and the executive with the latter either directly or indirectly elected.
d) There should be a clear definition of the region’s competences which should include (in line with regional competences exercised elsewhere in Europe):
- the environment;
- public transport;
- cultural affairs;
e) There should be a greater percentage of local revenue from own resources, including regional taxes and fees. There should be a clearer definition of central government grants with the emphasis on unconditional rather than conditional grants.
f) The electoral system should be proportional representation and the mandate of elected councillors and mayors should be for a minimum of four years.
g) The institutional capacity of the region should be strengthened.
h) The respective roles of the prefect and the regional council should be clarified in order to avoid overlap. The role of the prefect should be confined to a posteriori control of legality and the prefect should not intervene in a political sense in the workings of the regional council. There should be a clear separation of the regional and prefectoral administrations.
i) There should be a review of the laws passed previous to law No.8652 “On the Organization and Functioning of Local Government” of 2000 with a view to bringing these laws into harmony with Law No.8652 and draft the new laws according to the agenda defined in Law No.8652.
64. With regard to the change of government in 2005, although the new government has declared that it is committed to the programme of decentralisation, there are some worrying signs of a return to a centralised approach: the use of normative acts to enforce the government’s will over local authorities; the halving of the local business tax; the excessive use of the Territorial Adjustment Council of the Republic of Albania and the Construction Police especially in the case of Tirana municipal council; the interference in the functioning of regional councils by the prefects. We applaud the new government’s determination to stamp out corruption and crime, to support better governance, transparency and citizen participation and to promote national economic development. We feel, however, that this should not be at the expense of the programme of decentralisation and of the principles enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Indeed, in line with the rest of the international community and many NGOs operating in Albania, the Rapporteurs consider that a renewed commitment to decentralisation is an important and indispensable element in tackling corruption and crime.
Monitoring report on regional democracy in Albania
First official visit (Tirana and Durrës, 11-12 May 2005)
Wednesday, 11 May 2005
09: 00 Meeting with Mr. Ben Blushi, Minister of Local Government and Decentralisation
11:00 Meeting with Mrs. Albana Dhimitri, Deputy Mayor of Tirana, Town Hall
12:00 Meeting in the Ministry of Finance with Mrs. Mimoza Dhembi, Director of State’s Budget
13: 00 Meeting with Mr. Leonidha Toska, Head of Association of Regions of Albania, with participation of the Heads of the Regional Councils and members of the Albanian delegation to the Congress
14: 20 Departure to Durrës Region
15:00 Meeting with Mrs. Ingrid Shuli, Prefect of Durrës Region
With participation of Mr Gorim Bega, Head of Legal Department
16:00 Meeting with Mr. Genci Alizoti, Chair of the Council of Durrës Region
17:30 Departure from Durrës to Tirana
Thursday 12 May, 2005
9:00 Meeting with Mr. Ylli Bufi and Mr. Fatos Beja, Co-chairs of the Parliamentary Commission on territorial-administrative reforms
9:30 Meeting with Mr. Taulant Dedja, President of the Sub-committee on Local and Regional Democracy, Parliament
10:20 Meeting with Mr. Namik Dokle, Deputy Prime Minister
With participation of Mrs Merita Ndreko, Advisor
11:30 Meeting with Mrs. Pascale Roussy, Project officer, OSCE mission in Tirana
12:30 Meeting with Mr Guy-Michel Brandtner, Council of Europe Special Adviser in Albania
16:30 Meeting with Mr. Sali Berisha, Chairman of Democratic Party
With the participation of Mrs Josefina Topalli, Deputy Chairperson
17:30 Debriefing of the Congress delegation
18:30 Meeting with Mr. Barry Read, the representative of Urban Institute, USAID Project
Official visit of the Congress rapporteurs on local and regional democracy in Albania (Tirana, 10 – 12 April 2006)
8:00 – 9:00 Meeting with Ms Delphine Freymann, Special Advisor of the Council of Europe in Albania
9:00 – 10:00 Meeting with Mr Fatos Hodaj, Executive Director of the Association of Albanian Municipalities
10:00-11:00 Meeting with Mr Klaus Derkowitsch, Austrian Ambassador in Albania, Mr Hanns Peter Annen, German Ambassador in Albania, and Mr Carlo Natale, Delegation of the European Commission in Albania
11 :00-12:00 Meeting with Mr Dritan Shutina, Executive Director of Co-Plan
12:30–13:25 Meeting with Ms Edith Harxhi, Deputy minister of Foreign Affairs
13:30-15:00 Meeting with Mr Ferdinand Pone, Deputy minister of the Interior responsible for local self-government
16 :30-17:00 Meeting with Mr Nadir Mohammed, Head of the World Bank Office in Albania
Tuesday, 11 April 2006
9:00-9:50 Meeting with Mr Stavri Ristani, Deputy minister of public works, transport and telecommunications
10:00-10:50 Meeting with Mr Sherefedin Shehu, Deputy minister of Finance
11:00-11:35 Meeting with Mr Arben Imami,Director of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet
11:45–12:45 Meeting with Mr Fatos Beja, Vice-Speaker of the Parliament (Democratic party)
14:30–15:30 Meeting with Mr Ylli Bufi, Vice-Speaker of the Parliament (Socialist party), and Mr Fatmir Xhafa, Vice-President of the Legal Commission of the Parliament
16:00- 17:00 Meeting with Mr Barry Reeds, USAID
18:00–19:00 Meeting with Mr Artan Hoxha, member of the Group of Independent experts on the European Charter of Local Self-Government
9:00 – 10:00 Meeting with Mr Ermir Dobjani, Ombudsman of the Republic
10:00 – 11:00 Meeting with members of Parliament :
§ Mr Tritan Shehu (New Democracy party), President of the Health Commission
§ Ms Valentina Leskaj (Socialist party), President of the Media and Education Commission
§ Mr Edmond Spaho (Democratic party), President of the Commission on Economy and Finance
§ Ms Diana Çuli (Social-Democratic party), Media and Education Commission
§ Mr Besnik Bisha (Republican party), Secretary of the Media and Education Commission
§ Mr Genc Sharku (Republican party), Secretary of the European Integration Commission
§ Mr Qemal Minxhozi (Socialist party), European Integration Commission
§ Ms Angjelina Kola (Social-Democratic party), Commission on Economy and Finance
§ Mr Arjan Madhi (Republican party), Legal Commission
11:00 – 12:00 Meeting with Mr Edi Rama, Mayor of Tirana
12:00 – 13:30 Meeting with the presidents of the regional councils of Albania and members of the Association of regional councils of Albania (of which Mr Leonidha Toska, President of Tirana regional council and President of the association, Mr Lorenc Luka, President of Shkodra regional council, and Mr Resul Llogo, President of Gjirokastra regional council, members of the Albanian delegation to the Congress)
13:30 – 15:00 Lunch
16:00 – 17:00 Meeting with Mr Genc Alizoti, President of Dürres regional council
17:30 – 18:30 Meeting with Ambassador Pavel Vacek, Head of the OSCE Presence in Albania, and consultants (Mr Dan Redford and Ms Pascale Roussy)
 The Republic of Albania joined the Council of Europe in 1995. It ratified the European Charter of Local Self-Government (hereinafter “the Charter”) in 2000, without any declarations or reservations, which came into force in respect of Albania on 1st August 2000
 Mr Van Cauwenberghe replaced Ms Aybar in her position as rapporteur on regional democracy in Albania.
 Law No. 8744 of 22 February 2001, on “The Transfer of Immovable State Properties to Local Governments”, Law No. 8982, 12 December 2002 on “The System of Local Taxes”, Law No. 8978 of 12 December 2002 on “Local Small Business Tax”, and Law No. 8979 of 12 December 2002 on “Amendments to the Law on Personal Income Tax”.
 Albania, (Country by country fact sheets on the situation of local and regional democracy in the Council of Europe Member States), Genc Ruli and Julia Dhimitri, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2005.
 The Association of Albanian Regions emphasized that it has never been informed of such opinion.
 See Press release 025(2006)
 CDL-AD (2004)017. As far as Local Government Elections are concerned, the Recommendation states that “According to Article 109 of the Constitution, the local councils and mayors are elected every three years. This short term - much shorter than in most European countries where it is four to six years - could be considered, since new mayors and local councillors sometimes need to get acquainted with the work and they do not always have enough time to implement efficiently their projects before it is time to start campaigning again."