Economy Pushes Albanians Abroad

Thousands seek higher wages abroad in EC

ON any sunny day here, thousands of unemployed Albanians walk the streets, sit in cafes, or hang out with friends.

On one recent cool evening Genc Dulaku, a university student, sat with friends on some crumbling stone steps. He had worked abroad illegally for a year.

"I had to work an underground job in London," Mr. Dulaku says. "The pay was horrible, and it was very hard to live. Although I was able to send some money back to my family, I hated it."

Facing rising unemployment and poverty at home, many Albanians have sought jobs abroad to help support their families. Today the hard currency remittances of such emigrants play a major role in keeping the economy afloat.

Gjergj Kondo, vice minister of finance and economy, says hundreds of thousands of Albanians are now working outside the country, mainly in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Germany.

"They are a major factor in helping our balance of payments," says Mr. Kondo.

Andrea Lako, a recent law school graduate, has many friends and relatives working abroad. Many illegally emigrate to neighboring Greece. Lacking legal immigration documents, they must work at half the legal wage there, often in the dirtiest jobs. Greece is the poorest country in the European Community, but a paradise compared to Albania.

"The average daily wage in Greece is 4,000 drachmas," Mr. Lako says. "That's more than one month's income here in Albania."

Manual workers in Albania earn as little as $5 per month; policemen, whose salaries were recently raised in an effort to curb corruption, earn $24 to $50 per month. Remittances from abroad are driving whole sectors of the country's economy.

A buzz saw noisily cuts wood outside an office building in central Tirana as Arben Kokomani ushers guests into his cramped office. Mr. Kokomani is general director of Egnatia, a company that imports appliances, computers, and electronic goods.

Egnatia has tried to interest foreign firms in exports from Albania, but so far has been able to sell only limited amounts of medicinal plants. "We just don't have that much to offer the world right now," Kokomani says.

But Egnatia is doing a booming business in selling South Korean washing machines, Russian refrigerators, and Hungarian fans. The company requires all payments in dollars, something unthinkable two years ago.

"The majority of families here in Albania have relatives abroad," Kokomani says. "They send money for their families to buy goods that cost less here than in those countries."

But Kokomani and other businessmen complain that the influx of hard currency from abroad has also upped the cost of bribing government officials, who also expect payment in dollars.

One businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had expected corruption to diminish once the democratic opposition won the elections in March. "But it's just business as usual," he laments. "I have to bribe everyone from the customs inspectors to the ministry officials in Tirana just to get my goods imported."

The emigration of Albanian workers has also stirred a growing nationalism as workers return with tales of discrimination and anti-Albanian chauvinism.

"When I was studying in Hungary," Lako says, "my Hungarian friends told me not to tell anyone I was Albanian. Everyone in Europe looks down on us these days."

But he is determined to stay.

"I don't want to leave Albania," Lako says, "because my future is here. Albania is my homeland. Whatever problems we are having now, I'm still proud to be an Albanian." -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30022.

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